The Appeal Podcast: Locking Up Women For Killing Their Rapists
With Appeal staff reporter Lauren Gill.
In 2018, Brittany Smith was assaulted and raped by a man in her Alabama home. Later that night, when the same man attacked both her and her brother, Smith shot and killed him in what she calls self-defense. Now she’s on trial for murder and her case tells us a lot about how our criminal legal system treats gendered violence. Today we are joined by Appeal writer Lauren Gill to talk about this case and the broader trend of throwing the book at women who defend themselves from abusive men.
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Adam Johnson: Hi, welcome to The Appeal. I’m your host Adam Johnson. This is a podcast on criminal justice reform, abolition and everything in between. Remember, you can always follow us on The Appeal magazine’s main Facebook and Twitter page, and as always you can rate and subscribe to us on Apple Podcast.
In 2018, Brittany Smith, an Alabama woman, was assaulted and raped by a man who later returned to her home attacking her and her brother. In response, Smith shot and killed the man in what she called self defense. Now she’s on trial for first degree murder and her case tells us a lot about how our criminal legal system treats gender violence. Today we are joined by Appeal writer Lauren Gill to talk about this case and the broader trend of throwing the book at women who respond to and defend themselves from abusive men.
Lauren Gill: Alabama in the two thousands was one of the States where a woman actually was most likely to be killed by a man, and then after 2010, Alabama stopped submitting homicide data so we don’t really know where they’re at now. For The New Yorker article, the author Elizabeth Flock had someone examine homicides and justifiable homicides between 2006 when the state Stand Your Ground Law was implemented and in 2010 which is when it stopped reporting the data. And in that time period the person who examined the cases found that no women received justifiable homicide rulings.
Adam: Lauren, thank you so much for joining us again on The Appeal.
Lauren Gill: Hi Adam. Thanks for having me.
Adam: So you’ve written two articles on this case. One from April of last year entitled “Alabama Woman Faces Life Sentence For Killing Man Who Allegedly Raped Her” and one for January of 2020 and entitled “‘He Had Already Hurt Me.’ Alabama Woman Argues For ‘Stand Your Ground’ Immunity in Killing of Alleged Rapist.” Now you can catch both of these at theappeal.org. You are one of the first people, if not the first, to really bring this to national attention. You since have influenced other media to cover it. And if you don’t mind kind of laying out the particulars of this case of what happened on the night in question in 2018our report lists dozens of points of evidence that Brittany Smith and potentially her brother were in mortal danger, but prosecutors have said otherwise. Can you give us an overview of what prosecutors are saying, what happened and what the evidence says happened?
Lauren Gill: Sure. So I first learned about Brittany Smith’s story in April last year. I had done a story about a Huntsville police officer who killed a man who had called 9-1-1 to say he was feeling suicidal and had come to know the man’s fiance who sent me a video of one of Brittany’s supporters over in Jackson County, which is also in northern Alabama talking about the case. So off the bat that sort of gives you an idea about the things people are dealing with up there. Her story essentially was that Brittany shot and killed the man who she said raped her and had done so because her brother Chris was being choked and she thought he might be killed. But despite the circumstances, Brittany had been charged with murder and was facing a life sentence. It’s an extremely disturbing story. So I just like to warn listeners about that before I get into the details of it. I’d also like to add that the story has been drawn from police statements, text messages, transcripts and testimony. So on the night of January 15th, 2018 Brittany said she received a call from a man named Joshua Todd Smith, who was known by Todd and he told her that he was stranded in a park near the Alabama and Tennessee border and had asked her to pick him up. Brittany who was 31 at the time, had met Todd briefly when she was a teenager and had recently become reacquainted with him because she bought a pitbull from him. She had recently separated from her husband and was lonely. So she said she wanted a dog and she knew that Todd had bred them. So it was cold and it was snowing that night. And so Brittany agreed to let Todd sleep on her couch in her house where she lived alone. She didn’t have a car. So she and Chris went to go pick him up at the park. Chris drove them back to the house and dropped them off and once inside Brittany says she gave her puppy named Athena a bath and was talking with Todd. According to Brittany’s accounts of events, they discuss their issues with substance use. Brittany who was now clean and had been working to win back custody of her children, told Todd, who still used drugs about how she was turning her life around and she said during the course of the conversation she said that Todd’s whole face changed and he asked her if she thought that she was better than him. She said that he called her a bitch and then head butted her and then she ran into her bedroom and closed the door, but he followed her and rammed his way in. Then Brittany said that he threw her onto the bed and started choking her and when she woke up she said that she was lying in a pool of her own urine and he was raping her. She said he had his hands around her throat and she tried to fight back against him by scratching him. Brittany said that she passed out again and when she woke up he was raping her and she said that she had to lie there and let him finish. And once he did, and she said that he acted like nothing happened and said he wanted a cigarette. She didn’t have any and she didn’t have a car. So she got her brother Chris, who was over her mother’s house, to drive them to the local MAPCO convenience store and once there she went in and alerted the clerk named Paige Painter that she was in trouble and she wrote on a piece of receipt paper that if she was dead in the morning, it was Todd Smith of Jasper, Tennessee who had killed her. At this point, Todd was in the car with Chris and she said that she didn’t want to get the police involved because she feared that Todd would kill Chris or hurt him. And then during the course of this, at some point, Brittany texted her mother, “Mom Todd has tried to kill me literally. Don’t act like anything is wrong…he will kill me if he knows.” It’s also important to note that she said that Todd had warned her that if she told anyone that he would kill her and her family. So after the convenience store, Chris dropped Brittany and Todd off at the house and Brittany told Chris to go back to talk to Paige at the MAPCO. So he did. And once he learned that Brittany was in danger, he went back to the house on his own with his .22 revolver. According to Brittany and Chris’s account of events, Chris entered the house, put the pistol on the counter and told Todd to leave. Chris and Todd started fighting and Todd soon enveloped Chris and it head lock. Brittany said she heard the noise and ran to the kitchen where she observed her brother struggling to breathe. And Todd she said was threatening to kill Chris, Brittany and then himself. She said she attempted to instruct Chris on how to free himself, but he was unsuccessful and was clearly losing, um, and he looked like he was having difficulty breathing. So she picked up the gun and warned that she was going to shoot. Todd kept fighting Chris, she said, and so she fired two shots at him, but neither of them seem to have much of an effect. And just as an aside, a toxicologist testified and test results came back that Todd was on a very “high” quote unquote amount of meth at the time. Brittany says she fired a third shot and Chris and Todd fell to the ground. Brittany said that she immediately called 9-1-1. I’ve heard the call and she can be heard pleading with the operator for help and crying to the operator that she didn’t want him to die. Brittany and Chris performed CPR on Todd, but it didn’t work and he was taken to the hospital and was pronounced dead. So first Brittany and Chris told police that Chris had shot Todd. So Chris was taken into custody and Brittany was taken to a rape crisis center where a rape kit was performed and an examiner documented 33 wounds including bite marks, bruises, a broken acrylic fingernail and evidence of strangulation on her body. She took swabs and a swab for a dried unspecified secretion came back as a positive match to Todd. Then Brittany said that she knew she had to tell the truth and she couldn’t let her brother take the fall for this. So she told police that it was actually her who shot Todd. She’s arrested, charged with murder and in March 2018 the Jackson County district attorney named Jason Pierce convened a grand jury that indicted her for murder and he has been fighting to win a murder conviction against her ever since. Of course, she said that the shooting was in self defense under Alabama Stand Your Ground Law, which is pretty broad. I’m sure we’ll get into that later, but the law basically gives immunity to people who kill someone when they say they’re in fear of being harmed. And in mid January this year, Brittany had her Stand Your Ground hearing where she argued that she should be immune from prosecution and I was down in Alabama reporting on that.
Adam: Okay. Obviously very harrowing. Um, what are they disputing in this course of events? The prosecutors, are they disputing the facts of the case or are they disputing whether or not there was some kind of imminent danger? Where does their narrative branch off from Brittany’s narrative?
Lauren Gill: Right. So when I was down at the hearing, it was pretty unclear until the end what District Attorney Pierce’s argument was. He spent a lot of the hearing trying to, I guess portray Brittany as a liar and cast doubt on her story that she was raped. But when it came to actually what happened in the kitchen, he offered very little in the way of counter arguments. He put the lead investigator on the stand who testified that he didn’t observe any bruises or wounds on Chris from the fight after he had interviewed him. But there was actually no forensic medical examination on Chris. So this was all just from looking at him from three feet away. So at the conclusion of the hearing, basically the district attorney said that the case doesn’t fall under Stand Your Ground because he argued that Chris was actually the one who initiated the violence when he went into the house with his pistol and told Todd to leave. He sort of just cast Todd as the victim here, and I’m sure we’ll talk about this more, but Alabama Stand Your Ground has a clause on instigating violence and there are exceptions.
Adam: Yeah. It seems like someone who just raped your sister who’s hopped up like a jack rabbit, maybe a little different than sort of randomly, this isn’t like a George Zimmerman situation where he’s sort of a seeking out conflict. Right? I mean that seems like, that has to be a mitigating factor.
Lauren Gill: Right. Yeah. I think from The New Yorker article I read that last year, he sort of portrayed it that Brittany had imagined that this had all happened. This is the district attorney. This is when she was sent to the psychiatric hospital and just had sort of, I guess his argument was that this was all in her head that that this had all gone down and so it seems he’s changed his argument since then.
Adam: Right. Well, I want to put this in a broader social context. There has been a recent movement to reexamine how we view the gendered nature of violence, so 70 to 80 percent of women, according to a recent statistic in prison, women in jail or prison are subject to kind of partner violence. Obviously he wasn’t her partner necessarily, but the same dynamic. There’s an old statistic from 1989 that says that the average woman who kills a man gets fifteen years or more in jail. The average man who kills a woman gets two to six years. I assume there’s probably some misogynist reasons why that is. Presumably that sort of women are vindictive. Men are kind of just bumbling and don’t mean to kill people or heat of passion, etcetera, etcetera. I want to talk about this kind of recent, obviously of the Cyntoia Brown case, obviously that made national headlines. If you wouldn’t mind indulging me for a bit. Can we talk about where this kind of fits into a broader context about how prosecutors view women exercising violence as a means of preventing or defending themselves from violence and where misogyny kind of comes into this on an institutional level, not just in Brittany’s case.
Lauren Gill: In general, it seems like it’s very difficult for women to win not guilty verdicts at trial or to win immunity from prosecution when they’re charged with the murder of a man. You touched on Cyntoia Brown which is perhaps the most well known case. She was sentenced to life in prison as a 16 year old for shooting and killing a man who had paid her for sex after she felt like she was in danger and she was recently released. So down in Alabama, just from talking to people, I was told that it’s very difficult for women to get off without a prison sentence for killing a man. Alabama in the two thousands was one of the states where a woman actually was most likely to be killed by a man. And then after 2010 Alabama stopped submitting homicide data. So we don’t really know where they’re at now. For The New Yorker article, the author Elizabeth Flock had someone examine homicides and justifiable homicides between 2006 when the state Stand Your Ground Law was implemented and in 2010 which is when it stopped reporting the data and in that time period the person who examined the cases found that no women received justifiable homicide rulings. There was one case that comes to mind down in Selma and there was a woman named Jacqueline Dixon and she was charged with murdering her abusive husband. And in that case actually the DA allowed Dixon to testify during grand jury and the grand jury declined to indict her. So, but her attorneys were going to mount a Stand Your Ground defense. But just off the top of my head, and it’s, it just seems like it’s very hard to win on these sorts of cases even when you’re looking at the broad law. And I think the general notion around these cases is that they are reserved for white men who kill people of color.
Adam: Yeah, that makes sense. Obviously. I guess what I’m curious about is has this gotten more intention in the local media? I think unfortunately we know that one of the few things prosecutors will respond to is bad press. And now there’s obviously a racial dynamic here that is not usual and the question is does the misogyny outweigh the kind of maybe otherwise sympathetic public discourse that could happen around a white person being charged versus a black person being charged? Is there any sense that the prosecutor, that there’s any kind of outrage about this or that there’s a sense of injustice going on or is it just like, well, you know, the law is the law and no one really cares?
Lauren Gill: So first I think it’s important to clarify that both Brittany and Todd are white. After I published my story about Brittany’s case in The Appeal last year expectedly a lot of people were outraged that she was being tried for murder and if she’s convicted and she faces a life sentence, some people of course brought up the fact that the NRA, which is a big Stand Your Ground backer had failed to offer her any legal help, but the case has received very little attention in Alabama media. The one story that I saw when I was writing my piece back in April didn’t mention the fact that she was raped. Of course, The New Yorker came out with a story in January by Elizabeth Flock. She took a deeper dive into Brittany’s case and what happens when women are abused and fight back against their abusers. But in the midst of all of this, I think in terms of media attention, I mean it really just boils down to, you know what, this DA and the judge Jennifer Holt decide, of course Jason Pierce, the DA, he has the full discretion and he could have decided not to prosecute the case in the first place. Since he convened the grand jury he has offered her 25 years in prison.
Adam: It’s wild that they’re going for murder. Why not manslaughter or something sort of that would maybe even be more plausible because I’m having a, I’m having a hard time seeing a jury going for 25 years for this. I mean maybe I’m being a bit naive here. Was there a sense of why there wasn’t like a lesser attempt, like a manslaughter charge?
Lauren Gill: He did offer her a manslaughter charge, but Brittany said that she’s justified in her actions and a manslaughter charge would mean prison time too. So she said, yeah, but she shouldn’t have to go to prison for at all for this.
Adam: It seems a little ambitious to go for murder on something with this many mitigating circumstances. But could you explain for our listeners what Stand Your Ground is in theory and what it is in practice and how sometimes those may not be totally aligned?
Lauren Gill: Sure. So 30 States have a Stand Your Ground Law and these laws basically just expand upon self-defense defenses. Under self-defense, someone who is in a dangerous situation has to retreat but in Stand Your Ground you can do as the law said and Stand Your Ground and defend your home and apply lethal force in a situation where you feel like you or another person could be in harm. So in Alabama, the law’s pretty broad there and actually it was recently expanded to include churches. So if you’re in church you can stand your ground there. In Brittany’s case, her lawyers are arguing that she stood her ground because someone, Todd, was about to use unlawful deadly physical force. And she had the right to shoot at him because she reasonably believed that he was going to kill her and her brother, who she said was being choked and was struggling to breathe at the time. And they also said that it falls under Stand Your Ground because Todd was in the midst of committing a burglary. So this is interesting because in Alabama, burglary is pretty broad as well. And this can apply to cases in which someone is just on someone else’s property without their permission. And her lawyers have said because both Brittany and Chris told Todd to leave, that he was committing a burglary at the time and that Brittany had the right to shoot at him. Of course there have been criticisms of Stand Your Ground Law. Researchers have found that it’s more successful as a defense when white people use it to justify killing people of color. There’s pretty shocking statistics on that in terms of how much more successful it is when a white person is using it against a person of color. Alabama adopted the law in 2006 and I’ve heard that there have been more Stand Your Ground immunity hearings throughout the years and obviously more people are using it as a defense and it’s also, I mean you sort of get like two chances here to get off as well because you, if you’re granted a hearing, the charges might be dropped against you because the judge might decide that you should be immune from prosecution and then if the case actually ends up going to trial, then you can argue self-defense to the jury there.
Adam: Can you give us a sense of what the prospects of this case are and what, if any, impact it may have on how the law and the public perceive women defending themselves against rapists and other kinds of domestic abuse?
Lauren Gill: So the circuit court judge in Jackson County, Jennifer Holt is in the midst of writing out an order on whether she’ll be immune or Brittany will go to trial. We don’t know when the trial might happen. I think there’s a bit that has to go on in terms of preparation. In terms of impact of this ruling, just being down in Jackson County for a few days at the hearing and talking to people, it seemed like every woman who I talked to there had a story about being abused by a man and they said that basically law enforcement didn’t really do anything about it. And I think from what I’ve heard is just seeing Brittany’s case get so much attention and seeing all the support for her across the country, and internationally as well, has sort of brought them a feeling of renewed hope that people care about them and that you know, they should be able to stand up for themselves and people are watching Jackson County with a close eye.
Adam: Okay. Uh, Lauren Gill, I’m staff writer for The Appeal, friend of the show now. Thank you so much for doing this reporting. Definitely watch out for her reporting in this space. I know there is much more coming up as the public profile continues to be increased on this cause I, I do think it is a bit of a flashpoint so um, thanks so much for all the reporting you’ve done. I look forward to reading the reporting in the future and thanks for coming on.
Lauren Gill: Thanks Adam. Thanks for having me back.
Adam: Thank you to our guest Lauren Gill. Remember you can always follow us on social media at The Appeal magazine’s main Facebook and Twitter account and as always please you can rate and subscribe to us on Apple Podcast. The show is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. The production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Executive producer Craig Hunter. I’m your host Adam Johnson. Thank you so much. We’ll see you next week.