Human Rights

This 21-Year-Old Woman Faces Decades in Prison for Trying to Escape Her Abuser

This should be a national scandal.

Photo Credit: Creative Commons

Cherelle Baldwin, like many domestic abuse victims, loved her ex-boyfriend. Jeffrey Brown wasn’t all bad. He could be charming, loving and apologetic, despite a criminal record of selling guns, robbery and resisting arrest by his early 20s. They had a baby, a boy, before he moved in with another woman.

But it wasn’t over, at least for Brown. He used access to his son to repeatedly threaten Baldwin, taking her phone, credit cards and money. He beat her up in her home, causing Baldwin, who is eight inches shorter than Brown, to call the cops twice. After his last conviction in early May 2013 for breach of the peace, a reduced charge, Baldwin wanted to help him get anger management counseling. But the most she could do was get a court order barring more threats, harassment or assaults against her while he was visiting their son.

That order meant little, according to court records and Baldwin’s attorney. Days later, Brown abruptly showed up at Baldwin's home as she was getting ready for work and took their 19-month-old from her, only returning him after she chased after Brown by driving on the wrong side of the road. Then his stalking increased.

That day, May 16, or two days before Brown died in a fight with Baldwin, he texted her 36 times. At first, he profusely apologized, but then he wanted her to give him money and to have sex. She tried to ignore him and replied that it was time to move on. The next day, he began texting again at 7:30am, and did not stop until after midnight when Brown texted that he was following her car. “I’m behind u lol [laugh out loud],” he wrote. On May 18, he started again at 6:36am, accusing her of lying. After 12 texts, she wrote, “Leave me alone!!!!” He replied, “N u will see how crazy shit will get today.”

When the police, firefighters and ambulances arrived two hours later, they found Brown crushed between Baldwin’s car and a cement wall at the end of the driveway. His hand clenched a two-inch-wide leather belt she told police he had used to whip her before she fled to the car. Below his body was her purse with her phone and credit cards. Baldwin was barefoot and in her night shirt on the ground beside the car, dazed and crying for her baby. She had a badly broken leg. The baby was in the house. Photos taken at a hospital afterward by her mother showed marks around her neck and streaks of raw skin across her back.

“She stated her boyfriend attempted to kill her,” the police affidavit said, recounting her remarks to the officers. “He climbed through her window, requested his identification, she told him where it was, he began fighting and choking her. Then he pulled a knife and choked her with his belt. Then she ran outside got in the car to attempt to flee. He managed to get in the car and proceeded to choke her again. Then she got out and fell as she did and the car ran over her leg and that he also got out to chase her[,] and the rest happen[ed] too fast and she wasn’t sure how he ended up in front of the car.”

Bridgeport detectives decided it did not look like Brown had broken into the house, their affidavit said. They mistakenly called him her boyfriend. They saw car scrape marks along the “entire length of the driveway (100+ feet).” They said, “The evidence shows the vehicle was accelerating through the scene and did not show any signs of braking.” They said, “The injury to Baldwin’s right leg was most likely sustained upon impact with the Wall with her foot on the accelerator.” They concluded that “Baldwin had ample time to consider the actions she took before the events that caused and led to the death of Jeffrey Brown.” Under Connecticut’s self-defense law, people have a “duty to retreat” unless there is an “imminent” threat.

Baldwin was charged with murder. Her bail was set a $1 million. Last month, after a six-week trial, a jury voted 11-1 not to convict her. The state will retry the case.

Miles Gerety, her attorney and a retired Connecticut public defender specializing in murder cases, presented evidence that Brown was climbing on the hood of her car and moving toward the front window when Baldwin hit the gas. He slipped backward as the car moved forward. Three seconds later, the car and Brown hit the wall.

“If there’s a court order protecting a woman, at the very least the woman who is the beneficiary of that order shouldn’t have to retreat,” Gerety said. “Fifty percent of these orders are disobeyed. The woman should not have any duty to retreat from the person who is told not to assault, harass and threaten her. It’s as if that order didn’t even exist.”

It Only Gets Worse

Domestic violence is so widespread that it is barely covered in the news unless the details are especially lurid. Two million American women are assaulted in a variety of ways annually, mostly by partners and family members. In contrast, whereas assaults on men by women are 5 percent of this figure. It is the leading cause of injury prompting women to seek medical attention—more common than rape, car accidents and mugging combined. It causes a range of physical and mental health problems, including substance abuse, child abuse, suicide attempts, depression, HIV and homelessness.

Starting in the mid-1970s, the criminal justice system has made a great effort to recognize domestic abuse, allowing social workers and behavioral experts to testify that victims had “battered women’s syndrome.” That meant they found themselves trapped in a negative spiral from which they could not leave, and needed to be accorded special rights if they ended up in court. That designation remains on the books, but it is increasingly seen as working against women who fight back after enduring ongoing abuse—because these women don’t fit the stereotype of a deer lost in the headlights. While there are some exceptions, most self-defense laws are holdovers from old laws about defending one’s property. They envision single confrontations, not ongoing threats, harrassment and assaults.

“The law of self-defense in the U.S. generally is very unfavorable to domestic violence victims,” said Mary Anne Franks, a University of Miami School of Law professor and author of a 2014 article, Real Men Advance, Real Women Retreat: Stand Your Ground, Battered Women’s Syndrome, and Violence as Male Privilege.

“That’s because the use of deadly force in self-defense almost always requires that the serious injury or threat of injury be ‘imminent,’ she said. “Otherwise, at least outside of the home, the victim is supposed to retreat… This conception of self-defense makes sense for one-time confrontations between two more or less equally matched individuals, but it doesn’t make sense for domestic violence situations. In many cases where domestic violence victims use deadly force, they don’t wait until the violence is ‘just about to happen’ because if they did, they’d be dead. Most women don’t stand a chance against most men when it comes to the imminent use of violence, given disparities in strength and size.”

Franks has written that too many police departments, prosecutors and politicians have deep gender biases when it comes to self-defense laws. The leading example is “Stand Your Ground’ law, which grant great legal defference to men who attack anyone who is perceived as threatening them. In contrast, abused women have to undergo an extensive examinination by experts in court to prove that their self-defense is warranted.

“This two-tracked system of self-defense—Battered Women’s Syndrome for women and Stand Your Ground for men—has far-reaching implications outside of the courtroom,” she wrote, citing the highest-profile example from her state: how George Zimmerman used a Stand Your Ground defense to escape a murder charge after stalking, shooting and killing Trayvon Martin, while Marissa Alexander was sentenced to 20 years after firing a warning shot to back off her husband.

“Battered Women’s Syndrome sends the legal and social message that women should retreat from even their own homes in the face of objective, repeated harm to their bodies,” Franks wrote. “Stand Your Ground sends the legal and social message that men can advance against strangers anywhere on the basis of vague, subjective perceptions of threats. Male violence is not only tolerated, but celebrated; women’s violence is not only discouraged, but stigmatized.”         

“Violence Wasn’t The Worst Part”

During Baldwin’s two-week trial, Gerety and his associate, Doug Stern, called Evan Stark to testify. Stark describes himself a “forensic social worker” and retired professor, but he is an interationally known expert for his work on the legal, policy, and health dimensions of interpersonal violence. In the 1980s, he founded of one of the first shelters for abused women in the U.S. His research into trauma at Yale University was the first to document the significance of domestic violence for female injury, as well as its links to child abuse and a range of other physical and mental health problems.

When Stark is not part of the defense team representing abused women who are facing criminal charges after lashing out at their abusers, he has been urging legislatures across the county to rewrite their domestic violence laws—bluntly telling them that self-defense standards, like those in Connecticut—do not “touch on the pattern of violence in probably 90 to 95 percent of these relationships and certainly in the vast, vast majority of abusive relationships that come to the attention of the courts, or the police, or the health care system.”

In a telephone interview, Stark, who lives in Connecticut, did not conceal his frustration with the prosecution in Baldwin’s case. 

“I don’t understand how she can have a duty to retreat when she gets into the car,” he said. “She’s not dressed. She doesn’t have a cell phone. Her baby is inside the house. So how can there be a duty to retreat? If she retreats and he kills the baby, she’s guilty of failure to protect. Connecticut prosecutes those cases.”

“What they are doing in this case is they are applying the same standard to Cherelle as they would do to a male,” he continued. “What I’m saying is it is a completely unrealistic standard. There is no duty to retreat issue here. They are making this up… The fact that Miles [Gerety] got an 11-1 decision means the jury didn’t buy it for five minutes… The fact that she is still in jail is the prosecutor.”

Stark said the prosecutor’s arguments, which are routinely used in cases like this, showed no understanding or acknowledgement of the dynamics of domestic violence, escalating physical and mental trauma, and how abuse unfolds in real life.

“The prosecutor did say this guy was a violent man,” he said. “So, of course, [they argued that] she should have known when he called her that he would do bad stuff. He had done it to her in the past. Of course, he will do it again. She doesn’t need battering to convict [Baldwin of murder]; all the prosecutor needs to show is she hated this SOB. So when she came over to the house and she had the opportunity, she killed him. That gives the prosecutor a motive.”

That one-dimensional legal reasoning—like the one-time nature of confrontations envisioned by self-defense laws in states like Connecticut—is the first of many failures of the legal system concerning domestic abuse.

“You hear that all the time in these cases,” Stark said, “because juries don’t get the idea that this is a course of conduct. It’s not an episodic issue. It’s not a question of a single event taken out of its historic context. When she is responding to him, she is not responding to the threat that morning. She is using what I call the ‘special reasonableness of battered women.’ She knows everything that has come before that he has done. She knows him better than anyone else knows him. She knows what he is capable of. And he had taken the baby. He had kidnapped the baby. She went after him in the car. It wasn’t just a theoretical risk to their child.”

The police detectives who wrote up the affidavit that led to her murder charge also had no understanding or appreciation of the ongoing nature of domestic abuse, he explained.

“Even if a reasonable person when confronted with the facts that were presented that day might have responded differently, a person with the exact same experience of abuse and knowledge—based on the history; that’s what I mean by ‘course of conduct’—would have a different idea,” Stark said. “The other thing about the course of conduct, is her abuse wasn’t just about the physical threats. It was the stalking, the control, the attempts to get money, the threats with the guns, the shoving, knowing that he had shown up with blood on him, the threats of coming to her workplace—all of the things that he did taken together, create an atmosphere of fear and stalking that is greater than physical violence alone.”

“Her acting is almost like a hostage acting,” he continued. “He has her cellphone. He can come over and do what he wants to her. They have a child in common, which he can claim as a basis for accessing her whenever he wants. He has her mother and brother intimidated. All of these things create a hostage situation, even though she is at home.”

By No Means Unique

Stark gave many haunting examples from other states where abused women struck back at their longtime tormenters, and neither state self-defense laws, nor newer Stand Your Ground laws came to their legal defense.

“This is in New Jersey,” he said, referring a married couple. “The guy rapes her in the morning. He has a long history of violence against her. He’s brutalized her in all kinds of ways; her husband. He comes at her that morning and tries to choke her, strangle her. She pours boiling oil over his head, and then he goes into the shower to try to ease some of the pain… Their argument [of the prosecutors who charged her] is why didn’t she leave the house? He was in the shower, why didn’t she leave the house? That’s a classic situation where her pouring boiling oil—if that had been a man—there would be no charges.”

That last point is especially striking—that abused women are not treated equally under the legal system.

“Look, if somebody had assaulted me at work, and turned me over and committed anal rape on me, and threatened me by pointing a gun to my head, and taken my cellphone, and I as a man had killed that guy—forget about standing my ground—if the guy had come over to the house and done any of those things, he degraded me and I killed him, even though I might be charged, there’s probably not three juries in the country that would convict me,” Stark said. “And if a woman does the same thing, she has to have all these proofs—and why is that? It’s because as a man, because of inequality, I have much further to fall in terms of my dignity and shame than a woman.”

This unequal treatment under law, based on unequal societal values, is not new, Stark said. And it is not changing despite high-profile events and even attempts in Hollywood that draw attention to it.

“A lot of my cases involve a lot about how women lead their everyday life,” he said. “Think about the burning bed case [a 1984 TV movie starring Farrah Fawcett about a battered woman who sets her bed on fire with her husband in it after no one helps her]. She has to plead temporary insanity in that case; it wasn’t enough that he did all these things. But if that had happened to a man and he had responded the way she did, it would be perfectly intelligible. People would wonder why didn’t he do it sooner? And that’s because when a man starts from level 10, and he’s degraded and falls to level one; but if a woman starts off from level two, what’s the difference?”

Baldwin’s history was similar to the circumstances of abused women in “99 percent of these cases,” Stark said, saying that she was stalked, trapped and could not stop escape.  

“It is not her choice. This guy made that clear. He was with another woman at the time. He was living with another woman. He makes it clear—the same thing that O.J. Simpson made clear [in his murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman]. I saw it in the texts he sent: ‘It’s over when I say it’s over.’ That’s the most famous line. The first thing is that she doesn’t get a choice whether the relationship is going to end or not. He has the power based on his violence and his stalking. He makes the decision about whether he will continue to have access to her or not.”  

And so, Cherelle Baldwin is in her 21st month in a women’s prison. A Connecticut jury refused to convict her. Meanwhile, the prosecution said it will retry the case.

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's retirement crisis, democracy and voting rights, and campaigns and elections. He is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).

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