In a remarkable courtroom scene, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg asked a New York judge Monday to dismiss murder charges against Tracy McCarter, who says she acted in self-defense when her estranged husband died from a stab wound in the chest in 2020. Bragg campaigned on a promise to fight to free McCarter of murder charges, though, when elected, advocates say his actions initially fell short. This comes as pressure is growing in New York to end the criminalization of domestic abuse survivors, which happens at a disproportionate rate against Black women. Advocates say 90% of women who are incarcerated in New York have been subjected to domestic violence. McCarter “had done everything we tell domestic abuse survivors to do,” says journalist Victoria Law, who has closely followed McCarter’s case, but the nurse still finds herself “in legal limbo, waiting to see if she can try to start picking up the pieces of her life or if she will be facing trial for murder.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman.
In a remarkable courtroom scene here in New York City Monday, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg asked a judge to drop the murder charges against domestic violence survivor Tracy McCarter, who says she stabbed her estranged husband in self-defense when he attacked her in her New York City apartment in 2020. Tracy McCarter spent six months at the Rikers Island jail until she was released thanks to pressure from a successful solidarity campaign.
This is DA Bragg’s exchange with Judge Diane Kiesel. Listen closely. It’s off mic.
JUDGE DIANE KIESEL: What you want to do now is to dismiss this case outright, is that correct?
ALVIN BRAGG: Yes, Your Honor. … The fact that there’s one fatal wound here, not a series of wounds, the almost immediate medical attention after the infliction of that wound.
AMY GOODMAN: This comes as an estimated 90% of women in New York who are incarcerated have been subjected to domestic violence.
For more, we’re joined by journalist Victoria Law. She was in the courtroom Monday. She has followed the case from the beginning. Her piece in The Nation is headlined “'The Worst Abuser You Could Ever Have': Tracy McCarter did everything we tell survivors to do, but that did not protect her from the abuse she suffered at the hands of the state.”
Vicky, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. Describe the scene in the courtroom. I mean, we’re watching the actual Manhattan DA call for the dropping of the charges. Explain what happened to Tracy McCarter.
VICTORIA LAW: So, thank you for having me, and thank you for continuing to cover these types of issues of domestic violence and incarceration.
So, as you said, Tracy McCarter was arrested on March 2nd, 2020, a few weeks before New York went on lockdown because of the coronavirus pandemic. She had done everything that we tell domestic violence survivors to do. She separated herself from her increasingly abusive husband. She moved out. She found her own apartment. She continued working as a nurse — and I want to emphasize that she was working as a nurse, because the pandemic would hit a few weeks later.
And one night, she came home from work, and her estranged husband, Jim Murray, had locked himself out of the Airbnb in which he was staying. He rang her buzzer. She knew from past experience that if she did not answer, he would ring the buzzer of every other apartment in the building until she let him in, and she had been threatened with eviction if he continued to do this. So she let him in, intending to let him sleep off his drunkenness on the couch. And once he got inside, he became belligerent. He started demanding money. When she initially refused, he attacked her. He strangled her. She broke away. She held out — she grabbed a knife from her kitchen and held it out in a defensive posture. He continued to attack her.
And according to all court filings, his death was an accident. He was drunk. He tripped. He fell on the knife. And there was one fatal stab wound. When she realized what happened, she immediately called 911 and, being a nurse, attempted to do first aid on him. And the police arrived and found her attempting first aid on him.
She was arrested and brought to the precinct. He was brought to a hospital, where he later died. And the next day in court, the assistant district attorney, Sara Sullivan, announced her intentions to seek second-degree murder charges against Tracy. And she was sent to Rikers Island because the District Attorney’s Office argued that she was a flight risk because she had family out of state, and she also had a Texas nursing license, because that is where she had lived previously.
She spent six months at Rikers. During that time, the pandemic broke out. Rikers became a coronavirus hot spot. All hands were needed at local hospitals around New York City, and she was prevented from helping out as a nurse. It wasn’t until September 2020 when she finally saw a grand jury, which returned an indictment for second-degree murder charges, not having heard about the abuse and violence she had endured at the hands of her estranged husband or his previous history of violence while intoxicated.
Her case became a talking point for several candidates for district attorney that year, including current District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who tweeted, “Prosecuting a domestic violence survivor who acted in self-defense is unjust.” And he also later tweeted that her prosecution was a “travesty of justice.” But it was not until 10 days before her trial was about to start, so the Friday before Thanksgiving, that he actually filed a motion to dismiss the charges with the court. So, her prosecution has gone on for more than two-and-a-half years. And during that time, she has been in legal limbo waiting to see if she can try to start picking up the pieces of her life or if she will be facing trial for murder and a possible 19- or 25-to-life sentence with that prosecution.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it’s amazing that Bragg tweeted, when he was running, that this woman should be freed, but it took not only all this time, but the incredible work of the organization Survived and Punished, that led a campaign for the charges to be dropped. Can you talk about the significance of this movement?
VICTORIA LAW: Yes. Without this movement, Tracy might still be on Rikers Island awaiting charges. We don’t know how many domestic violence survivors are in similar situations facing charges related to their abuse, whether it is defending themselves against violence from their partners or whether it is being coerced into criminal actions because of abusive partners or family members.
But Tracy connected with organizers from Survived and Punished, and they and Tracy’s family, her four adult children, have really advocated not only for her freedom but to raise awareness about the intersections between domestic violence and criminalization, so all the ways in which the legal system perpetuates the same types of abuse as abusive partners or abusive husbands.
And while we don’t know the number of people incarcerated for acts related to domestic violence, what we do know is that race matters. As we’ve seen from the photos, Tracy McCarter is a Black woman. She is a nurse. Her estranged husband was a white man. And a 2016 study found that prosecutors are more likely to decrease charges against survivors who acted in self-defense if they are white women than they are for Black women. We also know that Black women are more likely to be incarcerated than their white counterparts, and that Black women experience domestic violence at a much higher rate than white women.
AMY GOODMAN: You cite in your reporting Beth Richie, the co-founder of INCITE! Women, Gender Non-Conforming, and Trans People of Color Against Violence and the author of multiple books about the intersections of interpersonal and state violence against Black women. This is Beth Richie on Democracy Now! last year discussing the book she co-authored with Angela Davis and others called Abolition. Feminism. Now.
BETH RICHIE: We believe, from our work, from our study, from our discussion with people both inside prisons and jails, detention facilities, and our work outside in communities, that it is essential to take up the questions of abolition, of policing, of prisons, of surveillance strategies — it’s essential to take up that work from the perspective of feminism.
And the best example that I can think of from my own work is what happens when we don’t do that to criminalize survivors — that is, people who end up incarcerated or otherwise under control of the carceral state, people who experience gender violence, who turn sometimes to the state for protection, and in fact the state turns on them, because we know — we know that one of the institutions that uses violence most is in fact the carceral state. So carceral feminism is the turning to that violent institution, the carceral state, to solve the problem of gender-based violence, and we realize that the result of that is more people who experience gender-based violence, in fact, detained, incarcerated, serving long sentences in U.S. correctional facilities.
AMY GOODMAN: So, if you, Victoria Law, can expand on what Beth Richie is saying, and talk about whether you think that women who overwhelmingly — in prison for murder are in prison for murdering their abusers, if the cases with survivors are being treated differently now, and also if we’re seeing this feed into the election a more progressive DAs around the country?
VICTORIA LAW: I think we’re seeing more attention being paid to the criminalization of survivors. I’ve been on your show previously talking about the cases of Cherelle Baldwin, who was facing trial twice for the death of her abusive ex-boyfriend, and Bresha Meadows, who was facing possible life in prison, the 15-year-old who killed her abusive father and was facing adult charges — being charged as an adult and life in prison. And what we saw in the case of Bresha Meadows, and now what we see in the case of Tracy McCarter, is that there is an outpouring of support and attention, and that has led the district attorneys to the point where they are willing to say, in the case of Bresha Meadows, “I will offer a plea deal. I will not charge you as an adult and attempt to send you to prison for life,” and in the case of Tracy McCarter, District Attorney Alvin Bragg saying, “I cannot reasonably conclude that this was intentional murder, and I do not wish to seek these charges.” And these would not have happened, had there not, again, been a tremendous outpouring of support and organizing and advocacy from people, including family members of both Bresha Meadows and Tracy McCarter.
But what we’re seeing around the country doesn’t necessarily play out in the same way. What we’ve seen in California, there’s a case of a woman named Wendy Howard, who shot her abusive ex who had been investigated by police for sexually abusing two of her daughters. And she was acquitted of all charges except for one, and the district attorney has the option of bringing that charge — bringing her to trial for that new charge. In the case of Tracy McCarter, the district attorney has said that he does not want to pursue these murder charges.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Vicky, we just have 10 seconds. What do you think the judge is going to rule? She said she’ll rule by the end of the week, Judge Kiesel.
VICTORIA LAW: Well, I certainly hope that the judge rules in favor of the motion to dismiss and doesn’t waste city resources further punishing a survivor for surviving violence from her husband.
AMY GOODMAN: Victoria Law, I want to thank you so much for being with us, journalist who focuses on the intersections of incarceration, gender and resistance. We’ll link to your coverage of this case for The Nation.
And that does it for our show. A very special happy birthday to Deena Guzder!
Democracy Now! produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Messiah Rhodes, Nermeen Shaikh. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.