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Punished for Survival: Domestic Violence, Criminalization and the Case of Naomi Freeman

At the heart of Naomi Freeman’s case is the question: Does a domestic violence survivor have the right to defend her own life?

Naomi Freeman, upon release on bond, is reunited with her two children. (Photo: Courtesy of Tannecha)

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Naomi Freeman walked out of Chicago’s Cook County Jail on December 23, rejoining her family, including her 1-year-old and 2-year-old children. But she did not walk out a free woman. After over six months behind bars, she will still face a legal ordeal – and a battle for her life. She is still facing charges of first-degree murder.

In the early hours of July 5, the 23-year-old pregnant mother was attacked by her boyfriend John Perry. According to witnesses, Perry pulled her out of her minivan by her hair and slammed her onto the ground. He then beat and punched her at least 20 times. Another person intervened, pulling Perry off her. Prosecutors allege that Freeman then got into her minivan, drove toward Perry and, when Perry moved out of the way, hit a fence. But, as she reversed her course, Perry jumped in front. Freeman is alleged to have deliberately run him over before leaving the minivan and fleeing. When they arrived on the scene, police and firefighters removed him from under the van, taking him to the hospital, where he died. Freeman was taken to jail.

That morning was not the first time Perry had beaten Freeman, her attorney Steve Pick told the arraigning judge later that week. Given Perry’s history of violence against his girlfriend, Pick requested a low bond. The judge set bond for $500,000, which was later reduced to $350,000. To post bond, Freeman and her family would have to pay 10 percent (or $35,000) in cash.

Freeman has joined the ranks of domestic violence survivors facing long prison sentences for defending themselves.

Freeman has joined the ranks of domestic violence survivors facing long prison sentences for defending themselves. No national agency keeps track of the number of people imprisoned for self-defense or other abuse-related convictions, making it difficult to track how many other women are in similar positions. In 1977, a study from Cook County Jail revealed that 40 percent of the women charged with murdering their partners reported having been abused by those men. Each woman had called police at least five times; many had already separated in an effort to escape the abuse. Two decades later, in 1999, the US Department of Justice found that nearly half of all women in local jails and state prisons had experienced abuse before their arrests. Anecdotal evidence – including the outpouring of news and social media stories about other domestic violence survivors behind bars – suggests that the intersections between domestic violence and incarceration have not decreased in the ensuing years.

Black women are disproportionately impacted by both domestic violence and incarceration. The Institute on Domestic Violence in the African American Community noted that while Black women are 8 percent of the country’s population, they account for 22 percent of intimate partner homicide victims (of all genders) and 29 percent of all female victims of domestic violence homicides. Moreover, Black women are killed by a spouse at twice the rate of white women; they were four times more likely to be murdered by a boyfriend or girlfriend than white women. At the same time, Black women are disproportionately incarcerated. The Bureau of Justice Statistics found that, in 2013, the imprisonment rate for Black women was twice that of white women.

One of the most famous examples of the collision of domestic violence and incarceration is Marissa Alexander, a Florida mother of three who fired a warning shot to stop her estranged husband’s assault. As reported earlier in Truthout, her conviction and 20-year sentence, coinciding with the acquittal of George Zimmerman, attracted national attention and outrage. Supporters across the country mobilized to support Alexander’s bid for freedom. Three years later, in 2013, an appeals court overturned her sentence. The following year, Alexander agreed to a plea bargain that included time served for the 1,030 days she had spent behind bars, an additional 65 days in jail and two years of house arrest. On January 27, 2015, she walked out of jail and into the first months of house arrest.

More recently, on August 18, 2015, 24-year-old Wisconsin mother Cierra Finkley was arrested under similar circumstances as Freeman. The previous year, her ex-boyfriend had been convicted of battering her and ordered to have no contact without the permission of his probation officer. But that day, he ignored the order, drove to her apartment and tried to run over Finkley and her 5-year-old daughter in the building’s parking lot. Finkley called the police three times that day. When he kicked down her door and attacked her, she allegedly stabbed him. He died and she was arrested.

Like Marissa Alexander and Naomi Freeman, Finkley’s story attracted attention – and support. The Young Gifted and Black Coalition, a Madison-based group of young Black organizers fighting to end state violence, rallied behind Finkley, connecting with her family, helping obtain legal representation and spreading her story. They called for the district attorney, Ismael Ozanne, to refuse to file charges and circulated an online petition, which garnered nearly 1,700 signatures, including 40 from domestic violence organizations nationwide. The following month, Ozanne, who had been considering first-degree reckless homicide charges that carry a maximum sentence of 60 years, announced that he needed additional time to examine new information, but was not pursuing charges at that time. Finkley was released, although if Ozanne changes his mind, she could still face charges.

Arrested for Surviving Abuse

News of Freeman’s arrest shocked family members. Her aunt Aretha, who requested that she be identified by her first name, was driving to work when her daughter began calling her repeatedly. “No one in my family does that unless it’s an emergency,” she told Truthout. Her daughter told her that she had seen an article online about Perry’s death and the allegations against Freeman. Shocked, Aretha repeatedly tried to call her niece, but there was no answer. Other family members later confirmed that Freeman had been arrested.

Aretha and other family members describe Freeman as a warm and generous person. “She helps everyone,” her aunt, Tannecha, told Truthout. (She also requested that she be identified by her first name.) “If she sees I need [something], I won’t even need to ask her. She’ll just do it.” Another family member, who asked to remain anonymous, said that when she was homeless, Freeman told her, “Sister, don’t worry! You can sleep on my couch!” Freeman also bought the woman’s daughter school supplies during that time.

“From our nation’s inception, when a woman of color has defended herself, her act is not seen as an act of self-defense.”

In contrast, the family member described Perry as rude, disrespectful and very childish. She recalled one afternoon when she and Freeman had plans to drive somewhere. Perry, however, wanted his girlfriend to drive him elsewhere, demanding, “You do what I say first!” Freeman acquiesced, later apologizing to her family member. “She was always having to make an apology for him,” the family member recounted. She also recalled that, when she was present, it was not unusual to hear Perry threatening Freeman. “He’d tell her, ‘Bitch, I’m gonna beat your ass,’ or ‘I’ll kill you before I ever let you leave.’ She’d try to blow it off because it’s embarrassing, but he’d keep going – cursing and yelling.”

On more than one occasion, that family member saw Freeman with scratches “all over her neck.” Once Freeman had a black eye. Another time, her eye was swollen shut. Each time she was asked about her injuries, Freeman simply said that she and Perry had a fight. “It’s okay. It’s gonna change. He’s gonna change,” the family member said she would say.

Freeman had initially been friends with Perry, her cousin, who also asked to remain anonymous, told Truthout. “When he was incarcerated, that was when she started talking about how they were going to get married when he came home,” she recounted. Perry, who had numerous arrests, mainly for drug-related crimes, had been sentenced to three years in prison for a narcotics-related case.

Once, Freeman’s cousin said, the cousins were hanging out outside the house, and Perry began yelling at Freeman to go inside. “She reacted like she was scared,” her cousin said. “It was like, anything he said, she had to do it.” But, her cousin noted, while Freeman had always talked to her about previous relationships, “she kept this one private.” Looking back, she reflected, “If she’s trying to keep her relationship private, there’s something wrong there.”

Resisting the Criminalization of Women of Color

Although Freeman’s family had no previous experience navigating the legal system, they weren’t going to simply sit back and allow their niece to remain in jail. “I’m at every court date,” Aretha said. It was at one of those dates that Freeman’s family met her other supporters.

“I didn’t know who they were,” recalled Tannecha, another of Freeman’s aunts. The four supporters wore nametags that said, “Hello, my name is Naomi Freeman.” During a lull in the court proceedings, family members introduced themselves.

Holly Krig was one of the nametag wearers. Krig didn’t know Naomi Freeman before her arrest made headlines. But, as the director of organizing for Moms United Against Violence and Incarceration, she knows other women with similar stories. Krig had initially shared the article with friends and activists, who expressed interest in supporting Freeman through her legal battles. She also visited Freeman in jail, learning that she was pregnant and that she had lupus, a chronic inflammatory disease that can weaken the immune system and cause complications in the kidneys, central nervous system, lungs, heart and blood vessels. It can also increase the risk of miscarriage, preeclampsia (high blood pressure during pregnancy) and preterm birth.

“I don’t think I should be punished for defending my life. I have to get home to my kids as soon as I can and be the best mother I can be.”

Ayanna Banks Harris, coordinator of the Chicago-based organization Love and Protect, also read those articles. Love and Protect, Harris explained, originally formed in 2013 as the Chicago Alliance to Free Marissa Alexander. Once Alexander was released, members decided that they wanted to continue supporting abuse survivors who are incarcerated for defending themselves or charged with failure to protect their children from abusive partners. Crediting Mariame Kaba, director of Project NIA, an organization working toward decreasing arrests and imprisonment of Chicago youth, with the concept of “No Selves to Defend,” Harris told Truthout, “There’s a tendency to criminalize women of color, particularly Black women, for defending themselves. This [Naomi’s case] is not isolated. This is systematic. From our nation’s inception, when a woman of color has defended herself, her act is not seen as an act of self-defense.”

Both Krig and Harris acknowledge the challenges of supporting Freeman while awaiting trial. “It’s hard to raise money when you can’t really go out and tell the story,” Harris said, noting that anything said can potentially be used in court later. But supporters collaborated to meet that challenge. Connecting with the Chicago Community Bond Fund, a recently created initiative that uses a revolving fund to post bond for people who would otherwise languish in jail pretrial, they created a bond fund specifically for Freeman and began to spread the word. Meanwhile, Freeman’s family was also fundraising, holding dinners with names like Taco Tuesday, Fish Fry Friday and Soul Food Sunday, to cover legal fees, helping Freeman’s sister care for the children, and making sure Freeman had money to make phone calls from jail.

On December 15, activists shut down the downtown Chicago intersection where the Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center, the Chicago Stock Exchange and the federal prison are located. The two-hour shutdown commemorated the death of Laquan McDonald, who was shot to death by Chicago police in 2014, and demanded the resignation of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez. But members of Lifted Voices, a newly formed collective of women of color and gender non-binary activists, also used the occasion to help fundraise for Freeman. “There’s always a call for donations when people get arrested,” Crystal, a Lifted Voices member, told Truthout. “This time, when the call [for bond] went out, we were explicit that anything over that [needed to post bond for the 16 arrestees] would go to Naomi’s bond fund.”

Overall, 345 people donated to the bond fund, with amounts ranging from $3 to $1,000, enabling Freeman, now in her third trimester of pregnancy, to spend Christmas with her children and extended family. “Someday I will need to explain to my kids why they don’t have their father,” Freeman wrote from jail in early December. “I never meant to hurt him that day, I only acted in fear for my life. I have to forgive myself, but not for surviving, and I don’t think I should be punished for defending my life. I have to get home to my kids as soon as I can and be the best mother I can be. I need a second chance at life for them and for myself.”

Now out of jail, Freeman will be able to seek pregnancy-related care and give birth to her baby without handcuffs, shackles or jail guards. She will be able to tuck her children into bed at night and cook them breakfast in the morning. But her legal ordeal – and her fight for that second chance – is only just beginning.