A young girl who shot dead her abusive father now may face life in prison, sparking national outcry over the treatment of domestic violence survivors. On July 28, 14-year-old Bresha Meadows allegedly killed her father, Jonathan Meadows, with a bullet to his head as he slept. Only two months earlier, Bresha had run away from home, telling relatives that she was scared for her life ”because her father was beating her mother and threatening to kill the whole family.”
Bresha’s father reportedly made life for his family a living hell, routinely attacking his wife—Bresha’s mother—breaking her ribs, puncturing her blood vessels, blackening her eyes and slashing her body. Jonathan Meadows’ siblings have denied allegations of domestic violence. His brother told Fox 8 News, “This has nothing to do with abuse,” and his sister Lena Cooper called his death “cold and calculated.”
For more, we speak with freelance journalist Victoria Law, whose recent article for Rewire is “What Bresha Meadows, Arrested for Shooting Her Father After Reported Abuse, Faces Next.” And we speak with Bresha Meadows’s aunt, Martina Latessa, and Bresha’s lawyer Ian Friedman
Hero or Murderer? 15-Year-Old Bresha Meadows Faces Life in Prison for Killing Abusive Father
AMY GOODMAN: A young girl who shot dead her abusive father now may face life in prison, sparking national outcry over the treatment of domestic violence survivors. On July 28th, 14-year-old Bresha Meadows allegedly killed her father, Jonathan Meadows, with a bullet to his head as he slept. Only two months earlier, Bresha had run away from home, telling relatives she was scared for her life, quote, “because her father was beating her mother and threatening to kill the whole family,” unquote. This is Bresha’s aunt, Sheri Latessa, speaking to WKBN in Cleveland.
SHERI LATESSA: He controlled her, and it was like she was in jail. They’ve all been through it. And nobody in that county that we called would do anything for those kids. She told on him. You tell the kids to tell. And then, what happened? Nobody did anything. She told. She did what she was supposed to do. That this was wrong—she even knew it was going wrong, what was going on her whole life, and nobody helped her.
DAVE SESS: There is a murder charge against the child.
SHERI LATESSA: Yeah, and that’s ridiculous. She, if anything, did it for her mother. She definitely did it for her mother. She said, “Now, mom, you’re free.”
AMY GOODMAN: Bresha’s father, John Meadows, reportedly made life for his family a living hell, routinely attacking his wife, Bresha’s mother, by breaking her ribs, puncturing her blood vessels, blackening her eyes and slashing her body. Meadows reportedly once punched his wife so hard that she heard her teeth crack. Later, she had to have those teeth removed. He also apparently slammed her head into the wall, stomped on her and kicked her in the face.
Jonathan Meadows’ siblings have denied allegations of domestic violence. His brother told Fox 8 News, “This has nothing to do with abuse,” and his sister Lena Cooper called his death “cold and calculated.”
JAMES BLOUNT: He drank a little bit. He had the ways he did things. But my brother would—I’ll literally say, he would have given his life.
LENA COOPER: This was cold and calculated. My brother was murdered. It was cold and calculated. He was murdered in his sleep. There was no signs of abuse.
AMY GOODMAN: On Tuesday morning, supporters and family members gathered for Bresha’s first pretrial hearing. Over 6,000 people have signed a petition calling on Trumbull County prosecutors to drop charges against the child. Bresha is being held in a juvenile detention center in Warren, Ohio, where she faces aggravated murder charges—a charge that could carry a life sentence if she’s tried and convicted in adult court. Bresha just spent her 15th birthday behind bars.
Well, for more, we’re joined right now by three guests. In Cleveland, Ohio, we’re joined by Martina Latessa, Bresha Meadows’ aunt and a Cleveland police officer in the Domestic Violence Unit. We’re also joined by Ian Friedman, a criminal defense attorney representing Bresha Meadows. He’s an adjunct law professor at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law. And here in New York City we’re joined by Victoria Law, freelance journalist, author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women. Her recent article for Rewire is headlined “What Bresha Meadows, Arrested for Shooting Her Father After Reported Abuse, Faces Next.”
We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Victoria, just lay out this story for us. When did this happen? How old was Bresha? And talk about what’s happened since.
VICTORIA LAW: So, on July 28th, Bresha Meadows, who was then 14 years old, so a child, was arrested for allegedly shooting her abusive father in the head with a gun that he had used to threaten his family numerous times. So, she had endured years and years of abuse. According to Bresha’s mother, the abuse had started when she was pregnant with her first child, who is now 21 years old, so she had endured decades of abuse. And this was a—violence and threats and belittlement and ridicule were a constant in Bresha’s house. She had run away twice. Her aunt had reported the abuse to child services. Nothing ever came of that. Her mother had tried to leave once before, and had even filed for an order of protection. As many of your viewers may know, in situations involving domestic violence, it often takes somebody seven to 10 times to leave before they are able to successfully leave their abuser. And as we’ve seen in many cases, leaving is often the most dangerous time, for a survivor and her family to leave an abuser.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, then explain the night that Bresha killed her father.
VICTORIA LAW: So, Bresha’s father was sleeping. He had come home earlier that day. She had gone into her room to avoid the abuse, from what I understand. And he—when he went to sleep—nobody is sure, and I don’t know if her lawyer can give more details or wants to give more details at this time, since she is still pretrial—he was sleeping, and she shot him with the gun that he used to threaten his family. And again, this is—if you put yourself in the eyes—in the shoes of a 14-year-old, she saw this as a last resort. Nobody else was helping her. The police weren’t helping her. Child Protective Services weren’t helping her. None of the adults in her life seemed to be able to help her and her family.
AMY GOODMAN: Ian Friedman, you’re her criminal defense attorney. Can you talk about what happened in Tuesday’s pretrial hearing? And how long has Bresha now been held in prison, in jail?
IAN FRIEDMAN: Good morning, Amy, and thank you for having me on. But more than that—excuse me—thank you for finding this issue to be so important. As we talk about it, it really is just such a tragedy. And what I have learned, even just in the short time I’ve been involved, is just how widespread this sort of violence is out there. So, I’m really glad we’re talking about it this morning.
Yesterday at the pretrial, what we did was we just exchanged evidence—the defense, the prosecution. We talk about where we’re going with the case, potential resolutions. We set future dates. And we really are just discussing kind of the beginning of the procedure.
So, Bresha has been in the juvenile detention center since that night, the night of the incident. She will remain in there at least until the next pretrial, which will be October 6th. And at that time, we’ll revisit whether or not there is cause to have her released while the rest of the case remains pending.
AMY GOODMAN: So how long has she been jailed at this point?
IAN FRIEDMAN: She’s been jailed now over a month; since the night of the incident, she’s been in there.
AMY GOODMAN: Martina Latessa, you are Bresha’s aunt. Can you talk about what you understood before that night?
MARTINA LATESSA: I understand that there were mental abuse, physical abuse, psychological abuse, emotional abuse. The kids didn’t get, you know, hit—that was my sister Brandi who got that—but those kids had to watch that, including Bresha. They had to sit there, and he did cuss at them and call them names. From my understanding, Bresha wasn’t even allowed to be in the same room as her father, once she ran away the second time. He would tell her, “Get out of here. Go up in your room. Get out of my face. You know, you disgust me.” My sister Brandi was abused, pushed around and punched and smacked and kicked, while all of her children watched. And it did take a toll on her. She did run away. And she, you know, told me about it, and she expressed great fear for herself and her family.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to your sister for a moment, to Brandi Meadows, Bresha’s mother, who spoke to Fox 8 Cleveland. She called Bresha her hero.
BRANDI MEADOWS: I’m sorry, Bresha. I love her. You’re my hero. She helped us all. And she’s my hero, our hero. And now we need to move forward and have us a better life.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Brandi Meadows, who was beaten for a long time. Latessa, did you know about—Martina, did you know about your sister, the abuse of your sister?
MARTINA LATESSA: I found out about it in 2011, so around five years ago. She did go back, and that is normal for victims of domestic violence, to go back. You know, she loved him, and she wanted her family to be together. And she’s told me in conversations he has told her, “I’m not going to hit you anymore. We’re going to be better.” And she went back. And, you know, like, that’s normal for domestic violence victims to do and experience. And it’s hard for people who don’t understand domestic violence, who don’t live in it, who’s never grown up in it, that that is where she’s going to—she’s going to do that. And I’d explain that even to my own mom and my family, that, you know, it’s normal. Even though it’s hard for us to understand, it is normal in domestic violence.
AMY GOODMAN: So, you’re an expert in this. You’re a police detective who deals with domestic violence?
MARTINA LATESSA: I’m not an expert, but I do—I am a detective in our Cleveland Police Domestic Violence Unit. I handle cases every day. I deal with victims every day, and advocates and, you know, prosecutors and judges every day.
AMY GOODMAN: Have you seen a case like this before?
MARTINA LATESSA: No. Even in almost 17 years of being a police officer, I have never seen anything like this.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us a little about Bresha?
MARTINA LATESSA: You know, I don’t—they were so isolated that I barely know them. I barely know my sister and her family. So, in 2011, when she ran away, we see them. And probably seven years before that, you know, we’ve seen them around Christmas time, when I went down there. But they were so isolated that I don’t know them.
But I do know, you know, the two times that Bresha ran away, and she came to me. She was a little girl. She was scared. She was asking me for help. You know, I took her things—she came with no coat. I even remember I got her a little North Face jacket that she wanted. And then, when she got home, her father took it from her, told her he can’t have anything that came from me. When she ran away the second time, I, you know, took her again. She didn’t have anything. And we bought her stuff. And when she was told she had to go back, she was terrified. And she wouldn’t even take hair conditioner back with her that I bought her, because she was afraid her dad—what he would do if he found out she had something like that.
AMY GOODMAN: Did you know that at the time? Were you concerned?
MARTINA LATESSA: Oh, I was very concerned. I didn’t know that, like the jacket incident and how he felt, until she ran away again in May of—the end of May of 2016, this year, just a couple months ago. And that’s when I got a little bit more light, you know, on the situation. And she told me, you know, he’s hitting her again. He just put her up against the wall. He, you know, they say choked, but he strangled her. He threatened to kill them. She said he’s, you know, bashed her head into a wall, and, you know, “I just can’t take it anymore.” You know, “Please help me. I’m afraid.” You know? And I do believe her. I said, like, you know, Johnny Meadows kept that family in a box. And I believe and I still say it. If this didn’t happen, my sister would have been in a box, which is a casket being put in the ground, if this incident didn’t happen.
AMY GOODMAN: Is there anything you could do, not just as her aunt, but as a Cleveland police detective specializing in domestic violence, when you learned what was happening to the family?
MARTINA LATESSA: Yeah, you know, I went down there the very first time she ran away in 2015. You know, I got the phone calls from the police, like, “Bring her back.” And I went and got her, and I took her back. And I talked to an officer there and a female sergeant, and I let them know, you know, what’s going on. And I understand, like as a policeman, if the victim’s going to not cooperate, you know, there’s almost like nothing we can do. As a human, as her aunt, as my sister’s sister, even as a police officer, there’s no way I can knock on that door, go in that house and do that. And people don’t understand. “Oh, she’s a policeman.” I can’t. I might as well went in that backyard and dug my sister’s grave, if I ever got involved like that. Like, I knew, especially me, he did not like me. He didn’t like me because I was a policeman. He did not like police officers. I just truly believe if—I couldn’t go in there. I would make it worse, if not deadly, for her.
AMY GOODMAN: Victoria, you wrote a long piece about this, Victoria Law. How did the system fail Bresha?
VICTORIA LAW: The system failed Bresha in so many different ways. When her—when her mother filed for an order of protection, I mean, there are no resources for domestic violence survivors and their families. I mean, there are battered women shelters, there are abuse hotlines, but there are no safe places to go, there’s no counseling. You need things like affordable housing and ways for people to be able to get out and stay out. When her aunt called child services the second time that Bresha ran away, they didn’t—they didn’t do anything to make sure that she was safe, that her family life was safe. According to her aunt, when they interviewed Bresha’s parents, they interviewed them together, which means that her mother is not going to say that there is abuse in the house.
AMY GOODMAN: They interviewed her mother and her abuser together.
VICTORIA LAW: Yes, from what I understand, they were interviewed together. They didn’t separate them so that they could find out what was going on. And they returned Bresha to the house. So, there are so many different ways in which the system could have intervened and done something, before Bresha, as a 14-year-old, as a very scared 14-year-old, felt that she had to do what she did to protect her family.
AMY GOODMAN: Ian Friedman, can you talk about the outpouring of support, but also the fact that the father’s family, Jonathan Meadows’ family, denies that there was domestic violence?
IAN FRIEDMAN: I’ll speak to the family first. It’s not unusual, even for—when I stand before judges and I’m representing someone who really did murder someone, there’s always family behind them saying, “But he’s a good person, and please go easy on him.” So, this doesn’t surprise me at all. And they’re mourning. And they may not know the full story, in all fairness to them. But I think that the evidence is going to be impossible to refute. And at some point, they’re going to have to face it and accept it.
Now, as far as the outpouring of support, it has been coming literally from across the globe. My office has just been flooded with mail and emails and calls from people, you know, that want her to know that she’s being supported and prayed for. Gifts are being sent. Even a group of women sent a big box of painted rocks to my office, which was very nice, you know, with little sayings of encouragement. Of course, I can’t bring that to the jail, but she can certainly see a photo of it. The petition that we received yesterday, now over 7,000 people who are calling for Bresha’s release. So, it really is incredible.
But the one area that has surprised me in the mail that I’ve received is that I have received no less than probably a half-dozen letters from other people who were in similar sorts of situations, and some of them had to take the same sort of action against their spouses—or, I’m sorry, against their parents. And so, it really—when I first read the first one, I was really shocked by it. And I’ve just gotten more and more. This is really touching people and having them kind of come out and to let her know—they’re asking to let her know that, hey, you’re not alone, I had to go to this also. So, as we started your program, that’s why I felt this was so important to really, not just with Bresha, but to also bring attention to kind of the widerspread problem across this country.
Ohio – Attorneys for Bresha Meadows are fighting to keep her from becoming the youngest inmate in the Ohio adult prison system. Meadows is charged with delinquency by reason of aggravated murder in the shooting of her father, Jonathan Meadows, on July 28. Police have accused Bresha Meadows of shooting her father in the head with his .45-caliber handgun. She was 14 at the time of the shooting, and she is being held in a juvenile detention center in Warren. She turned 15 on Thursday.
Ohio – Bresha Meadows, a 14-year-old girl, picked up her father’s .45-caliber, semi-automatic handgun and pointed it at him in the early morning hours of July 28. And as Jonathan Meadows slept in his living room, his daughter pulled the trigger, ending his life and dividing a family, according to interviews and a police report. The relatives of Bresha’s father called the shooting a calculated murder. Those of the girl’s mother called it the end of a husband’s nonstop pattern of emotional.
What Bresha Meadows, Arrested for Shooting Her Father After Reported Abuse, Faces Next
UPDATE: At her first pre-trial hearing on August 30, the judge did not release Bresha. She will remain in detention until at least her October 6 hearing. More than 30 people, including friends from school and church as well as anti-domestic violence advocates, showed up at the courtroom, but were not allowed inside. Nearly 7,000 people have signed a petition calling on the prosecutor to drop all charges and release Bresha immediately.
Content note: This article contains graphic descriptions of domestic violence.
Bresha Meadows turned 15 on August 11. There were no visits allowed that day at the Trumbull County Juvenile Detention Center in Ohio; she spent her birthday separated from her mother, siblings, and aunts.
Two weeks earlier, Bresha, then 14, had been arrested for allegedly shooting her father to death with his own gun as he slept—the same gun he had often brandished, she said, to keep his own family in line. For years, according to Bresha’s family, the girl had watched helplessly as her father, Jonathan Meadows, punched, kicked, stomped, and beat her mother, Brandi. He threatened to kill Brandi and their three children, family members say, if she ever tried to leave.
“He really knew how to keep her captive in her own home,” Bresha’s lawyer, Ian Friedman, told Rewire.
Bresha is now facing charges of aggravated murder. The Trumbull County prosecutor has not yet said whether he will continue her case in juvenile court or attempt to move it to adult criminal court. If Bresha is tried and convicted in adult court, she faces a life sentence.
“I Have Never Seen Any Case Worse Than What My Sister Went Through”
Bresha’s mother, Brandi, married Jonathan Meadows when she was 19 years old. The following year, they had their first child. According to her sister Martina Latessa, when Brandi was pregnant, Meadows hit her with a 25-pound weight, accusing her of cheating on him and telling her that he would not raise another man’s child. Brandi went to the hospital. Her pregnancy survived the attack and she later gave birth to their son.
That wouldn’t be the last time Brandi experienced abuse. According to the order of protection she filed for in 2011, Jonathan broke her ribs, fingers, and the blood vessels in her hands. He also blackened her eyes and cut her. As Latessa tells it, Meadows once punched his wife so hard that she heard her teeth crack. Later, she had to have those teeth removed. He also slammed her head into the wall, stomped on her, and kicked her in the face, Latessa says. Brandi later told her sister, “I learned a long time ago not to get up till he left the room or he told me to get up.” Instead, Brandi would lie on the floor covering her face with her hands.
According to an interview with the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Meadows’ abuse sent Brandi to a hospital or outpatient facility 15 to 20 times over the years. He also threatened her with a gun numerous times. “He told her, ‘I will kill your fucking kids. You will watch your kids die. That is the last thing you’ll see,’” Latessa told Rewire.
When Bresha was 9 years old, Brandi and her three children fled from Warren, Ohio, to her mother’s house in Cleveland. There, she opened up to her sisters about the years of violence. “If he finds us, I am 100 percent sure he will kill me and the children,” Brandi wrote when filing for her 2011 order of protection.
One morning, Brandi’s mother woke to find her daughter and grandchildren gone. As Latessa recounts, Meadows had gotten in touch with his wife and apologized profusely, promised never to hurt her again, and begged for another chance. Latessa, a Cleveland police officer in the domestic violence unit, says that she sees this pattern over and over in abusive relationships. “It takes seven to ten times for a woman to leave,” she said. “That’s the national average.”
After a month of no contact, Latessa drove to Warren to check on her sister. She remembers that her 16-year-old nephew opened the door and begged her to leave. “If my dad knows you’re out here, he will kill you,” he told her. “Please, please, please get out of here.” The Meadowses changed their phone number; none of Brandi’s family members knew how to reach them.
It was not until recently that Latessa and other family members learned that her attempt to escape resulted in even tighter controls. Brandi was no longer allowed to be alone, they say: For the most part, if she left the house, he went with her. “If she was driving the kids to school, she had to be on the phone with him the whole time,” Latessa described. Even at home, she couldn’t be alone. If she had to use the bathroom in the middle of the night, she had to wake him.”
“If she didn’t,” Latessa began, then paused. “She used the word ‘reprimand,’ but he would beat her.”
Latessa doesn’t think that her brother-in-law hit the children. “But they were belittled, ridiculed, and controlled,” she said. Brandi, she added, believed that if her husband focused his physical violence on her, the children would stay safe.
Even so, as Friedman noted, “A child having to witness that [violence] day to day … is unthinkable.”
In January 2015, Bresha ran away to another aunt, who brought her to Latessa. Though it was the middle of winter, she had no coat and so Latessa gave her a NorthFace jacket. Bresha told her aunts about her father’s constant drinking, abuse, and efforts to cut his wife off from her children. “We can’t talk to Mommy,” she told her aunts.
Bresha’s father called Warren police, accusing his sisters-in-law of kidnapping his daughter, and so Latessa and another sister brought Bresha back.
In May 2016, Bresha ran away again. This time, Latessa recalled, “She was numb to the abuse. [Talking about] it was like having a conversation about the weather.” Bresha told Latessa that, after she returned in January 2015, her father would often tell her that he was disgusted with her and that he couldn’t be around her. He would also keep her away from her mother. If Brandi and Bresha were talking in one room, Bresha told her, he’d yell at them, swear that they could not keep secrets from him, then take Brandi into a separate room. “They lived in a box,” Latessa described. “If they stepped out of that box, they were reprimanded and put right back in that box.”
This time, Latessa says she called the Trumbull County Department of Job and Family Services. But, she later learned from her sister, social workers interviewed Bresha’s parents together. “What can I say to this lady when Jonathan is sitting right next to me?” Brandi later asked her sister. Nothing ever came of the complaint.
That visit escalated rather than deterred the abuse. According to Latessa, when Bresha was returned home, her father called her a “stupid bitch” and accused her of “putting these fucking white people in this house.” He also, Latessa says, escalated his violence toward his wife.
Latessa has been on the Cleveland police force for nearly 17 years and on the domestic violence unit for four. “I have never seen any case worse than what my sister went through,” she said.
Jonathan Meadows’ siblings have denied allegations of abuse. His brother told Fox 8 News, “This has nothing to do with abuse,” while sister Lena Cooper called his death “cold and calculated.”
What Happens to Bresha?
No one knows how many girls are behind bars for defending themselves or family members from parental abuse. A 1992 study found that, of the approximately 280 parental killings in 1990, approximately 90 percent involved children who had been victims of constant and severe abuse. “Typically, [the killing of a parent] cases involve children who are denied or provided minimal assistance and, seeing no alternative, resort to self-help by killing the abusive parents using brutal methods in non-confrontational situations,” noted study author Susan C. Smith.
There are no updated numbers. Neither the National Institute of Corrections nor the Bureau of Justice Statistics tracks this information. In response to a request by Rewire, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, an agency within the U.S. Department of Justice, estimated that, in 2014, 640 children were involved in homicides in the United States, but also noted that girls facing homicide charges are too rare to produce any reliable estimates on them or the circumstances leading to their action.
According to EZANIBRS, a database of information collected by the FBI’s National Incident-Based Reporting System, 60 children were alleged to have been involved in the deaths of adult family members in 2014. Of the ten girls allegedly involved in the deaths of parents or stepparents, none were convicted. However, cautions Melissa Sickmund, director at the National Center for Juvenile Justice, a nonprofit research organization, EZANIBRS does not reflect convictions. In other words, the number of children recorded is based on calls for help and/or arrests, not whether they are found guilty. Furthermore, the data does not cross-reference the children’s alleged involvement with family or parental deaths with claims of abuse or family violence.
What is known is that 84 percent of girls in the juvenile justice system have experienced abuse and in-home violence. “Girls are often driven into the juvenile justice system based on responses to in-home violence,” Francine Sherman, clinical associate professor at the Boston College Law School and the author of a 2015 report on juvenile justice reforms for girls, told Rewire. While killings by girls are rare, she noted that “less extreme versions are happening every day. Fighting back [against family or in-home violence] is not unusual.”
As previously reported by Rewire, there’s a similar dearth of information about adults imprisoned for self-defense or other abuse-related convictions. In 1999, the Department of Justice reported that nearly half of women in local jails and state prisons had been abused before their arrests. That continues to be the most recent nationwide data available.
If her case stays in juvenile court, Bresha, if convicted of aggravated murder, could stay in detention until she is 21 years old. If her case is moved to adult court, however, she could face life behind bars.
In Ohio, transferring a child under age 16 to the adult legal system is at the discretion of the prosecutor. But it’s not entirely up to juvenile prosecutor Stanley Elkins or his boss, Trumbull County Prosecutor Dennis Watkins. Erin Davies, the executive director of the Juvenile Justice Coalition, which advocates for youth in Ohio’s juvenile justice system, explained that the prosecutor would have to file a motion. The judge then orders an amenability hearing, in which the court decides whether the child seems unlikely to be rehabilitated in juvenile detention.
As part of the amenability hearing, the court orders a report about the child’s social history, including testimony from an expert witness about the child’s ability to be rehabilitated, or positively respond to programming offered by the juvenile court. What is included in that social history, says Davies, depends on the court-assigned provider, but can include the child’s history of mental health, substance abuse, or anything that might explain the circumstances behind the arrest. Does this social history always include family violence? Davies hopes so, but can’t say for sure.
The court then considers the report and other factors, including the role of the victim. “Did the victim facilitate what happened?” Davies explained. “On the flip side, they’ll ask, ‘Was the victim particularly vulnerable? Was the victim deeply harmed?’”
Even if Bresha’s case remains in juvenile court, 14- and 15-year-olds found guilty of aggravated murder, murder, or attempted murder in Ohio face a mandatory Serious Youthful Offender (SYO) disposition. That means, explained Davies, that the juvenile court imposes a sentence under adult sentence guidelines or a blended sentence. The child is then sent to a juvenile detention facility. If they don’t successfully complete their sentence (for example, if they get into trouble), they can then be sent to an adult prison once they turn 18. Unless the prosecutor reduces the charge, Bresha will be facing an adult sentence even if her case is not transferred. While juvenile cases are decided by a judge, children facing SYO disposition have the right to a grand jury and a jury trial.
Of Ohio’s 82,677 juvenile cases in 2014, 108 were transferred to adult court. Children (or their attorneys) can appeal the transfer decision, but not until the adult court case is over. And appeals take time. “By the time that appeal works its way through the court, the youth may have spent a couple of years in an adult prison,” explained Davies. It’s also hard to know how many children have filed appeals: No state agency tracks the children who end up in adult systems.
Under the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, prison officials must separate incarcerated children under age 18 from adults by “sight and sound.” In other words, incarcerated children are not allowed to be in places with their adult counterparts, effectively barring them from any types of programming or services. This means that, if Bresha is tried and convicted as an adult, she may spend years in isolation.
But prolonged isolation isn’t the only harm that children face when placed in adult prisons. “Research shows that children placed in adult prisons are at a great risk of physical and sexual assault across the course of their sentence, at a significantly higher risk of suicide, are more likely to be placed in isolation, and often not able to access youth-specific programming, like education or child-specific mental health services,” noted Davies.
Even the Department of Justice agrees. In July 2016, it released a report entitled No Place for Youth: Girls in the Adult Justice System. Among its findings were that children under 18 were the most likely population to commit suicide while incarcerated in adult jails and that they do so at twice the rate of their adult counterparts. “Even youth who spend very short periods of time in jail are at high risk, as 48 percent of jail suicides happen within the first week of incarceration,” the report noted. The report recommends that, when possible, girls be kept in their communities rather than placed behind bars. If they are placed in lockup, they should be kept out of adult jails and prisons.
“It is critically important that the juvenile court look into all the particular circumstances surrounding the offense,” stated Davies. “Bresha’s case is no different, especially given the unique facts of her situation and research showing that transferring youth to adult court can actually make them more likely to reoffend.”
The prosecutor’s office has not returned Rewire‘s inquiries about whether it will seek to move Bresha’s case to adult criminal court.
“The Only Question That Remains at Trial Is Why”
Bresha has entered a plea of “not true” (the juvenile court equivalent of “not guilty”). She is due to be back in court on August 30.
“In Ohio, self-defense is still called affirmative defense,” explained Bresha’s lawyer Friedman. That means that there’s no dispute in court as to what happened or how it happened. “The only issue that remains at trial is why.” The challenge then is to have the jurors put themselves not only in Bresha’s shoes, but in the mindset of a 14-year-old who has been raised in a household filled with abuse.
“My hope is that we never get there,” continued Friedman, referring to the trial. “In my 20 years of criminal defense practice, I have not met a child who committed an act out of nowhere and with a cold conscience. This is not going to be that first case. This young girl endured a nightmare that drove her to do what she felt she had to do to protect her family.”
Instead, he hopes that the prosecutor will realize that Bresha acted in defense of herself and her mother, drop the charges, and allow her to return home. “Bresha needs to be home with her family to begin the difficult road of treatment and rehabilitation,” he stated.
“My only goal is to get that little girl out of that prison and to make sure she gets the counseling she needs to get out of the cycle of abuse,” Latessa agreed.
As Bresha’s story has spread, thousands of people across the country have responded. Supporters created an online petition calling on the Trumbull County prosecutor’s office to drop all charges and immediately release her. The petition has garnered more than 5,200 signatures. Family members have also started a GoFundMe campaign to support her and her family. In 20 days, the page has been shared 2,600 times, raising nearly $39,000. Letters of support have flooded Friedman’s office. “I’ve gotten hundreds of letters,” he said. Some are from people who had experienced similar abuse—and taken similar steps to end the violence. “It wasn’t as rare as I thought it was,” he reflected.
Latessa hopes that people across the country will continue to send letters of encouragement to Bresha through her attorney. She said that Bresha recently told her, “It’s very hard in here by myself.”