It’s just a little more than a year since Jessica Smith was sentenced to life in prison. She was sentenced at the Clatsop County courthouse on Aug. 25, 2016. You remember Jessica. She’s the mom from Vancouver, Washington, who came to Cannon Beach and rented a hotel room where she killed one child and critically injured another.
It’s hard to forget the story. The discovery of the crime and then the trial itself dominated local news for a long time. A detail of the case, Smith’s note that might be construed as a suicide note, “We’ve decided to opt out,” haunted me. Her assertion after her arrest that she had “little or no memory” of her crimes was also disturbing. Smith’s lawyers felt she was mentally unfit to stand trial, an assertion objected to by Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis. Smith pleaded not guilty.
Prior to her acts of familial violence, the family was undergoing severe stress. Jessica and her husband, Greg, were divorcing. Greg claimed Jessica had had an affair, although the two reconciled for awhile. Greg sued for full custody; when he thought Jessica was going to take the children out of state, he fought back with a restraining order. He said Jessica was suffering from post-traumatic stress as a result of abuse she had suffered earlier. She retaliated by filing a petition for an emergency anti-harassment temporary protection order, citing her husband had subjected her to daily mental and emotional abuse, bullying, neglect, and physical and verbal abuse of their pets. After drugging and drowning the toddler, and slashing her teenage daughter’s throat, Smith fled. Her daughter told police Jessica was going to the woods to kill herself. Before that could happen, a Coast Guard helicopter located her on a logging road off Highway 26.
Domestic violence and abuse is not a talked about crime. In 2013 the Journal of Family Violence published a report on familicide, the formal name for when a family member kills themselves after killing other family members. The study, which covered the period between 2000 and 2009, reported familicide occurs in the United States about 23 times a year. The majority of the perpetrators are male, committing the offense with a firearm. Women also commit familicide. When I taught creative writing in a maximum security prison for women, I learned the great majority of women who took the lives of their spouses or their children were themselves victims of domestic violence.
Seaside resident Shannon Symonds, a part-time advocate for victims of domestic and sexual assault and the author of the novel, “Safe House,” noted at a recent meeting of the Seaside Branch of the American Association of University Women the most deadly type of abuser is the one who has no prior documented history of abuse. “There may be no red flags,” she said.
Women of means are the least likely to report domestic violence. “The more you have to lose, the less you tell,” Symonds said.
October is National Domestic Violence Awareness month. Symonds publisher, Cedar Fort, has partnered to discount “Safe House” e-book or kindle version to 99 cents for the month of October. Eight copies are also free as a giveaway for the month of October on Goodreads. “Safe House” takes place in Seaside.
Margie Nugent, a domestic violence survivor who speaks nationally on the subject, said, “Everyone asked me why I just didn’t leave. It’s because most women get killed on the way out. Domestic violence is not a low income issue. It’s not an uneducated issue. It’s a power issue I speak on the subject whenever I’m asked because silence is deadly.”