Commentary Violence

Cornell’s Response to Intimate Partner Death of Student Doesn’t Go Far Enough

Renee Bracey Sherman

If Cornell truly wants to see a reduction in incidents of gender-based violence like the one that ended the life of Shannon Jones on Thanksgiving, the school needs to do more to change the culture that has allowed this sort of violence to persist on campus.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

As my fellow Cornell University students and I returned to campus from the Thanksgiving holiday and started our final week of classes, we were heartbroken to learn that one student would not be returning.

Reports of Shannon Jones’ death by strangulation at the hands of her boyfriend, Benjamin Cayea, 32, on Thanksgiving evening spread throughout campus. Jones, 23, hailed by her peers as a bright student, was expected to graduate with a degree in engineering next May.

In the days after her death, my classmates spoke of “the girl who was murdered” with bewilderment and frustration. In classrooms, students could be heard expressing confusion, muttering things like, “This kind of stuff doesn’t happen to people like us. It’s not supposed to.” Many of them believed that intimate partner violence wouldn’t enter the ivory tower. But in reality, intimate partner violence is extremely rampant on college campuses. It’s also not getting the attention it deserves nor being dealt with adequately.

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If Cornell truly wants to reduce intimate partner violence and other forms of gender-based violence against its students, the university needs to do more than create another program aimed at addressing violence and sexual abuse; it needs to get the entire campus involved in changing the culture that has allowed this sort of violence to persist. We must have an ongoing conversation about healthy relationships, consent, and intimate partner violence, not only during orientation week, but throughout the school year and students’ entire time at Cornell. The school must also stress how serious gender-based violence is as an issue—attending this campus is not a right; it is a privilege that should be taken away when you assault or rape another human being.

According to police reports, Jones and Cayea had an argument at Jones’ off-campus apartment at approximately 6:30 p.m. In a police interview, Cayea admitted to strangling Jones during the fight, then drove her car to a friend’s apartment and told him, from the parking lot of his apartment, what he had done. Jacob Ives, Cayea’s friend, then called the police, and Cayea was arrested. “She would not stop coming at me, she would not stop yelling. I did it; I choked her,” Cayea reportedly said, according to Ives. When police arrived at Jones’ apartment, she was found without a pulse and pronounced dead at a nearby hospital. Cayea was arrested and charged with one count of second-degree murder without bail, and his case has been transferred to Tompkins County.

“I feel that Shannon’s unfortunate death has been a surprise to most people in the Cornell community,” said Runjini Raman, Cornell University graduate student and intimate partner violence advocate, told Rewire. “We tell ourselves stories about women in abusive relationships so that they can feel like far away faceless women, that it only manifests in bruises and blood, and that makes us blind, not realizing it happens to someone we may know.”

A 2011 online survey of U.S. college students found that only 8 percent of students believe that intimate partner violence is a major problem on campus, and almost 50 percent believe it is not a problem at all. In fact, intimate partner violence is quite common among college students, though many survivors are reluctant to come forward due to retaliation. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, one in five students have reported experiencing violence by a current partner, and 32 percent have reported dating violence by a former partner. These rates increase at the intersectionality of class, race, gender identity, and sexual orientation. For example, Black women are three times more likely to be murdered by their intimate partners than white women, according to an analysis of homicide data conducted by the Violence Policy Center.

According to Cornell’s records provided in compliance with the Clery Act, there were four reported cases of domestic violence and one stalking case last year. 2013 was the first year they began recording such statistics, and of course these figures don’t reflect the number of women who feared coming forward.

One in four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime, and women between the ages of 20 and 24 are most at risk, explained Jessica Li, Cornell University alumni and executive director of the Asian/Pacific Islander Domestic Violence Resource Project (DVRP). Li says that while she attended Cornell, a classmate was in an unhealthy relationship and Li recognized the early warning signs of jealousy, possessiveness, and isolation from friends by her abuser. “As friends, we didn’t know where to refer her to on campus, and she didn’t recognize that she was a survivor of dating violence.” A college-wide effort focused on improving students’ knowledge of rape culture and campus resources might reduce this sort of confusion and increase the number of students reporting violent acts.

Recent research also shows an overlap of intimate partner abuse and violence: Among the female respondents to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey who experienced sexual abuse, physical violence, and/or stalking by a partner, about “8.7% experienced rape and physical violence, 14.4% experienced physical violence and stalking, and 12.5% experienced all three forms” of intimate partner violence. This abuse has a deep and negative impact on their health, leading to anxiety, depression, physical harm, sexually transmitted diseases, post-traumatic stress disorder, and in some cases death. Not to mention, student survivors in particular experience challenges in finishing class assignments or fear being on campus, which makes finishing their education difficult.

Title IX, the federal law that protects students from gender-based violence, guarantees a student’s equal access to education. Title IX outlines steps that colleges must take when investigating gender-based violence on campus, including: providing support to students including changing of a student’s housing, changing class schedules, and offering protection when they’re experiencing stalking, harassment, and other violence by their abuser.

In 2011, the White House issued a “Dear Colleague” letter outlining steps colleges should take to reduce sexual assaults on campus; however, little attention was paid to intimate partner violence. In a article, survivor and campus sexual assault activist Wagatwe Wanjuki explained that sexual assault is getting much-needed attention, though we must not forget to include intimate partner violence as part of the conversation. “Title IX can force schools to provide support for student survivors, but unfortunately the narrative around the law has focused on sexual assault to the detriment of intimate partner violence survivors,” said Wanjuki. “It is crucial for the Department of Education to provide more Dear Colleague letters to further clarify and state what schools need to do to help the abused.”

Cornell University, like other schools, has put many of the Dear Colleague letter recommendations in place to reduce gender-based violence on campus. “We have zero tolerance for intimate partner violence in any form,” said Mary Opperman, Cornell University’s vice president for human resources, in an email to Rewire. “In 2013, we established the Council on Sexual Violence Prevention to develop and implement new programs, and the group is currently developing an action plan to incorporate new educational programs, support services, reporting mechanisms, and data collection.”

But are these individual programs enough to ignite a campus-wide culture change discussion? Some students say no. Campus organizers have identified gender-based violence as a key issue that they would like the school’s first female president, Elizabeth Garrett, to tackle in her incoming administration. President-elect Garrett was instrumental in changing the sexual assault policies at the University of Southern California and passing California’s affirmative consent or “yes means yes” law.

The lack of discussion around Jones’ murder has left students feeling frustrated with the school and larger Ithaca community, especially in light of a recent article about what a “great” guy her killer is. “I feel disappointed and wish that more people saw this act of violence within the larger context of domestic abuse and violence against women,” said Cornell graduate student and social justice activist Johanna Zussman-Dobbins. “Refusing to do so is a way that the university and the community side steps accountability on these issues.”

During her undergraduate studies at Cornell University, Zussman-Dobbins says she served as a panelist for an intimate partner case while working on campus. “One summer they really needed a student to come sit on the panel,” she said. The case she heard was one that had already been postponed several times to accommodate the accused’s schedule and made her question Cornell’s commitment to survivors. “In my opinion, postponing the trial sent the message to me as a young undergraduate that Cornell valued the future of this man more than the future and safety of this young woman.”

When a report of intimate partner violence is filed, both students attend a hearing that consists of faculty and several student panelists who hear the case. “We think that’s a huge benefit for both parties,” explained Mary Beth Grant, judicial administrator at a recent campus event. “We don’t force students to file a report … he or she can choose which avenue they want to pursue.” Grant outlined that students could choose to file reports with Cornell, the local police, or both, and that investigations would include hearing from witnesses and sifting through texts, social media, and other documentation for evidence. Should either party not agree with the panel’s decision, they are able to appeal the decision.

Even though Cornell’s reporting process exists to support students claiming they have experienced gender-based violence, the university needs to improve how it talks about intimate partner violence with students. In class, for example, Raman, who advocates for bystander awareness and campus-wide discussion of violence against women, said the issue was often addressed in “a textbook manner” without any empathy for students experiencing violence. “The fact that we still discuss it so nonchalantly … is not OK.”

As a program at Yale University shows, educating bystanders is key to changing the conversation around intimate partner violence on campus. In 2013, Yale was in the news for refusing to expel several students found guilty of “nonconsensual sex.” The Ivy League school has publicly begun to clean up its act after being fined $155,000 by the Department of Education for failing to report gender-based violence crimes in keeping with the Clery Act. “We worked through this with a series of cases dealing with intimate partner violence and using them to enhance the wording, descriptions, and training materials for incoming and current students,” said Vanessa Lamers, who served on the Yale University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct and in the Marion County Oregon District Attorney’s Office on Sexual Assault Victim Assistance.

“One of the trainings I find most helpful with college students, especially with male athletes and university fraternities, is masculinities and the bystander approach … [educating men about how the] pressures to appear masculine, strong, and in control push this status quo of violence,” she said. “Training men to be aware of these pushes in their conscious and subconscious is a great way to assist young men be leaders in college.”

Li of the Asian/Pacific Islander Domestic Violence Resource Project agrees that educating bystanders is an important strategy when reducing intimate partner violence. Too often, friends, classmates, and family members aren’t aware of the warning signs, and schools could do a better job of holding campus-wide discussions of intimate partner violence and teaching students to intervene when a peer is in need of support. She says some of the warning signs to look out for are abusers checking cell phones and emails without permission, constant texting to check up on the individual, extreme jealousy, isolation from family and friends, pressuring someone to have sex, possessiveness and false accusations, putting someone down constantly, physical violence, and stalking.

Cornell University has a strong presence of fraternities on campus and has programs, such as Wingman 101, targeting men in addressing gender-based violence; however, at a recent campus event titled “State of Sexual Assault at Cornell University,” the administrative staff who spoke about the school’s sexual assault investigative process and student rights under Title IX couldn’t identify any of the programs. If the university’s chief investigator has to rely on audience members to explain what programs are available on campus, that doesn’t bode well for student confidence in the administration.

Similar to other schools, Cornell has set up websites and counseling to support survivors on campus, but they require that the survivors or their peers seek out the resources; students feel the university isn’t as proactive as it could be.

In the wake of Jones’ death, students hope Cornell will not squander this moment and finally begin to shed light on the epidemic that is campus intimate partner violence. “I hope that Cornell takes this horrible crime as a call to arms and puts serious academic and professional thought into creating a safer culture on campus,” said Lamers. Shifting the culture, educating bystanders, and supporting survivors are the only ways we will achieve campuses free of gender-based violence.

News Politics

To Avoid Campus Sexual Assault, Kasich Suggests, Don’t Go to Parties With a Lot of Alcohol

Ally Boguhn

Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) told a young woman at a town hall event in New York who was worried about sexual violence on campus that she should avoid attending parties with excessive alcohol.

At a town hall event in New York, Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) told a young woman who was worried about sexual violence on campus that she should avoid attending parties with excessive alcohol.

“Being that I am a young female college student, what are you going to do in office as president to help me feel safer and more secure regarding sexual violence, harassment, and rape?” the first-year student at St. Lawrence University asked the Republican presidential candidate on Friday.

Kasich replied that in Ohio, “we think that when you enroll you ought to absolutely know” how to report sexual harassment “or whatever” confidentially, access a rape kit, and “pursue justice after you’ve had some time to reflect on it all.” Adding that similar rules should be applied nationwide, he continued that he has “two 16-year-old daughters, and I don’t even like to think about it.”

“It’s sad, but it’s something that I have to worry about,” the student noted.

“I’d also give you one bit of advice. Don’t go to parties where there’s a lot of alcohol. OK? Don’t do that,” Kasich responded.

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After the town hall, Kasich’s campaign tweeted“Only one person is at fault in a sexual assault, and that’s the assailant.”

Victims needs [sic] to know we’re doing everything we can to have their backs, and that’s happening in Ohio under John Kasich’s leadership,” said another tweet from the campaign.

However, Kasich’s comments had already begun to garner criticism from those who felt he was placing the responsibility for stopping sexual violence on the victims.

“Let me say this simply, so that the governor can understand—rape victims are not responsible for rape. It’s on all of us—men and women—to address campus sexual assault,” Ohio Democratic Party spokeswoman Kirstin Alvanitakis said in a statementaccording to

Others argued that Kasich’s statement was reflective of his past record on reproductive rights and women’s health.

“John Kasich’s plan for combating sexual assault as president is to blame women who go to parties. John Kasich’s pattern of dismissing the concerns of women is disturbing enough,” said Dawn Laguens, vice president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund (PPAF), in a statement. PPAF has already endorsed Clinton for the presidency. 

“As Governor, John Kasich has implemented policies that reflect his disregard for women, enacting 18 measures that restrict women’s access to reproductive health care while nearly half the abortion providers in his state closed their doors. He eliminated domestic violence prevention and a healthy moms and healthy babies program, simply because they were provided by Planned Parenthood. A John Kasich presidency would punish women. We can’t let his dangerous agenda into the White House,” continued Laguens.

As ThinkProgress’ Alice Ollstein explained, not only did Kasich’s so-called advice seem to blame the victim, it “also perpetuates the disproved myth that there is a direct link between alcohol consumption and rape. In fact, incidents of rape have been declining since 1979, while binge drinking has been steadily rising during the same time period. While alcohol is present in about half of all sexual assaults, it’s also present in about that same percentage of all violent crimes.” 

At least one in four undergraduate women are sexually assaulted during their time on campus, according to a September 2015 survey conducted by the Association of American Universities.

Kasich similarly pitched the merits of confidential reporting of campus sexual violence during a February town hall event hosted by CNN, where he promised, if elected, to “use a bully pulpit” to “speak out” on the topic and push “legislatures to begin to pay attention to these issues.”

The Ohio governor’s state budget for fiscal year 2016 also included $2 million to prevent and respond to campus sexual assault. In October, the Ohio Department of Higher Education launched an initiative to “prevent and better respond to incidents of sexual violence” on all of the state’s college campuses using the money allocated by the budget.

However, Kasich’s 2013 budget contained a “gag rule” provision blocking funding for rape crisis centers that provide information about abortion. Among the other anti-choice provisions included in the budget was a mandate on ultrasounds for abortions and the reallocation of Planned Parenthood funds to crisis pregnancy centers, which regularly lie to patients in order to persuade them not to have an abortion.

Analysis Violence

Facing Years in Prison for Fleeing Abuse: Cherelle Baldwin’s Story Is Far From Unique

Victoria Law

Starting Monday, 12 jurors will begin to hear evidence about Cherelle Baldwin, a 24-year-old Black woman from Bridgeport, Connecticut, whose attempts to escape her ex-boyfriend ended in his death.

Who has the right to self-defense? Starting Monday, 12 jurors will hear evidence about Cherelle Baldwin, a 24-year-old Black woman from Bridgeport, Connecticut, whose attempts to escape her ex-boyfriend ended in his death. Baldwin has been detained for nearly three years awaiting her second trial on charges of murder. Her first trial, which lasted six weeks in early 2015, resulted in a hung jury and mistrial. If convicted this time, she may spend decades in prison.

In 2013, Baldwin had been granted a court order against her ex-boyfriend Jeffrey Brown. But the piece of paper didn’t stop Brown from continuously texting, calling, and showing up at Baldwin’s house to demand access to their toddler son as well as his ex-girlfriend’s phone and cash, according to Baldwin’s family.

On the morning of May 18, 2013, Brown sent Baldwin a series of texts. At 6:49 a.m., he texted, “I said what I said so u could take it however u want u but after today u will have to call the cops cuz it over today.” When Baldwin told him to leave her alone, he responded, “N u will see how crazy shit will get today.”

Shortly after, he showed up at her house. According to a police affidavit obtained by AlterNet, Baldwin told them that Brown had climbed through her window, then attacked her: “He pulled a knife and choked her with his belt.” Baldwin managed to escape, running outside and into her car. “He managed to get in the car and proceeded to choke her again,” the affidavit stated. “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.”

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When police arrived, Brown was dead and Baldwin had a broken leg. The baby was in the house, unharmed. Baldwin was taken to the hospital; three weeks later, she was charged with first-degree murder. Her bail was set at $1 million, an amount her family was unable to afford, so Baldwin was sent to the state’s women’s prison, York Correctional Institution in Niantic, to await her trial. In early 2015, after five days of deliberating (and listening to tape-recorded testimony from Baldwin herself), 11 jurors wanted to either consider lesser charges or acquit Baldwin altogether. One juror held out, and so the judge declared a mistrial. The prosecutor vowed to retry her case, and Baldwin was sent back to Niantic to await her next day in court. She has been there ever since.

Baldwin’s experience illustrates how the justice system frequently criminalizes and prosecutes abuse survivors, often after this same system failed to stop the domestic violence. Because self-defense laws frequently don’t explicitly take domestic violence into account, the onus is on survivors like Baldwin to convince a dozen strangers that they were truly in fear for their lives when they took the actions that landed them in court.

“When Jeffrey Came, It Was a Whole Different Story”

In 2010, 19-year-old Baldwin was a student at Porter and Chester Institute in Stratford, Connecticut, studying to become a medical specialist administrator and working two jobs. While filling her tank at a gas station, she met Brown. The two talked, exchanged numbers, and began seeing each other.

“The next thing I know, Cherelle is not coming home at night,” said Baldwin’s mother, Cynthia Long, with whom Baldwin had been living at the time, in an interview with Rewire. But Baldwin didn’t bring Brown to meet her mother until the following year. By then, she was two months pregnant, and she and Brown were planning a future together.

Weeks before the baby was born, Baldwin called her mother and asked if she could spend the night. Long told Rewire that her daughter, usually a peaceful sleeper, was fighting and crying in her sleep. “I had to wake her up,” she recalled. But if she had any recollections of her dreams, Baldwin kept them to herself. She also kept quiet about any problems she and Brown were having.

Long does recall that Brown was controlling. At family gatherings, she recounted, “When he said, ‘Let’s go,’ she had to be ready to go.” Baldwin also began behaving differently, needing to clear things with Brown before making decisions.

“She always had to check with him,” her mother recalled. “That wasn’t Cherelle. Before that, she always made her own decisions—she pretty much held her own. But when Jeffrey came, it was a whole different story.”

Baldwin also began to pull away from other family members. Baldwin had always been close to her cousin Latreesh, with whom she had grown up. But once she started dating Brown, Latreesh, who asked that her last name not be used, said they “grew apart.” At the time, however, Latreesh chalked it up to being busy with the new relationship and holding down two jobs.

When they did see each other, Baldwin would tell Latreesh about money being missing or times that Brown would take her car keys so that she wouldn’t be able to leave the house. But, Latreesh reflected, Baldwin may have remained silent about the extent of the abuse because “she probably didn’t want to put us in harm’s way.”

On New Year’s Day 2012, Long received a phone call. Brown had been in a car accident, wrecking Baldwin’s car. Baldwin told her mother that, when she asked Brown about the accident, “he shook her and the baby while she was holding the baby,” Long said. Then, Long said, he tried to break her phone. Long told her daughter that she was coming over and told her to call the police.

But, before she could leave the house, Baldwin called her again. “She said not to come because Jeffrey’s mother was coming,” Long said. Despite her mother’s urgings, Baldwin did not call the police. That was the first time that Baldwin had actually told her mother about any abuse.

Baldwin’s silence is not unusual. “A lot of times victims don’t disclose to anyone,” said Lenina Trinidad, an attorney who has represented abuse survivors in court proceedings, in an interview with Rewire. Trinidad has extensive experience working with abuse survivors and around issues of domestic violence. In addition to representing survivors in court, she has also served on several committees dedicated to examining domestic violence legislation and policy, improving court responses to domestic violence victims, and promoting public awareness about the issue.

There are several reasons that survivors may not tell their family and friends about the abuse, she told Rewire, including a lack of awareness that their loved one is abusing them. “Everyone has a different idea of what domestic violence or interpersonal violence looks like,” she explained. “Often, it begins with certain behaviors”—such as being controlling and encouraging isolation from friends and family—”then it escalates.”

But, Trinidad noted, physical violence often occurs once or twice at the beginning of the relationship. “From then on, fear of physical aggression keeps the victim under the control of the abuser. This is not a person walking down the street with bruises or lumps. But in essence, this person is being terrorized,” she said.

In addition, escalation can be gradual and people being abused may not notice until it is too late: “It’s a terrible analogy,” she said, “but it’s like the frog in boiling water.”

Trinidad also noted that it can be dangerous to disclose abuse: doing so risks even more escalation if the abuser finds out. At the same time, she stated, people in abusive relationships may not necessarily want to end the relationship; they simply want the abuse to end. Friends and family members, once told about the abuse, may pressure the survivor to walk away. Furthermore, the fear of being judged prevents many survivors from telling others.

Brown began confiscating his girlfriend’s phone, her family said, preventing her from calling relatives and friends. Baldwin began working at Yale-New Haven Hospital, which required Brown, who was not working at the time, to stay home with the baby. “He’d take the car and disappear and not return until late morning,” her mother recalled. Not having anyone else to watch their son, Baldwin was often late for work. According to Long, when she did get to work, Brown would then call her repeatedly. After a few months, Baldwin was fired.

By 2013, the couple had split and Brown had moved in with another woman. But ending the relationship doesn’t end the danger. According to Trinidad and many other domestic violence advocates, it is actually the most dangerous time for a survivor. Approximately 75 percent of women killed by their abusers have been killed after trying to end or ending the relationship. In Baldwin’s case, sharing a son with Brown made it nearly impossible to sever all contact with him.

Despite their separation, Brown continued to terrorize Baldwin. In February, he showed up at her house and began tossing her clothes out. When she tried to call 9-1-1, he grabbed her phone and threw it onto the ground, breaking it. He was arrested and eventually pleaded guilty to breach of peace. Baldwin was issued a court order. But neither the arrest nor the order stopped his harassment, threats, and violence. According to Baldwin’s mother, only days later he showed up and grabbed their son, forcing Baldwin to drive down the wrong side of the street to retrieve the toddler.

“She was really, really scared,” remembered Latreesh, who began watching the boy while Baldwin worked at her new job. Latreesh recalled one particular night when, after picking her son up, Baldwin asked her cousin to accompany her home even though she lived only a block or two away. “She thought he was following her,” Latreesh recalled. In the car, Baldwin told her cousin that Brown had been threatening her, that he had put his hands on her before, and that she was frightened.

In May 2013, Brown called Latreesh looking for Baldwin. When he learned that she was celebrating Mother’s Day with her mother at a local restaurant, he appeared outside the restaurant and called her, demanding that she bring their son outside. If she didn’t, he would come into the restaurant and make a scene. Baldwin capitulated and, although her family had already paid for her and her son’s meals, abruptly left the restaurant.

Six days later, on Saturday, May 18, Long received a distraught call from her son. Unable to make out more than the fact that something had happened involving Brown and Baldwin, she called Baldwin’s father, who lived in the apartment above his daughter. He told her that Brown was in front of the car and Baldwin, barely moving, was beside the car. He had already called 9-1-1. They were taken to separate hospitals. Brown was declared dead; Baldwin was treated for her broken leg and questioned by police.

Two days later, Baldwin began complaining about her back. That was when her mother saw the belt marks on her back, the bruises on her side, and the bruises around her neck. Long immediately took photos, but said that the police waited until that Thursday to do so. By then, Baldwin’s skin had begun healing and the marks were much less visible.

Three weeks later, the mail brought a warrant for her arrest.

Her family accompanied her to the precinct a few days later, where she turned herself in. Since then, she has spent nearly three years in prison. Her son, who will turn 5 years old in October, splits his time between Long and his paternal grandmother. He only sees his mother during prison visits twice a month. Although visits are supposed to last at least one hour, both Long and Latreesh said that they can sometimes be as short as 20 minutes.

Criminalizing Survivors

Baldwin’s story, of a domestic violence survivor criminalized for taking action against her abuser, is far from unique. One of the most famous examples is that of Marissa Alexander, the Florida mother who tried to argue she had been acting in self-defense—specifically, that she had been covered under the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law—by firing a warning shot into the ceiling to stop her husband’s assault. She was unsuccessful and was initially sentenced to 20 years in prison for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Her conviction coincided with the arrest of George Zimmerman, who successfully claimed Stand Your Ground in his shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin; the timing drew wider attention and support for Alexander. The following year, an appeals court ruled that the judge’s instructions on self-defense were faulty and reversed her conviction. In January 2015, nearly four-and-a-half years after her arrest, Alexander agreed to a plea bargain for time served and two years of house arrest. She is now in her second year.

Alexander’s case is exceptional only in that it garnered such widespread attention and support. Across the country, stories of other abuse survivors serving long prison sentences for defending themselves have emerged—from Tewkunzi Green in Illinois and Cierra Finkley in Wisconsin, to Donna Jelenic in California and Valerie Seeley in New York.

But it’s difficult to know exactly how many other abuse survivors are in similar positions: Little documentation is available about the number of people who have claimed self-defense stemming from domestic or other types of violence. In 1999, the U.S. Department of Justice released a report stating that nearly half of women in local jails and state prisons had been abused prior to their arrests. That report, now 16 years old, is the most recent data available.

Self-defense laws don’t often reflect the reality of domestic violence. The law in Connecticut, for example, states that a person is justified in using “deadly physical force” against someone else if they believe both that their own life is in danger and such force is necessary to stop the attack. However, the law also states a “duty to retreat“: In other words, a person is required to retreat instead of using deadly physical force, if “a completely safe retreat is in fact available” and if doing so “will avoid the necessity of using deadly physical force.”

This exception does not take into account the fact that domestic violence is not limited to a single instance of violence from which a person can safely retreat. It also doesn’t consider that the survivor is reacting not only to the immediate actions, but the entire history of abuse and coercion.

Connecticut’s law does contain an exception for violence that happens in a person’s home; if the assailant does not also live in the home, according to the law, there is no duty to retreat. In Baldwin’s case, given that Brown no longer lived with her, it should seem that even if she feared for her life, Baldwin had no duty to retreat from her own home, where her child was inside.

Domestic violence is more likely to be fatal for Black women. The Institute on Domestic Violence in the African American Community found that, although they comprise 8 percent of the nation’s population, Black women make up 29 percent of all women killed in domestic violence homicides. Black women are twice as likely to be killed by an abusive spouse and four times more likely to be murdered by a boyfriend or girlfriend than white women.

In many cases, however, turning to the police and court system can be even more harmful. Trinidad pointed out that many “have no faith that the court system will offer any relief. Many people have been involved in the court system [before] and had their lives torn apart.”

For instance, in jurisdictions with polices that require officers to arrest someone when responding to a domestic violence call, victims risk being arrested or further brutalized by police. That means, in many cases, that means survivors must devise their own safety plans.

Cindene Pezzell is the legal coordinator for the National Clearinghouse for Battered Women. She also spent five years as an assistant public defender in Philadelphia; during her last year, she represented many abuse survivors in family court. She noted that prosecutors often resist survivors’ attempts to introduce claims of abuse into their defense and raise skepticism about abuse claims.

“That’s where you’ll see questions like, ‘Why didn’t you leave?’ or ‘Why didn’t you call police?’” she said. She also noted that, for many abuse survivors, there is no paper trail, which further fuels disbelief that violence has occurred.

Even when there is proof of violence, prosecutors tend to downplay and dismiss evidence of abuse. If the relationship has ended at the time of the incident, as was the case with Baldwin, the survivor frequently is depicted as a jealous and vindictive ex-girlfriend. (Brown’s family has been quoted in local media making similar claims, along with denying that Baldwin’s life was in danger.)

But if the relationship was still happening, that too can be used against a survivor in court. In California, for instance, Kelly Savage was charged with murder and torture after her abusive husband killed her 3-year-old son. The prosecutor argued that Savage enjoyed the beatings and, because she had not yet left the relationship, was equally responsible for her son’s death. The jury believed this explanation; Savage was convicted and sentenced to life without parole.

In addition, race plays an important factor. “It’s really hard for people to accept Black women as victimized,” Trinidad stated. “In my experience in the criminal court system, Black women are inherently questioned and inherently distrusted. The system and the players don’t find them as credible.” The most recent statistics on imprisonment seem to back Trinidad’s observations: Black women are up to four times more likely to be imprisoned than white women. However, just as there is little data on the number of domestic violence-related convictions, there is nothing readily available about conviction rates of Black women claiming self-defense.

Police, prosecutors, and courts already have practices to interview people who have experienced trauma, Pezzell pointed out. Many jurisdictions use such techniques when interviewing police officers who are involved in shootings, for instance, or abuse survivors who are filing charges against their partners. But these practices and techniques have largely been disregarded, she said, when abuse survivors are the ones on the defense.

In her time as public defender, Pezzell has represented abuse survivors accused of violating civil protection orders, a misdemeanor that is adjudicated in family court. Each time, she recalled, she informed the prosecutor that her client was a battered woman; each time, the prosecutor ordered an investigation before proceeding. If the investigation turned up findings of abuse, the prosecutor would sometimes reduce the charges or dismiss them altogether.

Pezzell similarly urged police and prosecutors to investigate allegations of abuse for self-defense claims. “It can take some time, but it will have a better end result,” she stated. She also advised that they use trauma-informed interview techniques rather than re-traumatize the survivor with accusatory—and often hostile—interrogations.

At the same time, she said, domestic violence service providers, such as social workers and nonprofit agencies, need to support survivors facing prosecution. “We need to make sure that the stories of these survivors don’t disappear because they’re facing charges,” she said.

Cherelle Baldwin’s trial begins on Monday. It will be up to Baldwin and her lawyer to convince all 12 jurors that she feared for her life, and that she should therefore be acquitted of her charges on self-defense grounds. But she may face an uphill battle in the coming weeks.

As Trinidad said, “It’s hard for people to accept that a woman could defend herself using lethal force against a man or that it’s necessary in any way.”