The discovery last week of Brian Laundrie’s remains in a Florida nature park only deepened the mystery surrounding the death of his fiancée, Gabby Petito, and Laundrie’s role in it. So far, forensic examination has not identified the cause of Laundrie’s death, and authorities have not revealed the contents of a notebook and backpack found at the scene.
Laundrie and Petito had set off on a cross-country trip together over the summer from which Gabby never returned. Laundrie traveled back to his parents’ home without her at the beginning of September, only to go missing himself two days later. Petito’s disappearance and death and the strange circumstances of Laundrie’s return quickly became one of those headline-grabbing crimes that galvanize the nation’s attention.
Laundrie’s parents, anticipating a media circus at any funeral they might hold for their son, released a statement this week through as family attorney that his body would be cremated and his ashes returned to them. They appealed for privacy so that they could mourn the death of their son privately.
But it is by no means clear that they will get their wish.
In the United States and abroad, we know much more and have thought more deeply about the grief and needs of families of murder victims than of the families of people, like Brian Laundrie, who are suspected of committing murder. What do they need? What do we owe them?
Every year, more than a half million people go missing in the United States. According to FBI data, that number exceeded more 540,000 in 2020 — 340,000 of which were juveniles. Moreover, 4,400 unidentified bodies are recovered every year. Few of them get any attention at all. For those that do, the attention can be a double-edged sword.
Requests for privacy from families of people involved in notorious cases hoping to shield themselves from the penetrating media gaze are quite common. Indeed, the development of the right to privacy — what law professors Louis Brandeis and Samuel Warren, writing in 1890, labelled the “right to be let alone”, was a response to the advent of instant photography, audio recordings, and tabloid newspapers which profited from appealing to the prurient interests of their readers. However, if Laundrie’s family were to turn to the law for help in vindicating their desire to be let alone, they would find little solace. There is no doubt that in the eyes of the law that Brian Laundrie is a public figure.
In a line of cases involving libel claims brought against newspapers, the United States Supreme Court consistently has said that a person becomes a public figure when they take on roles of special prominence in society or, as in Laundrie’s case, attain “general fame or notoriety in the community.” Considering the near-24-hour coverage of Petito’s and then Laundrie’s disappearance and deaths, there’s little doubt that both of them have attained such status. Additionally, now that they are dead, they have even fewer legal rights to privacy than they did before.
The news media have already begun to raise questions about the role that Laundrie’s family may have played in the case. As the New York Postnoted, the discovery of Laundrie’s remains fuels “speculation that the parents could have been in on their son’s actions.” But beyond the question of whether Laudrie’s parents did anything wrong themselves, there is the tragic fact that suspicion spreads quickly in cases like these — often amplified by social media — and that families of those suspected of committing horrible crimes pay a horrible price.
These families are shamed, shunned, and stigmatized. They often suffer not only the psychological trauma associated with the criminality of their loved one — or, in Brian Laundrie’s case, the death of their child and the suspicion of his involvement in Gabby Petito’s death — but they are also unable to find a place in their community. Theirs is a social death.
In the words of the father of one murderer, “Strange thing to be the family of a killer. You carry a lifetime burden of shame for having done nothing wrong except being related to someone who did do something terribly wrong. There is little to no public sympathy for your plight….No one is interested in hearing that there was anything remotely good about a killer, so you soldier on in a private battle devoid of public sympathy. One quickly learns to accept that it goes with the territory.”
This is the territory that Brian Laundrie’s family now occupies. And, even if they succeed in securing their privacy, it is hard to foresee that they will find any peace.
Austin Sarat is a leading expert in criminal justice and political science who has written more than 90 books on the subjects and conducted extensive research on the death penalty and affected families. He is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts.