For women like myself who endured domestic abuse, some survive it. But you still feel partially broken and separate from everyone else. The criminal justice system needs to take that into consideration.
I met my husband Maxwell when I was eight years old. A few years later, we went on our first date. I was in love immediately. When I was fifteen, I married him. One year later I gave birth to our first child. The marriage was grand. Perfect husband. Perfect father. Maxwell became my family, he became my everything. All of my self-worth came from this man. We were together for 18 years, and married for 6 of them.
The abuse started when we both lost our jobs. We came home and drank, which led to arguing. He was suddenly twisting me, hitting me, and I didn’t know why. I saw my dad hit my mom, and I witnessed my father-in-law hit my mother-in-law. So, my interpretation was that it was okay for a husband to hit his wife. When he started to put his hands on me, I didn’t feel like I was being abused, but that I messed up again, and he was mad at me.
Once he got another job and I was a housewife, the violence became more frequent. I was content with being a housewife for three years, but then I wanted to go back to school. He told me I couldn’t. I disobeyed, took the entrance exam, and got in.
One day at school, he showed up in the parking lot. He pulled down my dress and embarrassed me in front of everyone. I was scrambling, trying to hide behind cars, so no one would see me. It was humiliating.
You get used to patterns of violence. I was eventually able to tell from his behavior when he was going to get violent. I knew that if his voice was raised, there would be profanity, and then there would be hitting. He also started to say a lot of hurtful things. He would say things like, “You’re not that pretty. I don’t know why I married you. I don’t know why I had children with you.” It got to the point where I wished he would hit so me that he would stop saying all of these things. This went on for seven years.
Calling the police was like calling no one. Maxwell had family members in the precinct. Whenever the police were called, they would tell him, go for a walk. The only time he was arrested was because a new policeman was on duty. The new policeman took Maxwell into the precinct for a few hours. When he got home, he was only more furious. He was embarrassed because he had been removed from his home in handcuffs. Only thinking about his pride and not how bad I hurt, he beat me. While he was hitting me, he screamed, “What are you going to do? They are not going to do anything, as you can see I am back here. I could kill you if I wanted.”
One of the beatings was so bad I was in the hospital for two months. He was able to conceal the patterns of abuse every time he hit me by bringing me to a different hospital. Every time I went to a hospital, he was sitting right next to me. The nurses never asked if he hit me. The times they did ask what happened, I always lied. I said I hurt myself. I would never say that he did something to me. I was so worried about him getting in trouble that I wasn’t worried about what was happening to me or my children.
The first person I told was my mother. But, she was old school. She told me, “What happens in your household stays in your household.” I made the mistake of telling someone in my church, and Maxwell found out. His response was, “Don’t you ever again in your life go outside of this house and tell anyone what goes on in this house. This is my house, and I do whatever the hell I want.”
In 1995, he slung me down a flight of steps, and I broke my ankle in three places. I had a fractured wrist and a dislocated shoulder. While I was recuperating from these injuries, I stayed with a friend. He came over, and I asked for a divorce. He got very close to me, and whispered threats into my ear. When I got home, he beat me so bad. I thought he was going to kill me, but he didn’t. We continued to be together, the violence only becoming more frequent.
On this particular day he had gotten suspended for drinking and was waiting for me. I walked into the house, and he immediately pounced on me. He said, “bitch where the hell have you been.” He grabbed me and slung me against the wall. He began choking me. I was able to break lose. We started struggling and rolled down the hallway. When we got to the kitchen, he had both of his hands tightly wrapped around my neck. My vision was blurring and everything was literally going dark. I couldn’t breath. I was fading and beginning to black out. I just reached out and found something. At the time, I didn’t know what it was it was, but it was a little steak knife. Trying to get him off me, I stabbed him. He finally let me go. And I just ran. I ran all the way out of the building. I looked back only one time to see him chasing me. I ran onto the street. I saw two of my friends, and I said “oh god I just stabbed Maxwell. I hope he doesn’t kill me.
Before I could get that out of my mouth, police came from everywhere. It looked like they were coming out of the ground. One of my neighbors yelled, “She is the one who shot him!” They grabbed me, and threw me up against the fence. I said, I didn’t shoot him, I stabbed him. In the moment, I didn’t understand the severity of my statement. I was just trying to explain I didn’t shoot him. I was taken onto the floor below our apartment for questioning, because the paramedics were trying to revive him.
They took me to the police station, but did not tell me he was dead. I kept asking about my husband. The first officer told me he was in the operating room, another told me he was in the recovery room, and then one told me he was fine. I was not made aware of his death, until I went to central booking, and they called my name Kathryn Julian. They said the charge was murder in the first degree. Everything stopped. I was in complete shock. I had no idea my husband was dead.
When I finally regained some clarity, I was taken to Riker’sIsland. No one knew. They didn’t contact my in laws. They didn’t contact anyone. I have no recollection of the first and second time I appeared in court. I was highly medicated. They gave me psychotropic medication. So, during the pre-trial proceedings, I was not fully aware of how the district attorney was depicting me. He portrayed me as a drug-addicted woman who had gone on a killing spree. He never mentioned the abuse, that we were legally married, or police records documenting the abuse.
During my first trial, the grand jury kept hearing conflicting stories. The DA kept saying one thing while my friends gave a different story. Although I had close to 75 injuries, he said only two of them were “suspicious”. When it came to the abuse, he kept using the word allegedly. During questioning, the DA asked, “If he was beating you all the time like you allegedly say he was, then why didn’t you leave?”
My friends, neighbors and teachers at my children’s school painted a different picture. There was one witness who said, “I don’t know a lot about domestic violence, but I know he used to beat her up a lot.” While the DA represented me as a violent, drug addicted woman, my public defender didn’t show any initiative. My first lawyer never really spoke to me or asked what happened. One time, he even mistook me for another client. To him, I was just another number. All he asked was, “Can you give me a little insight into what happened?”
At the time,New Yorklaw required the husband to stab or seriously injure the wife in order for it to be considered mitigating circumstances, which could categorize the crime as self-defense. It required the women to shed blood and to be really beat up. During the trial, a woman that I had grown up with worked for the District Attorney’s office, and she went back to review the tapes from my interview the day Maxwell died. She saw choke marks carved into my neck. She came to see me at Riker’s, and I explained to her that during the interview I thought Maxwell was still alive. I didn’t want to say anything that might cause him trouble, which would lead to me getting beat up. She immediately brought this to the attention of the of the DA. Once he was confronted with the new evidence, the DA started to have sympathy for me. He felt he could no longer prosecute the case as he had been. Between mixed messages from the DA and accounts from my friends, the trial ended in a hung jury. I was interviewed by all 25 jury members, and they asked questions like what was my mindset at the time.
After the hung jury, I was assigned an 18-b lawyer. It was only during my second trial, when STEPS to End Family Violence stepped in, that domestic violence issues were raised. After 80 days of being detained in jail, my brother introduced me to STEPS, an alternative-to-incarceration program that helps women defendants with histories of abuse. STEPS did their own investigation into the abuse. They worked with my new lawyer, and helped convince the DA to change his position.
During my second trial, I was asked questions I could answer, and not ones that made me feel like it was my fault. I was asked questions like “How would you engage your children knowing you took their father’s life?” This led the second jury to indict me for manslaughter in the second degree, which was a reduced charge from the original one. I pled guilty and was sentenced to five years probation, conditioned on participation in STEPS alternative to incarceration program.
I am very grateful for STEPS. STEPS pushed for alternative to incarceration treatment, because they felt that mental health services would be the best treatment for me. Not medication as a remedy, but time to recollect and reflect on what happened. When I first entered STEPS, I had no hope. But, through the program, I met other women who were experiencing the same emotions as me, who came from a past marked by abuse. I slowly realized I was not alone. After completing their 8 week program, where I worked on self-esteem issues, building confidence, I found my voice.
STEPS gave me the ability I needed to find myself, to be more empowered and have my own voice. I am grateful these people just accepted me without judging me or making me feel like there was something really wrong with me. Alternative to incarceration is the best recommendation for a woman like myself. When I say a woman like myself, I mean someone that has no prison history. Someone that is a good positive role model in society, a mother to her children, to have it all snatched away. To have someone who just sat across the table, and just looked at some writing on a paper, and sentenced you without really seeing how it’s going to affect you as well as your children. I think it’s an injustice.
My self-worth had been based on Maxwell, a man who screamed hurtful words at me, and beat me. STEPS allowed me to rebuild my life, because they gave me unwavering support that empowered me to develop myself. Prison is not the solution for a woman who has endured years of domestic abuse. Prison did not allow me to connect to other survivors, who were such a strong source of empowerment in STEPS. When Nancy Fields from STEPs approached me during my second trial, I was closed off. It was only after she disclosed that she was a victim of DV abuse, was I able to realize that DV abuse affects everyone from all kinds of backgrounds.
I am not saying I or anyone else should be exempt from responsibility if we committed a crime, but please take into consideration what lead to that crime. Domestic violence for women like myself should be considered first before the crime. You don’t know what led that person to commit the crime. Find out what factors led to that crime, and while they shouldn’t necessarily be exempt from accountability, the court should take into consideration what led them to take those actions. Prison makes you feel like this is what you deserve. When what you really need is a helping hand and a sympathetic ear and a helping heart that is going to help you rebuild your self-esteem, self-worth and self-respect. Through weekly groups, assistance with enrolling in schools, mental health facilities and drug treatment, I was able to rebuild myself.
For women like myself who endured domestic abuse, some survive it. But you still feel partially broken and separate from everyone else. The criminal justice system needs to take that into consideration. Be compassionate and empathetic. Don’t stick a stereotype on them. The Domestic Survivor’s Justice Act will offer women alternative to incarceration and give the judge’s discretion over sentencing. Alternative to incarceration would be a tremendous help. If you have been a victim of domestic violence in all aspects of life, pretty much all have left is your freedom. Your self-esteem has been robbed, you have been physically oppressed, you have been mentally beaten down. You have been psychologically screwed. So what is the only thing that you have left that belongs to you? Your freedom. To have a court of law take that away from you, well it’s like being victimized by your batter. From becoming a victim to becoming a survivor, alternative to incarceration gives a second chance to those who have been brutalized by life’s trials and tribulations.
We need the Domestic Survivors Justice Act to allow for judges to use his or her discretion for sentencing, that’s where the humanity piece comes into play. Because if your just going by statistics in neighborhoods, middle class, rich, or poor, no one is exempt from domestic violence. I am not asking women like myself to get special treatment. But, please do give consideration to our history, the special circumstances that we have already endured surpassed and are now trying to survive.
The alternative sentencing piece tells people like myself that you do have a voice. What happened to you is not going to go invalidated, or unheard, or spoken to deaf ears. It is being taken seriously and batters are going to be held accountable, and all parties are there to protect and serve. The DVSJA will force the criminal justice system to be more in tune and take the time to scrutinize a case that is DV related rather than just passing it off. To simply say, “It’s just a lover’s quarrel.” To give DV related crimes minimal attention. Love should not hurt. This bill really needs to be implemented, because I see on a daily basis the escalation of domestic violence to where it is now. It is not domestic anymore it is just straight up violence. The DVSJA can transform the criminal justice system’s approach to violence, and force a view that would not let the violence that happens behind closed doors, the violence that affects mothers, future fathers, sons and daughters, go unnoticed. Love, kindness and respect, these should be the main values that guide our society, and the DVSJA can help orient the criminal justice system in that direction.