Earlier this month, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam granted clemency to Cyntoia Brown, who was serving a 51-year sentence for felony murder. Fourteen years ago, a teenaged Brown was prosecuted in Tennessee for shooting and killing a 43-year-old man who had solicited the 16-year-old Brown for sex in 2004. She said the act was self defense — the real estate agent had showed her his gun collection, and when they were in bed together, he reached for something that she believed to be a firearm, so she pulled her gun out of her purse and struck first. Her defense also argued that she had been raped and forced into prostitution by her abusive boyfriend, making her a sex-trafficking victim.
Last fall, the state’s supreme court ruled that since Brown was convicted of the crime after July 1st, 1995, and was sentenced to life, that she needed to do more than 50 years in prison before even becoming eligible for parole. That decision struck a chord with people across the country who called for Governor Haslam, who left office on January 19th, to grant her clemency.
While this may seem like a unicorn of a case, Brown is nowhere near alone.
Alisa Bierria, of the non-profit organization Survived and Punished, says that victims of domestic abuse and sexual violence are often prosecuted as perpetrators for defending themselves.
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“Survived and Punished has tried to draw attention to the high rate of the criminalization of the survivors of domestic and sexual violence, and the extreme sentences that a lot of survivors face, including life without parole — so basically death in prison — and create some real momentum,” Bierria says.
There is no research on exactly how many survivors have been locked up for self-defense, because survivors aren’t always labelled as such by the legal system. But here are some examples of other women who did their best to protect themselves — and were ultimately punished as a result.
Nan Hui-Jo took her daughter from California to her home country of Korea as a safeguard from the father of her child in 2009 — a former military serviceman, he had a pattern of choking Jo and threatening her by punching walls. He reported her to authorities, which endangered Jo’s immigration status. Her 2014 criminal trial on child abduction charges revealed that she was confused by the both the legal and the immigration processes, meaning that the many letters and forms she filled out led her to believe that she could leave the country to protect herself and her daughter without violating her citizenship. After one hung jury, during which one juror recused herself, Jo was found guilty of the abduction of her own child. She served 175 days in jail, but does not have primary custody of her child. The child’s father does.
Eisha Love, a transgender woman from Chicago, was attacked at gas station in 2012. She and a friend escaped by running to her car and driving away from the assailants, striking one of them in the process, which led to a severe leg injury. Love went to a local police station to report the incident but was booked for criminal aggravated assault instead. That charge was upgraded to attempted murder. She sat in a maximum security cell in a men’s prison for more than three years without a trial. She was prosecuted, pleading to one charge of felony aggravated battery. She was freed in December 2015.
In 2012, Marissa Alexander was estranged from her partner, who had a history of domestic violence against her. Just days after she gave birth, he arrived at her home and, according to an interview she did with Essence, threatened her. He entered her home, and when she couldn’t get the garage door to open so she could escape, she fired a shot at the wall. No one was injured. She was prosecuted for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon — in the same jurisdiction where George Zimmerman had recently been acquitted for “standing his ground.” After an attempt to sustain self-defense immunity was unsuccessful, she pleaded guilty to three counts of aggravated assault and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Her conviction was overturned in 2013, and she renegotiated a deal to serve three years in prison and two years on house arrest. In 2016, Alexander founded an organization called the Marissa Alexander Justice Project, which she has been working with since her release in 2017.
In 2016, 14-year-old Bresha Meadows from Ohio shot and killed her abusive father. She’d repeatedly reported her father’s violence to police, but was turned away and informed she’d be charged with being a runaway if she didn’t go back. Her father threatened the family with a gun, repeatedly assaulted her mother and threatened her mother’s life multiple times, according to a family member. She pleaded to involuntary manslaughter charges, but wasn’t charged as an adult. So Meadows spent about a year in juvenile detention and then transferred to a residential treatment center near her family for six months. She’s been released from custody for more than a year now, and will be under court supervision for another year. In Meadows’ case, like with Cyntoia Brown and other underage victims, a number of government systems, like DCFS, failed her before the self-defense incident.
“In a situation where she felt vulnerable with no one to turn to for her safety to be protected, she did what she needed to do to survive. Criminalizing survival is indicative of where our criminal justice system is at this point. A lot of politicians, particularly democrats, are reflecting on the damage they created over the past 30 years in the build up of the prison system,” Bierra says. “We want to see commutations in the thousands.”