Dear District Attorney Ozanne,
The YWCA Madison strongly urges you not to press charges against Cierra Finkley, in what seems very clearly to be a case of self-defense. The three main priorities of the YWCA are the elimination of racism, the empowerment of women, and the health and safety of women and girls. This case is at the intersection of all three of these priorities.
One in four women will experience a form of domestic violence at some point in their lives. While domestic violence is often dismissed as a private matter, the repercussions are tantamount to a public health epidemic: 15.5 million children in the U.S. live in homes in which they have been exposed to or experienced violence. Studies indicate that women in abusive relationships have significantly higher rates of developing health issues, such as strokes and heart attacks.1
Additionally, domestic violence can have deadly consequences for victims, often forcing them to defend their lives. This is especially true for Black women. Three women die each day from intimate partner violence2, and Black women are 2.5 times more likely to die at the hands of a current or ex-partner than people of other racial backgrounds3. Among African American women killed by their partner, almost half were killed while in the process of leaving the relationship, highlighting the need to take extra precautions at that time.
In Wisconsin specifically, African Americans are over-represented in the rates of intimate partner homicide4. In spite of accounting for 6% of the state’s population, African Americans comprised close to 30% of the state’s domestic violence homicide victims in 2012.5
Violence perpetrated against women and girls can put them at risk for incarceration because their survival strategies are routinely criminalized. From being coerced into criminal activity by their abusers to fighting back to defend their lives or their children’s lives, survivors of domestic violence can find themselves trapped between the danger of life-threatening violence and the risk of spending the rest of their lives in prison. Rita Smith, the executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence states that “Most battered women who kill in self-defense end up in prison. There is a well-documented bias against women [in these cases].”6
Black women and other marginalized people are especially likely to be criminalized while trying to navigate and survive the conditions of violence. In 1991, the ratio of Black women to white women convicted of killing their abusive husbands was nearly two to one.7 Women of color and low-income women are disproportionately affected by mandatory arrest policies for domestic violence. Of survivors in a New York City study who had been arrested along with their abusers (dual arrest cases) or arrested as a result of a complaint lodged by their abuser (retaliatory arrest cases), 66% were African American or Latina, 43% were living below the poverty line, and 19% percent were receiving public assistance at the time.8
A report published by End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin9 stated that many African American women in Wisconsin do not believe that the criminal justice system is a viable option to meet their needs. One focus group participant who was highlighted in this report said: “I am scared enough to call the police and the police come out…if the police don’t arrest [my abuser], and I end up going to jail, then I am in jail fighting for my life and my kids are out here alone.” Fear of the criminal justice system is already a barrier to women who are victims of domestic violence. This same report went on to note that lack of support from the criminal justice system is a contributing factor to women fighting back. While many of the women reported they often did not fight back against their abusers, when they did fight back in self-defense, they described feeling that the abuse was so bad and they had reached a point where there was no other resource or service to help them stop the abuse. One woman said “there are no resources, no services, you are fearing for your life…when you ask for a restraining order or call the police, it’s not taken seriously…that’s when you feel like you can handle it on your own. When you feel like the police and no one else is going to do it.” This quote could have come from Cierra Finkley, a woman who reached out to the police for help multiple times and who had a restraining order against the man who was abusing her.
As you know, Dane County already has extreme racial disparities in our criminal justice system.10 Criminalizing women who are actually the victims of crime will not make our community safer, and will continue to lead women who are abused to be faced with the impossible choice between defending their body from their abuser or from the criminal justice system. We encourage you in this case, and in any future cases in which women defend their lives and the lives of their children against their documented abuser, not to pursue criminal charges.
- YWCA USA. (March 2015). Fact Sheet: Firearms Related Domestic Violence Homicides. Retrieved from:http://cqrcengage.com/ywca/file/c45ZuTaomOQ/DV%20Guns%20Fact%20Sheet%20FINAL%20March%202015%20(1).pdf
- Catalano, Shannan. (2007). Intimate Partner Violence in the United States. U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics. http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/content/pub/pdf/ipvus.pdf
- Violence Policy Center. (September 2014). When Men Murder Women: An Analysis of 2012 Homicide Data. Retrieved fromhttp://www.vpc.org/studies/wmmw2014.pdf
- Gilbart, Tony, Sarah Krall, Patti Segar, and Jan Sadusky. (2013). Wisconsin Domestic Violence Homicide Report: 2011-2012. Retrieved at www.wcadv.org/ourwork/homicide-reports.
- Gilbart, Tony et al., (2011-2012). Wisconsin Domestic Violence Homicide Report: 2011-2012. Supra.
- Powers, Kirsten. (2013). Prosecuted for Standing Her Ground. The Daily Beast. Retrieved fromhttp://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/07/19/angela-corey-s-overzealous-prosecution-of-marissa-alexander.html
- Allard, Sharon. (1991). ""Rethinking Battered Woman Syndrome: A Black Feminist Perspective," UCLA Women's Law Journal. http://escholarship.org/uc/item/62z1s13j#page-1
- Haviland, M., V. Frye, V. Rajah, J. Thukral and M. Trinity. (2001). The Family Protection and Domestic Violence Intervention Act of 1995: Examining the Effects of Mandatory Arrest in New York City. Family Violence Project, Urban Justice Center
- End Domestic Abuse WI. (2014). Report on Focus Groups Conducted with African American Female Victims of Domestic Violence in Wisconsin. Retrieved from: http://www.endabusewi.org/content/resources/report-focus-groups-conducted-african-american-female-victims-domestic-violence-wi.
- Wisconsin Council on Children and Families. (October, 2013). Race to Equity. Retrieved from www.racetoequity.net.