A Survivor of Violence and Her Sibling Share How the Legal System Punishes Them

The United States does not apply self-defense laws equally and has never done so. These laws “were not designed with the lived reality of gendered intimate violence in mind because legal protection for self-defense was originally meant for property-owning white men,” writes Survived and Punished, a national coalition working towards decriminalizing survival, in a new report. “Therefore, domestic and sexual violence are often rejected as legitimate justifications for self-defense, either by the law’s design or through its interpretation and application in courts.”

Celia, a young Black girl, was hanged in 1855 for killing a white male who had enslaved and raped him for years. Black women survivors of Jim Crow were placed in carceral dungeons for defending themselves during that era. according to historian Sarah Haley.

Today, Black women and other marginalized women face criminal charges for defending themselves against sexual and domestic violence. Leah Eggleson is a 22-year old mixed-race victim of domestic and sexual abuse who lives in Washington State. She faces a possible life sentence because she defended herself against her abuser. Truthout Eggleson and Kristina Jorgensen spoke to Eggleson about their case, state violence, resistance efforts, and her upcoming trial that will begin April 19.

Ella Fassler: Tell me a bit about yourself and your family. What are your favorite things to do?

Leah Eggleson:I am a Washingtonian. I’m 22 years old. I’m the mother of two boys, ages 4 and 5. I enjoy Mexican food and cooking. I love to spend time with my family. I enjoy artistic, creative things. I draw tattoos. It’s super fun.

I come from a family that is… there’s been a lot of domestic violence, Trauma can cause a lot of distress As a child, I was subject to a lot trauma. My siblings also experienced it. However, they never received any help from the community to heal. That led me to a not so great path, but I am now better.

Kristina Jorgensen: Violence in our families is intergenerational. It’s just interesting that the same system that is supposed to protect survivors repeatedly fails to, and is the very same system that criminalizes them when they end up in situations where they have to survive. And that’s not unique to Leah; that’s so many PeopleSurviving prisoners are often held in prison.

Yes, these systems claim to protect us and keep our lives safe but often act to attack people who are fighting for the best of their lives. What do you think the most important thing is for readers to understand about your case and what the state has been doing?

Eggleson: Since I was 9 years of age, I have experienced trauma for a while. This has made it difficult to trust law enforcement, which has always failed to protect me and my family.

Recently, I was in an abusive relationship with a man. He tracked my location and made me work alongside him to keep an eye on me. He wouldn’t let me interact with anybody, he would take my phone away, pretty much isolated me away from any kind of help that I could get to try to get out of the relationship. He would even restrict my contact with my children.

I was afraid of him due to the Mexican crimes he had committed before coming to this country. It was like this for several months. I had briefly tried to reach out to my family at times, but with the dynamics and how domestic violence works, I would tell them something happened, and then I’d be like, “Oh, no, it’s okay, we are going to figure it out.” And it just kept getting worse.

Then one day, he picked me up from my sister’s house and took me to his house, which is two hours away from where we live, and tied me up in his apartment, and was choking me, beating me, and saying he’s gonna kill me and my children and my mom over and over again. He kept me this way for two days. He became afraid when he saw his neighbors. I was crying and he didn’t want them to hear me. I think I lost consciousness at least two to three times during that episode.

Finally, he released me. He untied me and said, “Get in the car,” and when I was in the car, he had reached out to my sister because he had taken my phone. Apparently, he told her he had dropped me off, but he hadn’t. I didn’t know how to contact anyone. So when he was driving to go take me back, I didn’t want him to take me to my sister’s house. He had just threatened my life.

I didn’t think I would make it out of that apartment alive. I was imagining, “How is my family going to find my body? What will he do with my body? Like what is going to happen?” I really thought that that was it for me, you know, I have never felt so helpless in my life. And I don’t wish that feeling upon anybody.

So when I was in the car, I grabbed his phone and jumped in the backseat and texted my sister from his phone and told her “He’s going crazy. He had me tied up.” He started to go off to the freeway and I was fearful so I gave him back his phone and then we kept going. I didn’t want him to take me to my sister’s house because of the things he was saying. I requested that he drop me off at the gravesite of a close friend. He had taken a photo of the cemetery and sent it to my sister when she asked me where I was.

Within the next several days I’m getting charged with attempted murder, assault and possession of a firearm. He didn’t report to the police anything he did to me. They’re making it out as me being some horrible women.I don’t know his side of the story. It’s been very hard being made to look like an absolute monster.

I was threatened by him and he continued to text me after that. Then, he arrested me. I was held in prison for almost 11 months, with $1,000,000 bail. The prosecutors did not try to get my side of what happened. They were only listening to him.

I was able to get bailed out with the help of my sister and the community and since then, I’ve done a lot of different therapeutic Services, including counseling and domestic violence support group groups, to help me process and heal from my past. It was a very eye-opening experience. I was shocked at how the justice system tried to take someone away for 18 years.

Thank you for sharing your story. It must have been difficult to go back, but we are grateful that you shared it. Do you wish to talk about your time in jail?

Eggleson: Yes, it was scary. For a few days, I didn’t really know what was going on. My communication with my attorney was very poor. My sister would contact him and I would reach out to him. But he never gave me any information.

It was very hard to be away for so long from my family and my kids. But I tried to be there as often as possible, such as for holidays and birthdays. I would do video visits with them, send them pictures with my handprints and stuff, you know, so they put their hands next to the sides of my hands since I couldn’t be there. Both of my children celebrated their birthdays while they were there. There was where I spent my 21st year of life.

It is shocking how the guards treat you. I was with a girl on my second or threerd day there who had a miscarriage in the cell. And the guards did nothing. They just stared at her with disgust, even though she was crying and bleeding. I’ll never forget that. She begged them to get a nurse, and they laughed at her. It was difficult to see the way people were treated there. I tried to kind of stay under the radar so they wouldn’t mess with me. It was hard because they mess with everyone, but it worked.

There are so many levels of violence. Those guards go home and who knows what they’re doing to their families? Because they’re treating people horribly all day. But they are out now, thankfully. What are you able to attribute this to? Do you want to talk about the resistance and your support campaign?

Eggleson: I mean, it’s kind of a miracle to me. I didn’t think I would ever get out of jail. That was all I thought. I believed I would never see my family again.

Seeing all of these people that I don’t even know in my community show so much love and support that I never got as a child kind of restores my hope that things can be okay. People can get better. And there’s people that love me and that I’m not a bad person. The things they say about me make me feel inferior to the state.

It amazes me every day how much support I receive and it makes me want help others. I know that I am not the only one this happens to and that’s not right. When I was in jail, I met many women who were in similar circumstances to me. They were being charged with it and were being punished.

All these people who are helping me with my defence campaign, all these organizations, helps me have the voice I never had. It really helps. It helps me to feel like I’m gonna be okay, through all of this, no matter what happens. There’s always people that are going to be there fighting for me.

Jorgensen:I canOnlyImagine what it was like to be Leah. (Sorry I’ve been crying this whole time.) I canOnlyImagine what it was like to spend 11 months in jail, thinking about not getting out of jail or not seeing her children until she is older.

And you wondered how she got out. My family has many members who have. Experienced The criminal legal system is a common problem. Many people know someone who has been through it. But I work with families and people every day that are involved in the legal system and so when Leah got arrested, it was just like, “Okay, how do we organize around her to make sure that she is not somebody that’s going to be in a system that falls through the cracks, and nobody ever hears her story.” Because I think that happens to a lot of people. They don’t have connections to community, they don’t have family support, or because of the isolation the legal system causes, they lose that connection, or their family just isn’t available to provide that kind of support.

This is it. Participatory DEfense is what you need. Once we knew that we could ask for a bail review, we put together a social biography packet for Leah, which is a packet with letters from her family — you know, myself, my mom or other family members — to describe the kind of person Leah is and her character and what a loving mom she is, and how bonded she is to her children. It also acknowledged that Leah has been through a lot of fucking and emotional traumas and has never had the chance to heal. Our family didn’t always have the knowledge to support her. We wrote letters, we created a detailed release plan, and we connected Leah to many community providers who also wrote letters.

We were able reach the victim with a million-dollar bail. Northwest Community Bail Fund for help. Nobody has a million bucks. Nobody even has 10% of that. Not families that live in poverty which are often the most affected by the criminal legal system. So it’s just an excessive bail amount, period. But then we were like, “Okay, let’s see if we can get it lowered and then we can fundraise the money and get her out.” Then after the bail got lowered to $100,000, we started actually going through the process with the bail bondsman. They were like, “Okay, yeah, we want your house and a car, you know, your firstborn.” They want all this collateral, and it was not an option for us. I don’t even own my own car.

Even after such a big win to lower bail, the feeling was still of hopelessness. And I honestly don’t even know how it happened either. It feels like a miracle. I just reached for the National Participatory Defense NetworkExplaining the situation, she reached out to the bail fund. They were able to grant $100,000. It felt really unreal that she was going to get out and we have a lot of gratitude, because there’s so many people still in jail pre-trial.

So I’m going to return to jail. I want people to understand the toll it takes on families, like the anxiety you feel when you don’t hear from your loved one every day. It is ridiculous how expensive jail phone calls and video visits can be. It’s like $8 for a 15-minute video call. There were many times where I would pay for a video visit, and we couldn’t even connect, yet I still had to pay for it. So just having to spend hundreds of dollars a month when you’re already living in poverty, just to have communication and then making sure that they have commissary items so that they can access things that they need takes a big toll. It can be difficult to arrange visits around holidays and birthdays. I remember that there were occasions where the visits booked up so much that we couldn’t schedule anything because it wasn’t available. And [there was] COVID, so we couldn’t see her in person. Then, we had to explain. You can find more information at 3- And 4-year-old why their mom wasn’t here, and why we have to talk to her through a video, why she can only talk at certain times, why they can’t call her before bed or whenever they want.

Leah also suffered a really terrible traumatic experience. Leah was subjected to months of abuse by this man. She was then tied up and held hostage for days, and threatened with being killed. She is then incarcerated without any chance to heal.Or process. She doesn’t have access to any kind of counseling or mental health services. [resources]. So she’s sitting there not only worrying about her life on the line here, worrying about being separated from her kids and family, but also “What the fuck just happened to me?” How would you even process the trauma that you just experienced while you were sitting in a cell? It is just so inhumane to me, the way that the system criminalizes survivors and doesn’t give a shit about the trauma they just experienced.

We can also discuss the experience since Leah was out. We have to go to court every couple of months to wonder, “Oh, is a trial going to happen? Is it not?” It’s just been a roller coaster of emotions, because we never know when it’s going to happen. We think it’s going to happen and then they’re like, “No, it’s not.” And it makes it really hard for the community and for the family to support [her]. We’re all going to be there, we will make it happen, but just the fact that people need to take time off from their work. They’re losing money. They don’t know if it’s actually going to happen so you’re having to constantly rearrange your schedule to show up. And then they say, “Oh, it’s not happening.” So you had all this built up anxiety thinking it’s going to happen, and then they are like, “Nope, you gotta wait another few months,” and it’s like, “Oh, shit, we have to do this all over again.” So that’s just frustrating.

We live about two hours away from this courthouse. Some hearings last five minutes. I don’t even know why we have to be there, but we literally have to wake up at five in the morning, drive two hours for a five-minute hearing that could have happened over the phone.

And so really, the court doesn’t care about people’s lives, their ability to travel, the fact that people have children. We have jobs. So it’s messy, and they don’t take these things into consideration. Let me take you down even more, if you are already so strong. They don’t care.

This is a part of the punishment. So now finally Leah’s trial is April 19, right? What are your feelings about it? Are there any comments you would like to make about the prosecutor

Eggleson: I’m very nervous. Very nervous, and I feel a lot of anxiety about it. There is a lot of fear. There’s a whole lot of emotions. I must remind myself that, no matter what happens in the fight, it is not over. That was the message my sister gave me, and I keep repeating it in my head. The closer and closer we get, I have to remember no matter what happens, it’s not the end, even though it might feel like it, it’s not.

It’s very hard. It’s very hard for me to be present with my children because I know soon I might not be here and they’re not going to understand why. It’s also very hard on my family. But I know that I won’t be alone through it.

Jorgensen: The prosecutor’s name is Coreen Schnepf. She is a [domestic violence (DV)]A white woman was the victim. She’s prosecuting a victim and won’t even recognize Leah as a victim, and then tries to bring up things about Leah’s life to justify it. Who Leah was in her past doesn’t dismiss her experience. It doesn’t mean anything. It has no meaning. The way that prosecutors try to use that tactic and make a person look bad to say, “Well, this couldn’t have happened to you, you couldn’t be a survivor of DV or sexual assault because of this thing that you did at this other time,” it really like plays into that who is a “good” victim, and who was a “bad” victim kind of dichotomy.

If you don’t fit into this cookie cutter of what some people think good victims should look like, then you’re completely disregarded and that is exactly what’s happening here. And to top it, in another case she’s prosecuting, [Schnepf] offered an eight-year plea deal to a man who allegedly held his family hostage at gunpoint, stomped his wife’s face and chest in front of their children, and threatened to kill police and himself during a police standoff, and she’s only ever offered my sister 18 years? Although I don’t think jail is ever a resource it shows the disparity between how survivors are treated within the system.

This office is headed by the elected prosecutor. Mary Robnett, has failed prosecute police officers who shot Black community members. So there’s already a lot of issues in this office.

We are so grateful to you both for sharing our stories. Truthout.How can people support Leah before we close?

Jorgensen: They can sign the petitionAnd donate to her liberation fund. We have Liberate Leah LunchesEvery Friday, from 12:30 to 1:00, people are welcome to come and help us with action items. Nearly 500 people are involved in the project, including 115 organizations, that have endorsed the campaign so far in the two weeks since we’ve publicly launched, so that’s just so amazing the outpouring of support. They can be reached in Tacoma, Washington. registerTo provide support to the court during trials.

And also we’ve organized Letters of Love. We had a few events where people wrote letters to Leah that she will read during her trial. This will keep her upbeat and give her encouragement. People can also email these to Leah. [email protected]They can send poetry, letters, or art to lift her spirits during trials.

You can follow Leah’s case on Twitter, FacebookAnd InstagramYou can also find her support website. LiberateLeah.com.

This interview has been slightly edited for clarity.