The XX Factor

When Domestic Violence Victims Are Imprisoned for Their Abusers’ Crimes

Arlena Lindley was sentenced to 45 years in prison for child abuse by “omission.”

On October 13, 2006, Alonzo Turner murdered his girlfriend’s 3-year-old son, Titches. Over the course of that day, according to court records reported by BuzzFeed’s Alex Campbell, Turner whipped Titches with a belt, threw him against a wall, grabbed him by his neck, smeared his face in his breakfast, stood on his chest, dragged him to the bathroom, pushed his head into the toilet bowl, kicked him repeatedly in the stomach, then forced him to pace back and forth across the living room. He threatened to kill Titches’ mother, Arlena Lindley, if she tried to get the boy out of the house, and locked Lindley and a friend out on the porch; soon after Lindley finally convinced Turner to let her back in the house, Titches stopped breathing.

The murder was a culmination of months of abuse Turner executed against Lindley and her son: Since she began dating Turner earlier that year, Lindley would later testify, he had pulled her hair, choked her, sat on her, and pushed her to the ground in public; after she removed a bullet from his gun and threw it in the yard, he forced her to strip naked and search for it in the dark on her hands and knees; when she tried to escape with her son, he threw her in a car trunk and drove her back home, or called and threatened to kill Lindley’s family if she didn’t return. (As in many domestic violence cases, Lindley said that Turner first presented as sweet and protective before he turned violent and controlling.) After Titches’ murder, Turner was sentenced to life in prison; Lindley was sentenced to 45 years in prison for child abuse by “omission,” or failing to protect her son from Turner’s abuse. When Turner threatened to kill Lindley for trying to protect her son, the police said, she should have called 911.

Lindley’s story anchors BuzzFeed’s sweeping investigation into how some state laws are attempting to protect children from domestic abuse by penalizing other victims in the household—largely, women. Campbell uncovered at least 28 similar cases in 11 states, where mothers have been “sentenced to at least 10 years in prison for failing to prevent their partners from harming their children.” In each case, “there was evidence the mother herself had been battered by the man.”

These cases are partly a result of an institutional misunderstanding of the dynamics of domestic violence. Carmen White, who prosecuted Lindley in Dallas, told BuzzFeed that child abuse and domestic violence crimes are handled in separate divisions of the county’s prosecutor’s office, so the prosecutors who take on these child endangerment crimes are unlikely to understand the dynamics of spousal abuse. “Why women stay, and that—I can’t speak to that,” White told Campbell. “I have no expertise in that.” The cases also rely on an outdated assumption that mothers, not fathers, are centrally responsible for raising children. (Though Titches’ father had reason to believe Turner was abusing Lindley and his son, he was not charged.) “Mothers are held to a very different standard,” University of Denver law professor Kris McDaniel-Miccio told Campbell. In total, BuzzFeed found 73 cases around the country of mothers sentenced to 10 years or more for failing to protect their children (whether or not evidence of intimate partner violence was entered into the record), but only four cases where bystander fathers received a similar punishment.

But most of all, Campbell’s story demonstrates how the criminal justice system is scapegoating domestic violence victims in order to cover for its failures to properly investigate and prosecute instances of child and intimate partner abuse. Shortly before he began dating Lindley, Turner was charged on two separate occasions, first with burglary and later “unlawful restraint,” after he broke into an ex-girlfriend’s home, pushed her, and stole her belongings, then returned three weeks later, grabbed her by the neck, covered her mouth, and forced her outside. The woman escaped after a neighbor stabbed Turner in the leg; months later, Turner was out on probation from the burglary charge and was still awaiting trial on the restraint charge when he murdered the boy. On the day of Titches’ murder, another neighbor called police after she witnessed Turner kicking Titches on the floor, but when police arrived and couldn’t locate Turner or the toddler, they failed to pursue the report. It is outrageous that the justice system in this case only took a hard line against domestic violence after a child was killed. For much more on how that happens, read BuzzFeed’s full investigation.