We must further explore how verbal abuse can be a red flag in intimate partner homicides

We must further explore how verbal abuse can be a red flag in intimate partner homicides

Tara Costigan

While researching the 2015 murder of Tara Costigan, I found myself returning again and again to one of the more innocuous-looking pieces of evidence.

The exhibit is a piece of CCTV footage, compressed to show the relevant movements of a white ute which, for the better part of an hour, drives up and down a suburban street. Several times the ute slows as it approaches a driveway leading into a residential complex—at one point it seems certain that it will turn off into it—but always, the driver of the vehicle abruptly accelerates and the ute disappears offscreen once more.

Stripped of context, there is nothing particularly noteworthy about this footage. Certainly nothing disturbing. But watching it, I knew that the driver, Marcus Rappel, had been served a domestic violence order (DVO) just hours before. I knew too that Tara Costigan, his ex-partner and the DVO applicant, was breastfeeding their eight-day-old daughter a few metres down the driveway he repeatedly drove past.

In the days leading up to the birth, Marcus’s harassment of Tara and her family via text message had forced Tara to the conclusion that there was no option but to apply for a DVO. Throughout her relationship with Marcus, Tara had suffered verbal and emotional abuse, but Marcus had never been physically violent. The same day she attended the courthouse, she sought to allay her uncle Michael’s fears that Marcus might react angrily upon learning about the DVO. “He’ll go ballistic,” she conceded, “but he won’t hurt me. He’s never hit me.”

The following afternoon, Tara Costigan was dead. Murdered in front of her two young sons, her infant daughter in her arms.

The atrocious details of this case begged the question—how the hell had it come about? How can a relationship with no history of physical violence abruptly end in murder?

As I came to realise, the latter question was very much a product of my own ingrained assumptions about domestic violence. A 2018 report from the Australian Domestic Violence and Death Review Network revealed that 76.2 percent of 105 males who killed female domestic violence victims had been physically violent toward them previously. It should be noted here that domestic violence is a ‘secret crime’ and many incidents go unreported, but even as an estimate, I was startled to learn that almost a quarter of those Australian women who had been murdered had no known physical violence in their relationship with their killer. (The sample from another study conducted by Monash University and the Domestic Violence Research Centre Victoria puts the figure at half.)

Of course, Marcus had been violent toward Tara—instead of his fists, he had used vicious slurs and insults. By and large, society has moved past the ‘sticks and stones’ mentality and recognises that verbal abuse can be extremely damaging to those who suffer it. However, the extent to which verbal abuse might serve as a red flag in intimate partner homicides is relatively under explored and little understood. US domestic violence consultant and senior lawyer Jocelyn Coupal cites research indicating that severely verbally abusive men are very likely to become physically violent against their partners (79 percent). This propensity can express itself in a sudden act of deadly violence.

It’s a statistic that Evan Stark, professor emeritus at Rutgers University in New Jersey and forensic social worker, is unsurprised by. ‘Based on my research,’ he says, ‘if you rely on physical injury before you identify a case as serious, you miss 95 to 98 per cent of all domestic violence. Often the severe assault is the fatal assault. It comes as a culmination.’

But Tara’s aunt Maria emphasises that her niece wouldn’t have believed for a moment that Marcus might kill her. The entrenched assumption that intimate partner homicides must be preceded by a history of physical abuse would likely mean that Tara, and many others in similar situations, would find it difficult to take seriously the notion that they could be at risk. In such cases, it would first be necessary for them to understand that a relationship actually exist between verbal violence and intimate partner homicide.

The devastating truth is that a longstanding pattern can be altered in an instant. As I watched the CCTV footage of the white ute driving up and down the street, I thought of Tara just down the driveway, sitting on her bed, nursing her baby daughter. I watched the darkened windows of the ute and thought of the axe that lay on the passenger seat next to the driver. I watched the routine passes of the driveway leading into Tara’s place, until suddenly—unbearably—the driver spins the wheel; the ute heads down the driveway; the exhibit fades to black.

The First Time He Hit Her by Heidi Lemon is published by Hachette Australia 30 June. RRP $32.99.

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au

In an emergency, call 000.

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