On May 18th 2018, Dimitrios Pagourtzis, a 17 year old student, entered his High School in Santa Fe Texas, where he proceeded to fatally shoot 10 people and wound 13 others. While Pagourtizis’s exact motives for the killings have not yet been agreed upon, there seems to be an influx of competing narratives concerning just who Dimitrios Pagourtizis is.
To begin with, we have the story told by his family. In a statement covered by the Los Angeles Times they stated: “We are gratified by the public comments made by other Santa Fe High School students that show Dimitri as we know him: a smart, quiet, sweet boy.” These character traits fit well with further stories offered by former teachers, expanding that he was “quiet, but he wasn’t quiet in a creepy way.” Again these narratives fit with certain accomplishments some media sources have chosen to focus on, such as the fact that Pagourtizis was on the honor roll at his high school, and that he played on the school football team. By this account, this story which is told is concerned with showing the perpetrator in a pseudo-positive light- that he appeared to be a smart, but quiet boy, who was seemingly well adjusted.
But as writer, Stassa Edwards, so powerfully points out, this isn’t the only story to be told. Edwards points towards a counter-narrative offered by Sadie Blaze, the mother of Pagourtizi’s first victim. Blaze tells a story of a boy who harassed her daughter, Shana, for the previous four months, persistently asking her to date him despite her repeatedly telling him no. Blaze has told this story to many mainstream news outlets, adding that: “he continued to get more aggressive”. The fact that Shana was targeted first has led some to believe that Pagourtizis’s attack on Santa Fe High School was an act of retaliation against the girl who turned him down. Many commentators have been drawing attention to the social media presence of Pagourtizis, linking this story of retaliation to further attacks, such as the 2014 killings carried out by Eliot Rodgers, or the Toronto attack in April of this year. These stories present the perpetrators as seeking revenge on girls and women as response to a lack of romantic interest. These narratives are gaining huge momentum at the moment, with many high profile media publications arguing that such shootings are incidents of misogyny fuelled violence. Journalists are taking note that a number of these perpetrators self-identify as ‘incels’ (short for ‘involuntary celibates’), a subsect of online male supremacy communities.
It will be extremely interesting to see which story concerning Pagourtizis will come out as the dominant narrative during his trial, especially when one bears in mind recent high profile judgments concerning other violent acts against women. For me, I see parallels between the family’s account of Pagourtizis and the stories told about convicted rapist, Brock Turner. Throughout his trial in 2016, the court heard about Turner’s accomplishments as a student athlete- at one point a projected future Olympian- at Stanford University, and the great promise his future holds. His father implored the judge for leniency, claiming that his son is “not violent” and arguing that punishment was a “steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life”, and yet again this narrative speaks nothing towards the actions that he committed. This is only solidified through the statement Turner he himself made, stating: “I want to show people that one night of drinking can ruin a life”, in which he solely refers to his own- rather than the life of the woman he raped behind a dumpster whilst unconscious. This takes us to the competing story heard throughout the proceedings: the story in which Turner had inflicted a great deal emotional and physical distress through committing the inherently violent act of rape. This counter narrative was primarily told through his victim’s story, where she recounting the effects of his actions: “My independence, natural joy, gentleness, and steady lifestyle I had been enjoying became distorted beyond recognition.”
Horrifyingly Judge Aaron Persky argued that “A prison sentence would have a severe impact on him…I think he will not be a danger to others” – sentencing him to six months in county jail, though in actuality he only served three. The Guardian reported that Turner’s age and his lack of previous criminal history were the primary reasons behind Persky’s insultingly lenient sentence, signalling, as Edwards accurately describes a “once-promising” narrative taking precedence in the case. This form of prioritizing of stories isn’t knew- when CNN covered the Steubenville Rape Case in 2013, where two student football players were found guilty of raping a fellow 16 year old and photographing and documenting the incident on social media- the coverage mostly concerned how the sentencing has affected the lives of “two young men that had such promising futures”.
Competing narratives and stories within a trial are an inherent part of the legal process; testimonies are presented to judges and juries in a supposed ‘fact-finding’ mission to establish what actually happened. Yet storytelling can be seen as invaluable rhetorical technique to help persuade these key players of motive, and consequently guilt. Inevitably one story will become dominant, and in recent years it would appear that the ‘once promising’ narrative takes precedence in trials of gendered violence. I am hopeful Dimitrios Pagouritiz can signal a turning point, where a counter-narrative is just as compelling, and the stories of the victims of such acts of violence can be better heard. Acknowledging that many stories are told at trial can open up the space to question which stories win, and why.