Black Sexual Violence Survivors Are Telling Their Stories — Only to Be Punished

DeBraca Harris was in Chicago, Illinois on December 15, 2021 just 10 days before Christmas. She wanted the court to determine if the legal system would acknowledge her sexual violence and allow her to reunite the family she left behind before 2036.

Harris, a 26-year old Black mother with four children below the age of 7, was born in 2005. Harris was also pregnant to her fifth child.

Willie Collins, her boyfriend, was extremely abusive. His violence included beatings and strangulations as well as dragging her by the hair and threatening to shoot her with guns. He attacked her in front of her mother and family members. His violence grew when rent or bills were due. “These were the times that I was the most frightened about what he might do,” Harris described in a later affidavit.

Harris had tried to leave Collins and move to Atlanta, Georgia to start a new life. Collins made Harris feel guilty for having to separate him from his child, and she agreed that Harris would return to Chicago. The violence continued.

The family moved into Tracy Jones’ house in 2005. Harris paid the first month’s rent. Jones informed her that if she had sex, Jones would not evict them if they couldn’t pay the second month’s rent. “I did not want to do this, but at the same time, I wanted to put a roof over my kids’ head[s],” Harris stated in her affidavit. “I was also scared about what Willie might do if we were evicted because he was always the most violent with me when we couldn’t pay rent or bills. So I agreed.”

“The sex was rough, painful and humiliating,” Harris recalled in her affidavit. “I frequently bled and would be swollen afterwards. This happened several times throughout my pregnancy. Sometimes, I would cry or beg Mr. Jones to stop being so rough, but he did not seem to care.”

Jones threatened Collins with telling Collins, when she tried to end their relationship. She continued, terrified.

Harris decided to stop after giving birth. Jones began eviction proceedings. In June 2006, Harris was packing the family’s belongings when Jones arrived. Collins had taken the other children to his mother’s house, leaving only their 7-month-old son. Jones assured Harris that he would not stop the eviction if Harris went along with him. “I definitely was not going to have sex with him,” Harris later stated. “But I thought maybe I could talk him into not evicting us.”

They drove their cars to an alley a few blocks away. Jones called Harris to his car. She untrapped her infant and brought him to her car. He demanded she have sex. He tried to force her to consent, but she refused. Harris pulled away and grabbed her son before he left his car.

Jones called Harris again, and Harris went to try to get Harris to stay a few more days before she was evicted. This time, she brought her son’s diaper bag, which held Collins’s gun, for protection. He grabbed her by her shirt and punched her when she refused to get in his car. Harris shot Harris and killed his body.

DeBraca Harris at Logan Correctional Center in 2018.
Logan Correctional Center, DeBraca Harris in 2018.

Harris was arrested later that night. After speaking to police, Harris collapsed on the precinct floor and was revived after paramedics helped her. She was transferred to Cook County Jail, where her stay lasted nearly six years. She attempted suicide twice — once soon after her arrest and again in 2010. Her children, aged 7 to 8, were separated. The three youngest were raised by Collins’s mother; the oldest moved to Indiana with his paternal grandparents, and the second-oldest to Atlanta with Harris’s mother.

She was charged for first-degree murder and firearm enhancement. She could be sentenced to a minimum of 45 years if convicted.

“I felt alone, judged, lost and scared as hell,” Harris told Truthout. “When my public defender came to see me, as hesitant as I was of this man, I told him my story. It was all the horrible details of my past and how emotionally unstable I was that I told him, but nothing happened. What was he going to do with all the notes that he was taking? Did he really care? Did he believe me?”

Harris never learned. Her attorney informed her in 2012 that the prosecutor had offered a plea deal of thirty years. This would have allowed her to strike the firearm enhancement. Harris recalls that Harris was told that she would face 60 years if she turned down the offer.

“I asked to speak with my family and [was] told no,” she recalled. “So I pled out to the deal. My story wasn’t heard. It didn’t matter what I had gone through or endured. The only conclusion they drew from my situation was a Black girl, with all these babies, killing her landlord ‘cause she couldn’t pay her rent.”

Harris was sentenced for 30 years in prison

In October 2021, DeBraca Harris was part of a performance about domestic violence by Acting Out, a theater troupe started 19 years ago at Dwight Correctional Center, Illinois's (now-closed) women's prison.
In October 2021, DeBraca Harris was part of a performance about domestic violence by Acting Out, a theater troupe started 19 years ago at Dwight Correctional Center, Illinois’s (now-closed) women’s prison.

“They Disregarded Everything”

Women’s prisons across the country are filled with survivors of sexual and domestic violence. A survey at Logan Correctional Center, Illinois’s largest women’s prison, found that 99 percent had experienced physical, emotional or sexual abuseThroughout their entire lives. Illinois is not the only state where gender-based violence and incarceration are common. In the United States, 86 per cent of women are in jail. reported experiencing sexual violence77% of those surveyed also reported having experienced partner violence.

Women of color are more likely to be victims of domestic violence and sexual assault than their white counterparts. Approximately 4 of every 10 Black women Have experienced intimate partner violence. Black women are more than twice as likely to be killedBy their partner than white women. A 2008 studyHousing-related sexual harassment complaints revealed that 58 percent of victims were Black women and women of color.

Black women are also disproportionately criminalized, incarcerated, and both are in prison. They are held in prison nearly twice the rate of white women. Many times, judges, juries, police and prosecutors disbelieve or dismiss the abuse they have suffered.

“The legal system continues to not see survivors, particularly survivors of color, as victims, as worthy of protection, as believable, when they talk about what they’ve survived,” said Rachel White-Domain, director of the Women and Survivors Project at the Illinois Prison Project, which focuses on post-conviction cases affected by an underlying history of gender violence, including Harris’s.

Most women experience sexual and street harassment on a near-daily basis — from men asking them to smile, engaging in unwanted conversation or propositioning them. “Our immediate reaction is to accommodate, to smile, to do something to make sure that male person doesn’t get angry with you because if he gets angry, it might be really dangerous,” said White-Domain.

Antheshia Lee at her college graduation at Logan Correctional Center in 2019.
Antheshia Lee, at her college graduation at Logan Correctional Center.

Antheshia Lee is currently serving a 29 year sentence in Illinois prison.

Lee was an 18 year-old Black mother in Dekalb, Illinois with her 2-year old daughter Armoni, Vernon Washington, and her roommate.

Washington was later detained for selling drugs. Lee was having car problems so their roommate organized for Antonio Cureton (a friend) to take her to jail. Cureton questioned Lee about any cheating she had done during Washington’s incarceration.

“He told me that he bet he could change that,” Lee recounted in her first clemency petition. “I told him I doubted that he could. He said that he considered himself a king and that I should feel priviledged that he was speaking to me. I expressed my disgust at his comment and he threatened to make me walk away from his car. I rode the rest of the way in silence.”

His parting words were, “Learn some manners.”

This was the start of Cureton’s harassment, which soon escalated into intimidation, threats of sexual violence and actual physical violence. Several weeks later, Lee’s roommate brought Cureton home. Cureton apologized for his previous behavior but, several minutes later, after staring at Lee’s crotch, commented on her genitals. He ignored Lee’s order to leave, bragging that he had knocked out a female police officer and would not hesitate to do the same to her.

After that, she ran into Cureton several times. Cureton verbally harassed Cureton each time. Cureton, who also sold drugs, began taking over Washington’s territory, a takeover which became a point of contention between the two men upon Washington’s release in December 2000.

Lee’s grandmother, Annie Lee, later recounted that every time they spoke, Lee expressed her fears of Cureton.

While visiting Annie in Chicago, Lee learned that Cureton’s brother and friends had broken into her apartment. They pistol-whipped Washington and robbed their roommate. They had ransacked the rest of the apartment, but carefully arranged Lee’s lingerie on the floor. “She was really afraid to go home after that,” Annie recalled.

Two weeks after that attack, Lee, Washington and a female friend were at a restaurant near their apartment when seven men from Cureton’s crew arrived. Lee called 911, fearing that the men were trying to cause trouble. They attacked them, and another diner called the police.

Lee pulled out her knife when one of the men punched a female friend. The police arrived and arrested Lee Washington, Washington and their friend. They were not arrested.

“I feel like they disregarded everything because of who my boyfriend was — a known drug dealer,” Lee told Truthout. “They were like, ‘Yeah right, you’re scared of somebody.’” That characterization would follow her through her later legal battles.

Lee and Eric Smith met Cureton and his girlfriend less than two months later in May 2001 at the 7-Eleven close to her apartment. Cureton yelled from the car. Lee ignored him, and he entered the store. Cureton stood in the doorway when she tried to leave.

Both Smith and Lee later testified that Cureton snatched Lee’s pack of cigarettes and dared her to take them back.

Smith testified Cureton then placed a hand on Smith’s forehead and shoved her head back. This caused Smith to stumble backwards for a couple of steps.

Lee recalls Cureton raising a closed fist as if to hit Lee in the face. Lee pulled out her knife to stop Cureton. She is unclear whether Cureton pressed forward into the knife or if she stabbed him, but she recalls Cureton yelling, “Bitch, you stabbed me!” Terrified that an enraged Cureton would attack her, she dropped the knife and ran. She was informed that Cureton died after her arrest. She told the police all about it and was then charged with first-degree killing.

“At trial, they painted him out to be a saint and somebody who just wanted to talk to me,” Lee told Truthout. “They painted me as an angry woman who was mad that he had issues with my boyfriend.”

White-Domain, who reviewed Lee’s trial transcripts, agrees. “The immediate framing was, ‘This is some kind of gang situation,’” she said. “It would not have been a successful framing had Antheshia not been a Black woman. In reality, all Antheshia Lee did was say, ‘I don’t want you to talk to me. I don’t want you to touch my body without my permission.’”

Lee was convicted of the crime and sentenced to 29 year imprisonment.

Lee applied for commutation — or a shortening of her prison sentence. In October 2020, her first petition was denied. She was devastated. The governor’s office alerted the Illinois Prison Project about Lee’s case and informed them that the prisoner review board had waived the one-year waiting period before a new commutation application could be filed.

White-Domain took on the case and, in 2021, filed a new commutation petition on Lee’s behalf.

Lee’s daughter, Armoni, was 2 years old when Lee was arrested. Annie, her great-grandmother, took Armoni to visit her grandmother twice a month as a child. She and her mother, now 23, speak almost every day. Still, she points out that her mother has missed graduations, prom nights and countless other moments of Armoni’s life. “I’ve lived my whole life without my mom,” she told Truthout.

“Being a Survivor Means Nothing to the Justice System”

In 2015, Illinois passed bill 2-1401, or relief from judgments. A person can apply for resentencement if they were convicted of a felony because they were victims of domestic violence or postpartum depression. This is even if the evidence was not presented at sentencing. Harris, represented by Women and Survivors attorneys, applied to resentencing.

Brooke Laufer was a clinical psychologist who is an expert in perinatal depression, trauma, and abuse. Brooke was brought in to assess Harris. Harris was diagnosed with severe postpartum depression, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and postpartum PTSD by Laufer.

When Jones attempted to sexually assault Harris in the alleyway, Laufer explained, the extensive abuse and trauma that Harris had suffered caused Harris to react “on survival instincts/adrenaline to discharge the violence and protect herself and her child.”

The Cook County Court held a three day resentencing hearing in 2021. The judge dismissed Laufer’s findings, stating that, because she had worked as a mitigation expert, she was biased in her opinion, and that evidence presented at Harris’s sentencing hearing did not find that she had been suffering from postpartum depression or other mental health issues. He also stated, after Harris was interviewed by Laufer, that Harris had not shared with anyone about her past violence experiences.

Harris was shocked by Harris’s comment. “This is what [the judge]And many more who are interested in this topic. [have] never gone through traumatic experiences, or domestic violence or sexual assault don’t get,” she later told Truthout. “We keep quiet because of reasons like this. We are judged and not believed. But just because I didn’t tell them doesn’t mean it’s not true, or I didn’t confide in other people I did trust.”

DeBraca Harris kisses the top of her youngest son's head at Logan Correctional Center during a 2019 visit.
DeBraca Harris kisses the top of her youngest son’s head at Logan Correctional Center during a 2019 visit.

The judge acknowledged that Harris had been the victim of domestic violence from both Collins and Jones, adding that coercing sex in exchange for housing was clearly a violation of Harris’s human rights. She was sentenced to 27 years in prison and three years of supervision after she had been released.

Harris and her family were devastated by the decision. “I felt like December 15 I was in the same situation I was in June 6, 2006,” Harris wrote. “I feel like being a survivor means nothing to the justice system. Once again I relied on my truth being told and once again it was ignored.”

Harris has also applied for commutation, an application opposed by Cook County’s State Attorney Kim Foxx. In their filing, Foxx’s office gave a different version of events — one in which Harris called her landlord to the alley, then shot him in the head. Foxx’s objection called Harris’s actions as “carefully calculated revenge on her landlord” and “cold, vile, and callous.”

Harris is still in prison. Harris was able to recall her resentence hearing. Truthout, “I don’t have any regrets because now the story is out there, because maybe now some women will come forward. It’s like you have to tell it. I feel like now I have to be an advocate, like you have to tell it from the beginning, because if you don’t, they might pick and probe, say it’s not true, so you have to tell it from the beginning.”