There is a lot more to examine in the Autry murder

Phyllis H. Millspaugh

The days and weeks that followed the murder of Western freshman Melissa “Katie” Autry created a virtual waterfall of shock, rumor, innuendo and blame. Almost immediately those who knew Ms. Autry in life were besieged with questions from investigators and reporters in an attempt to provide some reason for her death. By pouring over her behavior and choices in life, it was hoped that they would somehow justify her murder.

Maybe it is just human nature to look to the individual for responsibility. Or perhaps it makes us all feel just a little bit safer if we believe that she was different from me. By differentiating her circumstances from ours, we can deny to ourselves that it could happen to me, too. By sharing her history and the behaviors that occurred prior to her death, the media gave us all ample opportunity to separate ourselves and our life decisions from hers.

We in Bowling Green are no less vulnerable to these kinds of destructive and harmful acts than any other community, large or small. The local statistics regarding sexual assault alone point to our shared vulnerability. Of the 194 times Hope Harbor Inc. responded to a sexual assault case, 21 percent involved college-aged people. National statistics indicate that only 16 percent of sexual assault victims ever report their crime. With the attention and character assassination Ms. Autry’s murder garnered, is it any wonder that victims are reluctant to come forward? If a young woman who was killed after being brutalized can be pointed to as a “partner in crime” because of her life choices, then who would want to take the chance of such scrutiny while still alive?

In the wake of the murder of this young woman, many are left behind to adjust to her forced exit from life. Ms. Autry’s family, forever changed by the senselessness of this murder, must now learn to live without their loved one. The Western community, rocked by the inexplicable violence that one of their own experienced, must now grapple with how to make its campus a safer place. And the community of Bowling Green must begin to come to grips with yet another horrifically violent event within its city borders. Isn’t it time to take a different approach?

Better and more comprehensive education around violence against women and sexual assault is demanded here, and Western is a logical place to begin, since the college-age person is statistically more vulnerable. We must protect one another in our search for safety. Could Ms. Autry’s murder have been prevented? It could have. But the only real way Ms. Autry’s life could have been saved is if those who committed the crime changed their behavior. Whatever Ms. Autry did in life did not cause her death; her killers did. Ultimately, she was only responsible for her life, not her death.

Phyllis H. Millspaugh is the executive director of Hope Harbor in Bowling Green.

The opinions expressed in this commentary do not represent the Herald, Western or its administration.