Bresha Meadows, a 15-year-old Ohio girl charged with aggravated murder for killing her allegedly abusive father, entered a plea deal on Monday after nearly 10 months in juvenile detention. In return for a plea of “true,” the juvenile version of “guilty,” Meadows got her charges knocked down to involuntary manslaughter and what could have been a multi-year jail sentence reduced to a year and a day in jail, six months in residential treatment, and two years of probation. The sentence includes time served, so Meadows has just two months left in detention before entering treatment.
Meadows’ mother Brandi called her a “hero” last summer for putting an end to the more than two decades of physical abuse she says she endured under her husband’s controlling eye. “She helped all of us so we could have a better life,” Brandi said at the time. Rewire reports that Meadows’ record will be sealed in three years and expunged in five. But the trauma of being imprisoned at 14 for using her father’s alleged instrument of abuse against him—a gun that Meadows, Brandi, and Meadows’ police-officer aunt all say the father used to threaten and torment the family—will linger.
Ja’Von Meadows-Harris, Meadows’ cousin who once lived with the family, recently came forward with stories of his uncle’s abuse, which allegedly predicated his removal from the home by a social worker. As I wrote last year, the horrifying allegations Meadows made against her father have been corroborated by other family members, medical records, years-old court documents, police reports, and testimonies from neighbors and school employees:
An order of protection Brandi received in 2011, then later dismissed, states that Jonathan cut her, bruised her, and broke her bones and blood vessels. “If he finds us, I am one hundred percent sure he will kill me and the children,” she wrote in her filing. “My life is like living in a box he created for me, and if I stepped out of that box, he’s there to put me back in that box.” Brandi told the Plain Dealer that his assaults have sent her to the hospital or other medical facility 15 to 20 times over the course of their relationship. According to Martina Latessa, who is Bresha’s aunt and Brandi’s sister, Jonathan punched Brandi until her teeth broke, kicked her, stomped on her, smashed her with a 25-pound weight while she was pregnant, required her to stay on the phone with him if she ever left the house alone, and threatened her and the kids with his gun, saying, “I will kill your fucking kids. You will watch your kids die. That is the last thing you’ll see.”
According to the Correctional Association of New York, a nonprofit that advocates for criminal-justice reform, three-quarters of women in prison have experienced intimate-partner violence as adults, and 82 percent suffered childhood physical or sexual abuse. About 90 percent of the 280 children who killed their parents in the U.S. in 1990, the last year with comprehensive data, were survivors of abuse. Activists who’ve fundraised for Meadows’ legal expenses and mandatory residential treatment have situated her case in the context of the millions of women, mostly women of color, who’ve been incarcerated for fighting back against violence perpetrated against them. In these cases, the prison system doesn’t rectify any wrongs—it merely picks up where the incarcerated woman’s abuser left off.
“In some cases, the ‘gendered paternalism’ of the state (a term coined by lesbian and radical feminists of the 1970s) uses Black women as pawns to reinforce racialized criminalization,” Mariame Kaba wrote in the New Inquiry earlier this month. “For ‘their own protection’ and often against their stated wishes, victims of domestic violence are threatened with jailing by some prosecutors or judges if they refuse to testify against their abusers.” Kaba is a leader of the #FreeBresha fundraising and advocacy campaign, as well as an organizer with the Survived & Punished coalition, which seeks to end criminal prosecution against survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence who fight back. In her New Inquiry piece, she traces the inspiration for contemporary liberation efforts for Meadows and Marissa Alexander back to the campaign to free Joan Little, a young black incarcerated woman who was arrested in 1974 for taking an ice pick from a jail guard who was raping her and using it to stab and kill him. Little was found not guilty of the murder charge, the first time in U.S. history that a woman was acquitted for killing a man in self-defense during a sexual assault.
Few women since have gotten such justice. During her months behind bars, Meadows was placed on suicide watch and received little mental-health support, yet a judge refused her lawyer’s request that she be able to live with her family until trial. Family visits were limited. Kaba told Rewire that plea deals like the one Meadows took are “coercive and … a violent means of social control.” If her case went to trial and a jury convicted her, Meadows could have faced six years, the remainder of her adolescence and the beginning of her young adulthood, in juvenile detention. She may well have gotten a jury that would have empathized with her plight and decided not to keep an alleged abuse victim from her already traumatized family for six years. But with the carceral system’s history in mind and her mental health to consider, Meadows couldn’t risk it. In the eyes of the state, she, and not her alleged abuser, is the convicted violent criminal in the family.