Most of us had the right reaction, as far as I can tell, when we watched the March 21 video of Austin Shuffield, a muscled up 30-year-old bartender* in Deep Ellum, pounding a young woman repeatedly as hard as he could in the head with his fists. Most of us went a little crazy. Now we have to calm down and figure it out.
I couldn’t watch that endless loop on TV of Shuffield, who is white, smashing 24-year-old L'Daijohnique Lee, who is black, without wondering about race. Would a young white man beat on a white woman like that? Well, yes, but I'll set aside the race question for now until evidence emerges that might help me make up my mind on a better basis than sheer speculation.
The issue I’m still stuck on is this: When is it ever OK for a man to hit a woman like that? I thought the rule for a man was always the same: Walk away, get out of it, doesn’t matter how it started. Unless you literally have to fight her to save your own life, you put your hands down and walk, buddy. Take some licks; get a hank of your hair pulled out; it’ll grow back unless you’re me; but find some way to get out of it so you will never be that man.
But maybe not. It’s complicated, which is sort of a surprise to me. In this case, according to what can be seen on the video, the man strikes the first physical blow by knocking the woman’s cellphone out of her hand. She hits back with what looks more like a slap than a punch. Then he just starts whaling on her head with boxing ring punches, and he goes on and on and on.
I talked to David Finn about it. He’s a criminal lawyer who has served as a federal prosecutor and also as a family violence judge in Dallas. He had no professional familiarity with the Shuffield case when we spoke beyond hearing about it in conversation with people. He hadn’t seen the video.
Finn said, “Legally, the gender distinction doesn’t make a difference. Legally, you’ve got the right to defend yourself. If some 90-pound ballerina comes up to Jim Schutze and slaps you, then the question is proportionality.”
I was struggling with that a little in my head at first, because, at my age, I wasn’t sure which way the proportionality would tilt. Those ballerinas can be strong, man. But then I heard what he was saying. Finn said the law may not see a legal distinction in gender, but normal human beings do.
“Factually, my sense is that jurors and prosecutors and judges and defense attorneys do factor in gender,” Finn said. “For example, if you’ve got a big, beefy guy who gets slapped and then he hauls off and knocks her out, that’s problematic. There’s a difference between defending yourself and just beating the daylights out of somebody.”
Finn told me something else that really took me aback. He certainly was not talking about his own feelings. As the father of two daughters and a son, he is clearly opposed to men hitting women for any reason. But he said in his conversations with other people about the Shuffield case, he found a clear division of opinion along gender lines:
“Several people I know have talked to me about this case. The women are saying, ‘Hey, if he’s some big guy and she slapped him or hit him, that doesn’t give him the right to just go batshit crazy and beat the shit out of her.’ The guys are saying, ‘If some chick slapped me or punched me in the face, game on.’”
No! Tell me that’s not true! Game on? Game on? What in God’s name is the game? Is the game how big a man it takes to beat up a woman? Who wants to win that game? Should it be in the Olympics? Who wants to be that man?
I’d like to be a fly on the wall so I could hear the man who wins that game explaining it later to his friends and family: “OK, I beat this woman’s head in with my fists, but you need to understand that she totally started it.” Guess what. That guy needs to change his name and move to Australia. Nobody who knows that story about him is ever going to think of him as any better than a dog. And I apologize to my dogs for putting it that way.
By taking a pass on the racial question in the Shuffield case, I don’t mean to suggest the question is not relevant or important. Mainly I just don’t feel like I’m necessarily the one to hunt that issue down properly. Others may be better suited.
In the week after the original incident, while Shuffield was free on misdemeanor charges, the city saw multiple community protests organized by black leadership. Major themes in those protests were that Shuffield had been undercharged by police in the first place, that he should never have been released on bond so easily and that these outcomes had to do with the race of the attacker and the race of his victim.
In the video, Shuffield clearly brandishes a gun. A week after his arrest and release, the charges against him were bumped up to felony aggravated assault with a deadly weapon by police. Dallas Police Chief Renee Hall informed the City Council of the new tougher charges in a letter. Now the case goes to Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot, who will make the final decision on how Shuffield is to be charged.
Even after the charges were increased, Dallas civil rights lawyer S. Lee Merritt complained that it had taken too long, and he seemed to give himself and other leaders of the protests credit for the greater severity of the new charges: “It is unfortunate that the initial charging officer failed to file any felony charges against Austin Shuffield,” Merritt said in a written statement on Facebook. He said, “We are grateful that after significant community backlash and protest, more serious charges were pursued.”
Chief Hall, who is black, really wasn’t having any of that. She told reporters at a press conference that the community protests had nothing to do with the change in charges. While that may sound a little peevish on the face of it — Did she really have to say that? — she’s probably right. Finn explained to me that there are significant distinctions in the evidence required for a misdemeanor assault and for an aggravated felony assault.
“A misdemeanor assault means you intentionally or knowingly caused bodily injury to another, and that means physical pain. I could pinch you, and it’s a class A misdemeanor. But if he brandished a weapon, then it’s aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. That (the gun) is his biggest problem right there.”
So a set of facts is in play here that police could reasonably have spent a week to establish. And, look, the cops on the scene were busy making an arrest. They had this big drunk guy with a gun. They had to get him into a car and take him to jail. We can’t expect the arresting officers to take time out and go sit in the patrol car with their specs on poring over online law books to make sure they’ve got the most serious possible charge against the guy. All they needed that night was some get-him-in-the-damn-car charges. They knew that people downtown who get paid the big bucks would look at the charges again later.
Nor am I accusing Merritt of overplaying his own hand, at least not too much. The police should remember that Merritt, for a tough activist attorney often on the other side of things from the cops, has a good history as a straight-shooter. Last May when he figured out another client was lying about a very public sex assault claim against a police officer, Merritt took extraordinary steps to out his own client and to apologize to the officer and his family and fellow officers.
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We were all a little crazy about the Deep Ellum beating at first. All of us looked at that video and saw a horror unfolding before our eyes — a thing we didn’t want to know could happen in our world. The repetitive slamming blows to the head, the big guy dancing around her like a heavyweight in the ring. It was all ghastly, and one way or another it had in it the nearby flickering shadow of death. He looked like he was murdering her slowly.
I don’t believe it’s quixotic or somehow anachronistic to believe that gender does make a difference, even if it’s not easy to put a finger on precisely how. I hope I would feel the same nausea in the pit of my stomach if I watched a video of the same man pounding a much smaller, weaker man. But I have to be honest. It wouldn’t be quite the same.
I come back to the question: Who would want to be that man? What possible set of facts would allow any human being to want to be that man? If Shuffield doesn’t want to be the man he is, then that may make it all the more sad and horrible. If he does, then maybe the horror we see in that video is bigger than we think.
*An earlier version of this story incorrectly described Shuffield as a bouncer at the bar.