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Story Publication logo January 13, 2020

How Far Can Abused Women Go to Protect Themselves?

Image by TX King / Shutterstock. Undated.

This story examines how the criminal justice system is not equipped to protect women who protect...

Brittany Smith, seen here with her children, faces life in prison for killing the man who raped her. Photograph by Nydia Blas for The New Yorker. United States, 2020.
Brittany Smith, seen here with her children, faces life in prison for killing the man who raped her. Photograph by Nydia Blas for The New Yorker. United States, 2020.

Snow was falling in Stevenson, Alabama, when Brittany Smith and her brother, Chris McCallie, stopped at a McDonald's. It was January, 2018, and Brittany felt happier than she had in a long time. After years of working low-paying, menial jobs, she was coming from an interview at a flooring company. She'd been hired on the spot, at a wage that would more than cover her expenses, including rent for her four-bedroom red brick house. Brittany, who is now thirty-two, has four children. In 2013, after she struggled with substance abuse, the state removed the eldest three, who eventually went to live with her uncle. But a long period of good behavior meant that she'd soon get increased visitations, and then, she hoped, full custody. "I was just uplifted," she told me recently. "Like, everything is going right. I have a job now, I'm going to get my babies back, and I have a home."

On the drive back to her house, Brittany got a call from Todd Smith, an old acquaintance who bred pit bulls in Jasper, Tennessee, just over the state line. She had visited his house the day before, and taken home a reddish-colored puppy with gray-blue eyes, like her own. She named her Athena.

Now Todd, who was thirty-eight, asked if she would pick him up from a city park. He said that he was stranded and freezing, and he had no one else to call. He didn't tell her that his father had kicked him out of the house after a violent altercation that ended with Todd's arrest. Picking Todd up didn't seem like a good idea—according to Brittany, he had expressed romantic interest in her, which she'd rejected—and Chris advised her not to. "I just had a gut feeling that something was going to happen," he said.

Still, the snow was coming down thick and fast. Brittany told Todd that they'd pick him up, and that he could stay on the couch for the night; she didn't want him in the children's beds.

After Chris dropped Brittany and Todd off at her house, they gave the puppy a bath and talked about the meth crisis that had engulfed the Tennessee Valley and derailed their lives. Brittany had become hooked after losing her grandmother and a baby—to a rare congenital condition—within a year. She'd grown alarmingly skinny, had been arrested for drug possession, and spent two weeks in jail. But now she was clean. Todd, who had buzzed hair, flushed cheeks, and a disarming smile, said that he still struggled with drugs. Brittany urged him to get "his priorities together," telling him about the good job she'd just been offered and how her kids might soon come home.

According to her, as she spoke, Todd's face hardened, and he asked if she thought she was better than him. He then called her a bitch and head-butted her. Terrified, she ran into her bedroom and shut the door, but Todd broke through it. He threw her on the bed and choked her until she passed out. When she woke up, she was naked and had urinated on herself. He was raping her, and his hands were tight around her throat. "We're friends," she tried to say, but her voice sounded squeaky through his grip, like a cartoon character's. "We're friends," he replied, mocking her. "Don't say a fucking word or I'll kill you."

As he raped her, Brittany fought back, sobbing and clawing at him so hard that some of her fingernails ripped off. He twisted her head against the side of the bed until she thought her neck would break. They fell onto the floor, and again he choked her until she blacked out. "Then I woke back up, and let him finish what he was doing," Brittany told me. "And his whole face changed, he was normal."

Afterward, Todd said that if she told anyone what had happened he would kill her and everyone she loved—her mother, her brother, and her children. He wanted cigarettes, and Brittany offered to call someone to take them to the store, since she didn't have a car.

She called her mother, Ramona McCallie, who lived nearby. Todd held the phone while Brittany talked, and she tried to subtly convey that something was wrong. Ramona thought that her daughter sounded strange, as if she'd been crying. But Ramona was exhausted from a new job cleaning houses, and she sent Chris over.

At a local gas station, Brittany went in for cigarettes while Chris and Todd sat in the car. In the fluorescent light, the cashier, Paige Painter, who regularly served Brittany, noticed her tangled hair, ripped nails, and scratched face. "What happened to you?" Painter asked.

In a low voice, Brittany asked for a piece of paper, wrote down "Todd Smith," and said that he'd beaten and raped her. She added that, if she was dead in the morning, he was the person who had done it. But she made Painter promise not to call the police. "If the police were involved, I would be dead right now," Brittany said to me. "He told me that, and after what he put me through I believed him."

When Chris again dropped off Brittany and Todd, Brittany told him to go see Painter. At the gas station, Chris said, he went "blank." Then he drove back to Brittany's house with a registered .22-calibre revolver that he kept in his car. Meanwhile, Brittany had texted her mother. "Mom Todd has tried to kill me literally," she wrote. "Don't act like anything is wrong . . . He will kill me if he knows."

Chris said that he found Todd in the kitchen. "You need to get your shit and leave," Chris told him, and accidentally fired a shot into a cabinet. When Todd refused to go, Chris set the gun down on the kitchen island and tried to wrestle him out of the house. Chris was large but soft; Todd was barrel-chested, and he had taken a combination of Xanax, amphetamines, alcohol, and meth. According to Chris, Todd easily got him in a headlock and began choking him.

Brittany, who had been in the living room until hearing the shot, said she picked up the gun from the counter. Sobbing and screaming, she told Todd to let her brother go. When he kept choking Chris, saying that he'd kill them both, Brittany fired a shot. When Todd still didn't let go, she fired two more rounds. After he fell, she called 911.

"Someone just got shot at 211 Sharon Drive," Brittany told the operator. "He—he tried to kill me and—" As the operator went through a series of questions, Brittany grew frantic. "Just have an ambulance come, please, because I don't want this man to die." The operator told her how to do CPR, and Brittany performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on Todd while Chris did chest compressions.

Police officers showed up nearly half an hour later, around the time that Todd died. Brittany detailed how he had beaten and raped her and attacked Chris. A rape kit showed bruises on her neck, breasts, arms, legs, and pelvis, evidence of strangulation, bite marks on her neck and chin, and secretions on her neck and in her vagina. Yet within forty-eight hours she had been charged with murder.

Initially, Chris and Brittany told the police that he had killed Todd. Both of them believed that a woman who had defended herself against violence would never get a fair trial in Jackson County, where Stevenson is situated. "I hate to say this, but, Jackson County, they're a little bit behind on the times," Chris told me, arguing that, if law enforcement had known that it was Brittany who fired the gun, they would not have taken her for a rape-kit examination until it was too late. Women, he said, "get the short end of the stick."

Stevenson, once a lively railroad hub, is now riddled with vacant storefronts and empty lots. A quarter of the town's residents live below the poverty line, and well-paying jobs are scarce. The town's biggest annual event celebrates the now defunct train station and features lawnmower races and vintage cars.

Between 2015 and 2017, Jackson County had more than double the state average of aggravated assaults per capita. There were far fewer simple assaults, but the sheriff's office told me that officials categorize some domestic-violence complaints—after, say, a woman has been slapped—as "harassment," a lesser crime.

Nearly every woman I met in the county had a story of domestic violence. Often, drugs played a role. One woman, a single mother and a neighbor of the McCallies, told me that her husband of fourteen years, while on meth, had "stomped my head in until I passed out." Another woman told me that she'd been sexually assaulted as a child, and that her ex-husband had held her hostage at gunpoint. On both occasions, she said, authorities made her feel as if she were to blame. "Instead of being treated like the victim, it was more like my fault," she said. "They said if I did anything to him, I would have been the one going to jail. . . . What am I supposed to do, let him beat me and end up dead?"

When I told the Jackson County sheriff, Chuck Phillips, about these conversations, he insisted that domestic violence and sexual abuse weren't especially common in the county. "I don't know who you talked to, but I don't much believe that," he said. "I mean, our statistics are not outrageous." He told me, "People get high, they get stupid."

Some of the women said that they had not reported the violence because they did not have confidence in law enforcement. Sandra Goodman, a local rape-victim advocate who took on Brittany's case, told me that, when a woman makes a report, the police often "don't acknowledge it." In her role as an advocate, Goodman provides transportation and attends court hearings for women who have been sexually assaulted. She is also the vice-president of Healing Bridge, a nonprofit in LaFayette, Georgia, which offers free counselling to victims of sexual abuse. Goodman said that the center often takes clients from Jackson County, because resources there are few. She described the violence in the county as an epidemic. "A lot of the time, they take the woman's statement and that's where it stops," she said, referring to the local police.

The sheriff's office's handling of the recent deaths of two women has not inspired much confidence. In 2017, a year after a woman's body was found on the railroad tracks, law enforcement said that her death remained unsolved because of a long delay in receiving the forensic report. (When I followed up, the sheriff's office cited a lack of evidence.) In October, 2018, when another woman was found dead, police initially announced that she'd been stabbed; later, they said that she had been hit by a car. "The women getting killed or almost getting killed is going up because they aren't doing anything about it," one woman told me. "They don't want to waste their time."

Throughout the two-thousands, Alabama was among the states where a woman was most likely to be murdered by a man, according to F.B.I. data analyzed by the Violence Policy Center, a gun-crime-prevention group. In 2011, Alabama stopped submitting its homicide data to the Bureau, but Georgia and Tennessee, its neighbors, are still in the top ten.

Brittany believed that, if she had not shot Todd, he would have killed her and Chris. "I did what I thought I had to do, what I did have to do, no doubt in my mind," she said.

In March, 2018, a grand jury indicted Brittany for murder. She said that she was given legal advice that the prosecution planned to argue that she and Todd had been in a relationship, a claim that she denies. Her bond was set at a hundred thousand dollars, which her mother, who lived in Stevenson's public housing, could not pay. If convicted, Brittany faced a sentence of twenty years to life.

That month, an investigator for the sheriff's office testified at a pretrial hearing that he didn't believe Todd had tried to kill Brittany. When asked about her injuries—the rape kit had counted thirty-three—he said, "Honestly, I mean, I would have thought there would be more."

In the past several decades, imprisonment of women in the United States has increased at a rate twice that of men; there are now some two hundred and thirty thousand women incarcerated. No national data exist on how many women imprisoned for violent crimes claim that they were acting in self-defense, but a 2004 study by the Department of Justice, which surveyed sixty female inmates at a maximum-security prison in the Southeast, found that nearly half of them said that they had acted in self-defense or retaliated in the wake of abuse. "The women acted in response to being pushed, slapped, punched, beaten, choked, raped, or threatened with a weapon," the study's author wrote.

A review by researchers at the University of South Carolina and at Yale, in 2008, which drew on dozens of previous studies, found that when women used violence against male partners it generally occurred after violence was done to them. The review noted that women were more likely to be motivated by self-defense and by fear, while men's use of violence was more often motivated by control. "I've been beaten in my head with hammers, I had my ear drum busted, I had my nose busted, I been hit in the ribs with a bat," one woman told researchers. "When I started fighting back he know what happens now, [they] got these laws where you both fight you go to jail. So I got a jail record for assault. . . . God, what is the justice in this?"

Courts frequently do not take evidence of abuse into account. Sometimes this is because a woman's lawyer fails to hire an expert witness to testify about the effects of sexual or domestic violence. A prosecutor may successfully argue that a woman's self-defense claim is invalid because she didn't end a relationship with an abuser, didn't call the police about the violence (as Brittany didn't), or allowed the abuser into her home (as Brittany did). Or a judge may not permit the evidence of abuse to be presented.

In 2014, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Tracey Grissom was sentenced to twenty-five years in prison for murder, for shooting her ex-husband, Hunter. The judge did not allow jurors to hear that, in 2010, Hunter had been charged with rape and sodomy after allegedly assaulting Grissom. Grissom said that he had knocked her to the ground, choked her with a drumstick, and sexually abused her until she lost consciousness. She said the attack caused rectal-nerve damage and required surgery, and that she now used a colostomy bag. The day of the shooting, she said, she'd feared for her life, but eyewitnesses said that she had begun shooting without provocation. "I didn't do anything wrong," Grissom said, sobbing, after her conviction. "All I did was protect myself." One of the jurors later said that, if she'd been able to hear the details of the abuse, she would have voted to acquit.

Britnea Myers was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to twenty years in 2013, after stabbing her husband, Timothy, outside Mobile. She said that Timothy had been abusive since returning from Iraq, where he had served as a member of the Alabama National Guard. According to Myers, Timothy attempted to strangle her to death while she was holding their son. After receiving her sentence, she told a local TV station, "I guess in the state of Alabama it's illegal to defend yourself." Myers later filed a petition for post-conviction relief, arguing that her counsel had been ineffective in failing to let her testify, and that the prosecution had neglected to hand over photographs of the injuries she had sustained before the stabbing, including wounds to her chest, throat, ankle, and head. Her petition was denied.

News coverage of these cases largely focusses on the archetypes that the prosecution draws of the women—"cold-blooded murderer," "evil," and "heartless" are common descriptions. The Alabama media, in reporting on Todd's death, did not mention Brittany's rape. Researchers at nonprofits whom I spoke to were frustrated by a lack of statistics on how many women have been incarcerated for defending themselves. In some cases, it was almost as if the violence against women didn't exist.

An analysis of F.B.I. homicide data performed, at my request, by John Roman, a senior fellow at N.O.R.C. at the University of Chicago, illuminates the differences in outcomes for women and men who claim self-defense. Roman examined the number of justifiable homicides—a killing deemed to have been carried out without malicious or criminal intent—between 1976 and 2018, and found that the likelihood of this ruling in cases in which men killed other men was ten per cent greater than when women killed men. (Cases in which men kill women or women kill women are almost never found to be justified.) In Alabama, the gender disparity was even greater. Before the state stopped reporting such data to the F.B.I., women lost their cases twenty-five per cent more often than men did.

Joshua Todd Smith grew up in Jasper, Tennessee, the seat of Marion County. His parents divorced when he was young. According to Jeff Poe, a cousin of Todd's, the two boys loved to explore the surrounding woods and mountains of the Tennessee Valley. "Man, we had a good time when we was kids," Poe said. "Then we grew up and started experimenting."

In high school, Poe said, they just drank. But later Todd started taking opioids, benzodiazepines, and meth, among other drugs. It was common for men in the valley to settle their differences by fighting, but "Todd would take it to the next level," Poe said. He almost never lost a fight, and if he did he went back for more.

Poe said that, as they got older, he began to worry that Todd didn't like to be sober; when he was on something, his violence got worse. When Todd took Xanax, Poe said, the neighborhood "was on eggshells." Poe, who in 2018 was arrested for meth possession, compared the impact of meth on Todd to Jack Nicholson's warning to Heath Ledger about playing the character of the Joker. "Like, don't get too wrapped up in this character," Poe said. "He did, and it overtook his life." Poe has a tattoo on his arm of the Joker, and another of a pit bull, in memory of Todd. He mostly dealt drugs instead of using them, and blamed himself for Todd's addiction.

In the early two-thousands, Paige Parker was married to Todd. "Two weeks after I was married to him . . . he had broke my nose, I couldn't see straight," Parker told an online-radio host in early 2019. "I was sitting there crying to myself for a second, and I'm, like, I am a strong person, but I was, like, Why was this happening?"

After that, according to Parker and to arrest reports from the time, the violence escalated. Todd broke her nose, ribs, and jaw, and bit her on the face. "I was also beaten and raped and sodomized for years by this man," she said. "I know what Brittany went through that night, because I went through it for years."

While they were married, Todd was charged with domestic violence five times, but he never went to jail for those charges. Even after Parker filed for divorce, in 2003, the violence did not end. She told the radio host that Todd had duct-taped her to a chair and threatened to throw her in the Tennessee River. In 2004, she got an order of protection.

After the divorce, Todd continued to be arrested on charges of domestic violence, including toward a woman with whom he had a child, but they were dismissed. Local law enforcement told me that his accusers often didn't show up in court, a common reason that batterers escape consequences.

Police officers remember Todd well, since they arrested him about eighty times. A former dispatcher at the Stevenson Police Department said that, around 2009, when she failed to respond to his flirtation, he backed her against a desk and tried to tear off her shirt.

"Ever since he was a juvenile, it's always been something," Billy Mason, the chief of the Jasper Police Department, told me. Mason had responded to complaints about Todd's domestic violence toward women and his father, and about mistreatment of his pit bulls. (Todd's father declined to comment.) Of twelve assault charges brought against Todd, seven were dismissed or waived.

"That's the deal with court that a police officer can't stand, because nobody stays in jail as long as they need to," Mason told me. He blamed the court system for not doing more to stop domestic abusers: "We're always the one getting the bad rap, and, you know, sometimes it's a system in the hole."

After Brittany was charged with Todd's murder, she was placed in the Jackson County jail, in Scottsboro, a squat brick-and-concrete building with ads for bail-bond agents in the lobby. Most of the inmates were there for drug offenses. In jail, Brittany said, staff did not give her Xanax, which she had been prescribed for anxiety. Jails can discontinue an inmate's medication, sometimes because they do not have the drugs on hand or because they want an inmate to detox—particularly an inmate, like Brittany, who has a history of substance abuse. But sudden withdrawal from benzodiazepines such as Xanax can lead to panic attacks and hallucinations, and, within days, Brittany had a nervous breakdown. She said she hallucinated images of Todd and of pit bulls.

Ramona, her mother, said that she received a call from Brittany in which "she was talking crazy, and it freaked me out." Brittany said that two jailers taunted her, telling her she could push a button on an invisible elevator that would take her to see her children. (The Jackson County Sheriff's Office declined to comment on this allegation.)

A therapist who saw Brittany several times in jail wrote that she spoke "with clarity and logical thought process." He added that she found it difficult to manage without her medication.

In April, 2018, Ramona found two people in Jackson County to put up their houses as collateral for bail, and Brittany was released. She moved into her mother's home and started taking her anti-anxiety medication again, but she could not relax. Neither could Chris, who was having nightmares and screaming in his sleep. His name had been published in the local paper after Todd's death, and now he couldn't find work. People in Stevenson were gossiping about the rape and the shooting. Stories circulated that Brittany had been watching porn with Todd before the rape, that Ramona had been at the shooting, that the killing was a drug deal gone wrong. Jeff Poe, who had lived with Todd, wrote on Facebook that, two nights before the killing, he had seen Brittany naked with Todd. "I got up to piss and it looked like national geographic in the house," Poe wrote on Facebook. "I seen it with my own damn eyes what the whor did!!!" (Cindy Boldin Hicks, a friend of Brittany's, said that Brittany was at her house that night, playing cards.)

Poe reiterated his claim to me, saying that, although he believed that Todd could have beaten Brittany, he didn't think that he had raped her. "How can you rape the willin'?" Poe asked. "Can you?"

Even Todd's ex-wife, Paige Parker, who had participated in a protest in support of Brittany, later said that she didn't want to be associated with the case. She said that she believes Brittany is using Parker's story of sexual violence as her own. When I asked Parker if she'd seen the results of the rape kit detailing Brittany's injuries, she replied, "Yeah, well, that could be from rough sex."

Chris found this absurd. "All these people out here saying, 'Oh, they were dating, and it was just rough sex.' No. I'm pretty sure we all know what rough sex is," he said. "I wouldn't wish being raped on my worst enemy."

Not long after Brittany's release, she and her mother said, a man on a motorcycle began following her. Once, he watched her while she ran laps at a local park. Another time, he followed her to the gas station where she had bought cigarettes the night of the shooting. When Brittany confronted him, she said, he told her that he was a relative of Todd's, and that he was there because Todd had been shot by a "white nigger." "He was just letting me know that he knew," Brittany said. "And to let me know who he was."

That June, Brittany stopped leaving Ramona's apartment, a cramped but homey two-bedroom, except to visit her children. Chris rarely left, either, other than to try to find work. Summers in northeastern Alabama are hot and teeming with mosquitoes. At night, children chase one another on bikes, and adults smoke cigarettes on porches and talk until late. Brittany joined them on the porch, but didn't want to go with her mother to Walmart or the dollar store. To distract herself from the upcoming trial, she made funny videos on TikTok with friends online or with children in the neighborhood. In one video, Brittany performs "Where Is the Love?," by the Black Eyed Peas, with high drama. But, as she sings, her tears are real.

The court appointed a local criminal-defense and personal-injury attorney named James Mick, a former police officer, to defend Brittany, because she could not afford to hire a lawyer. There is no statewide public-defender system in Alabama, so courts often appoint private attorneys to provide defense for the indigent. These attorneys are paid little for their time and have scant incentive to take a case to trial. Mick typically handled low-level drug cases, burglaries, custody suits, divorces, and evictions.

When Mick was assigned to Brittany's case, she said, he advised her to plead guilty to manslaughter. The conviction would carry a sentence of between two and twenty years. Brittany refused, telling him that it was clear she'd shot Todd in self-defense, and she asked him to enter a Stand Your Ground defense. The statute, which was introduced in Alabama in 2006, makes it legal to use lethal force to defend oneself against threats or perceived threats, with no duty to retreat. Thirty-three states now have such laws, and advocates say that they empower people to protect themselves in grave situations. As Wayne LaPierre, the head of the National Rifle Association and a proponent of Stand Your Ground laws, has said, "The one thing a violent rapist deserves to face is a good woman with a gun."

Victor Revill, an Alabama criminal-defense attorney who has handled many Stand Your Ground claims, reviewed Brittany's case, at my request, and said that it was "Stand Your Ground all day." If Brittany won a hearing, the charges against her would be dismissed.

Mick initially filed for a Stand Your Ground hearing, but in October, 2018, he instead pursued a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity, a rare defense that is difficult to win. He requested an evaluation from a state psychologist, which would assess Brittany's competency to stand trial and her mental state at the time of the shooting. Brittany said that Mick made this decision without consulting or informing her. (Mick denies this.) According to her, they had not met in months, despite her frequent efforts to reach him. Brittany said that their only contact in the weeks before the filing had been an argument over his representation. Ramona forwarded me more than a dozen unanswered e-mails she had sent to Mick. (Mick said that Ramona is not his client.) "I just don't feel like he's fighting for Brittany," she said. I spoke to Mick in his office, and asked him about Ramona's concerns. He cut me off and said, "You can leave." He refused to speak to me again.

Sandra Goodman, the rape-victim advocate, said that Brittany saw a psychiatrist from Healing Bridge several times, and that there was nothing that indicated mental illness. "Brittany has no mental-health issues other than P.T.S.D.," Goodman said. "P.T.S.D. from the rape—and the judicial system."

After meeting with Brittany, the state psychologist wrote a report depicting her as upset and anxious. He began by noting that Brittany had eaten some ten mini Snickers bars from the receptionist's desk, which he described as unusual. (Brittany told me that she hadn't eaten that day, which was often the case, because of a lack of money.) He wrote that she had cried so much that he'd had to get tissues for her.

Brittany told me that, when she described how Todd had mimicked her voice during the rape, the psychologist laughed. Incensed, she started cursing. The psychologist noted in the report that she seemed "hostile" and "ill-at-ease." (When reached by phone and e-mail, he at first said that he didn't remember Brittany, then said that he doesn't believe Brittany's recollection is accurate.)

The psychologist suggested that Brittany suffered from paranoid thoughts. He reported that she believed Todd Smith's family was after her. "His family has a hit out on me," Brittany told him. He wrote that Brittany had trouble differentiating fantasy from reality. Yet Jeff Poe told me that, after Todd's death, he considered having Brittany killed. "I did pick up the phone after that happened and called a friend of mine," Poe told me. "I could have had something done, but I didn't want the blood on my hands."

The psychologist concluded that Brittany was showing symptoms of a psychotic disorder, which he wrote could be exacerbated or caused by substance abuse. He said that she had told him she'd relapsed on meth earlier that fall. Brittany maintains that she was not using drugs at the time of the interview. In order to regain competency to stand trial, the psychologist wrote, she would need outpatient or inpatient treatment.

In a pretrial hearing that followed, Jason Pierce, the district attorney of Jackson County, said, "The most appropriate and perhaps the only placement for Ms. Smith would be at the Bryce Hospital," the state's oldest inpatient facility, in Tuscaloosa, which houses the seriously mentally ill. Pierce went on to suggest that the shooting may have resulted from "one of the delusions" Brittany suffered, and that, although she had passed a drug test the day before, she could have faked it. (Pierce declined to talk to me.) The judge sent her to Bryce.

Goodman was appalled. "There was nothing that should have caused her to go to Bryce," she said. "No reason, none at all."

Mary Anne Franks, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law, who wrote a study of gender disparity in self-defense law called "Real Men Advance, Real Women Retreat," argues that women have long been pathologized for acting in self-defense. Battered-woman syndrome, a theory developed by a psychologist in the nineteen-seventies, has often been deployed as a defense in cases in which a woman has killed her abuser. Franks writes that, although the argument has sometimes been successful, it is based on the idea of female irrationality. Unlike Stand Your Ground laws, which offer justification for a defendant's action, battered-woman syndrome proposes that a woman has "acted wrongly, but is so defective in some significant sense that she cannot be held accountable," Franks writes. She told me that, even when battered-woman syndrome is not mentioned in court, women who fight back "are treated pathologically, treated as if there is something wrong with their brains."

Last June, I went to see Brittany at Bryce, once known as the Alabama State Hospital for the Insane. Outside the hospital, a three-story brick building with imposing white columns, stands a statue of Hebe, the Greek goddess of youth, carrying ambrosia and nectar. Opened in 1861, Bryce was initially considered a progressive mental institution. But, as the patient population increased, the quality of care sharply declined. By 1971, conditions had deteriorated so significantly that patients filed a class-action lawsuit against the state over their mistreatment. The resulting settlement established the federal minimum standard of care for the mentally ill. Brittany was in an all-female ward, where one of her roommates told her that she had been institutionalized after skinning her sister's arm and shoulder and eating them. Another patient regularly lay on the floor and played dead, which distressed Brittany, because it reminded her of Todd. She had again been taken off her anti-anxiety medication.

In the cafeteria, a staff member watched as Brittany told me about the abuse of patients by staff. She said that, after she refused to pick up another roommate's feces, a male nurse had pushed her against the wall and twisted her arm behind her back. (Another patient confirmed the incident.) She said that the same nurse later taunted her and asked her to flash him. (A call to Bryce's patient advocate about these allegations was not returned; I later learned that he had been arrested for possession of child pornography. He has pleaded not guilty.)

Brittany kept a journal at Bryce, and had the pages mailed to her mother. "May 16: injured elbow . . . sexually assaulted in my sleep," Brittany wrote. She had woken up to her roommate touching her. "June 5: Donna hit 17 year old Jaleria."

The state psychologist had estimated that Brittany would regain competency within ninety days. But after six months she was still at Bryce, despite attention brought to her case by a piece on the Web site the Appeal. Staff members told me that she didn't belong there. Brittany said that the longer she stayed the more she feared she was going to crack, and then she'd be held longer. "There isn't another person that can keep their composure like me," she told her mother, then wept. When Ramona called Bryce to find out why Brittany was still there, she was told there was a backlog of patients to evaluate for release. (The Alabama Department of Mental Health declined to comment.)

Last September, Brittany was released from Bryce to jail, then home. Ramona videotaped her reunion with her children at a local park. Ramona told them that a surprise was waiting, and then Brittany jumped out from behind a tree. Her children rushed to her and hugged her. Her two boys began to cry.

As Brittany awaited trial, she tried to put her life back together. She nervously picked at herself, developing small scabs on her arms and her hands. She and Ramona barely ate. Most of their money had gone toward getting Brittany out of jail after Bryce. Chris had found a job, cleaning restaurants on overnight shifts. But the family still hadn't had enough to cover Brittany's bond, so Ramona had given a bondswoman the titles to her cars and her mother's wedding rings as collateral.

In October, the district attorney offered Brittany a deal: a sentence of twenty-five years if she pleaded guilty, less than she might expect if she were convicted of murder. Brittany refused to consider it. She was determined to claim self-defense, in part for her children. "I want them to know that Mommy's not a murderer, that Mommy defended herself, and that you should always defend yourself," she said.

James Mick had filed a motion requesting legal assistance, and Brittany now had another court-appointed attorney, Ron Smith. In December, once Smith had been briefed, Brittany tried to fire Mick, but later decided that it was too close to trial. Her Stand Your Ground hearing was scheduled for January, 2020. Brittany wasn't optimistic that she'd win. It seemed to her like a law that applied only to white men. When she was in Bryce, she noted the number of TV news stories about people who successfully argued Stand Your Ground. None of them were women.

In his analysis for The New Yorker, John Roman, the researcher from the University of Chicago, found that, over all, according to F.B.I. data, Stand Your Ground laws have actually helped both women and men win justifiable-homicide defenses. But in some states the laws have done little or nothing for women. A statistical analysis of Stand Your Ground cases in Florida, conducted by the political scientist Justin Murphy, looked at two hundred and thirty-seven incidents between 2005 and 2013. The study, which was published in Social Science Quarterly, in 2017, found evidence of both racial and gender bias. The gender bias applied to "domestic" cases—those which occurred on a defendant's property. The probability of conviction for a male defendant in such a case was about forty per cent; for a woman, it was about eighty per cent. The analysis suggests that, in domestic cases, Stand Your Ground works better for men than for women.

In Alabama, Roman found, no women received justifiable-homicide rulings between 2006, when the state's Stand Your Ground law was implemented, and 2010, after which the state stopped reporting its data.

Since then, a handful of women in Alabama have won Stand Your Ground immunity. But some women with persuasive self-defense claims continue to lose. In 2017, Deven Grey fatally shot her boyfriend, Barry Walsh, in Calera, south of Birmingham, during an alleged domestic dispute. Her lawyer wrote in a court filing that Walsh had been abusive throughout the relationship, and that, on the day of the killing, had "caused her substantial physical injuries," including hitting her, pistol-whipping her, and breaking bones in her face. When the police arrived, she was bleeding from the head. Walsh, with whom she had a child, had fired multiple shots in the home, her lawyer said. Yet Grey's Stand Your Ground claim was rejected, because the judge questioned whether the threat to her life had been immediate.

Before Brittany's last pretrial hearing of 2019, on a foggy, overcast day in Stevenson, she and her mother sat in their apartment and talked about what would happen next. If Brittany loses her Stand Your Ground hearing, she'll go to trial. If convicted, she will likely be sent to the Julia Tutwiler women's prison, where, in 2014, a Department of Justice investigation found rampant sexual abuse and harassment by male staff. (Alabama says that it has since made improvements.) Ramona sat on her bed, still in her pajamas, as Brittany got ready in the bathroom across the hall. Chris slept in the living room after his shift. Everyone was so exhausted that Ramona had set four alarms to wake them up.

"What kills us is that they think we're little nobodies," Ramona said. A prom photo of Brittany, in a pale-blue dress, hung on the wall. "I know they consider me a little nobody in Stevenson," Ramona continued. "Because they don't respect females. They don't respect you."

Brittany listened from the bathroom. "I don't know what you're talking about," she said. "I'm somebody." She straightened her hair, put on makeup and an outfit for court, and walked out the door.

Published in the print edition of the January 20, 2020, issue, with the headline "A Violent Defense."


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