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Allison Leotta Headshot

Leave Him or Die: SVU's Warning to Rihanna and You

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What's more controversial than a hip-hop star beating his pop-star girlfriend so badly she can't sing at their Grammy gig that night? SVU portraying a barely-fictionalized version of their relationship, which ends with the guy killing the girl.

Wednesday night's Law & Order: SVU took Chris Brown and Rihanna's tumultuous relationship to its most extreme conclusion: with a thinly-veiled Brown beating a thinly-veiled Rihanna to death. After the episode, the Internet lit up with comments, many of them blasting the show for killing the singer in effigy.

But SVU was right to do it.

If anyone is the face of domestic violence in America, it's Rihanna. And not just because of her personal life: the beating, her decision to drop charges, her high-profile reconciliation with Brown (announced through playful bedroom pics in their Twitter feeds).

Her career took off because she sang about the experience. Eighteen months after the attack, she and Eminem collaborated on the chart-busting single, "Love the Way You Lie," in which a healed and sparkly Rihanna sings this catchy tune:

Just gonna stand there and watch me burn
That's all right, because I like the way it hurts

The music video features actors so attractive and domestic violence so sensuous, I practically wanted Eminem to start hitting me by the time it faded to black.

Clearly, this is not how domestic violence looks in real life. For twelve years, I was a federal prosecutor in D.C., where I specialized in sex crimes and domestic violence. It is an ugly thing, filled with pain and shame, broken bones and broken promises, and terrified children at risk of becoming terrorizing monsters themselves.

Although a generation of girls may look at Rihanna and think an abusive boyfriend gets you diamonds and record deals, in real life it leads to over 18 million mental health care visits and almost eight million missed days of work each year.

SVU's ending was dramatic -- but based on grimly real statistics. Every day, three women in America die as a result of domestic violence. In 70 to 80 percent of these homicides, the man physically abused the woman before the murder.

As a prosecutor, I saw over and over the interaction that SVU authentically portrayed last night. I would meet a woman the day of her attack. She would be bloody and bruised and ready to send her assailant to jail. Three months later, on the day of trial, she would be cuddling with her abuser in the back of the courtroom. "Please, Ms. Leotta," she would say. "I don't want him to go to jail. I love him. Drop the charges." Indeed, 80 percent of domestic violence victims are back with their abusers by the time of trial and want the charges dropped.

This was something that haunted me every day, and kept me working late every night. I thought about this issue so often, it became my first book, Law of Attraction, a novel about a DV homicide.

I had to weigh the power of her choice against the likelihood that he would kill her. My job was homicide prevention. Because domestic violence doesn't go away quietly; it spirals upwards, with each incident getting more violent and brutal. I saw too many cases where a victim refused to testify -- and was killed by the man she was trying to protect.

One in four American women will experience domestic abuse in her lifetime. Each one of those women will decide whether to testify against her abuser. And in making her decision, each will consider various pop culture images. On one hand will be dewy-eyed Rihanna, dancing in black leather shorts while crooning about how good the pain feels. On the other will be SVU's image of a similar woman's death at the hands of the man who brought that pain. It's not pretty. But it's real.

A cautionary tale was in order. Kudos to SVU for providing it.