On the morning of 28 July 2016, 14-year-old Bresha Meadows took her father’s shotgun at the family home in Warren, in Trumbull County, Ohio and shot her father dead. In a case which has been picked up by anti-domestic abuse campaigners, Bresha Meadows has been labelled a ‘hero’ by her mother who has reported suffering 20 years of abuse and violence at the hands of 41-year-old Jonathan Meadows.
Bresha was arrested immediately after the murder and charged with delinquency by reason of aggravated murder. 10 months on, she is being held at the Trumbull County Ohio Juvenile Detention Center while her lawyers negotiate a possible plea deal.
Bresha’s 19-year-old sister Brianna has spoken of her father’s control and abuse in the household and described what was going on behind closed doors as a ‘nightmare’. In 2011, Bresha’s mother, Brandi Meadows, did leave her husband because of the violence at home and took the children with her. According to reports, she filed a domestic violence protection order against him, writing in the order:
“In the 17 years of our marriage he has cut me, broke my ribs, fingers, the blood vessels in my hand, my mouth, blackened my eyes. I believe my nose was broken. If he finds us, I am 100 percent sure he will kill me and the children.”
As is so often the case, Brandi returned to her husband believing his pleas that he would change and things would be better. When Bresha became a teenager, she struggled more to cope with the situation in the household with evidence of self-harm, truancy from school and running away from home. She told her mother’s family members that she had witnessed the violence from her father to her mother, saw the beatings and the blood, and she was terrified of him. Her father would threaten the family with a gun she said, and she was frightened he would kill them all.
The Free Bresha campaign, operating under the hashtag #FreeBresha, has been gathering speed and support since the shooting 10 months ago, with supporters demanding that Bresha Meadows is released and all charges against her dropped.
Campaigners are arguing that Bresha’s actions were in self-defence after witnessing years of violence inside her home and being in fear of her father. Furthermore, they highlight that victims of domestic abuse who have taken drastic measures in order to defend themselves and survive abuse need “support and care not incarceration and punishment.”
Bresha’s father, Jonathan Meadows, is being described by his wife and children as a domineering and violent man; however, his own family does not agree and deny that he was abusive to his family. They feel the allegations of domestic abuse have been created in order to supply a defence to Bresha after she shot him dead.
Within cases of parricide, when a child kills one or both parents, committing murder can be a last resort for adolescents when they are experiencing abuse and violence. Often they have tried speaking out or getting help from people outside the home, but if this fails and the abusive continues, adolescents especially can feel trapped and terrified and they do not see any other way out of the situation they are in.
The case of Bresha Meadows bares striking similarities to the case of Stacey Lannert in St John, Missouri 27 years ago. On 4 July 1990, after being abused by her father for many years, at the age of 18-years-old Stacey Lannert killed her father with a shotgun while he was asleep. Four years older than Bresha Meadows at the time of the shooting, Lannert was charged as an adult and testified her father had been sexually abusing her since she was 8-years-old and had recently turned his attentions to her younger sister, pushing her to take drastic action to stop him. Stacey Lannert initially told police she had found her father shot dead and presumed the murder had been carried out by an intruder in their home, before confessing that she was the one with the gun.
“And then I thought to myself that he didn’t deserve to live. So I shot him again.”
Stacey Lannert was convicted of murder in 2009, but her life sentence commuted to 20 years due to the history of abuse. She was released from prison after serving 18 years. Lannert’s defence team struggled in court to use a claim of self-defence because she shot her father while he was sleeping which the prosecution argued meant she was not in immediate danger from him at the time. An argument of self-defence in a court of law against murder charges is an affirmative defence where the defendant is arguing that their actions were justified even though they were illegal.
The right to use deadly force in self-defence generally contains the issue of ‘imminent danger’, with the underlying rule that a person believed they were in immediate danger of death or great physical harm and the only way to escape such danger was to use deadly force. For Bresha Meadows, who also shot her father while he was sleeping, if her case reaches court she could face the same counter-argument.
Racial bias within domestic violence cases and in the criminal justice system has also been raised as a big concern in this case. A report by Time in 2014 highlighted that while an estimated 1.3 million American women experience domestic violence each year. Black women are three times more likely to be killed through this violence than white women. For those women who have children in the home, these are children who are forced to watch and listen to the abuse of their mothers and are at risk of violence themselves
The Free Bresha Campaign raises the disproportionate rates of detention and conviction of black youth compared to white youth stating “Black youth are disproportionately arrested and face a 40 percent higher chance of pre-trial detention than white youth. White youth are 50 percent more likely than Black youth to be offered alternatives to incarceration.” The petition for release of Bresha Meadows has now reached almost 30,000 signatures in support of the campaign and a Go Fund Me page has raised just over $100,000 to date to support Bresha and her family.
Lawyers acting for Bresha Meadows have managed to ensure her case will remain in the juvenile court which means if she is found guilty, she must be released when she reaches the age of 21, taking many years of continued incarceration off the table for her. A great deal has changed in the 27 years since the conviction of Stacy Lannert within both child protection and domestic abuse research and support which may be reflected in the consideration of Bresha’s case. Bresha Meadows is currently pleading not guilty to the charges against her and a pre-trial hearing date is set for 22 May 2017.