Tracy McCarter did everything that society tells domestic violence survivors to do. She separated from her husband, Jim Murray, and moved on with her life. She continued working full-time as a nurse at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, was enrolled in a master’s program at Columbia University, and was looking forward to celebrating her graduation with her four grown children. In the seven months since she had separated from her husband, she had rented her own apartment in Manhattan and was in the process of buying one in Queens, far enough away from Murray, whose alcoholism had been spiraling out of control, to minimize his intrusions. Although she still loved her husband, McCarter was preparing to enter a new chapter in her life—one in which she would welcome her first grandchild into the world, purchase and renovate a co-op, and advance her career.
But then, more than two years ago, she was forced to put those plans on hold, McCarter told me in the first of several interviews conducted in her apartment, where she is confined not because of the pandemic, but because the Manhattan district attorney’s office is charging her with murder—for Murray’s death. This awful tragedy is actually not that unusual. It’s a bind she shares with many other domestic violence survivors who act in self-defense, only to find themselves ensnared in the legal system.
McCarter, who’s facing a potential prison sentence of 25 years to life, declined to discuss what happened in the moments before police arrived at her apartment on the night of Murray’s death. According to court transcripts, the 44-year-old had returned home from work on March 2, 2020, when Murray, age 48, rang her buzzer. On previous occasions, when she did not respond, he would buzz other neighbors until someone let him in. Sometimes he passed out in front of the building. The building’s management company had warned McCarter that if Murray continued this behavior, the company would evict her.
That night, Murray was intoxicated and had locked himself out of his apartment, where he’d left his wallet. McCarter let him in, hoping he would sleep it off on her couch while she did her homework. Instead he became belligerent, demanding money. When she refused and told him to leave, he became violent until she agreed to give him her purse. Finding no money there, he assaulted her again. (In the court transcripts, neither the prosecutor nor her defense attorney offers particularly specific details of that night’s assaults.) By then, McCarter had grabbed a kitchen knife to ward off another attack.
McCarter called 911 (neighbors later reported that they’d heard her screaming for help). When police arrived, they found Murray on the floor with a stab wound in his chest. (A 2020 Gothamist piece I wrote erroneously stated, due to an editorial error, that McCarter had said she’d stabbed Murray once in the chest, but in fact this was a claim made by the assistant district attorney. In hours of interviews, both in 2020 and more recently for this article, McCarter never once said that she had stabbed Murray.)
We do know that when the police arrived, McCarter was administering first aid, pressing a towel to Murray’s wound to stop the bleeding. The police pulled her away, handcuffed her, and took her to the precinct. Paramedics transported Murray to the hospital, where he died.
The following morning, the police brought McCarter to court. “[The police] told me I was going to be arraigned. I didn’t know what that meant,” she told me. She recalled that an officer had brought some clothes from her apartment, so she could change from the hospital scrubs she was still wearing. As she left the precinct, she noticed that officers were photographing her scrubs.
In court, McCarter learned that the district attorney’s office planned to charge her with second-degree (or intentional) murder in Murray’s death. Assistant District Attorney Sara Sullivan argued that McCarter—who has family in various states, a Texas cell phone number, and a valid nursing license in Texas—was a flight risk. She requested that the judge either remand McCarter to jail without bail or set bail at $500,000 in cash, with a $1.5 million insurance bond and a $1.5 million partially secured bond. Because the district attorney’s office said it was planning to seek an indictment for murder rather than manslaughter, the judge chose to remand her, sending her to Rikers Island.
It was the start of a nightmare that, more than two years later, hasn’t ended, not only for McCarter but also for her children. Her oldest daughter, Ariel Robbins, is pregnant, expecting McCarter’s second grandchild in mid-August. “My decision to become pregnant was because I thought it was safe, that [I could] move forward with my life,” Robbins told me over the phone from her home in Madison, Wis., explaining that she had been cautious about making life decisions during this ordeal. Now, she wonders, “How realistic or feasible is it that this will be over in August? I never thought I’d give birth and my mom wouldn’t be there.”
“Even something as simple as having my mom touch my baby bump—she’s not able to do that,” Robbins added.
Although many aspects of McCarter’s experience are unique, others are common among abuse survivors all across the country. When they defend themselves, often after prolonged abuse and multiple attempts to seek help in stopping their partner’s violence, they become entangled in a legal system that frequently views them not as victims or survivors but as perpetrators who must be severely punished.
Despite the ubiquity of domestic abuse, there are no national statistics on the number of survivors who are prosecuted or imprisoned for defending themselves, said Leigh Goodmark, a law professor and the director of the University of Maryland’s Gender Violence Clinic. “We don’t know how many people nationally are incarcerated for killing their partners in self-defense, for taking action in self-defense that did [not] kill their partners but resulted in criminalization, or for crimes committed under the direction of or duress from a partner.”
Statewide studies indicate that McCarter’s experience is not unusual. In 2005, the New York prison system released a snapshot study noting that two-thirds of the women imprisoned for killing someone close to them had been abused by that person. An older study, from California, found that 93 percent of the women imprisoned for killing their partners had been abused by them. Of these women, 67 percent said they had been defending themselves or their children.
Legal advocates for women accused in domestic violence cases across the country say they handle dozens, if not hundreds, of similar cases each year. “We’re working with so many Tracys right now,” said Patrice James of STEPS to End Family Violence, which provides counseling and legal advocacy to survivors in New York City. The organization is currently working with more than 100 survivors who are facing criminal charges, including felony charges like murder and manslaughter. Meanwhile, the National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women, which helps survivors who are facing criminal charges, took on 60 new cases during the first four months of 2022.
The reason the legal system continues to incarcerate domestic violence survivors who act in self-defense, Goodmark said, is that police and prosecutors tend to think in binaries. “In the eyes of the legal system, this person will always be seen as the person who has committed a crime, and not as someone who was victimized by another person and acted to protect themselves.” And once they’ve decided on their theory of the case, they rarely change their minds, even when evidence emerges to suggest otherwise.
In McCarter’s case, police arrived to find Murray bleeding and formed the theory that McCarter had stabbed him. (Murray’s family declined to comment for this article.)
The ways in which domestic violence, self-defense, and criminalization intersect began attracting broader attention in 2012, when two Florida cases revealed the unequal treatment that the legal system meted out. That year, shortly after George Zimmerman successfully invoked self-defense to justify killing 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, a Florida judge sentenced Marissa Alexander to 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot to stop her husband’s violence. Alexander had not been allowed to invoke the state’s “stand your ground” law. Instead, a pretrial judge ruled that she could have left her own home.
The disparity provoked an outcry, and support campaigns sprung up in a number of cities. In 2013, an appeals court overturned Alexander’s conviction and ordered a new trial. It also imposed an onerous penalty: If Alexander were convicted again, she would serve her sentences consecutively rather than concurrently. Faced with three distinct charges and a possible 60-year sentence, Alexander agreed to a plea bargain that included time served for her 1,030 days behind bars, an additional 65 days, and two years of house arrest.
Members of these support campaigns went on to form Survived and Punished, a national network that provides resources for abuse survivors entangled in the criminal legal system. The network popularized the term “criminalized survivor” for people facing charges stemming from abuse. According to Beth Richie, a cofounder of INCITE! Women, Gender Non-Conforming, and Trans People of Color Against Violence and the author of multiple books examining the intersections of interpersonal and state violence against Black women, the term focuses attention on the person’s “relationship to the harm, not to the legal case. It says that one of the forms of abuse is the state criminalizing people’s attempts to survive.”
McCarter’s case affirms a universal truth among those who have worked with domestic violence survivors: “Leaving is the most dangerous time.” Legal scholars have a term for it, coined in 1991 by Martha R. Mahoney: “separation assault.”
“Separation can exacerbate the abuse because it sends the message that the power dynamic has shifted,” Goodmark said. “The legal system and the service-provision system send the message that if you leave, you will be safe. That’s simply not true. And we’ve known that for decades.”
Cindene Pezzell, the legal director of the National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women, which works with hundreds of abuse survivors who are facing charges or have been imprisoned, added: “There’s absolutely no reason to believe that ending a relationship will end the violence.”
As a Black woman, McCarter was even more vulnerable. Her career as a medical professional did not shield her: “The variables that protect white women [from] criminalization and violence…don’t protect Black women in the same way,” Richie told me. “Occupation, income, and age are not protective of Black women either from being abused or being criminalized for that abuse.”
Indeed, a 2016 study found that prosecutors reduced domestic-violence-related charges for white women more frequently than for women of color. Other studies have found that Black women experience domestic violence at a higher rate than their white counterparts and that their experiences are less likely to be taken seriously by the police, especially when the partner, like Murray, is a white man.
In April and August 2020, Assistant District Attorney Sullivan argued that “this was not a one-sided domestic violence situation,” pointing to multiple witness accounts of heated arguments between the pair and at least one instance in which Murray had called the police on McCarter (although the police did not arrest anyone). Sullivan put forth the theory that McCarter was extremely jealous because Murray was seeing other women. (McCarter told me the couple had an open relationship.)
Advocates for survivors consider such a view simplistic. Richie noted that many survivors are motivated by care and compassion, even when they are in dangerous situations. That was certainly true for McCarter, whose children said she volunteered and cared for others throughout their childhood. Indeed, it was her caring and compassion, along with the prospect of being evicted if Murray continued to pester her neighbors, that prompted McCarter to let him in that evening and propelled her into a years-long nightmare.
When McCarter arrived at New York City’s infamous Rikers Island jail complex in the spring of 2020, corrections officers ordered her to remove her clothes and jewelry, then squat facing them, turn away and squat again, show them the bottoms of her feet, open her mouth, stick out her tongue, and shake out her hair. Still in shock over Murray’s death, she could barely process what was happening and does not remember much from those first few days, aside from the bone-numbing cold in her cell.
Two days before her arrival, the city had confirmed its first Covid case. Two weeks later, Covid cases were reported among those incarcerated in the island jail complex. Soon, there would be hundreds.
Jails and prisons are black holes for information: Not only does very little get out about the conditions inside, but information beyond local news broadcasts can be—and frequently is—withheld from those locked within.
McCarter and others gathered around the TV in the common room to watch the news when it aired. She heard about the refrigerated morgue trucks, the shortage of hospital beds, the tents to accommodate overflow. NewYork-Presbyterian converted the in-patient rehab unit where she had worked into a Covid unit.
“My job had told my family and lawyer that if I got out of Rikers, I would be able to come back to work,” she recalled. She knew how much of a difference one extra staff member could make—even without a crisis—in a busy unit. “I thought, ‘Of course [the city will] let me out. They need me.’”
She was wrong. The following month, her then-lawyer, Frank Rothman, submitted a request that she be released on bail. By then, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo had closed the courtrooms, preventing grand juries from convening and pushing other hearings, such as bail applications, onto video.
Rothman told the judge that the hospital’s HR department had confirmed that McCarter would “be welcome[d] back with open arms to work again on the front lines as a registered nurse at the hospital.” Nonetheless, the prosecutor argued that McCarter was a flight risk. The judge agreed, and McCarter, still unindicted, remained at Rikers.
Behind bars, McCarter used her nursing expertise to help prevent the spread of Covid. She taught others how to sanitize the phones, tables, and other common surfaces. She asked repeatedly for masks. Officers were issued masks first, and when she saw that they weren’t wearing them properly, she would admonish them to pull them over their mouth and nose. That didn’t endear her to the staff, whom she depended on to escort her to the clinic and ensure that she received her medically approved meals for anemia and lactose intolerance. “They’re not going to do those if you’ve pissed them off,” McCarter said, but, she reasoned, if she contracted Covid, the consequences would be far worse.
Jails and prisons nationwide halted in-person visits in order to prevent transmission of the virus. Many, including Rikers, replaced visits with video calls. For McCarter, whose family lives in several other states, these televisits became a lifeline. But getting to them became another source of trauma.
Rikers policy requires that incarcerated people be strip-searched before and after each visit, ostensibly to prevent them from passing or receiving items. When televisits replaced in-person visits, the Department of Corrections did not update the policy, though officers initially did not require women to be strip-searched.
On May 1, McCarter had a televisit scheduled with her sister. It was nearing the one-year anniversary of their brother’s death, and the sisters needed to support each other. Ordered to strip, McCarter refused and demanded to see a captain. The captain told her that searches were required before visits and that if McCarter refused, she would receive only a noncontact visit. McCarter argued that televisits were noncontact visits, but the captain told her she could either submit to the strip search or forgo her visit. McCarter stripped.
The following day, an officer wrote her a ticket for three infractions of jail rules—refusing to obey a direct order, disorderly conduct, and participating in a demonstration—resulting in a denial of visits for the next 45 days. Jail officials restored her visits after several days. But McCarter was determined to change the humiliating policy.
For months, she complained to the officers. She also filed repeated complaints via 311, the city’s hotline for nonemergency calls. Unbeknownst to her, outside advocates were also pressuring the department to change the policy. Finally, in early September, the department modified its policy, no longer requiring strip searches for televisits, according to a department spokesperson.
Days later, the court released McCarter and placed her on electronic monitoring. It felt like a reward for fighting that particular abuse, she recalled. Even now, she cries when she recalls the humiliations—and her elation when the policy changed. “I’m so proud that I did that, that I didn’t give up fighting,” she said.
But her fight was far from over. Days before the judge approved her release, in September 2020, after she had spent six months at Rikers, prosecutors had convened a grand jury, which indicted McCarter on second-degree murder charges.
Upon her release from Rikers, the sheriff’s office strapped a black electronic monitoring box to her right ankle. The device’s GPS technology allows her movements to be tracked at all hours, enabling a form of imprisonment commonly referred to as “e-carceration”—a term coined by advocate James Kilgore. Initially, McCarter could not leave her apartment, but in November 2020 her new legal team pushed the court to grant her seven hours outside each week. Violating these restrictions is a quick ticket back to jail, but compliance makes working, commuting, caring for family, and seeking medical care nearly impossible. For McCarter, the initial restrictions meant that she could not even go out to buy groceries or walk her dog.
That was not the only obstacle. Even though McCarter is technically and legally “innocent until proven guilty,” the indictment has become a barrier to resuming her life in other ways.
Among the six-month backlog of e-mails that had piled up while she was at Rikers was one from Columbia University informing her that she had been suspended from the master’s program because of her pending criminal charges. McCarter challenged the suspension and, because the classes were being held remotely, was reinstated. She remains barred from physically entering the campus.
Meanwhile, although hospital administrators had assured her family and attorneys that McCarter would be welcomed back to work, and she technically remains a hospital employee, she has been placed on unpaid leave.
Her nursing license has remained valid, but each time McCarter applies for a position, including for tele-health roles, the pending murder charge appears on a background check—and she is not hired. She does occasional work through an agency but has mostly lived off the savings she’d set aside to buy her apartment.
“Unfortunately, it’s very common for other institutions to take the lead given to them by the criminal legal system,” Pezzell said. Workplaces and schools can choose to suspend or fire people who are facing, but have not been convicted of, a variety of charges. In McCarter’s case, both her workplace and her school have chosen to treat her as if she’s guilty—years before she can make her case in court.
In September 2021, the court ruled that McCarter could leave her house at any time, though she must remain within the city’s five boroughs. While she has welcomed the ability to move more freely, she is unable to travel to access in-patient treatment for the cumulative and continuing trauma from the abuse, the events of that night in 2020, and Rikers Island.
McCarter has cobbled together a patchwork of mental health care, including three therapists and a psychiatrist, although none specialize in treating trauma. Clinicians at local facilities, including one program that offers outpatient PTSD treatment, have evaluated her as too high-risk for an outpatient program, which could increase her existing suicidal ideation. (Preliminary studies have found that abuse survivors are twice as likely to attempt suicide multiple times. Other studies have found that the suicide rate among formerly incarcerated people is at least twice as high as among those who have never been locked up.) McCarter has found an in-patient program in Florida that accepts her insurance and has repeatedly petitioned the courts for permission to travel there. Court officials have denied these requests each time.
McCarter dreads going to sleep at night, knowing that night terrors await. “I dream of Rikers, I dream of work going badly—just all these negative experiences over and over,” she said. “First thing in the morning, my heart’s pounding, I’m sweaty, and, to top it off, I have flashbacks to that night. It’s just getting worse instead of better.”
Shortly before Murray rang her buzzer on that fateful March night, McCarter’s younger daughter, Ashley, still living in San Antonio, told her she was pregnant. The baby would be McCarter’s first grandchild.
“She was incarcerated before I was even showing,” Ashley McCarter told me. “I like to joke around and call her ‘Nurse Mommy,’ because she’s my mom and she’s a nurse.” Often during her pregnancy—sometimes even hourly, Ashley recalled—she wished she could just pick up the phone and call Nurse Mommy for advice. Instead, she had to wait until McCarter could use one of the housing unit’s three phones, which were shared by over a dozen women. “Most of my pregnancy memories are jaded with the incident,” Ashley said.
In August, Ashley went into labor. That night, shortly before the phones cut off at 8 pm, McCarter called her oldest daughter, Ariel Robbins, and learned that Ashley had gone into labor. Because of Covid restrictions, Robbins was waiting outside the delivery room. McCarter hung up, and as she began to dial Ashley’s number, the phones clicked off.
McCarter still sobs when she remembers that night. For hours, she cried and begged officers to take her to the jail’s intake unit, where the phones stayed on all night. Officers eventually took her to the mental health unit. Finally, after more begging, an officer escorted her to the intake unit so she could call Ashley. “I was glad to talk to her, but I feel like I totally abandoned her,” McCarter recalled through her tears. “It seemed the same as my ancestors, not being able to tend to our daughters.”
By the time McCarter called, it was after midnight, and Ashley had been in labor for hours. Hearing her mother’s voice, even for only a few minutes, “definitely helped me spiritually,” Ashley recalled. “It helped bring her into the room so I didn’t feel so alone.”
McCarter met her granddaughter for the first time in March 2021. By then, the child was 7 months old. “I envisioned my mom hopping back and forth from New York [to Texas] to help out, not [me] flying with my baby across the country during a pandemic,” Ashley said. She has visited three times, once timing her visit so that she could attend a court hearing, which she described as “a renewed reminder that [while indicted, you are] at a stagnant point, and you have no power or control over the situation.”
Now McCarter worries that the ongoing legal ordeal will cause her to miss Robbins’s pregnancy and childbirth as well. “They take away things that can’t be given back,” McCarter said.
In 2020, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. announced that he would not run for reelection. His announcement prompted more than half a dozen candidates to join the race for the Democratic nomination. In September 2020, several candidates tweeted their support for McCarter, who at the time was still at Rikers. Among them was Alvin Bragg, who called her situation a “travesty of justice.” Bragg won the election and is now Manhattan district attorney.
With Bragg’s election, McCarter’s family hoped he would drop the charges. That hasn’t happened. Bragg, who opted not to pursue an indictment against Donald Trump for his business practices, declined to comment, saying that it was an open and pending case.
“We had a false sense of hope that Alvin Bragg gave us,” said Robbins, who recalled crying when she heard that Bragg had won. “I thought, ‘This nightmare is finally going to be over. I’m glad that finally somebody who cares more about the truth will be in office.’”
What happened in Chicago a few years ago provides some hope. Shortly after Kim Foxx took office as Cook County state’s attorney in 2017, her office met with anti-domestic-violence organizers about three abuse survivors that her predecessor had charged in the deaths of their partners. Her office reduced the charges against two of them, allowing them to be released from prison early, and dropped the charges against the third. In 2021, according to the Chicago Bail Fund, Foxx also dropped the charges against an unnamed criminalized survivor.
Foxx’s actions, said Samah Sisay, a member of the advocacy organization Survived and Punished, are a “really powerful example” of prosecutorial discretion—one that Bragg could follow. “If you truly believe this is a survivor who took actions in self-defense, then why is it you can’t drop the charges? Why are you refusing to do this?”
The organization Color of Change has joined the calls for Bragg to drop the charges against McCarter, taking out a full-page ad in the June 5 New York Times. “Please correct the grave misstep that occurred in McCarter’s prosecution and acknowledge the evidence and history of domestic violence that supported McCarter’s self-defense claims against abuse,” stated the ad, which was signed by 58 organizations.
While McCarter and her children continue to hold out hope that Bragg will ultimately drop the charges, her current legal team, headed by Sean Hecker at Kaplan Hecker & Fink, has tried to negotiate a plea deal with Bragg’s office. They were making headway toward an Alford plea, in which McCarter would be convicted of second-degree manslaughter and third-degree menacing without admitting guilt. After one year, if she is not arrested again, the manslaughter conviction would be expunged, leaving her with only a misdemeanor conviction for menacing (causing another person to fear injury or death), which would allow her to resume working as a nurse.
But at a hearing in mid-May, Judge Diane Kiesel, who will preside over McCarter’s trial, rebuffed the offer, stating that she had never approved an Alford plea and that, because McCarter had been indicted for murder, she would not accept a conditional discharge. Kiesel also denied McCarter’s request to seek trauma treatment out of state. Although the judge urged both sides to set a trial date as soon as possible, scheduling conflicts are pushing the trial to the fall.
That delay may cause McCarter to miss the birth of her second grandchild, a prospect that weighs heavily on her. Missing these milestones is a constant source of anguish. And as her legal ordeal continues, she faces not only the possibility of conviction, imprisonment, and separation from her family, but also the prospect of being barred from continuing the nursing career she’d worked so hard to build.
“The state becomes the worst abuser you could ever have,” McCarter said. “They lie. They gaslight you. They physically and emotionally traumatize you. They are so powerful that my ability to leave my abuser no longer exists.”