For the past two weeks, the United States has followed the disappearance of Florida college student, Gabby Petito, with an intense morbid curiosity. Even before her remains surfaced in a Wyoming state park and a coroner declared her cause of death to be murder, the entire country has leaped to the conclusion that her boyfriend, Brian Laundrie, murdered her.
The news media has done everything that it can to perpetuate this conclusion. It frantically probed details of their relationship, including domestic violence incidents, and spun a storyline that painted Brian Laundrie as an abusive boyfriend. Laundrie also disappeared from the public eye, fueling further speculation that he was fleeing from law enforcement. His family has stated that they have not heard from him, and his family’s attorney has given cryptic answers to the media and law enforcement.
Further perpetuating the narrative, the United States Department of Justice has indicted Laundrie on credit card fraud charges, arising from his alleged use of Petito’s credit cards after her death. Law enforcement has confirmed that they have begun a nationwide manhunt for Laundrie, and a professional bounty hunter has joined the chase.
In other words, Laundrie is a hunted man right now who has already been publicly convicted based on mere speculation and accusation of murdering Petito. Not a single voice has reminded the public of the presumption of innocence guaranteed by our Constitution, and no one has told the public that the currently available evidence does not support the proposition that Brian Laundrie murdered Gabby Petito.
Here’s what we know after two weeks. Petito was last seen with Laundrie. A coroner has declared her death a homicide. Laundrie has disappeared without reporting her missing. Petito and Laundrie had a rocky relationship at times, but they were still vacationing on a road trip together.
These facts do not inescapably point to the conclusion that Laundrie murdered Petito. In fact, they raise the question of a variety of other theories and plausible explanations.
First, authorities have not stated how Petito died. Did she die as the result of violence? Was she shot, stabbed, or beaten to death? Were her injuries consistent with a physical assault or of a fall and unfortunate blunt trauma as a result? Petito could have fallen to her death while hiking. She and Laundrie could have argued, and Laundrie could have assaulted her and pushed her, causing a fall that led her death. In other words, we do not know if her death was an accident or a manslaughter – a far different crime than murder.
Second, we do not even know that Laundrie was the last person with her while she was still alive. Did someone else attack Laundrie and Petito and then threaten Laundrie into silence? Did Laundrie and Petito argue while hiking and separate while on the trail? Did someone else come along and assault her? These are distinct and plausible possibilities. Without solid evidence connecting Laundrie to Petito’s death, we simply don’t know yet.
Third, the country has labelled Laundrie’s disappearance as consciousness of guilt. That may not be correct. Did Laundrie witness Petito’s death – either as a hiking accident or an accident as his own hands? Did he commit suicide out of grief? Was he threatened by someone else who had something to do with Petito’s death? These are distinct possibilities.
Finally, a rocky relationship and prior domestic violence sheds no light on what happened. Relationships can be rocky and still survive. They can involve incidents of violence – horrible mistakes – and still survive without ending in the death of one person.
I don’t know what happened to Gabby Petito or whether Brian Laundrie bears responsibility for her death. What I do know is that we do not know enough to declare him guilty of her murder. He’s presumed innocent, and the sparse facts that have emerged shed no light on what actually happened.
While I sympathize with the Petito family’s loss, their cries for Laundrie’s blood should not drive a public narrative. Our fundamental principles of justice and fairness require more. We are better as a society, and we should not abandon our Constitution for the cries of one family’s grief and a nation’s morbid curiosity and bloodlust.