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US Attorney’s Office That Prosecuted Inauguration Day Protesters Has History of Misconduct Findings

Prosecutors on the "J20" case faced grave allegations of misconduct after withholding exculpatory evidence contained in videos from defense attorneys. But this is far from the first time that this office has found itself in hot water.

Police and demonstrators clash in downtown Washington after a limo was set on fire following the inauguration of President Donald Trump on January 20, 2017
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

US Attorney’s Office That Prosecuted Inauguration Day Protesters Has History of Misconduct Findings

Prosecutors on the "J20" case faced grave allegations of misconduct after withholding exculpatory evidence contained in videos from defense attorneys. But this is far from the first time that this office has found itself in hot water.

Oliver Harris finally felt vindicated when he heard the jury announce “not guilty” last December, as the first of the J20 trials came to a close.  Relief would come later. The then 28-year-old, disturbed by what he perceived as Donald Trump’s violent and fascist language on the campaign trail, had traveled to Washington, D.C., on Inauguration Day—Jan. 20, 2017—to protest the Trump administration as part of a direct action organized by the group #DisruptJ20

During the protest, which was hundreds strong, a small group destroyed property, including a police car and business windows.  The Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), in turn, used pepper spray, tear gas, and Sting-Ball grenades against the protestors.  By the end of the day, Harris was arrested, along with over 230 others, charged under the D.C. rioting statute despite no credible evidence he incited or engaged in a riot or caused any property damage. The United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, which handles both local and federal cases, later added numerous other charges against 214 defendants.   

Throughout 2017, Harris, who faced up to 60 years in prison, joined the other charged protestors and hundreds of defense attorneys to prepare for their trials.  But thanks to his acquittal in December, he could go home to his partner who was pregnant with twins, return to his teaching job at Drexel University and his Ph.D. studies in chemical engineering, and resume a normal life. Earlier this month, after another trial that ended with no convictions, prosecutors finally dropped the charges against all defendants.

One of the prosecutors in the case, Rizwan Qureshi, shook the defense attorneys’ hands.  But not Jennifer Kerkhoff, the lead prosecutor and a central figure in the J20 legal saga.  Harris told The Appeal that she refused.  “She does this thing,” Harris explained, “where she just kind of—it’s like her jaw is really clenched and she is just grinding her teeth and she just stares at the table. She seemed livid.”  

“Even in little kid soccer,” Harris continued, you still have to “shake the other team’s hands.  I think it says a lot about her as a person.”

The J20 trials captured national attention, featuring media coverage in the Washington Post, The Intercept, and on, as commentators weighed in with their disgust at the government’s decision to charge hundreds for destruction committed by a few.  And the prosecutors also made headlines after defense lawyers accused it of withholding evidence that could have damaged its case and helped hundreds of defendants prove their innocence.  The government’s malfeasance—and Kerkhoff’s in particular—caused the chief judge of the Superior Court to dismiss numerous charges against one group of defendants and preclude future prosecution on the primary charge. “I do think it’s a serious violation,” he concluded. “It was intentional in the sense that the government made intentional decisions that it made not to disclose.” These trials revealed something, as Harris put it, more “sinister” about the D.C. United States Attorney’s office: its willingness to hide evidence to win. 

An examination of Kerkhoff’s prior cases by The Appeal suggests that this misconduct did not occur in a vacuum.  It is present in other cases prosecuted by Kerkhoff, who was promoted to chief of the felony major trial division after she lost Harris’s trial, a division regularly given the office’s most important cases. And it speaks to a greater culture problem in the D.C. United States Attorney’s office.  The J20 trials placed this misconduct in the national spotlight.

The J20 trials

On Feb. 8, 2017, a grand jury in the District of Columbia handed down an indictment charging the J20 defendants with felony rioting, and two months later, they issued a superseding indictment charging 214 people with eight different felonies.  Lacking evidence that most of the more than 200 defendants caused any property damage, the government needed to show that the protesters engaged in a conspiracy to riot—in other words, that they agreed to participate in a protest that would cause destruction to persons or property. If prosecutors could prove this, each charged protester could be responsible for the damage caused by the other.  

As evidence, the government relied primarily on an undercover video filmed by Project Veritas of a Jan. 8 meeting by #DisruptJ20 as organizers planned the inauguration protests.  During the meeting, organizers discussed using blockades, and one organizer said he would make the inauguration a “giant clusterfuck.” The government’s use of the video drew extraordinary criticism on social media and in the press, in large part because of Project Veritas founder James O’Keefe’s reputation for deceptively editing videos. (In 2009, he disguised himself as a pimp and shot a video that falsely accused the voter-registration group ACORN of offering advice on using underage girls in the sex trade. In late 2017, he also tried to plant a false story with the Washington Post during the Alabama election involving the failed U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore.)

Kerkhoff introduced the Veritas video at the first J20 trial on November 28 to demonstrate that activists (but not Harris or his co-defendants) discussed disrupting inauguration activities. She relied on it in her opening and her closing statements as significant evidence of a conspiracy. Nothing that occurred during the protest was “a coincidence,” she argued—it was planned.  She also assured the court this was the only Project Veritas video in existence, and that it was unaltered, “in complete, unredacted form.”

This was not true. In May of this year, long after the acquittals in Harris’s December trials and during the second set of trials, defense attorneys learned that the Veritas video was edited.  Either the prosecutor or the lead detective — defense lawyers could not figure out which —  removed a section of the video where the Veritas mole stated, “I was talking to one of the organizers … and I don’t think they know anything about any of the upper echelon stuff.”  That statement could blow apart the government’s theory that the protesters engaged in a highly organized plan to commit violence.  As one defense lawyer wrote in a pleading: “What better exculpatory evidence for the defense than the words from the person sent to capture a nefarious meeting stating right after the meeting ‘I don’t think they know anything.’”  The court found a Brady violation.

Later that week, defense attorneys learned that Kerkhoff had also failed to disclose 69 additional Project Veritas videos, 35 of which captured “action camps” or planning meetings for J20 where those present discussed how to de-escalate violence—the opposite of the government’s theory that the attendees were planning violence to ruin the inauguration.  Kerkhoff did not attend the May 31, 2018, hearing on the defense’s motion for Brady sanctions, allowing Assistant U.S. Attorney Ahmed Baset to respond to D.C. Superior Court Chief Judge Robert Morin’s repeated questions about why Kerkhoff misled the court.  Baset had no response.  Judge Morin dismissed the conspiracy charges against the six defendants before him and barred prosecution on that count forever, finding the government intentionally suppressed the video evidence.  “It was a glorious day for all of us,” Harris told The Appeal.  (The United States Attorney’s Office has since asked Judge Morin to reconsider his finding in a pleading that Kerkhoff did not sign, describing the court’s finding that an “Assistant United States Attorney made an intentional misrepresentation” as a “serious matter.”)

These were not the only Brady violations that defense counsel alleged in the J20 cases.  Harris says that just before the first trial, the government dropped a mountain of MPD body cameras—at least 933 video recordings—that had never been disclosed.  Harris says that many of the videos depicted officer violence — notable also given that one of the government’s key testifying witnesses, Officer William Chatman, wore a T-shirt that read, “Police brutality … or doing what their parents should have?” as he entered Superior Court to testify during the second trial.

In another pleading, defense lawyer Roy Austin accused Kerkhoff of committing a “fraud on this Court.” Kerkhoff previously believed Austin’s client had attended a planning meeting. Kerkhoff then changed her mind, but failed to correct her prior representation to the court or alert defense counsel. “AUSA Kerkhoff has ignored and continues to ignore her Brady-related discovery obligations,” Austin wrote.

Past allegations against Kerkhoff

Defense attorneys told The Appeal that this is far from the first time that Kerkhoff has exhibited questionable behavior in court, often in cases with even higher stakes involving poorer defendants.

In 2011, for example, Kerkhoff and another prosecutor tried five men for a series of 2008 shootings that rocked the Trinidad neighborhood of Washington, D.C., leaving a 13-year old boy caught in the cross-fire dead and several others injured.  Defense attorneys immediately requested any Brady material, but only a few weeks before trial, two years later, did they receive medical records showing that Kerkhoff’s key eyewitness reported experiencing bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder, and hallucinations, and to hearing voices, around the time of the shooting. They also learned, for the first time, that the witness had used alcohol, marijuana, and PCP since the age of 7.  Defense attorneys wrote in a pleading filed with the court, this undermined the witness’ ability to “distinguish reality from fantasy,” accurately observe, and fairly report events. It was just the kind of information that should have been disclosed to the defense two years prior.  

Kerkhoff and her team received no sanctions from the court for this late disclosure and trial proceeded.  A jury nonetheless found all but one of the five defendants not guilty, and the D.C. Court of Appeals overturned that sole conviction in 2013, finding that the trial  judge’s instructions had coerced at least one juror into voting for guilt.

Kerkhoff’s assertions in a September 2017 federal court filing also reveal either her misunderstanding of her Brady obligations or her willingness to ignore them. Responding to the defense’s request for early disclosure of Giglio material—a subset of Brady that includes any material that negatively affects a witness’s credibility (like prior inconsistent statements about the same incident or examples of previous lies), she wrote that “the government need not disclose this material until after the witness has testified on direct examination.” This interpretation, albeit one often advanced by prosecutors, ignores the Supreme Court’s clear directive that prosecutors’ Brady obligations extend to any information that casts doubt on its case, regardless of label.  They must disclose that evidence before trial, not after it has already started.

Other examples include an allegation in a 2011 child sex abuse case, for example, Kerkhoff ran into the jury foreman on another colleague’s case.  The foreperson was an MPD detective she knew, and the jury was still deliberating. That night, she wrote an email to the prosecuting attorney, in which she said that she “spent the evening drowning my sorrows with a familiar face. You will have the remainder of the verdict tomorrow. Congrats on the guilty verdicts.” It is, of course, impermissible for jurors to talk anyone about the case that has not concluded, and prosecutors should never talk to a jury member about a case active in their office, lest they risk influencing the outcome, even inadvertently. The defense attorney moved for a mistrial, but Kerkhoff claimed that she merely spoke to the foreperson about whether he would soon be able to return to work.  The trial judge accepted her explanation and found no misconduct.

A broader problem

But allegations, and often findings of misconduct, are a problem that is office-wide.  Court pleadings and decisions reflect a broader culture problem in the office.  In 2010, for example, then-Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Haines stood proudly after a jury convicted Ingmar Guandique of murdering Chandra Levy—the Capitol Hill intern who had an affair with Congressman Gary Condit—as she ran through Rock Creek Park in the early morning hours of May 1, 2001. Because of Levy’s involvement with Condit, the case captivated the country for years as it went unsolved. In 2016, the government dismissed the case, (also standing before Judge Morin), as allegations mounted that prosecutors lied and allowed perjured testimony when its key witness, jailhouse informant Armando Morales, denied asking for any favors in exchange for testifying that Guandique confessed to the murders. As The Appeal recently reported, jailhouse informants “are a particularly risky and unreliable category of criminal informant” responsible for widespread wrongful convictions.  

Haines also found herself in hot water in 2005, when she tried Thomas Zanders for murdering Allen Lancaster as part of a retaliation for a robbery.  A jury convicted him, but the D.C. Court of Appeals found that while she disclosed that someone else had an argument with Lancaster at some point before the murder, she failed to mention the argument actually occurred the day before the murder in the exact same place as the subsequent shooting.  Ms. Haines went on to become a federal death penalty prosecutor for several years.

Similar allegations against the office abound in other less newsworthy but no less significant cases. In 2009, a trial judge granted Joseph Harrington a new trial in a stabbing death case after Assistant U.S. Attorney Vivien Cockburn failed to disclose to the defense that witness “L.G.” saw the government’s key eyewitness, “R.M.,” with a knife attached to her dress soon after the stabbing, looking disheveled.  She also never mentioned that R.M. stated: “Self-preservation is the first rule of law” when L.G. asked if she was involved in the stabbing. That evidence certainly implicated R.M. in the murder and provided her with a motive to falsely implicate Harrington. The trial judge called the nondisclosure “conscious and deliberate.” After an investigation, the D.C. Bar issued only an informal admonition to Cockburn. Cockburn continues to prosecute cases for the office.  

And there are other  examples. In 2011, the D.C. Court of Appeals reversed Tyree Miller’s assault with attempt to commit murder conviction because the government waited until after the trial started to disclose that the eyewitness believed the shooter used his left hand—a critical fact because Miller was right-handed.  In 2014, it reversed Carl Morton’s convictions for assaulting a Delaware prison guard because the government never mentioned officials were investigating the accusing officer eyewitness for making a false allegation in another prison guard attack case. And in 2016, it found that the trial court erred when it failed to adequately consider sanctions in Terry Johnson’s second-degree murder trial, because the government waited for over a year to disclose that someone other than Johnson had a motive to kill the decedent, and that this person was rumored to have placed a $20,000 bounty on the decedent’s head.

And yet this is just the misconduct available in published pleadings or captured by reporters watching high profile cases. According to Phil Andonian, one of the attorneys on the J20 case: “Brady violations are nothing new, and are hardly ever treated this seriously.  The difference in the J20 cases, sadly, is that hundreds of lawyers from all over the city — from solo practitioners to Big Law institutions — worked together to hold the government accountable in a case that was unpopular from the beginning.  This magnitude of defense resources and public backlash are rarely features of the criminal-justice system. Which is why the government so often flies comfortably under the radar.”

(Asked about the misconduct allegations in the J20 case and whether there is a Brady violation or culture problem in the United States Attorney’s Office, a spokesman told The Appeal, “We have no comment beyond what we have submitted or stated to the Court.”)

Perhaps change will come to the D.C. United States Attorney’s office because of the high-profile failures in the J20 trials. Several of the J20 defendants recently expressed their intent to file a complaint with the Office of Disciplinary Counsel.  They are well positioned to do so, with all eyes watching and little chance of future repercussions.

But prosecutors rarely receive meaningful punishment.  Often, bar counsel never learns about alleged prosecutorial misconduct.  Defense attorneys are usually in the best position to report it, but tend to worry that prosecutors will stop giving favorable plea deals to their clients or will even target their clients for enhanced or future prosecution. And even if aware that a prosecutor is violating the Constitution, bar counsel rarely acts. There is the occasional exception: In 2012, bar counsel suspended U.S. Attorney Paul Howes’s license after attorneys learned that he distributed $42,000 in illegal witness payments in various cases, failed to tell defense attorneys about those payments, and also lied about them in court. But just five years later, the D.C. Court of Appeals reinstated his law license after an initial suspension. Until trial judges, the bar, and the United States Attorney’s office, whose mantra is “the fair and impartial administration of justice for all,” punishes bad behavior, it most likely will be business as usual in D.C. Superior Court.

Multiple Police Cars Summoned to Arrest Selma Civil Rights Activist for Allegedly Stealing a Campaign Sign

Faya Rose Touré, a 73-year-old former judge, says she’s determined to fight the charges against her.

Faya Rose Touré
Credit: Lauren Gill

Multiple Police Cars Summoned to Arrest Selma Civil Rights Activist for Allegedly Stealing a Campaign Sign

Faya Rose Touré, a 73-year-old former judge, says she’s determined to fight the charges against her.

The Selma Police Department—charged with overseeing one of Alabama’s most violence-plagued cities—sent at least seven police cars to arrest a civil rights activist and attorney for allegedly stealing an illegally placed campaign sign on July 16. It plans to recommend that the state attorney general prosecute the misdemeanor case, according to the department’s chief.

The activist, Faya Rose Touré, 73, is facing charges of fourth-degree theft and attempting to elude a police officer after she led cops on a four-block chase through the city. Touré was the first Black female judge in Alabama and founder of the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute in Selma.

“I’ve been in office 35 years and I’ve been running campaigns since 1974 and now I’ve never heard of a single person being arrested for a campaign sign,” Touré’s husband and attorney, state Senator Hank Sanders, told The Appeal in an interview in the Selma law office he shares with his wife.

Meanwhile, Touré says, the police have been slow to investigate a more pressing matter: death threats she received weeks before her arrest. She suspects the threats are due to her activism.

The Selma Police Department did not respond to multiple interview requests from The Appeal.

The campaign sign incident occurred following weeks of tension leading up to a July 17 run-off election for a county probate judge between winning Black candidate Jimmy Nunn and white candidate Nicholas Switzer. Despite having an 80 percent Black population, Sanders said, the city had never, to his knowledge, had a Black probate judge.

Selma has a city ordinance that forbids signs from being placed on public rights of way, but Touré and Sanders alleged that in the weeks before the election a city worker was removing signs for Nunn from these walkways but not Switzer’s signs. The worker denied these allegations to The Appeal.

After Touré complained to City Hall in a letter and got no response, she began taking Switzer’s signs from the public rights of way, announcing over the radio that the placards could be picked up at a local radio station where she and her husband used to be part owners. According to Police Chief Spencer Collier, who spoke about Touré’s arrest at a July 19 press conference, residents had complained to the police about the removal of Switzer’s signs for weeks, but she was arrested only after a detective caught her in the act.

Credit: Lauren Gill

On July 16, the day before the election, a detective in an unmarked car observed Touré taking a sign from the right of way in front of the Tabernacle Baptist Church, which held one of the first mass meetings during the voting rights movement. As she was driving away, Touré said she heard someone in a car yell at her for taking the sign. She then started to drive to Nunn’s office with her 11-year-old granddaughter, but on the way, the plainclothes officer turned on his siren, she said, noting that she drove for four blocks before coming to a stop.

“[Collier] made it sound like on the news that what was happening was a big chase,” she told The Appeal. “How can four blocks be a chase?” She says she kept driving because she wanted witnesses to the interaction. “People advise people if you feel harassed by the cops, you make sure you got a witness.”

According to Collier, the detective called in the incident as a “vehicle pursuit,” which demands that any officer in the area respond. A video filmed by Touré and her granddaughter and shared with The Appeal shows at least seven police cars surrounding her minivan as the detective informs her that she is under arrest for eluding police.

“A young Black man was killed last night and all y’all coming after me,” she can be heard saying. “Y’all would think I have committed a murder.”

Touré was booked in the Dallas County jail on a $2,000 cash bond for two nights, refusing to post the bond out of protest. The cash bond requirement was eventually withdrawn and Touré was allowed to leave on her own signature.

Touré said police should focus on calming the city’s violent crime wave and finding the people who have threatened her life. More than a month ago, a woman phoned threats into the radio station and into her law office. In the latter, the woman told Touré’s secretary, “If y’all wanna live y’all better get out of that law office right now.” The radio station filed an incident report and provided the phone number to the police, but no arrests have been made.

Touré said she was also threatened in December 2017 in the parking lot of a town 15 miles from Selma when she said a man took a “Vote or Die” sticker from her car and said, “Somebody’s gonna die tonight.”

The Selma Police Department told reporters in a news conference that the investigation into the death threats was ongoing.

Touré is filing a motion for a speedy trial and is considering suing the city.

Selma, a historic city at the heart of the civil rights movement, is home to the Edmund Pettus Bridge—the site of Bloody Sunday—over which Martin Luther King Jr. led a march to Montgomery that helped result in the passage of the Voting Rights Act. A half-century later, the city’s police station still displays a cattle prod and batons in a glass case near the entrance. The Old Live Oak Cemetery has a monument to Confederate soldiers with cannons pointing north, said to be protecting dead soldiers. It also contains a bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a slave owner, Confederate Army general, and grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. The memorial is inscribed, “One of the South’s finest heroes.”

Some Selma residents told The Appeal that tensions with the police seem to have worsened since Collier took over as chief last year. Collier did not respond to The Appeal’s requests for an interview.

In May, police arrested Council Member Sam Randolph for public lewdness, a month after he was observed publicly urinating. His attorney said the arrest was an act of retaliation after a heated exchange with between Randolph and the mayor during a City Council meeting days earlier, the Selma-Times Journal reported.

Bishop Anthony Austin, who was born in Selma in 1973, told The Appeal that people are frequently pulled over by the police for little cause. “You can’t never ever talk to them,” he said. “It’s never been this bad.”

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New Orleans Woman Sentenced to Life In Prison For Killing Abusive Husband Is Granted New Trial

Catina Curley suffered physical abuse at the hands of her husband for more than a decade. When she turned a revolver on him, she was charged with murder and sentenced to life. Now, thanks to a court ruling, she has a chance at freedom.

Orleans Parish Criminal District Court
Jimmy Emerson/Flickr

New Orleans Woman Sentenced to Life In Prison For Killing Abusive Husband Is Granted New Trial

Catina Curley suffered physical abuse at the hands of her husband for more than a decade. When she turned a revolver on him, she was charged with murder and sentenced to life. Now, thanks to a court ruling, she has a chance at freedom.

Before all that followed—before she was sentenced to life without parole, before the levees broke during Katrina, before Leon Cannizzaro became one of the nation’s most notorious district attorneys—Catina Curley’s story led the 10 p.m. broadcast on local CBS affiliate WWL-TV. “New Orleans police say a woman shot and killed her husband in New Orleans East tonight,” said a newscaster on March 30, 2005. “Police say the couple was arguing in their home when the woman, Catina Curley, pulled a gun and fatally shot her husband in the chest. Police booked her on second-degree murder charges. Officers say the couple had no history of domestic violence, but they are investigating.”

Ever since, the narrative surrounding Renaldo Curley’s death has reflected a similar story. Within hours, police decided that Catina shot Renaldo Curley because she was angry and jealous, killed the father of her children because of an argument gone wrong. Prosecutors framed her case as a singular instance of hot-headed depravity, a moment of irredeemable sin. But the truth is more forgiving to Catina. For over a decade, Renaldo physically abused Catina and their children. She wasn’t the aggressor, but the victim. She wasn’t angry; she was terrified.

But when Catina went to trial in 2007, her attorney, John Fuller, failed to explain the psychological effects of the violence she endured, which could possibly be characterized as battered woman’s syndrome. She was convicted of second-degree murder, and sentenced to life without parole. Until recently, it seemed certain that she would die in the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women.

Almost 10 years later, in 2016, her sentence was overturned by the state trial court, after they determined that Fuller failed to provide effective assistance of counsel  because he didn’t present a battered woman’s syndrome defense nor did he investigate the benefits of presenting expert testimony on this subject. But Cannizzaro’s office appealed and an appellate court reversed.  It held that there was insufficient evidence for a jury to find Catina legally insane, which requires a showing that the person can’t tell right from wrong. The Louisiana Supreme Court reversed the appellate court’s decision. In late June, the state’s highest court recognized that battered woman’s syndrome can justify the use of self-defense and found that Fuller “failed entirely to investigate the proper way to defend [Catina],” and ruled that she was entitled to a new trial. Late last month, Catina was released on $1,000 bond, providing her with an opportunity to spend time with her family for the first time in over a decade.

On June 29, Cannizzaro called the bond “disturbing, disheartening, and unprecedented,” implying Catina is a danger to the community.

Law enforcement remains intent on ignoring a decade of unrelenting physical abuse, abuse that Fuller characterized as “probably the worst [he’d] ever seen.” Thirteen years ago, prosecutors charged Catina more harshly than many men who abuse and kill their wives. Now Cannizzaro, too, wants to ignore the abuse she faced.

Catina now joins a growing group of criminalized survivors of domestic violence fighting for their freedom. Women like Cyntoia Brown, a sex worker who in 2004 was just 16 and living with an abusive pimp. Brown shot and killed a 43-year-old man who, after picking her up for sex, allegedly became violent. She was sentenced to life in prison. When Marissa Alexander’s abusive husband threatened to kill her, she fired a warning shot inside their Jacksonville, Florida, home. Though no one was injured, she was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Like these women, Catina was not only a victim of domestic abuse, but a victim of the criminal justice system and prosecutors who use their discretion to rack up prison sentences instead of supporting survivors.

Catina and Renaldo lived in Little Woods, a neighborhood in New Orleans East on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain. Ninety-six percent African-American and with an average household income hovering around $40,000, Little Woods is blacker and poorer than the rest of the city. The two were married for nearly 10 years, with seven children between them, five of whom lived in the house.

The day of the shooting, Catina and Renaldo argued over another woman who had spent time with Renaldo in their house. A witness heard their daughter April, then 8, say to Renaldo, “Please don’t hit Mom.” But, as he often did, Renaldo got physical.

It wasn’t the first time. According to Catina’s habeas petition and the subsequent Louisiana Supreme Court decision, for over a decade, Renaldo, then 29, beat Catina, then 32, mercilessly. There was the time he threw her to the ground, kicking her so hard that she dislocated her shoulder. There was the time he punched her in the nose on both sides, breaking her nose. Her face and eyes were black, and so swollen that she couldn’t open them.  There was the time he tried to push Catina out of a moving car. After she managed to convince him to pull over, she and her daughter April got out of the car and ran home. Her boss testified that he saw signs of abuse many times, “trauma” to her face and swollen forehead, eyes, and cheeks.

In the 11 years before the shooting, police filed six reports alleging domestic abuse involving Renaldo, records of him choking her while hitting her in the face, biting, striking, and punching her. The reports note Catina’s black eyes, the “visible teeth marks on her skin.”

Catina usually didn’t call the police—often because Renaldo wouldn’t let her. “If I’m going to call the police or if I’m trying to call someone for help or something, he will break the phone,” she testified.

Renaldo beat her in front of their children so often that Catina’s daughter Brittany testified that she “could not count how many times she had seen the victim hit [her mother],” according to the Louisiana Supreme Court. When asked how often Renaldo beat his mother, their son, only 10 at the time of the shooting, replied “a lot.”

And Renaldo allegedly beat his own children, who claimed he choked, hit, and “slam[med]” them. When his son was just a year old, he struck him with a telephone, according to police reports.

The evening of the shooting,  in March 2005, Renaldo threatened her, shoved her onto the bed and threw a soda can at her. “Bitch, you going to make me hurt you,” Catina recalled him saying. She tried to call her grandfather to ask him to come to the house, and spoke briefly to her aunt. She later testified that Catina’s voice made her worried she would be beaten again.

Catina hoped to just leave the house, avoiding her husband on the way out. But she couldn’t—her keys were in the same room as him. So she grabbed an “old rusty revolver” he kept under the mattress for self-protection.

He began confronting her again. “I was very frightened. I was scared, I mean, really delirious,” she testified. “Stop, don’t come toward me,” Catina recalled telling him, pointing the gun at him. But he just “kept coming and coming.” As he moved closer, Catina was “shaking. I never handled a gun[.]” She recalled thinking, “If he gets close enough to me, he is going to take this gun from me and he is going to beat me again.”

He came closer. She fired one bullet, hitting him in the chest. In two minutes he was dead.

Catina was arrested and taken to the police station where she tried to explain the terror she felt when tension between her and Renaldo escalated. “Anytime we’d get into an altercation, I think my whole life is just in danger,” she said the night of the shooting. “ I’ve been got beat up so many times.” Her fear wasn’t unfounded. In 2007, the year Catina was convicted in New Orleans of second-degree murder, Louisiana had the highest rate of women murdered by men, roughly twice the national average. According to the Violence Policy Center, around 60 percent of those women were killed by their partners.

That Renaldo had repeatedly been violent toward Catina was no surprise to the New Orleans Police Department. They had over a decade’s worth of evidence to indicate that Renaldo was a serial abuser. Yet, by the time the 10 p.m. news ran—just two hours after the shooting—police had already decided to hold Catina for second-degree murder, which carries a mandatory sentence of life without parole. Officers say the couple had no history of domestic violence,” the WWL-TV broadcast said, an explicitly false statement.

Orleans Parish prosecutors, like prosecutors everywhere, have near total discretion in charging decisions. They could have reduced the charges against Catina, but instead chose to try to put her in prison for life.  At trial, prosecutors implied she wasn’t really scared of him. Why, if she was so scared, did she not ask one of her male cousins to accompany her to the house? Why didn’t she call the police? Why didn’t she call someone and ask them to get her keys?

Three days after Catina was sentenced, a man named Jeremy Colbert faced a jury in the same courthouse. For years, he had allegedly abused his former girlfriend. One night he hid in her parking lot, violating a restraining order she had against him. When he saw her with a male acquaintance of hers, Colbert shot and killed him.  “Colbert’s lawyer successfully argued to the jury that Colbert’s ex-girlfriend ‘riled him up’ so he should not be subject to a murder conviction,” Tania Tetlow, now president of Loyola University New Orleans, wrote in 2007.

Colbert was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 40 years. Catina was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Forty years is at the upper end of the sentencing range for manslaughter in Louisiana, but the disparate sentences for Colbert and Catina are not uncommon. “The national average sentence for men who kill their female partners is two to six years in prison,” wrote Tetlow. “In contrast, women who kill their male partners are sentenced to an average of 15 years … despite the fact that many of these women killed in self-defense.”

It is unsurprising that Cannizzaro’s office has defended Catina’s draconian sentence. Since he was elected in 2008, Cannizzaro has consistently been among the nation’s harshest prosecutors. Currently, almost one in six of Louisiana prisoners come from Orleans Parish, a remarkable feat given that Louisiana is the second most carceral state in the nation.

Cannizzaro has bragged about how seriously his office takes domestic violence.  But often, his aggressive tactics end up hurting the victim more than the offender. He made headlines last year when it was discovered that he often issues material-witness warrants, giving him the power to jail victims of rape or sexual assault to compel their testimony. According to data analysis by students at Yale Law School, Cannizzaro’s office obtained more than 150 of these warrants in just five years. In May, The Appeal’s Aviva Shen reported that about 50 of those people were actually arrested.

It’s worth noting which victims Cannizzaro chooses to incarcerate. According to the New Yorker, “Poverty, homelessness, precarious immigration status, and mental-health issues were all invoked by the DA’s office as reasons to jail crime victims, who included survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, and child sex trafficking.” Demographics matter, too. Shen reported that 78 percent of material witnesses were Black. Of those actually arrested, only one was a white male. Some of these stories were particularly disturbing.  Take the 19-year-old sex trafficking victim who was arrested in 2014, soon after giving birth. “She had failed to appear at a hearing during her pregnancy because she was supposed to be on bed rest and had a doctor’s note to prove it,” Shen wrote. “Even so, she was held in jail for nearly four months until she testified against the father of her child.”

In one case, Cannizzaro’s office set a $100,000 bond for Renata Singleton, who was an alleged victim of domestic abuse. When she chose not to cooperate with prosecutors, they served her with a fake subpoena and then sent police to arrest her. Her abusive boyfriend’s bond was $3,500.

It wasn’t the only time Cannizzaro’s office set a higher bail for a witness than the person who allegedly committed the crime. “[A study] identified at least 25 cases in which witnesses were held on a higher bond amount than the person charged with a crime,” Shen reported.

Cannizzaro’s insistence on punishing victims is threaded throughout his tenure as district attorney. But instead of rethinking his approach to domestic violence, he’s doubling down. He fought the court’s decision that the jury should hear about the psychological toll of Catina’s abuse and the effect it had on her and her family. Even today, he insists she’s a dangerous criminal.

Cases like Catina Curley’s are beginning to get more attention, especially from criminal justice reform advocates and domestic violence prevention organizations. One organization, Survived and Punished, is particularly focused on ending criminalization of survivors. “Survived and Punished focuses on survivors because we want to highlight the specific pipeline between surviving sexual and domestic violence and being arrested, locked up, and/or deported,” Mariame Kaba, organizer and co-founder of Survived and Punished, told The Appeal. “We believe that survivors who live at the intersection of gender and criminalization deserve our solidarity and should be supported by our organizing.”

In many cases, the attention has worked. Thanks to support from organizers and attention from national figures like the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Marissa Alexander was freed in early 2017 after serving about five years of her sentence. And celebrities like Kim Kardashian have spoken out against Cyntoia Brown’s sentence. But often these stories go unnoticed because domestic violence remains disturbingly common. It is largely women who are at risk of beatings, injury, and even death, and minority women and those living in poverty are even more vulnerable.

And yet, according to a 2015 ACLU survey of lawyers, advocates, and other domestic violence experts, many survivors of domestic abuse and sexual assault avoid the criminal justice system, in part because the process often compounds the trauma. This is the logical result of a system that punishes those it is meant to protect. “In essence, power is shifted from the abuser to the state,” said one survey respondent said.

There’s still the possibility of a happy ending for Catina. She will get the chance of another trial, where she’ll finally get to present the battered woman’s defense she was entitled to over a decade ago. It’s a critical opportunity, but justice is not a guarantee.  Cannizzaro still insists on treating her like a heartless murderer instead of a survivor of decade-long abuse. As long as prosecutors care more about convictions than victims, abused women aren’t safe at home or in the courtroom.

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