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Home / Articles / Survivor Stories / When Survivors Are the Criminals

When Survivors Are the Criminals

In trying to prevent their own murders at the hands of their abusers, two survivors found themselves behind bars

When Survivors Are the Criminals

Kim Dadou spent 17 years in prison for fatally shooting her boyfriend.

Marissa Alexander was sentenced to 20 years in prison for shooting a bullet into the wall next to where her husband stood in their house.

The commonality between these cases is that both women are domestic violence survivors and, in both incidents, they were attempting to prevent their own death at the hands of their abusers. So how did both of them end up in prison?

‘This is It, Bitch’

In Dadou’s case, she was 25 when she got into the front seat of the car her boyfriend Darnell Sanders was driving on Dec. 17, 1991. She was hopeful things were going to get better between the couple even though it had been four years of physical abuse and death threats from Sanders.

Unfortunately, she was wrong. That night, Sanders accused Dadou of cheating on him. He struck her in the face before he began to strangle her. He was six-feet-tall and 250-pounds, and he put his entire weight on top of Dadou before he let her know in no uncertain terms, “This is it, bitch.” Dadou reached for a gun Sanders kept under his passenger seat and shot him six times.

She was charged with manslaughter in the first degree and sentenced to eight to 25 years. She was denied early release five times by a parole board and was finally released after 17 years.

She’s now 50, having been out of prison for seven years, and has made it her life’s mission to lobby for the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act, sponsored by New York State Senator Ruth Hassell-Thompson and Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry.

If passed, the law would give judges the option of allowing shorter sentences for domestic violence survivors or give them alternative-to-incarceration programs. It could also reduce sentences for survivors forced into criminal activity by their abusers.

“It helps me heal knowing that I can raise awareness about domestic violence and what this bill can do for survivors who acted out in self-defense,” Dadou told earlier this year. “Prison is not a place for survivors of abuse who have been through extreme trauma—they deserve rehabilitation and support.”

‘There’s a Silence That Happens’

It was 2008, two months into Alexander’s relationship with her then-boyfriend Rico Gray Sr., when he caught her completely off guard with an explosion of anger. During an argument, he jumped on top of Alexander and began to strangle her, angry with her for slamming a door.

“That was the last thing I remember,” says Alexander. “There’s a silence that happens. I think he must have realized I wasn’t responding so he let go. I was gagging for air, crying … I couldn’t figure out how you get to that point.” She couldn’t swallow for a week and lost 7 pounds.

“I didn’t call the police. It didn’t even dawn on me to call the police. Here was someone I was falling for. I just thought to myself, ‘He has an anger problem.’”

His physical and verbal abuse continued. At times, there were six children in the house with the couple—two from Alexander’s previous relationships and four from Gray’s previous relationships. Alexander worried for their safety.

“We implemented a code word with the kids—if ever there’s an emergency and I can’t get to a phone, I’d say ‘Spongebob.’ One day, Gray pushed her so hard in the bathroom she fell and hit her head against the tub, rendering her unconscious for a short time. When she woke up, she told her daughter the code word. Police came and arrested Gray, and Alexander filed for a restraining order.

But shortly after, she found herself pregnant.

“He reached out to me and explained some things that happened when he was younger. I was compassionate.” Alexander says she knows now it was “pure manipulation.” At the time, she saw his persistence as a form of caring. “He wanted to spend every minute with me.”

The couple married. Alexander was barely four months pregnant when she says she questioned something her husband did and he lost it. “He head-butted me, flipped me over the bed.” She left him and moved in with her mother. The stress of the abuse resulted in her spending the last several months of her pregnancy on bed rest. Her daughter was born a month premature.

Nine days after giving birth, Alexander returned to the home she had shared with her husband. “I was planning to leave him, but on weekends, I’d go home to appease him. I was taking my things away slowly.

He confronted her about a text message he saw on her phone and she sensed what was about to happen. She went into the bathroom and locked the door. He busted it down.

“He put his hand around my neck. I tried to get away,” she says.

When Alexander broke free, she ran to her car, which was parked in the garage. Only then did she realize she didn’t have her keys. Before going back inside, she grabbed the gun she kept in her glove box. Alexander, who grew up around guns and knew how to safely handle one, says she bought the gun when she was attending college classes at night years prior.

Gray was waiting for her in the kitchen and told her he was going to kill her.

“I fired the gun,” she says. “I fired it as a warning shot—this is my husband, not a stranger—and it worked. He said, ‘OK, OK, OK,’ and ran out of the house.”

A Harsh Punishment

Florida’s mandatory minimum sentence for aggravated assault meant Alexander was handed a 20-year sentence despite evidence that showed her husband was abusive. After the judge ordered a $250,000 bond, Alexander spent the three years the trial carried on behind bars while her abuser had sole custody of their newborn daughter.

Alexander remembers how “there was so much darkness in that place,” meaning prison, and that she tried to seek the light. “Anger was a useless emotion. I had to know God like no other.”

Upon hearing her sentence, Alexander says, “I knew that it wasn’t going to be the end. I always had faith it would work out but I didn’t know how or when it would.”

She was right. Her conviction was ultimately overturned on appeal and she settled for a plea deal of three years plus another two years of house arrest. With time served, she ended up staying another 65 days in prison before being released in January of this year.

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The 36-year-old Alexander now has shared custody of her daughter, age 6, and says the bond between the two was immediate upon her release. She wishes for full custody, concerned about her daughter’s welfare when she’s with Gray, but says, “That’s a fight for another time. I’ve spent thousands of dollars on it already. He wouldn’t give it to me [full custody] out of spite.”

Once her story was picked up by media outlets around the world, Alexander says she knew she had to be a voice for other survivors. “A lot of women came into jail black and blue. They are being criminalized for staying in their relationship.”

Her full-time focus now is on the Marissa Alexander Justice Project, working with lawmakers to eradicate mandatory minimums for self-defense cases like hers. To this day, she says her ex has never acknowledged the incident or what happened to Alexander as a result, but for the mom-of-three, she made peace with it a long time ago.

“There’s no way I could be living my purpose now if I hadn’t. I’m comfortable in my own skin. I know I am a whole person, not a broken person.”