No Justice When Women Fight Back

By Victoria Law, Truthout



(Photo: Prison via Shutterstock)


What do a nineteen-year-old lesbian from New Jersey, a 23-year-old trans woman in Minneapolis and a 31-year-old mother in Florida have in common? All three were attacked, all three fought back and all three were arrested. All three are currently in prison while their attackers remain free. Oh, yes, and all three are black women.

Marissa Alexander is a 31-year-old mother of three. She is also a survivor of violence at the hands of her ex, Rico Gray. In 2009, Alexander obtained a restraining order against Gray. Learning that she was pregnant, she amended it to remove the ban on contact between her and Gray while maintaining the rest of the restraining order.

On August 1, 2010, nine days after Alexander had given birth to their daughter, Gray attacked her in her own home. “He assaulted me, shoving, strangling and holding me against my will, preventing me from fleeing all while I begged for him to leave,” Alexander recounted in an open letter to supporters. Alexander escaped into the garage, but realized that she had forgotten the keys to her truck and that the garage’s door opener was not working. She retrieved her gun, which was legally registered, and re-entered her home to either escape or grab her cell phone to call for help. “He came into the kitchen … and realized I was unable to leave … he yelled, ‘Bitch I will kill you!’ and charged toward me. In fear and a desperate attempt, I lifted my weapon up, turned away and discharged a single shot in the wall up in the ceiling.” Gray called the police and reported that Alexander had shot at him and his sons. Alexander was arrested and charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

Alexander attempted to invoke Stand Your Ground, but a pre-trial judge ruled that she could have escaped her attacker through the front or back doors of her home. During her trial, the jury was not allowed to see several letters, written by Gray’s former wives, girlfriends and in-laws, that recounted his history of abuse, including pistol-whippings, beatings, stripping them of their clothing and super-gluing door locks on them. Several letters also recounted instances in which Gray called the police after he had attacked them, claiming that they had attacked him. (In one instance, Gray stabbed himself with a fork and asked his younger son to tell the police that his girlfriend had done it.) In a sixty-six page deposition, Gray admitted to abusing all five of the women with whom he had children, including Alexander.

Instead of taking these facts into consideration, prosecutor Angela Corey added Florida’s 10-20-LIFE sentencing enhancement, mandating a 20-year minimum sentence when a firearm is discharged.

Not an Anomaly: Race, Gender and the Justice System

Alexander’s case is not an anomaly. Other women of color have defended themselves only to find the legal system more eager to prosecute and punish them than their assailants.

In August 2006, nineteen-year-old Patreese Johnson and six friends from Newark, New Jersey, took the train to New York’s West Village, a neighborhood historically known for its LGBTQ friendliness. As the women walked down the street, they were sexually propositioned by a man named Wayne Buckle. Buckle followed them, threatening to rape them and then physically attacked, choking one, ripping hair from their scalps and spitting on them. The women defended themselves and, at some point, were assisted by two unknown men. During the altercation, Buckle was stabbed. The women were arrested while the men left the scene.

All seven were black lesbians. In addition, three were masculine-appearing. “Their treatment [by the media and legal system] has been reflective of what they look like,” noted one supporter who needed to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals at work. Johnson agrees, writing recently, “Me being black and young, the jury, judge and DA’s minds was already made up.” (Letter, July 18, 2012.)

Police refused to credit the women’s statements, those of other witnesses and, ultimately, that of Buckle himself, who stated that the two men were responsible for stabbing him. Both the media and the prosecution framed them as a “lesbian wolf pack” and “killer lesbians.” Both media and prosecution also played on racialized fears around gang violence: Although none of the women had ever been in conflict with the law, media and prosecutors described them as a “gang.” In addition, neither the judge nor the prosecutor differentiated between the charge of “gang assault” (two or more people acting in concert to cause injury) and gang membership.

Three of the women accepted plea bargains and served six months; the remaining four – Venice Brown, Terrain Dandridge, Renata Hill and Patreese Johnson – became known as the New Jersey Four; they pled not guilty. They received sentences ranging from three-and-a-half to eleven years in prison.

Upon appeal, charges against Dandridge were dismissed while Brown and Hill were granted a retrial and subsequently accepted plea agreements. Johnson’s sentence was reduced from eleven to eight years. She remains in prison today. Dwayne Buckle was never arrested nor charged for attacking the women.

As reported last year in Truthout, 23-year-old CeCe McDonald, a young black transgender woman, and her friends were walking to the grocery store in Minneapolis when she was first verbally harassed, then physically attacked by the white patrons standing outside a bar. During the attack, a bar patron smashed a glass into McDonald’s face, slicing her cheek. As more people joined in the attack, Dean Schmitz, who had instigated the verbal harassment, was stabbed and later died in the hospital. McDonald was arrested and charged with second-degree murder. The woman who smashed glass into McDonald’s face was never arrested or charged.

During pre-trial motions, the judge ruled against McDonald’s ability to introduce evidence showing that the attack against her was motivated by her race and gender identity: Both Schmitz’s swastika and his three previous convictions for violent assault were ruled inadmissible. The judge also refused to allow an expert witness to testify about the pervasive and systemic violence faced by trans people on a daily basis. (Letter from CeCe McDonald, July 19, 2012.)

Faced with second-degree murder charges, a hostile court and the possibility of twenty to forty years, McDonald pled guilty to second-degree manslaughter due to negligence and was sentenced to forty-one months in prison. “She [also] has to pay for her attacker’s funeral,” noted Billy Navarro of the Minnesota Transgender Health Coalition and a member of her support committee. (Interview, July 26, 2012.)

These cases – and their verdicts – reflect an all-too-common reality in the United States: When women, particularly women of color, defend themselves, they often find themselves assaulted twice – first by their attacker, then by the legal system. The zealous prosecution, as well as the lack of charges against their attackers, reflects the pervasive and socially sanctioned violence against women, particularly women of color and the prevailing notion that women should not fight back. “Me being female, I wasn’t supposed to fight back,” Johnson noted. (Letter, July 18, 2012.)

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3 thoughts on “No Justice When Women Fight Back

  1. As I’ve often said, there should be a “Dislike” button. I love your work, but I dislike what this article says about us.

    P.S. (I’ll probably be reblogging this one, too.)


  2. The criminal justice system is way out of bounds. There is no justice when criminals are allowed to run free and victims pay a price. I know all too well how the system works under a system of favors and easy way out. Court is too cumbersome – a plea deal is better, even if you are not guilty.


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