UPDATE: At her first pre-trial hearing on August 30, the judge did not release Bresha. She will remain in detention until at least her October 6 hearing. More than 30 people, including friends from school and church as well as anti-domestic violence advocates, showed up at the courtroom, but were not allowed inside. Nearly 7,000 people have signed a petition calling on the prosecutor to drop all charges and release Bresha immediately.
Content note: This article contains graphic descriptions of domestic violence.
Bresha Meadows turned 15 on August 11. There were no visits allowed that day at the Trumbull County Juvenile Detention Center in Ohio; she spent her birthday separated from her mother, siblings, and aunts.
Two weeks earlier, Bresha, then 14, had been arrested for allegedly shooting her father to death with his own gun as he slept—the same gun he had often brandished, she said, to keep his own family in line. For years, according to Bresha’s family, the girl had watched helplessly as her father, Jonathan Meadows, punched, kicked, stomped, and beat her mother, Brandi. He threatened to kill Brandi and their three children, family members say, if she ever tried to leave.
“He really knew how to keep her captive in her own home,” Bresha’s lawyer, Ian Friedman, told Rewire.
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Bresha is now facing charges of aggravated murder. The Trumbull County prosecutor has not yet said whether he will continue her case in juvenile court or attempt to move it to adult criminal court. If Bresha is tried and convicted in adult court, she faces a life sentence.
“I Have Never Seen Any Case Worse Than What My Sister Went Through”
Bresha’s mother, Brandi, married Jonathan Meadows when she was 19 years old. The following year, they had their first child. According to her sister Martina Latessa, when Brandi was pregnant, Meadows hit her with a 25-pound weight, accusing her of cheating on him and telling her that he would not raise another man’s child. Brandi went to the hospital. Her pregnancy survived the attack and she later gave birth to their son.
That wouldn’t be the last time Brandi experienced abuse. According to the order of protection she filed for in 2011, Jonathan broke her ribs, fingers, and the blood vessels in her hands. He also blackened her eyes and cut her. As Latessa tells it, Meadows once punched his wife so hard that she heard her teeth crack. Later, she had to have those teeth removed. He also slammed her head into the wall, stomped on her, and kicked her in the face, Latessa says. Brandi later told her sister, “I learned a long time ago not to get up till he left the room or he told me to get up.” Instead, Brandi would lie on the floor covering her face with her hands.
According to an interview with the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Meadows’ abuse sent Brandi to a hospital or outpatient facility 15 to 20 times over the years. He also threatened her with a gun numerous times. “He told her, ‘I will kill your fucking kids. You will watch your kids die. That is the last thing you’ll see,'” Latessa told Rewire.
When Bresha was 9 years old, Brandi and her three children fled from Warren, Ohio, to her mother’s house in Cleveland. There, she opened up to her sisters about the years of violence. “If he finds us, I am 100 percent sure he will kill me and the children,” Brandi wrote when filing for her 2011 order of protection.
One morning, Brandi’s mother woke to find her daughter and grandchildren gone. As Latessa recounts, Meadows had gotten in touch with his wife and apologized profusely, promised never to hurt her again, and begged for another chance. Latessa, a Cleveland police officer in the domestic violence unit, says that she sees this pattern over and over in abusive relationships. “It takes seven to ten times for a woman to leave,” she said. “That’s the national average.”
After a month of no contact, Latessa drove to Warren to check on her sister. She remembers that her 16-year-old nephew opened the door and begged her to leave. “If my dad knows you’re out here, he will kill you,” he told her. “Please, please, please get out of here.” The Meadowses changed their phone number; none of Brandi’s family members knew how to reach them.
It was not until recently that Latessa and other family members learned that her attempt to escape resulted in even tighter controls. Brandi was no longer allowed to be alone, they say: For the most part, if she left the house, he went with her. “If she was driving the kids to school, she had to be on the phone with him the whole time,” Latessa described. Even at home, she couldn’t be alone. If she had to use the bathroom in the middle of the night, she had to wake him.”
“If she didn’t,” Latessa began, then paused. “She used the word ‘reprimand,’ but he would beat her.”
Latessa doesn’t think that her brother-in-law hit the children. “But they were belittled, ridiculed, and controlled,” she said. Brandi, she added, believed that if her husband focused his physical violence on her, the children would stay safe.
Even so, as Friedman noted, “A child having to witness that [violence] day to day … is unthinkable.”
In January 2015, Bresha ran away to another aunt, who brought her to Latessa. Though it was the middle of winter, she had no coat and so Latessa gave her a NorthFace jacket. Bresha told her aunts about her father’s constant drinking, abuse, and efforts to cut his wife off from her children. “We can’t talk to Mommy,” she told her aunts.
Bresha’s father called Warren police, accusing his sisters-in-law of kidnapping his daughter, and so Latessa and another sister brought Bresha back.
In May 2016, Bresha ran away again. This time, Latessa recalled, “She was numb to the abuse. [Talking about] it was like having a conversation about the weather.” Bresha told Latessa that, after she returned in January 2015, her father would often tell her that he was disgusted with her and that he couldn’t be around her. He would also keep her away from her mother. If Brandi and Bresha were talking in one room, Bresha told her, he’d yell at them, swear that they could not keep secrets from him, then take Brandi into a separate room. “They lived in a box,” Latessa described. “If they stepped out of that box, they were reprimanded and put right back in that box.”
This time, Latessa says she called the Trumbull County Department of Job and Family Services. But, she later learned from her sister, social workers interviewed Bresha’s parents together. “What can I say to this lady when Jonathan is sitting right next to me?” Brandi later asked her sister. Nothing ever came of the complaint.
That visit escalated rather than deterred the abuse. According to Latessa, when Bresha was returned home, her father called her a “stupid bitch” and accused her of “putting these fucking white people in this house.” He also, Latessa says, escalated his violence toward his wife.
Latessa has been on the Cleveland police force for nearly 17 years and on the domestic violence unit for four. “I have never seen any case worse than what my sister went through,” she said.
Jonathan Meadows’ siblings have denied allegations of abuse. His brother told Fox 8 News, “This has nothing to do with abuse,” while sister Lena Cooper called his death “cold and calculated.”
What Happens to Bresha?
No one knows how many girls are behind bars for defending themselves or family members from parental abuse. A 1992 study found that, of the approximately 280 parental killings in 1990, approximately 90 percent involved children who had been victims of constant and severe abuse. “Typically, [the killing of a parent] cases involve children who are denied or provided minimal assistance and, seeing no alternative, resort to self-help by killing the abusive parents using brutal methods in non-confrontational situations,” noted study author Susan C. Smith.
There are no updated numbers. Neither the National Institute of Corrections nor the Bureau of Justice Statistics tracks this information. In response to a request by Rewire, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, an agency within the U.S. Department of Justice, estimated that, in 2014, 640 children were involved in homicides in the United States, but also noted that girls facing homicide charges are too rare to produce any reliable estimates on them or the circumstances leading to their action.
According to EZANIBRS, a database of information collected by the FBI’s National Incident-Based Reporting System, 60 children were alleged to have been involved in the deaths of adult family members in 2014. Of the ten girls allegedly involved in the deaths of parents or stepparents, none were convicted. However, cautions Melissa Sickmund, director at the National Center for Juvenile Justice, a nonprofit research organization, EZANIBRS does not reflect convictions. In other words, the number of children recorded is based on calls for help and/or arrests, not whether they are found guilty. Furthermore, the data does not cross-reference the children’s alleged involvement with family or parental deaths with claims of abuse or family violence.
What is known is that 84 percent of girls in the juvenile justice system have experienced abuse and in-home violence. “Girls are often driven into the juvenile justice system based on responses to in-home violence,” Francine Sherman, clinical associate professor at the Boston College Law School and the author of a 2015 report on juvenile justice reforms for girls, told Rewire. While killings by girls are rare, she noted that “less extreme versions are happening every day. Fighting back [against family or in-home violence] is not unusual.”
As previously reported by Rewire, there’s a similar dearth of information about adults imprisoned for self-defense or other abuse-related convictions. In 1999, the Department of Justice reported that nearly half of women in local jails and state prisons had been abused before their arrests. That continues to be the most recent nationwide data available.
If her case stays in juvenile court, Bresha, if convicted of aggravated murder, could stay in detention until she is 21 years old. If her case is moved to adult court, however, she could face life behind bars.
In Ohio, transferring a child under age 16 to the adult legal system is at the discretion of the prosecutor. But it’s not entirely up to juvenile prosecutor Stanley Elkins or his boss, Trumbull County Prosecutor Dennis Watkins. Erin Davies, the executive director of the Juvenile Justice Coalition, which advocates for youth in Ohio’s juvenile justice system, explained that the prosecutor would have to file a motion. The judge then orders an amenability hearing, in which the court decides whether the child seems unlikely to be rehabilitated in juvenile detention.
As part of the amenability hearing, the court orders a report about the child’s social history, including testimony from an expert witness about the child’s ability to be rehabilitated, or positively respond to programming offered by the juvenile court. What is included in that social history, says Davies, depends on the court-assigned provider, but can include the child’s history of mental health, substance abuse, or anything that might explain the circumstances behind the arrest. Does this social history always include family violence? Davies hopes so, but can’t say for sure.
The court then considers the report and other factors, including the role of the victim. “Did the victim facilitate what happened?” Davies explained. “On the flip side, they’ll ask, ‘Was the victim particularly vulnerable? Was the victim deeply harmed?'”
Even if Bresha’s case remains in juvenile court, 14- and 15-year-olds found guilty of aggravated murder, murder, or attempted murder in Ohio face a mandatory Serious Youthful Offender (SYO) disposition. That means, explained Davies, that the juvenile court imposes a sentence under adult sentence guidelines or a blended sentence. The child is then sent to a juvenile detention facility. If they don’t successfully complete their sentence (for example, if they get into trouble), they can then be sent to an adult prison once they turn 18. Unless the prosecutor reduces the charge, Bresha will be facing an adult sentence even if her case is not transferred. While juvenile cases are decided by a judge, children facing SYO disposition have the right to a grand jury and a jury trial.
Of Ohio’s 82,677 juvenile cases in 2014, 108 were transferred to adult court. Children (or their attorneys) can appeal the transfer decision, but not until the adult court case is over. And appeals take time. “By the time that appeal works its way through the court, the youth may have spent a couple of years in an adult prison,” explained Davies. It’s also hard to know how many children have filed appeals: No state agency tracks the children who end up in adult systems.
Under the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, prison officials must separate incarcerated children under age 18 from adults by “sight and sound.” In other words, incarcerated children are not allowed to be in places with their adult counterparts, effectively barring them from any types of programming or services. This means that, if Bresha is tried and convicted as an adult, she may spend years in isolation.
But prolonged isolation isn’t the only harm that children face when placed in adult prisons. “Research shows that children placed in adult prisons are at a great risk of physical and sexual assault across the course of their sentence, at a significantly higher risk of suicide, are more likely to be placed in isolation, and often not able to access youth-specific programming, like education or child-specific mental health services,” noted Davies.
Even the Department of Justice agrees. In July 2016, it released a report entitled No Place for Youth: Girls in the Adult Justice System. Among its findings were that children under 18 were the most likely population to commit suicide while incarcerated in adult jails and that they do so at twice the rate of their adult counterparts. “Even youth who spend very short periods of time in jail are at high risk, as 48 percent of jail suicides happen within the first week of incarceration,” the report noted. The report recommends that, when possible, girls be kept in their communities rather than placed behind bars. If they are placed in lockup, they should be kept out of adult jails and prisons.
“It is critically important that the juvenile court look into all the particular circumstances surrounding the offense,” stated Davies. “Bresha’s case is no different, especially given the unique facts of her situation and research showing that transferring youth to adult court can actually make them more likely to reoffend.”
The prosecutor’s office has not returned Rewire‘s inquiries about whether it will seek to move Bresha’s case to adult criminal court.
“The Only Question That Remains at Trial Is Why”
Bresha has entered a plea of “not true” (the juvenile court equivalent of “not guilty”). She is due to be back in court on August 30.
“In Ohio, self-defense is still called affirmative defense,” explained Bresha’s lawyer Friedman. That means that there’s no dispute in court as to what happened or how it happened. “The only issue that remains at trial is why.” The challenge then is to have the jurors put themselves not only in Bresha’s shoes, but in the mindset of a 14-year-old who has been raised in a household filled with abuse.
“My hope is that we never get there,” continued Friedman, referring to the trial. “In my 20 years of criminal defense practice, I have not met a child who committed an act out of nowhere and with a cold conscience. This is not going to be that first case. This young girl endured a nightmare that drove her to do what she felt she had to do to protect her family.”
Instead, he hopes that the prosecutor will realize that Bresha acted in defense of herself and her mother, drop the charges, and allow her to return home. “Bresha needs to be home with her family to begin the difficult road of treatment and rehabilitation,” he stated.
“My only goal is to get that little girl out of that prison and to make sure she gets the counseling she needs to get out of the cycle of abuse,” Latessa agreed.
As Bresha’s story has spread, thousands of people across the country have responded. Supporters created an online petition calling on the Trumbull County prosecutor’s office to drop all charges and immediately release her. The petition has garnered more than 5,200 signatures. Family members have also started a GoFundMe campaign to support her and her family. In 20 days, the page has been shared 2,600 times, raising nearly $39,000. Letters of support have flooded Friedman’s office. “I’ve gotten hundreds of letters,” he said. Some are from people who had experienced similar abuse—and taken similar steps to end the violence. “It wasn’t as rare as I thought it was,” he reflected.
Latessa hopes that people across the country will continue to send letters of encouragement to Bresha through her attorney. She said that Bresha recently told her, “It’s very hard in here by myself.”