When Judge Diane Kiesel dismissed the murder charge against Tracy McCarter for the 2020 death of her estranged husband, she criticized media coverage of the case. In her December 2 ruling, Kiesel noted that McCarter’s case “became the focus of an intense advocacy campaign which received extensive attention in the press.” The New York state Supreme Court judge added that nearly all of the coverage “adopted the defendant’s narrative that she was the victim of domestic violence and that prosecuting her for killing her husband was unjust.” The 11-page decision is replete with references to coverage of the case, including my reporting for The Nation.
As I reported, McCarter was arrested on March 2, 2020, for the death of her husband, James Murray, which she maintained in legal filings was the result of Murray falling on a knife she had grabbed to ward off his attacks that night. Following her arrest, McCarter spent six months in jail on Rikers Island, as Covid-19 was raging, despite not having been indicted. In September of that year, while campaigning for district attorney, Alvin Bragg tweeted that prosecuting abuse survivors who act in self-defense is unjust, referencing my Gothamist story about McCarter’s legal ordeal.
This past summer, I interviewed McCarter and three of her children about the rippling effects the murder charge has had on their lives for a Nation feature. McCarter was unable to resume working as a nurse; she also missed the births and early months of her first grandchildren. After several protests and prominent advertisements calling for Bragg to drop the charges, other media outlets eventually picked up her story. By the time Bragg appeared in person to argue for the dismissal on November 28, journalists filled nearly half the courtroom.
In her decision, Kiesel pointed to Bragg’s tweet and the subsequent media coverage, writing, “The case has reached the point where the public could perceive this dismissal as bought and paid for with campaign contributions and political capital.” But other trials, including the Anna Sorokin trial, which Kiesel presided over, have also garnered substantial media attention, yet no one accuses them of being “bought and paid for” with “political capital.”
According to Kiesel, a trial “doesn’t punish victims of domestic violence; it ensures that cases are decided solely on their individual merits, by a fair and impartial jury.” That has not been the experience of abuse survivors seated at the defense table who must relive every instance of trauma and violence while the threat of a decades-long prison sentence hangs over their heads.
“It sure feels like being penalized when the DA is cross-examining the DV victim,” one survivor, imprisoned for over 30 years in New York, told me. Another, incarcerated for more than 15 years in California, said that in continuing to traumatize victims, the legal system takes on the role of the abuser. Other imprisoned survivors recounted how their testimonies about abuse were disbelieved and discredited. One recalled that the judge accused her of lying about the abuse before sentencing her to 25 to life.
In the more than two and a half years that I have been covering McCarter’s case, I have yet to find national data on how many survivors are prosecuted or imprisoned for defending themselves or for other abuse-related convictions—because that data doesn’t exist. The little information available shows that prosecuting survivors is quite common: One New York study found that 67 percent of women imprisoned for killing a person close to them had been abused by that person. A California study found an even higher rate: 93 percent of women imprisoned for killing their partners had been abused by them. These rates are why New York lawmakers passed the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act, allowing judges to consider shorter sentences for survivors convicted of abuse-related crimes. But the law applies only after a survivor has gone through trial or pled guilty. Furthermore, judges have the discretion not to apply it, and some don’t.
McCarter’s case is unusual not because she faced prosecution but because she, her family, her legal team, and her supporters worked together to push past the initial flurry of tabloid headlines to spotlight the role domestic violence and alcoholism played in Murray’s tragic death.
In response to the judge’s ruling, McCarter said, via a press statement, “I am innocent. And I am devastated that on March 2, 2020, a man whom I loved lost his life. We were both the victims of the cruel disease of alcoholism. Dismissing the unjust charge against me can’t give back what I’ve lost, but I am relieved that this nightmare will finally be over, and I am determined to thrive once again.”