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Hero or Murderer? 15-Year-Old Bresha Meadows Faces Life in Prison for Killing Abusive Father

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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.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

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.

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