Natalie Pollard's abuser attempted to assault her and she stabbed him in self-defense. Ramsey County Attorney John Choi is determined to prosecute her.
In March, Natalie Pollard was released from prison and ready to move on with her life in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Natalie had served two years for stabbing her abuser after he attempted to break into her home and assault her in July 2015. Despite the fact that Natalie was acting in self-defense against her abuser, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi decided to charge her with second-degree murder. Her conviction was overturned in the Minnesota Court of Appeals because the jury in her case had been given the wrong set of instructions.
But now, County Attorney Choi has decided to retry Natalie for second-degree manslaughter.
Natalie already was separated for years from her children and was forced to give birth while she was in prison. All because County Attorney Choi decided to charge her for protecting herself and her sleeping children. Now she is faced with the decision to take a plea deal or possibly go back to prison. For a mother of six, it is hardly a choice at all.
Ms. Pollard was a 32-year-old African American woman with no criminal record. Now, she is facing a felony record that could jeopardize her ability to regain custody of her children, her employment, housing, and other areas of her life.
“In general, it is troubling that when victims act in self-defense, it can often be misinterpreted in our criminal justice system as mutual abuse and end up in a dual arrest,” said Executive Director of the Battered Women’s Justice Project (BWJP), Denise Gamache. “In cases of lethal defense, the same response can happen. The criminal justice system does not always take into account the fact that domestic violence is a pattern of crime. The survivor’s fear and her own views about her safety are often not contextualized within that pattern of violence.”
The Battered Women’s Justice Project in Minnesota is a national resource center on civil and criminal justice responses to intimate partner violence. Gamache warns against how the criminalization of domestic violence survivors by law enforcement, courts, and prosecutors further isolates women experiencing abuse.
National Coalition Against Domestic Violence President and CEO Ruth M. Glenn agrees, and says that survivors can often be caught in a catch-22.
“When victims and survivors of abuse don’t reach out for help, they are blamed,” she said. “When they do defend themselves and reach out for help, they are criminalized. If we are going to create a society in which domestic violence is not tolerated, we have to fundamentally change how the criminal justice system reinforces harmful narratives surrounding domestic violence. That starts with listening to and taking seriously the experiences of victims and survivors of abuse. When survivors are held accountable for abuser’s violence, we are not advancing ending domestic violence in this culture or nation.”
County attorneys play an unexpected but crucial role addressing the criminalization of domestic abuse survivors. Given the wide discretion county attorneys have in choosing if and how to prosecute, they can choose to eliminate the criminalization of survivors without the same level of bureaucracy that other government actors might face. County Attorney Choi didn’t have to charge Natalie the first time—and he certainly didn’t have to retry her case after the Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed her conviction.
County Attorney Choi is serving his third term, and he campaigned on criminal justice reform and fighting to end gender-based violence. Unnecessarily prosecuting a domestic violence survivor goes against the very campaign promises he espoused earlier this year.
If County Attorney Choi supports criminal justice reform and truly wants to end gender-based violence in Minnesota, he can start by dropping the charges against Natalie Pollard. The ACLU of Minnesota sent a letter to Ramsey County Attorney John Choi urging him to do just that. You can also send a message to him letting him know that the prosecution of survivors of abuse will not be tolerated in our state.