At the center of a debate around criminal justice, domestic violence, and black women’s rights to self-defense, a 15-year-old girl in an Ohio juvenile detention center awaits trial for killing her father with his own gun. Bresha Meadows was 14 when she shot her father, Jonathan Meadows, early in the morning on July 28 in their home; her mother Brandi Meadows has since called her a “hero” for ending more than two decades of physical and emotional abuse she says she suffered at his hands.
The story told by Brandi, Bresha’s aunt, and Bresha’s attorney paints a horrifying picture of a mother and three children living in fear for their lives under a man who abused them with threats, extreme control of their movements, and, in Brandi’s case, unrelenting physical assaults. “I wasn’t strong enough to get out, and she helped me,” Brandi told a Cleveland Fox affiliate of Bresha’s alleged last-ditch effort to save her mother from her father’s abuse. “I am so sorry she had to go through this. … She helped me—she helped all of us so we could have a better life.”
An order of protection Brandi received in 2011, then later dismissed, states that Jonathan cut her, bruised her, and broke her bones and blood vessels. “If he finds us, I am one hundred percent sure he will kill me and the children,” she wrote in her filing. “My life is like living in a box he created for me, and if I stepped out of that box, he’s there to put me back in that box.” Brandi told the Plain Dealer that his assaults have sent her to the hospital or other medical facility 15 to 20 times over the course of their relationship. According to Martina Latessa, who is Bresha’s aunt and Brandi’s sister, Jonathan punched Brandi until her teeth broke, kicked her, stomped on her, smashed her with a 25-pound weight while she was pregnant, required her to stay on the phone with him if she ever left the house alone, and threatened her and the kids with his gun, saying, “I will kill your fucking kids. You will watch your kids die. That is the last thing you’ll see.”
Latessa is a Cleveland police officer who works on domestic violence cases. She told Fox 8 that Bresha was “born into a nightmare” and ran away to Latessa’s house this May “begging … for help.” Bresha told Latessa that Jonathan had thrown Brandi against a wall, choked her, and threatened to kill them all. Latessa says she reported the incident to government entities responsible for protecting children in situations of abuse but that a representative who visited the home interviewed Brandi and Jonathan together, preventing Brandi from saying anything incriminating about her husband.
Bresha has been charged with aggravated murder, which means prosecutors believe it was a premeditated crime. Some writers and activists have likened her case to that of Marissa Alexander, a Florida woman who was charged with three counts of aggravated assault and sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2012 after shooting a gun once into the ceiling of her home during a fight with her husband, Rico Gray. (She got a new trial, wherein prosecutors sought a 60-year sentence, but she was released in 2015 on a plea deal.) Alexander claimed she’d fired the shot as a warning to Gray, who was assaulting her at the time. Gray had previously bragged about beating women in a hearing, and five other women said Gray had physically abused them, too. Alexander’s case was often invoked in the months after George Zimmerman’s February 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin; both Zimmerman and Alexander used Florida’s “stand your ground” law, which states that any person with a right to be where she is has “no duty to retreat” and may “meet force with force,” as a defense. The judge at Alexander’s trial insisted that she could and should have run away from her husband through her house rather than fire a gun into a sheet of drywall. Zimmerman was acquitted of murder.
Rewire reports that 84 percent of U.S. girls in juvenile custody have been victims of abuse or experienced domestic violence, and in 1990, the last year for which comprehensive data is available, about 90 percent of the 280 U.S. children who killed their parents were abused. Prosecutors have not revealed whether they will try Bresha as a juvenile or attempt to get her case moved to adult criminal court. If they go the latter route, she could spend her life in prison. While Bresha awaits that decision, her family has established a GoFundMe page. They’re raising money to fund their relocation, away from the house where he allegedly terrorized them for decades and the court system that may do the same.