In 2006, New York City was rocked by the terrible death of Sean Bell. Unfortunately, the shooting of Sean Bell was not a rare or unique event. Some quick exploration finds that NYC police fatally shot an average of 24 people per year from 1990 through 2000, that, “in 77% of the incidents where officers fired their weapons at civilians between 1999 and 2006, the officers were the only ones shooting, with officers often shooting at unarmed civilians,” and that “during 1996 and 1997, 90.5% of civilian shooting targets were black and Latino.” Horribly, the death of unarmed black and Latino men in a hail of police bullets in NYC happens much too often, yet rarely becomes a huge news story.
One thing that made Sean Bell’s death huge news was the fact that it occurred on the eve of his wedding. The planned wedding separated Mr. Bell from potential stereotypes, giving the media a guaranteed attention-getter. Mr. Bell’s death is far from the only one to be treated differently because of proximity to a wedding. Just this morning I heard a radio report about a terrible plane crash in Pakistan: all 152 people aboard were killed; the only ones described in any detail were two Americans and a Pakistani couple who had just celebrated their wedding.
This is not to question that each of these deaths is tragic, but to point out that the media often relies on matrimania to make some violent, untimely deaths seem more terrible than others.
The loss of Sean Bell is in our minds again today, because NYC is paying his family $7 million to settle their lawsuit for “wrongful death, negligence, assault and civil rights violations.” Technically speaking, none of the settlement will go to Nicole Bell, whom Mr. Bell was about to marry after a long-term unmarried partnership during which they bore and co-raised two children. “The money will go to her two children with Mr. Bell, Jada, 7, and Jordyn, 4; she will not receive a share because she was not married to Mr. Bell (she took his name legally after his death).”
Since Ms. Bell was involved in negotiating the settlement, I’m willing to assume that she’s OK with the way it works. But what if they hadn’t had children? What if they had been planning to adopt? What if they were all much older and the children were independent adults? What happens to unmarried survivors whose partners die wrongful deaths?
Professor Nancy Polikoff has documented that few states allow any compensation to unmarried survivors, and New York State has consistently denied them – see her book Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage, page 88-89. Matrimania is not just an annoying media habit. Reliance on marital status in wrongful death cases, as in so many other legal and economic policies, can double the pain of a loss and create permanent hardships for people whose caring, interdependent relationships don’t count.