By Tracy McCarter/ Truthout
This essay is a 2023 winner of the Keeley Schenwar Memorial Essay Prize.
One of the hollowest principles within the criminal legal system is the presumption of innocence until court-proven guilt. I know this firsthand. When my white husband died, I — a Black woman — was accused of his murder. The mere fact of my arrest on a second-degree murder charge set off a tsunami of consequences. Being arrested equated to being punished; “innocence” was never part of the calculation. All of society’s systems, it seems, were activated against me.
Before March 2, 2020, my life looked great — from the outside. I was living in New York City, having snagged a coveted job as a nurse at Weill Cornell Medical Center, crown jewel of the New York-Presbyterian (NYP) hospital system. The previous May, I had married the love of my life, a man I met six years before. I had birthed four kids by the time I was 20, but now, all my children were out of the house and thriving. I was exceling in my master’s degree nursing courses at Columbia University. When I graduated high school, I was already a mom of two, and I passed up a chance to attend Yale, too intimidated by the idea at the time. Now, I was seizing a second chance.
Yet closer inspection would reveal the truth. In early 2020, I was attending Al-Anon, an organization that supports family members of people with alcoholism. I was learning the principles of detaching with love from a husband who had relapsed. When my husband drank, that sweet, loving man would turn into a physically and mentally abusive monster. To escape him, I had moved into my own apartment on the Upper Westside of Manhattan, but it soon proved too close for me to remain safe, and by March 2020, I was planning to move to Queens.
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The night of March 2, 2020, my drunken husband came to my home, choked me and tried to take my purse. I screamed for help. No one came. I grabbed a knife to try to scare him away. It did not work. Deciding it was safer to give him the money he was demanding, I put the knife away to look for my wallet. When I was unable to find it, he became more enraged. He launched himself at me again.
As a nurse, I knew better than many the danger I faced when he put me in chokeholds, simultaneously compressing both my carotid arteries. I knew each time he did this, he could easily choke me to death. To defend myself, I grabbed another knife. He stumbled coming at me, impaling himself on the blade.
I called 911. I was desperate to save him. The wound proved too grievous. He died.
When the ambulance arrived, so did the police. I was arrested within minutes.
Denied bail, I was taken to Rikers Island, one of the country’s most notorious jails. Most people there are incarcerated pre-trial, meaning they have not been found guilty by a court of law. Yet the correctional officers immediately started calling me “inmate,” refusing to use the term “detainee,” as mandated by the New York City Board of Corrections.
I would soon become better known by my book and case number than my name. My very identity was an early casualty.
More casualties came soon. I was denied my prescribed migraine medication, offered only an alternative that had never worked for me. My debilitating headaches returned with a vengeance.
And when COVID-19 shut down in-person visits, Rikers, for the first time in its history, allowed tele-visits. But the jail continued its policy of mandating full body strip and body cavity searches before and after every visit. It did not matter that contraband cannot pass through a computer screen, or that the searches were a clear violation of the Eighth and 14th amendments. There went my human and constitutional rights.
While I was enduring this abuse at Rikers, the pandemic would come to fully grip New York City. Thoughts of returning to my work as a nurse kept me going. Hospitals were crowded with dying patients. My colleagues deserved help. The NYP hospital leadership publicly proclaimed it needed every nurse it could get. Meanwhile, activists were pushing hard for my release. The human resources department at my hospital assured my lawyers that I would be allowed to return to work, if I were released on bail. The department gave no caveats, only reassurances. I was released home on electronic monitoring to await trial.
Shortly after, the hospital’s legal department contacted my lawyers, telling them I was being placed on a personal leave of absence against my will, though they did concede to continue to provide health insurance. Devastated that I could not help the pandemic-stricken city, I asked to be hired into a telehealth role. Surely this could free up another nurse to provide direct patient care. Yet I was told I could not return to any role at NYP until my case was adjudicated.
As the pandemic raged, I could not put my life-saving nursing skills to use.
Ironically, around this time, I read about the hospital’s launch of the Dalio Center for Health Justice, which “aims to understand and address the root causes of health inequities.” I wondered, just how blind is the health system to the intersectionality of systemic racism? My case reveals a clear example of how these systems conspire together to further traumatize and victimize people who look like me. Health care does not live in a silo outside of these systems. It is a pillar upholding racist mistreatment.
I was forced to remain in New York City unemployed. Many people lose jobs after arrest. Thanks to some savings — and organizers who came together to run a fundraiser for my expenses — I was far more fortunate than most. Loss of jobs after arrest often leads to loss of housing and health insurance, food insecurity and children being taken into foster care, in a devastating cascade of brutal punishments.
My arrest also resulted in losing my place in school. While I was jailed, my family tried to contact Columbia University. They didn’t respond. It wasn’t until I was home wading through emails that I found a letter stating that Columbia had placed me on “interim suspension.” I was considered persona non grata, barred from their properties.
The university stated that I was suspected of committing “gender-based misconduct.” I couldn’t reenroll in classes, they said, for the safety of the community. I cried for a long time. My victimization was being twisted back on me.
I fought Columbia. I pointed out they were violating their own policy because classes had transitioned to Zoom. They relented — a bit. I was back in class, but still physically barred.
Meanwhile, barred from the hospital, I tried to find other employment. A dismal pattern began: I would get an offer, only for the arrest to show up on the background check. Offers were pulled.
I stopped applying.
I wasn’t alone. With all these entangled systems stacked against the accused, many folks give up. It is no accident that more than 95 percent of charges end in plea bargain. In my case, the evidence was clearly in my favor: My husband had a history of abusing his ex-wife, was videotaped abusing me, admitted the abuse in writing and was witnessed “rampaging” through our building earlier in the day before I arrived home. The medical examiner could not dispute my version of events. And I called 911 to try to save my husband’s life. Plus, I had many committed grassroots organizers on my side. Yet despite all this, even I came very close to taking a plea that would end the torture, to protect my license. The judge in my case refused to accept the plea, saying it was too lenient.
Just 10 days before trial, when it became clear their shoddy evidence would be exposed in court, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg conceded he did not even believe I committed murder. He dropped the charges against me. Yet I have no doubt, he and the court would have happily accepted a plea that cost me my career.
I returned to work at Weill Cornell, though I worry about my future there. Outspoken folks don’t last long. I also completed my master’s degree, only bitterly attending the graduation from Columbia so I could stage a protest. I did.
Being accused has left me disillusioned and traumatized. Despite all my advantages, I was faced with ill treatment at the hands of not only the criminal legal system, but every large institution I encountered. I wonder if anyone who looks like me ever actually experiences the presumption of “innocence.” I was marked guilty from the start. These labels mean nothing inside of a system that is itself guilty of stealing so many lives.
The past three and a half years have led me to believe the criminal legal system cannot be reformed. These years have led me to wonder: If we left behind the oppressive systems that deprive people of health care, housing, employment, safety and their very freedom, what could we create instead?
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