The Story Behind “The Worst Abuser You Could Ever Have”
July 7, 2023 | Victoria Law
I’ve spent nearly two decades writing about incarceration with a focus on women’s experiences. Early on, I realized that abuse plays a significant role in women’s criminalization and incarceration.
Every single incarcerated woman I interviewed had a back story that included violence and abuse.
Their experiences were often downplayed, if not dismissed, by courts. Arrests, prosecution, and incarceration for charges stemming from abuse are common enough that advocates coined the term “criminalized survivor.”
Attorneys nearly always advise their clients not to speak to media while their case winds their way through the legal process. And, as someone who focuses on prisons, I typically meet criminalized survivors after they have been convicted.
That changed shortly after the pandemic hit New York City in March 2020.
I learned about Tracy McCarter, a Black nurse who was arrested for the death of her estranged abusive husband. The pandemic had closed all courts and she was detained, without bail and without being indicted, at Rikers Island, which would soon become a coronavirus hotspot.
I mailed her a letter asking if she would speak with me. I included one of my previous articles about the intersections of domestic violence and incarceration, and my phone number.
Tracy called me. We talked off-record several times over the summer as she waited for the courts to reopen. I repeatedly asked her to confirm that her attorneys were amenable to a media story. When we finally got the go-ahead, it was nearly Labor Day, she was still in jail, and her long-awaited grand jury hearing was scheduled for the following week. I wrote my first story about her, causing several candidates running for Manhattan district attorney to tweet in support of her. One, Alvin Bragg, would later win the election.
Tracy was indicted for second-degree murder. She was also released on electronic monitoring. We stayed in touch. In 2022, Bragg took office. His office continued to prosecute Tracy. Courts reopened to the public. I began attending her monthly pretrial hearings.
By April, it looked as if Tracy would be heading to trial. I pitched the story to my editor (the fabulous Regina Mahone) at The Nation, where I had written about abuse survivors imprisoned for defending themselves. Regina suggested that I write a feature, which would entail interviewing Tracy.
Given that she was facing a possible 19 years to life prison sentence, I fully expected Tracy (and her legal team) to say no. I was stunned when she agreed.
I spent the next several months talking with Tracy. I visited her at home several times to pore through her documents, including paperwork detailing the dehumanizing practices at Rikers, such as strip searching women before and after video visits. I interviewed people who had long studied the issue and who worked directly with criminalized survivors. I attended her court dates. I made repeated requests to Bragg’s office for comment. (They declined to talk.)
What unfolded through these conversations, before my eyes in pre-hearing arguments, and through the voluminous documents I pored over was a damning portrait of how the criminal legal system replicates interpersonal abuse. As Tracy told me, “The state becomes the worst abuser you could ever have. 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.”
After the story’s publication, the tide began to shift. More outlets picked up Tracy’s story, more reporters and photographers filled the court benches each month, and more advocates joined the call for the prosecutor to drop the charge. In November 2022, two years and eight months after her arrest, Bragg filed a motion to dismiss the charge. The judge waited a week before granting that motion—with a 60-day window so the district attorney could seek an indictment on lesser charges. (Bragg’s office ultimately did not do so.)
Tracy’s story was unusual only in that it demonstrated the power of self-advocacy, combined with grassroots organizing and legal strategy, to garner broader public scrutiny—and to win. But far too many other abuse survivors face prosecution and prison for similar acts of self-defense—and the stories told about them are often the prosecutor’s version that downplay, dismiss, and distort their experiences of violence. Far too often, they end up in prison—and that’s where I first come into contact with them.
I wrote “The Worst Abuser You Could Ever Have” to draw attention to both Tracy’s legal nightmare and the unknown numbers of survivors who have faced, or are currently facing, similar ordeals.
Victoria Law’s story “The Worst Abuser You Could Ever Have,” published in The Nation, is a finalist for the 2023 Media for a Just Society Award in the journalism category. Law’s book “Prisons Make Us Safer” and 20 Other Myths About Mass Incarceration was a 2022 Media for a Just Society Award finalist. You can read more about Victoria’s journalism and writing on her website, victorialaw.net.
Photo credit: Ricardo Horatio Nelson