A Survivor of Violence and Her Sibling Share How the Legal System Punishes Them

Self-defense laws are not, and have never been, applied equally in the United States. These laws “were not designed with the lived reality of gendered intimate violence in mind because legal protection for self-defense was originally meant for property-owning white men,” writes Survived and Punished, a national coalition working to decriminalize survival, in a new report. “Therefore, domestic and sexual violence are often rejected as legitimate justifications for self-defense, either by the law’s design or through its interpretation and application in courts.”

In 1855, a young Black woman named Celia was hanged for killing a white man who enslaved and raped her for years. Black women survivors who defended themselves during the Jim Crow era were put in carceral dungeons, according to historian Sarah Haley.

Today, Black and other marginalized women are still being prosecuted for defending themselves against domestic and sexual violence. Leah Eggleson, a 22-year-old mixed-race survivor of domestic and sexual violence living in Washington State, faces a possible life sentence for defending herself against her abuser, who held her hostage, beat her and threatened to kill her for days. Truthout spoke with Eggleson and her sibling, Kristina Jorgensen, about her case, state violence, her resistance efforts and her upcoming trial, which is set to begin on April 19.

Ella Fassler: Do you want to start by telling me a little bit about yourself and about your family? Where do you live, what kinds of things do you enjoy doing?

Leah Eggleson: So, I live in Washington. I’m 22 years old. I’m the mother of two boys, ages 4 and 5. I like to cook a lot of Mexican food. I like to spend a lot of time with my kids. I enjoy creative, artistic types of things. I draw tattoos. It’s super fun.

I come from a family that is… there’s been a lot of domestic violence, a lot of trauma I experienced a lot of trauma as a child and so did all of my siblings without ever really getting help from the community to heal from what was going on. So that kind of led me into not the greatest path, but I am better now.

Kristina Jorgensen: Violence in our family is intergenerational. It’s just interesting that the same system that is supposed to protect survivors repeatedly fails to, and is the very same system that criminalizes them when they end up in situations where they have to survive. And that’s not unique to Leah; that’s so many people in prison that are survivors.

Yeah, these systems that claim to protect us and keep us safe, often function to assault people who are fighting for their lives instead. What do you think is most important for readers to know or understand about your case, Leah, and what the state has been putting you through?

Eggleson: I experienced trauma for a long time, since I was 9 years old and maybe even younger, which has kind of taken away my ability to trust in law enforcement that always failed to protect me or my family.

Most recently, I was in a very abusive relationship with a man. He tracked my location, made me work with him so he could keep tabs on me. He wouldn’t let me interact with anybody, he would take my phone away, pretty much isolated me away from any kind of help that I could get to try to get out of the relationship. He would even limit my contact with my own children.

And I feared him because of crimes that he had committed in Mexico prior to coming here. And it was like that for a few months. I had briefly tried to reach out to my family at times, but with the dynamics and how domestic violence works, I would tell them something happened, and then I’d be like, “Oh, no, it’s okay, we are going to figure it out.” And it just kept getting worse.

Then one day, he picked me up from my sister’s house and took me to his house, which is two hours away from where we live, and tied me up in his apartment, and was choking me, beating me, and saying he’s gonna kill me and my children and my mom over and over again. He had me like that for like two days. Then he became fearful because the neighbors were home. I was crying and he didn’t want them to hear me. I think I had lost consciousness two or three times during that episode.

Finally, he did let me go. He untied me and said, “Get in the car,” and when I was in the car, he had reached out to my sister because he had taken my phone. Apparently, he told her he had dropped me off, but he hadn’t. I had no way to contact anybody. So when he was driving to go take me back, I didn’t want him to take me to my sister’s house. He had just threatened to kill me.

I did not think I was going to get out of that apartment alive. I was imagining, “How is my family going to find my body? What is he going to do with my body? Like what is going to happen?” I really thought that that was it for me, you know, I have never felt so helpless in my life. And I don’t wish that feeling upon anybody.

So when I was in the car, I grabbed his phone and jumped in the backseat and texted my sister from his phone and told her “He’s going crazy. He had me tied up.” He started to go off to the freeway and I was fearful so I gave him back his phone and then we kept going. I didn’t want him to take me to my sister’s house because of the things he was saying. So I had him drop me off at a cemetery where one of my close friends is buried. From there, he had sent my sister a picture of the cemetery when she had asked where I was.

Within the next several days I’m getting charged with attempted murder, assault and possession of a firearm. But of course, he did not report to the police anything that he did to me. They’re making it out as me being some horrible woman, without knowing my side of the story or what he did to me. It’s been very hard being made to look like an absolute monster.

Afterwards, he was still texting me, threatening me and then I got arrested. I was in jail for like 11 months with $1,000,000 bail. The prosecutors never tried to get my side of the story about what happened. They were just listening to what he said.

I was able to get bailed out with the help of my sister and the community and since then, I’ve done a lot of different therapeutic services, including counseling and domestic violence support groups to try and begin to process and heal from my past. This was definitely a very eye-opening experience for me: seeing that the justice system is trying to put somebody away for 18 years or more who feared for their life is just beyond me.

Thank you so much for sharing your story. It must be difficult to relive that, but thanks for sharing it. Do you want to talk at all about your time in jail?

Eggleson: Yes, it was very scary. For a few days, I didn’t really know what was going on. I had very, very poor communication with my attorney. My sister would reach out to him, and I would reach out and reach out to him, but he would never give me any information.

It was hard being away from my kids and my family, very hard. But I tried to be there as much as I could, like for birthdays and holidays. I would do video visits with them, send them pictures with my handprints and stuff, you know, so they put their hands next to the sides of my hands since I couldn’t be there. Both of my kids had their birthdays while I was in there. I spent my 21st birthday in there.

The way that the guards treat you is horrible. There was a girl, on my second or third day there, who had a miscarriage while she was in the cell with me. And the guards did nothing. She was in pain, crying, bleeding, and they just looked at her with disgust and walked away. I’ll never forget that. She was pleading with them to get a nurse and they were laughing at her. It was hard seeing the way that people were treated there. I tried to kind of stay under the radar so they wouldn’t mess with me. It was kind of hard, because they mess with everybody, but it worked.

There are so many layers of violence. Those guards go home and who knows what they’re doing to their families? Because they’re treating people horribly all day. But you are out now, thankfully. What do you attribute that to? And, along those lines, do you want to talk about your support campaign at all, and your resistance efforts?

Eggleson: I mean, it’s kind of a miracle to me. I never thought I was going to get out of jail. I thought that was that. I thought I was never going to see my family again.

Seeing all of these people that I don’t even know in my community show so much love and support that I never got as a child kind of restores my hope that things can be okay. That people do get better. And there’s people that love me and that I’m not a bad person. The state is making me feel like I am by the things that they say.

Every day, it still amazes me how much support I have and it really makes me want to help people. I know that I am not the only one this happens to and that’s not right. I met many women when I was in jail that were in similar situations and they were being criminalized for it, they were being punished for it.

All of these people that are helping me with my defense campaign, all these organizations, it helps me have the voice that I felt like I never had. It really helps a lot. It helps me to feel like I’m gonna be okay, through all of this, no matter what happens. There’s always people that are going to be there fighting for me.

Jorgensen: I can only imagine what it was like for Leah. (Sorry I’ve been crying this whole time.) I can only imagine what it was like to be in jail for 11 months thinking about never getting out or not seeing her kids until they are older adults; maybe she still faces that, right?

And you asked how she got out. Many people in my family have experienced the criminal legal system and a lot of people have or know somebody that has, which is really fucking sad. But I work with families and people every day that are involved in the legal system and so when Leah got arrested, it was just like, “Okay, how do we organize around her to make sure that she is not somebody that’s going to be in a system that falls through the cracks, and nobody ever hears her story.” Because I think that happens to a lot of people. They don’t have connections to community, they don’t have family support, or because of the isolation the legal system causes, they lose that connection, or their family just isn’t available to provide that kind of support.

So this is where Participatory Defense comes in. Once we knew that we could ask for a bail review, we put together a social biography packet for Leah, which is a packet with letters from her family — you know, myself, my mom or other family members — to describe the kind of person Leah is and her character and what a loving mom she is, and how bonded she is to her children. It also recognized that this is a woman that has also experienced a lot of fucking trauma, and has never had the opportunity to heal. Our family just did not always have the knowledge that we needed to support her either. So we wrote letters, we wrote a really detailed release plan, we connected Leah with services to a lot of community providers, who also wrote letters.

She had a million-dollar bail and we were able to reach out to the Northwest Community Bail Fund for help. Nobody has a million dollars. Nobody even has 10 percent of that, not families that live in poverty, which are usually the people impacted by the criminal legal system. So it’s just an excessive bail amount, period. But then we were like, “Okay, let’s see if we can get it lowered and then we can fundraise the money and get her out.” Then after the bail got lowered to $100,000, we started actually going through the process with the bail bondsman. They were like, “Okay, yeah, we want your house and a car, you know, your firstborn.” They want all this collateral, and it was not an option for us. I don’t even own my own car.

So even after feeling such a big win to get that bail lowered, that feeling of hopelessness came back. And I honestly don’t even know how it happened either. It feels like a miracle. I just reached out to the National Participatory Defense Network explaining the situation and reached out to the local bail fund and somehow this emergency grant money came through, and they were able to post the full $100,000. It felt really unreal that she was going to get out and we have a lot of gratitude, because there’s so many people still in jail pre-trial.

So I want to back up to the topic of jail. I want people to understand the toll it takes on families, like the anxiety you feel when you don’t hear from your loved one every day. The cost of jail phone calls and video visits are ridiculous. It’s like $8 for a 15-minute video call. There were many times where I would pay for a video visit, and we couldn’t even connect, yet I still had to pay for it. So just having to spend hundreds of dollars a month when you’re already living in poverty, just to have communication and then making sure that they have commissary items so that they can access things that they need takes a big toll. Trying to arrange visits around birthdays and holidays events takes a toll. I remember that there were occasions where the visits booked up so much that we couldn’t schedule anything because it wasn’t available. And [there was] COVID, so we couldn’t see her in person. Then we had to explain to a 3- and 4-year-old why their mom wasn’t here, and why we have to talk to her through a video, why she can only talk at certain times, why they can’t call her before bed or whenever they want.

And then not only that, but Leah went through a really fucking traumatic experience of months of abuse with this guy, and then being tied up and held hostage and being threatened to be killed for days and then she becomes incarcerated and has no opportunity to heal or process. She has no access to a counselor or any kind of mental health [resources]. So she’s sitting there not only worrying about her life on the line here, worrying about being separated from her kids and family, but also “What the fuck just happened to me?” How would you even process the trauma that you just experienced while you were sitting in a cell? It is just so inhumane to me, the way that the system criminalizes survivors and doesn’t give a shit about the trauma they just experienced.

We can also talk about the experience since Leah has been out. We have to go to court every couple of months to wonder, “Oh, is a trial going to happen? Is it not?” It’s just been a roller coaster of emotions, because we never know when it’s going to happen. We think it’s going to happen and then they’re like, “No, it’s not.” And it makes it really hard for the community and for the family to support [her]. We’re all going to be there, we will make it happen, but just the fact that people need to take time off from their work. They’re losing money. They don’t know if it’s actually going to happen so you’re having to constantly rearrange your schedule to show up. And then they say, “Oh, it’s not happening.” So you had all this built up anxiety thinking it’s going to happen, and then they are like, “Nope, you gotta wait another few months,” and it’s like, “Oh, shit, we have to do this all over again.” So that’s just frustrating.

Also we live two hours from this courthouse almost. Some of these hearings are five-minute hearings. I don’t even know why we have to be there, but we literally have to wake up at five in the morning, drive two hours for a five-minute hearing that could have happened over the phone.

And so really, the court doesn’t care about people’s lives, their ability to travel, the fact that people have children. We have jobs. So it’s messy, and they don’t take these things into consideration. Let me beat you down more, when you already are. They don’t care.

The process is definitely part of the punishment. So now finally Leah’s trial is April 19, right? How are you feeling about it? Is there anything you want to say about the prosecutor?

Eggleson: I’m very nervous. Very nervous and I have a lot of anxiety around it. A lot of fear. There’s a whole lot of emotions. But I have to remind myself that no matter what happens, that the fight is not over. My sister told me that and I repeat it in my head. The closer and closer we get, I have to remember no matter what happens, it’s not the end, even though it might feel like it, it’s not.

It’s very hard. It’s very hard for me to be present with my children because I know soon I might not be here and they’re not going to understand why. It’s also very hard on my family. But I know that I won’t be alone through it.

Jorgensen: The prosecutor’s name is Coreen Schnepf. She is a [domestic violence (DV)] victim herself, a white woman. She’s prosecuting a victim and won’t even recognize Leah as a victim, and then tries to bring up things about Leah’s life to justify it. Who Leah was in her past doesn’t dismiss her experience. It doesn’t mean anything. It has no relevance. The way that prosecutors try to use that tactic and make a person look bad to say, “Well, this couldn’t have happened to you, you couldn’t be a survivor of DV or sexual assault because of this thing that you did at this other time,” it really like plays into that who is a “good” victim, and who was a “bad” victim kind of dichotomy.

If you don’t fit into this cookie cutter of what some people think good victims should look like, then you’re completely disregarded and that is exactly what’s happening here. And to top it, in another case she’s prosecuting, [Schnepf] offered an eight-year plea deal to a man who allegedly held his family hostage at gunpoint, stomped his wife’s face and chest in front of their children, and threatened to kill police and himself during a police standoff, and she’s only ever offered my sister 18 years? Not that I think jail is ever a resource, but it shows the disparity in how survivors are treated in the system.

The elected prosecutor in this office, Mary Robnett, has failed to prosecute police officers when they have shot Black community members. So there’s already a lot of issues in this office.

Thanks so much to both of you for sharing your stories with Truthout. Before we wrap up, how can people support Leah?

Jorgensen: They can sign on the petition and donate to her liberation fund. We have Liberate Leah Lunches every Friday from 12:30 to 1:00 so people can come and help us work through action items. We have nearly 500 people, including 115 organizations, that have endorsed the campaign so far in the two weeks since we’ve publicly launched, so that’s just so amazing the outpouring of support. For people in the Tacoma area, they can register to provide court support during trial.

And also we’ve organized Letters of Love. So we had a couple events where people wrote letters that Leah will get to read during her trial to keep her spirits up and give her encouragement, and people can also email those to [email protected] They can send art, poetry, letters, anything that can lift her spirits during trial.

You can follow Leah’s case on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and on her support website, LiberateLeah.com.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.