The laws that make it shockingly easy for survivors to be jailed for their abusers’ crimes

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This article was published in partnership with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the US criminal justice system. Sign up for their newsletters, and follow them on  InstagramTikTokReddit, and Facebook.

Pat Johnson counted the locks on the apartment door. One. Two. Three. There were too many to undo and escape before Rey Travieso got to her. He’d just killed three people—including an infant. He turned to her, her face covered in tears and snot. “Don’t worry, Pat, I ain’t going to kill you,” she remembers him saying. “You believe me?”

She didn’t believe him. For seven years, she’d been in an abusive relationship with Travieso. If dinner was not ready on time, he broke furniture and beat her. If she was home after her curfew, he hit her. He had hurt her so badly, she landed in the hospital. She knew what he was capable of.

So she did what he told her to do and helped stuff jewelry and money into a bag, and then she kept her mouth shut.

Even though he did not kill her, in a way, he still took her life. Since 1993, Johnson has sat in an Illinois prison for the murders she said Travieso committed.     

Prosecutors didn’t have to prove that Johnson killed anyone to charge her with murder. Under state law, the “theory of accountability” allows a person to be charged for a crime another person committed, if they assisted. That meant Johnson’s charge was murder, and just like Travieso, she faced a life sentence.

Every state has some version of the theory of accountability—more broadly called “accomplice liability”—though the specifics vary from place to place. These kinds of laws can make victims of intimate partner violence particularly vulnerable to prosecution.

There is no comprehensive national data about how many people are behind bars for a crime committed by their abuser due to laws that allow someone to be charged for the actions of another person. Accomplice liability crimes are not usually tracked by the courts as a distinct offense, and domestic violence is often not documented, so it would be impossible to account for every case.

Still, searching through legal documents, The Marshall Project and Mother Jones identified nearly 100 people across the country, nearly all of them women, who were convicted of assisting, supporting, or failing to stop a crime by their alleged abuser. Some of the women showed clear signs of abuse at the time they were arrested. One had been shot by her abuser weeks before; another was in a neck brace.

In some of the cases we reviewed, evidence of an abusive relationship was excluded at trial. In others, lawyers and judges poorly understood the psychological effects of domestic violence and the real dangers victims face. At one woman’s sentencing in 2000, for example, a Michigan judge justified the defendant’s 10- to 30-year prison sentence for assisting her allegedly abusive boyfriend with a string of robberies by saying she had ample opportunity to leave him. But the risk of ending an abusive relationship is high: According to data from the US Department of Justice, of the nearly 5,000 women murdered across the country in 2021, about one-third died at the hands of an intimate partner. Experts say the end of a relationship is the most dangerous time for an abuse victim.

Abstract monochrome artwork showing two concentric scenes. The smaller shows one figure pointing a finger at another figure, trapped in a cage. The larger one shows two figures: the one on the left is about to throw a punch at the other on the right, who is cowering for safety. Prison bars encase the whole illustration.
Yimin Qiao for The Marshall Project

Abusive relationships rarely begin that way. Johnson met Travieso when she was working at a discount chain store. Her manager called her over the loudspeaker to meet Travieso in the hardware department—he wanted to buy an artificial Christmas tree and specifically asked that she help him. A few weeks later, Travieso was waiting outside the store and offered Johnson a ride home. She hesitated. She was just 17 years old, and Travieso was 35, but he showed her that the car had a phone—a luxury in 1985—and invited her to call her mother and give her his license plate number so she’d feel safer. After that, things moved quickly, and soon they started living together.

Sometimes Travieso could be controlling, dictating where Johnson could go and who she could see. But he also showered her with compliments and made sure she had what she needed. He once gave her a pair of gold, dangly earrings. They went well with her style: short hair and bright red lipstick. Johnson was the youngest of six girls. Her family was poor and had bounced around Chicago, sometimes living in public housing. To Johnson, the earrings were a symbol of Travieso’s ability to provide for her.

But one day, in the parking lot of a Sizzler restaurant, their meaning changed.

Johnson noticed a white Trans Am and offhandedly said it was a nice car, within earshot of its driver. Travieso was furious at Johnson for giving another man attention and called her a whore, then slapped her so hard that one of the earrings flew out of her ear. It wasn’t so much the physical pain that stayed with her, but the utter embarrassment. The restaurant had big windows, and customers and staff inside saw everything—she wanted to crawl under the car and hide.

She said Travieso’s abuse escalated. Once, he beat her so badly that she looked, as she described it, like “the Elephant Man.” He said it was the last time. It wasn’t.

Johnson’s family and friends say they witnessed Travieso’s violence and its aftermath. A shattered glass table. A belt buckle to the face. One of Johnson’s nieces remembers visiting when she was a child and realizing that the phrase “black eye” wasn’t just an expression, but a literal fact: If you hit a person hard enough, the skin around the eye really could bloom into a purple-black cloud.

Once, Johnson said, she tried to hide from Travieso in a closet, but he dragged her out by her ankles. She screamed that God was going to punish him for how he treated her. “I am your god,” he replied. And it felt true. He seemed omniscient. He had strong ties in the neighborhood, and plenty of people were willing to tell Rey Travieso where Johnson went. Every time she tried to leave, he found her and brought her back. “I was so afraid of Rey. I don’t think I ever feared anyone that much,” Johnson said years later. “Sometimes, it was almost like fearing God.”

Eventually, Johnson discovered Travieso was not actually a truck driver, as he had claimed when they first met, but a drug dealer. He started to give her cocaine, and soon she became addicted.

Travieso ran a restaurant with his friend Juan Hernandez. Johnson said they sold food in the front and drugs out of the back. Sometimes they’d fight about their business, and Johnson overheard them threaten each other. But then they’d come out and drink a couple of sodas, and everything would be fine again.

Despite struggling with addiction, Johnson stayed in close contact with her family. Her nieces remember her being more like a sister than another adult. She took them to the beach, and when they threw sand at each other, she joined in. At night, they would stay up late, well past bedtime, watching movies. Even though her niece Tromeka Turner-Mason was a child at the time, she said Johnson confided in her that she felt trapped with Travieso and didn’t know what to do.

In November 1991, when she was 23, Johnson tried to leave Travieso. She went to stay with another man, and they spent their days using crack cocaine. Travieso found her, as he always did, but this time he didn’t make her move back in with him. Instead, he kept coming back to see her. Sometimes he’d take her to a motel, where he forced her to have sex. At the trial, when a lawyer asked her why she wasn’t able to refuse him, she explained, “He said he owned me, that’s why.”

On the afternoon of Jan. 16, 1992, Travieso asked Johnson to come with him to “take care of some business.” At her trial, she described what happened that day: They drove to the home of Travieso’s business partner, Hernandez. Johnson knew they’d been fighting because Travieso said Hernandez owed him about $40,000. Travieso was angry and making threats, but she assumed he was just acting macho. Hernandez answered the door and walked them to the living room, where his wife, Olga, sat holding their 10-month-old baby, Evelyn.

Travieso and Hernandez argued, alternating between Spanish and English. Johnson couldn’t follow everything they were saying, but she could tell Travieso was asking for the cash, and Hernandez responded by laughing at him. Clearly, they were unhappy with one another, but it seemed like one of their routine fights. Then someone knocked on the door.

When Hernandez stood up to answer, Travieso pulled out a gun and told him to sit down. That’s when Johnson said she knew this fight was different. Travieso pointed the gun at her and told her to tell the pizza delivery man that the order was canceled. Johnson obeyed. Olga gathered up a few thousand dollars and some jewelry, but it wasn’t enough to satisfy Travieso. He tied Hernandez’s hands, and as medical examiner reports would later show, pistol-whipped him and slit his throat. Next, he killed Olga and the baby. Johnson was certain she would be next.

Travieso told Johnson that if he killed her there, police would trace the crime back to him. But if Johnson stayed calm and never told anyone, then things would be fine. She wiped her tear-stained face on her shirt and followed his instructions to walk casually to the car with him. 

Although this is the story Johnson told at trial, it’s not the only version of events, and there is no clear physical evidence that points to how much Johnson participated in the killings. Only two people really know what took place: Travieso and Johnson.

When police arrested them more than six months after the murders, Travieso confessed to killing Hernandez, but he said that Johnson had killed Olga and the baby. Later at his trial, he changed his story and said he wasn’t there at all, despite strong evidence to the contrary. I wrote to him in prison, where he is serving a life sentence for the murders, to ask about his version of events. He responded briefly: Johnson “should never have been in prison. … All these years I’ve felt bad about it all.” I sent him multiple messages asking for an interview or details about Johnson’s accusations of abuse and account of the murders, but he never replied.

Over time, Johnson’s story has varied. In her police confession, for example, she said she went with Travieso to buy plastic gloves before the murder and was with him when another drug dealer ordered a hit on Hernandez. But at trial, she said the police inaccurately summarized what she told them. A clemency petition, written more than two decades later, says Johnson can’t remember pawning the jewelry, a fact she confessed to at trial. Trauma can reshape a person’s memory — impairing factual recall while also making recollections painfully visceral. But Johnson is consistent on the two most important facts: She did not kill anyone, and she was terrified of Travieso.

Since going to prison, Johnson has come out as a transgender man. He remains in a women’s facility and still uses she/her pronouns when talking about his life before prison—and has requested we do the same—because he said living as a woman was central to the abusive dynamic with Travieso. When Johnson finished telling me the story during an interview last year, he looked over at his lawyer, Rachel White-Domain, and gave a weak smile.

“God was there,” he said.

“You survived,” White-Domain replied.

“God was there. He knows I didn’t hurt anybody. He knows I didn’t kill anyone. God was there. He knows that.”

When White-Domain began working with incarcerated survivors of domestic violence in 2008, she was still in law school at DePaul University. It was a passion project she did on Saturdays with a handful of other volunteers around a kitchen table. At first, most cases involved women who had killed abusive husbands or boyfriends. But as hundreds of letters from women’s prisons poured in, she realized that many were in prison not for killing an abuser, but for aiding them in committing a crime. Johnson was one of the first clients convicted under the theory of accountability whom White-Domain took on in 2019. She estimates that they now make up about a quarter of her clients at the Illinois Prison Project, an advocacy organization for incarcerated people, where she runs the Women & Survivors Project.

Many of the cases against the people White-Domain represents aren’t about evidence or proof; they aren’t “whodunnits.” Instead, juries and judges (and the politicians who write the laws that govern them) must decide: What should a person be held responsible for? How should the conditions of a person’s life be weighed when they are involved in a crime? White-Domain says another lawyer once asked her: Is it worse if they don’t believe your story of abuse, or is it worse if they believe you, but it doesn’t matter?

Even though White-Domain told me she thinks accomplice liability cases are more common than self-defense cases, they are harder to explain to the public and get far less attention.

When people defend themselves against deadly attacks by killing their abusers, it’s relatively easy to sympathize. It’s more complicated when the victim is not a violent husband, but is instead an innocent third party. And it’s even more difficult when the offense involves young victims or especially gruesome murders—the kinds of crimes that make some people so afraid and furious that they want to make sure anyone even remotely involved is punished.

While every state has some version of an accomplice liability law, states vary as to what degree of participation is necessary for someone to be prosecuted. And accomplice liability laws aren’t the only ones that allow people to be punished for supporting or failing to stop another person’s crime.

In many states, felony murder laws allow someone to be punished for a murder they didn’t commit if they were engaged in a dangerous felony with the person who actually did the killing. Prosecutors can charge someone with conspiracy for agreeing to assist with a crime and taking action to help. Failure-to-protect laws in some states allow a parent (in practice almost always a mother) to be punished for abuse committed by another person if the courts believe she should have prevented the crime.

These laws each function differently and often overlap, but together they create a web that expands who can be held responsible for a crime.

No one tracks how many abuse victims are convicted nationwide because of these laws, but there are some telling numbers. A study of 72 women serving life in Michigan found sixty percent were there for a murder they didn’t themselves commit. Most of those crimes were connected to a man they had a relationship with. In a survey of people serving time for murder or manslaughter in women’s prisons, 13% of the respondents said they had been convicted of a crime committed with their abuser.

The Marshall Project’s reporting found a similar pattern. Reviewing court documents, we identified scores of cases where prosecutors charged a person (almost always a woman) for supporting, taking part in, or failing to stop a crime by their alleged abuser. We counted nearly 100 cases that span 26 states and federal courts and date back as far as four decades ago.

In one typical example, Carolyn Moore has been incarcerated in Louisiana since 1985 for assisting her co-defendant—and alleged abuser—with a robbery, during which he killed two men while she waited in the car. She said that he had threatened to kill her if she didn’t help with the robbery. At trial, he admitted to the killings but denied forcing Moore to participate in the robbery (despite testimony from a witness who said he had admitted to threatening Moore). Moore was sentenced to life without parole.

The cases often blur the line between “victim” and “perpetrator.” In one instance, a girl with developmental delays was sex trafficked at 17 years old by a man who “savagely beat her,” according to a sentencing memo. But because she had helped store a gun and drugs for him, federal prosecutors in Washington charged her as his co-defendant in his trafficking ring. She agreed to a plea deal at age 19 and was released with time served in 2009, but had to serve a year of supervised release.

Sometimes being a domestic abuse survivor is used as evidence against women. In 2016, while Krystal Hayes was at work, her live-in boyfriend severely beat her baby daughter, fracturing her skull. Prosecutors in Tulsa County, Oklahoma, pointed to evidence that her boyfriend had choked Hayes before, and so she should have known better than to allow him near an infant. She pleaded guilty to failing to protect her child. Now she is serving a 20-year sentence.

Even after a person completes their sentence, the shadow of punishment can be long. Ajela Banks was convicted in federal court for conspiracy to sex traffic a minor in Alaska, despite being 19 years old and being trafficked by the same man who was her co-defendant. According to court documents, he had recently shot her in the stomach while she was pregnant with his child. Although she was sentenced to time served, she had to register as a sex offender and her home address was made public, which she said makes her vulnerable to further harassment and threats.

In 1999, Gabby Solano was convicted of felony murder in California in connection with a killing done by her abusive ex-boyfriend. Gov. Jerry Brown commuted her sentence, making her eligible for parole, but because of her conviction, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported her to Mexico, a country she had left as a toddler.

White-Domain, Johnson’s lawyer, said that looking at case after case has made one thing abundantly clear to her: The criminal system is not built to support victims of abuse. In some instances, people tried to get help, from police or social workers, and those systems failed to intervene. But bureaucrats aren’t considered accomplices when things go wrong—the victims are, and so they are the ones who suffer the consequences.

A surreal depiction of a person with a distressed expression, partially enveloped by a dark, shadowy figure shouting. The distressed person is blocking a fist hurling towards them on the right edge of the illustration. The overall atmosphere is tense and emotional.
Yimin Qiao for The Marshall Project

At Johnson’s trial in 1993, she was allowed to introduce evidence of Travieso’s abuse. The jury saw pictures of injuries Johnson said Travieso gave her: marks on her knees from a belt, wounds on her lips and shoulder from a hanger, bruises on her backside from the handle of a plunger. But the jury also saw and heard descriptions of the crime scene: the family’s bashed-in skulls, the parents’ slit throats, a baby’s pacifier in a room splattered with blood. At trial, prosecutors explained to jurors that, “When two people do commit a crime together, each person is responsible for the acts of the other.” That meant even if Travieso did the actual killing, because of the help she’d provided, Johnson was just as responsible for the grisly murders.

I recently spoke to a juror, who asked not to be named because she is afraid Travieso could somehow retaliate against her. She and her fellow jurors struggled to know what to do, she said. The physical evidence did not prove how much Johnson had helped. But the juror remembers believing two things: One, Johnson had provided Travieso at least some support. And two, Johnson would have never done anything like this had it not been for Travieso and his control over her.

It’s clear from the trial documents that the jury was wrestling with what the “theory of accountability” meant for someone like Johnson. In one note, they asked the judge for clarity on the term “legally responsible.” In another, they asked, “Do we consider one individual equally accountable for the actions and deeds of another?”

The juror who spoke with me grew up in a home with domestic violence. She understood why a woman could be so afraid that she wouldn’t flee an abuser, no matter how dire the circumstances. But she also wanted to do a good job and follow the law—it wasn’t her place to rewrite it. She said there was almost a hung jury, but in the end, they reached an agreement and found Johnson guilty.

She remembers crying along with other jurors—tears not of relief, but of sadness. Three decades later, the weight of what they did still remains with her. To this day, she said, she believes Johnson was the fourth victim in that crime and that the world is not safer with Johnson behind bars.

The judge sentenced Johnson to life in prison. At her sentencing hearing, Johnson addressed the family of Juan, Olga, and Evelyn Hernandez. “My pain is nothing compared to theirs, but I am truly, truly sorry for not coming forward.”

Olga Hernandez’s sister, Dora Arrona, said in a recent interview that Johnson has played the victim, but Olga and her family were the real victims. Arrona discovered the bodies of her family members after they were killed, and that trauma still affects her physical and mental health. She said she was skeptical of Johnson’s version of events because she believes the murders could not have been carried out by a single person. Johnson, she said, should stay behind bars.

Lawyers, lawmakers, and advocates who believe people like Johnson should not be in prison have tried different approaches to change the system. One strategy tackles the broader issue of accomplice liability laws and another targets how domestic violence survivors are sentenced.

Accomplice liability is as old as common law itself. In 1020, English law allowed a thief’s entire family to be enslaved as accomplices. And while the net of accountability might not be quite that wide now, the concept has stubbornly remained part of the criminal justice system.

Joshua Dressler, distinguished emeritus professor of law at The Ohio State University, has studied accomplice liability laws across the country. He noted that it’s difficult for any jurisdiction to narrow accomplice liability, for the same reason that so many attempts at justice reforms are hard: Legislators want to appear to be tough on crime.

At an Illinois legislative hearing last year on a proposal to limit the theory of accountability, a lawmaker argued that these kinds of laws hurt victims of domestic violence. But Democratic state Rep. Dave Vella pushed back. “You’re accountable for the people you do nasty things with,” he said. “And if something bad happens, you should be accountable for the bad act.” The proposed legislation, which would have narrowed the theory of accountability in Illinois, went nowhere, but activists say they are continuing to push for changes.

Another approach lawmakers and activists in several states have taken is to rethink how domestic violence victims are sentenced. New York’s Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act, passed in 2019, allows judges to depart from mandatory minimums when sentencing (or resentencing) survivors. According to the Survivors Justice Project, which works to free victims of domestic violence from prison, 64 people have been resentenced after filing applications.

Similar bills in other states, including Minnesota, Oregon, and Louisiana, have failed.

In 2015, Illinois passed a law to allow people in prison to apply for resentencing if their crime was directly related to domestic violence. The state does not track how many people have been released from prison early under the Illinois law, but it has been much smaller than many advocates for domestic violence victims hoped. One reason is that, unlike New York’s law, it doesn’t say judges can diverge from mandatory minimums. That ended up being key in Johnson’s case. When he applied for resentencing under the law, the judge ruled he was already serving the minimum sentence of life, so he was not eligible for anything less.

During his decades in prison, Johnson has become part of a support group for survivors of domestic violence. Together, they perform poems and songs about their experiences. He has also become deeply devoted to his Christian faith, paying tithes from his meager prison wages. And he is still working on getting released.

In Illinois, governors can grant clemency to people in prison they believe no longer need to be incarcerated. With the help of White-Domain, Johnson filed a clemency petition in 2020. It included certificates, accolades, and dozens of letters from academics, lawyers, domestic violence workers, a warden, and fellow incarcerated people who call Johnson a mentor.

But the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office opposed the application. An assistant state’s attorney wrote that for a sentence to be meaningful it must be enforced, and “the purpose of a sentence is not only rehabilitative but also punitive” and Johnson “has not yet fulfilled that punishment.” Last year, Gov. J.B. Pritzker declined to grant Johnson clemency. He can apply again after a year.

If Johnson is released, because of clemency or changes to the law, his family will be ready. They have not one, but two bedrooms set aside for him—one with a niece and one with a sister. Multiple family members tell me they’ve got jobs waiting for him. And he will have a small nest egg to start with. For years, Johnson’s mother put away a little money from her monthly Social Security checks to help her child. When Johnson’s mom died in 2021, she left behind $6,150 she’d saved for him. His family has even bought Johnson a homecoming outfit: a crisp white shirt and pants and a white ball cap with his nickname, Peppe, embroidered on the side.

Johnson is now 55 years old and has spent more than half his life behind bars. Prison can be hard on a body. His teeth are in bad shape, and he has a cane because of pain in his leg, but he’s trying not to use it. Sometimes he wishes Travieso had killed him that day. But then, just minutes later, he beams talking about the children in his family or the women in prison who call him “Uncle PJ.”

He says he no longer fears Rey Travieso, no longer thinks Travieso is as powerful and omniscient as God. Instead, he prays constantly: on calls with his family, with women who come to his cell for help, with his lawyer during meetings, and at the end of our interview. Johnson says he owes it to God to be brave.


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