On Thursday, 15-year-old Bresha Meadows learned that she no longer faces the possibility of life in prison.
Bresha has been held in juvenile detention for the past four months. As reported earlier by Rewire, she was arrested on July 28 after allegedly shooting her father, who had subjected his wife and children to years of reported abuse. She was charged with aggravated murder by prosecutors in Trumbull County, Ohio. Until this week, she faced the prospect of being tried in adult court and, if convicted, a life sentence.
But because Bresha’s case will now remain in juvenile court, if convicted, she can only be held in detention until she is 21 years old.
When Bresha’s mother, Brandi, heard the news, she told Rewire, “I just started to cry. I was so happy that she wasn’t going to spend the rest of her life in jail.”
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That evening, she says, her daughter called, asking if she’d heard the news. “She said, ‘Mommy, that means I don’t have to go to jail for the rest of my life,'” Brandi Meadows recounted.
“The decision to keep her in juvenile court is a huge relief,” Bresha’s attorney, Ian Friedman, told Rewire. “We’ve been operating under the fear that this young girl may be spending life in prison. This is now gone.” But he still intends to fight for Bresha’s acquittal based on what he calls “a clear case of self-defense.”
Bresha’s paternal aunt, Lena Cooper, continues to deny that her brother was abusive towards his family. But she’s not opposing the move to keep Bresha’s case out of adult court. As she told the Plain Dealer, “I just want my niece to get help. If keeping the case in Juvenile Court is what’s necessary to get her help, then that’s fine with me. I don’t want her to get a life sentence. She just needs help.”
Bresha’s next court date is on January 20. By then, she will have spent 175 days (or nearly six months) in detention. According to Erin Davies, executive director of the Juvenile Justice Coalition, the average length of pre-trial detention for juvenile cases is ten to twelve days. Even for youth facing adult charges, the average pre-trial detention length is six months. Davies reminded Rewire of the long-lasting effects of detention on young people, including depression and other adverse mental health consequences.
“Every day she spends in detention is a day that she’s not getting the treatment and support to help her heal,” Marcia Dinkins, an organizer with the Trumbull County-based Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative (MVOC), said in an interview with Rewire. While she and other MVOC members are relieved that Bresha no longer faces adult charges, they question why the 15-year-old remains in detention. “She didn’t need to sit there for that amount of time,” Dinkins told Rewire. “The community has lost one life and now another is at risk.”
Bresha’s story has mobilized supporters nationwide, leading to the #FreeBresha campaign. Supporters have started a petition, which has garnered nearly 25,000 signatures, urging County prosecutor Dennis Watkins to drop all charges; made a website, which serves as an information hub and where people of all ages have posted open letters asking Watkins to drop all charges; and created a fundraising campaign for Bresha’s needs once she is home with her family.
Alisa Bierria is a member of the #FreeBresha campaign. “It is a good thing that she will not be tried as an adult,” Bierria told Rewire. “But we want to emphasize that the core problem here is that she is being criminalized at all. We must reject the criminalization of self-defense as the norm. Forcing Bresha to spend even one day behind bars weakens all survivors’ right to self-defense and erodes black girls’ right to live at all.”
Bierria also participated in the campaign to free Marissa Alexander, the Florida mother initially sentenced to 20 years for firing a warning shot to stop her abusive husband’s attack. Bierria sees the continued prosecution of Bresha Meadows as “part of a larger pattern. We saw this kind of sexist and racist response to Marissa Alexander.” Though she is happy that Bresha will not face the possibility of a life sentence, she says, “Less criminalization is better than more criminalization, but any criminalization is unjust.”
Martina Latessa, Bresha’s aunt and an officer in the Cleveland Police Department’s domestic violence unit, remembers numerous phone conversations where she tried to reassure her niece that she would not spend the rest of her life in prison. Now, she told Rewire, “We know that Bresha has a tomorrow. We know that she has a future.”
Bresha Meadows won’t be home for Christmas; instead, her mother will visit her at the detention center. “Hopefully that’ll be her one and only Christmas away,” said Latessa. She sees the decision to keep Bresha in juvenile court as a positive step, but isn’t giving up hope that she’ll be released soon. “I wanna hear that she’ll be home for the next 30 Christmases. I wanna hear that she’ll walk out of there free.”