The Trouble With Being Young, Missing & Black

This story originally appeared in the Miami Times on October 12. Check out my thoughts!

Everyone has heard the tragic story of Gabby Petito. It captivated headlines and news reports for weeks on end, chronicling the search, the desperate pleas from her family and the eventual discovery of her remains. Televisions and every portable device blasted her picture. As one can imagine, this led to an outpouring of tips that led law enforcement to where Gabby was eventually found.

During that same time, two other young people went missing and two other families were searching for their loved ones. Miya Marcano (Florida) and Jelani “JJ” Day (Illinois) were both young people of color. They were both students. They had their futures ahead of them, were bright and loved by their families. Yet their stories did not get the same traction or attention.

Why does this happen? First, it has to do with the respect for Black lives in this country. Unfortunately, biases remain when it comes to law enforcement as well as those who are decision-makers in newsrooms.

When it comes to the media, these cases really underscore the importance of having people of color in positions of power in newsrooms, editorial boards and anywhere news is being made. Many times, a story will hit someone to the core, because they identify with the people involved. Unfortunately, if newsrooms are predominately white, the stories that will resonate would be ones that remind them of their cousin, sister, brother or another loved one – people who will likely look like them. By default, Black stories get left out of the mix. If there are more reporters of color, then stories that resonate with people of color will also rise to the forefront, along with cultural sensitivity in the storytelling.

The other issue is law enforcement. This is not to say that police deliberately look at someone and say “This is a person of color, therefore we are not going to look for them.” However, due to biases based in stereotypes, there can be a belief that the person was a runaway even though they had no prior history of doing so. They could feel that since the missing person was battling addiction, or engaged in sex work or other risky lifestyles, they are not worthy of the same amount of attention and resources as someone who is a soccer mom. And that issue of not relating in the same way to a missing person of a different race, while not necessarily intentional, comes into play as an unconscious bias. This is why diversity in law enforcement is incredibly important as well.

For instance, it has come to light that in the initial stages of Miya Marcano being reported as missing, a responding deputy laughed and stated “this is not a high-priority case.” His statement shows not only a lack of sensitivity, but reveals the deeper issues that delayed Miya being found sooner. In the case of Jelani Day, the FBI only recently got involved after a month of him being missing. The family is upset that this is being approached as a suicide rather than as potential foul play. While more has yet to be revealed around his cause of death, his family is adamant that Jelani was in good spirits and showed no signs of distress.

Lastly, there is the issue of shifting blame to the victim. While there is an outpouring of sensitivity around Gabby staying in an abusive relationship, and people trying to figure out when the signs were missed or if earlier intervention could have saved her life, reporting around Miya has much to do with her rejecting the advances of a local man. The local man, who did maintenance for her apartment building, committed suicide and remains a person of interest in her death.

The fact that the focus is on her saying “no” rather than him stalking her, refusing to respect her wishes, breaking into her home and eventually (allegedly) killing her, is problematic. Shifting the focus away from his actions is giving a potential killer a pass, and also furthering the narrative that women do not get the right to say no. Their bodies, who they engage with, and how and when, is not within their control. This is not the lesson we want our young people to learn. We must also teach our kids that no means no. If someone tells you no, accept it for what it is and move on. Don’t be afraid to say no to anyone. No should never cost you your life.

Moving forward, it is incredibly important for all of us to support diverse news sources, as well as support organizations like NABJ & NAHJ to ensure that writers of color can thrive, and rise to the ranks in order to be in decision making positions. We need to follow, support and share the stories that are written by diverse authors, again, so that with the increase in their readership, their ability to be heard in rooms where decisions are made also increase.

Diversity in law enforcement continues to be a major issue that touches so many aspects of criminal justice. We need to continue that fight and support those who are looking to change the profession by eliminating bias.

Lastly, we must empower our young people to say no, accept no, and protect each other as much as possible.

RLD on DV: Raise Awareness & Support Survivors

Greetings RLD Fam!

It’s been six years that I have had my blog. For most of those years, I have done “The RLD on DV” series during October, which is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Having prosecuted domestic violence homicides for 4 years, and being a survivor, this issue will always be close to my heart.  This year, I’ve done a lot more attending events than writing – so allow me to share what the 2019 journey has looked like.

At the Pain to Purpose Ball with (L-R) Judicial Candidate Olanike Adebayo, Miami-Dade School and Board Member Dr. Dorothy Bendross- Mindingall

I began the month with the Pain 2 Purpose Survivors Ball where we honored survivors of domestic violence and mourned those who were lost.  Pain 2 Purpose is an organization founded by Shanda Roberts, herself a survivor of domestic violence, to empower survivors and educate the public.  Four brave survivors stood up, and shared their stories of violence, pain, but eventual triumph.  The story that resonated most with me was that of Shaqueenia Hanna.  She took us through the relationship with her child’s father — how his possessiveness and jealousy led him to shoot her thirteen times outside of her home. Shaqueenia shared a powerful slideshow presentation, which included pictures from the hospital interspersed with pictures posted on social media requesting prayers for her healing. There was an extremely moving video of her finally able to get out of bed and painfully, slowly, walk for the first time after the shooting. Her path to healing continues. In addition to internal injuries, she is now blind in one eye. Her ex is in custody awaiting trial. He faces a 25 year minimum mandatory – life for the use of a firearm causing great bodily injury.


Next, I joined Tamron Hall, celebrities and regular folks across the country with the #PutTheNailInIt campaign by polishing the nail on my ring finger purple. The goal is to raise awareness about domestic violence, and to support Safe Horizon. Safe Horizon is the nation’s leading victim assistance organization; its mission is to provide support, prevent violence, and promote justice for victims of crime and abuse, their families and communities. As I was telling my manicurist about the campaign, the lady next to me in the salon took interest in joining the campaign. We began to chat – and she revealed that she survived domestic violence. 

The odds of having two survivors sitting next to each other at a salon? Higher than you think. Every 9 seconds, a woman is abused by her spouse. 1 in 9 men experience severe intimate partner abuse.  10 million children witness adult domestic violence at home. They are more likely to grow up to be abusers, or be abused. It’s a vicious cycle. In the criminal justice system, we need to address these traumas to prevent more tragedies from occurring. 

Lastly, I had the privilege of being on the Law & Crime Network to provide commentary on the Markeith Loyd case. He was charged with killing his pregnant girlfriend, and a female police officer in Orlando. The case drew international attention due to Orlando State Attorney Aramis Ayala’s anti-death penalty stance. His testimony during the trial in his defense revealed a man deeply disturbed with clear mental health issues in excess of the traits of a batterer. He was found guilty; the jury chose to send him to prison for life rather than impose the death penalty.  See my thoughts below.

I hope you will join me in fighting domestic violence all year round – take the time to engage others in this fight through education, and sharing resources as well as encouragement to folks suffering in this horrible cycle.



Another day, another shooting

Dr. O'Neal
Photo credit: Franciscan Health
Dr. Tamara O’Neal died in a shooting at Mercy Hospital on Nov. 19, 2018.

Another day, another shooting where multiple lives were lost.  This time, it was in a a place designed to save lives — Mercy Hospital in Chicago.

Dr. Tamara O’Neal was the victim of domestic violence. The shooter was someone she was in a relationship with. Three other lives were lost: Pharmacy Resident Dayna Less, and Officer Samuel Jimenez. Officer Jimenez had been on the police force for less than three years.  The gunman Juan Lopez also died.

The whole incident is heartbreaking, especially after the NRA made a big to do by telling doctors they should “stay in their lanes” and not have discussions about firearms with their patients. Interestingly, last year, the ACLU at Florida successfully sued for the First Amendment right of doctors to be able to talk to their patients about gun safety in a case commonly known as “Docs v. Glocks“. The importance of doctors having such conversations is that it can lead to a discussion as to whether or not the patient feels safe in their own home. Revelations of domestic violence open up the door to the resources that are available to victims.

There is a narrative that if  a victim arms herself  that somehow domestic homicide could be prevented. Let’s think through this particular situation. Is a doctor going to go from surgery to surgery, patient to patient with a gun strapped to her back? It’s not practical. Domestic violence calls are one of the most dangerous calls any police officer can respond to because of the volatility of the situation. If it is unsafe for a trained professional, how is it any safer for a civilian? Additionally, how many of us (especially in communities of color), remember the case of Marissa Alexander? She fired a warning shot during a domestic violence situation, and ended up in prison.  This leads to a question with regards to equality of 2nd Amendment enforcement across racial lines (but that is the next installment –stay tuned!).

One of the reasons why I vocally opposed Marsy’s law in the state of Florida is the fact that it provides no resources to victims of crime. Nationwide, there has been a strain on budgets to protect survivors of domestic violence. Shelters are operating on a shoestring budget. Some shelters cannot accommodate whole families especially if the children are over a certain age, or are male. DV service providers often rely on the kindness and donations of others rather than robust government funding. The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) provides a source of funds, but more is always needed.

Women of color are  more likely than their white counterparts  to be victims of domestic violence, and for it to be more fatal. Again, it comes down to access and networks of assistance. If you are wealthier, you may be able to finance your escape from your abuser. If you are in a lower social strata, it is more difficult for you to be able to pick up and leave. It’s even more difficult if there are children involved. Think about it: you have to come up with a first, last and security deposit, in a place that is not near your abuser, as well as buy furnishings and make sure that your children’s education is not interrupted. Meanwhile, you need to maintain your full-time job. We all know that jobs are not easy to come by.

This heartbreaking scenario and loss of lives should be a call to action. Not for more guns, but for more resources so that victims and survivors can start their lives over again. Aspects like counseling, shelter, relocation, and more police presence if required are critical to successfully escaping an abusive relationship. Employers should be required by law give days off to verified domestic violence victims so that they can attend court hearings, get a restraining order, or to move if necessary. Also, it should be mandatory for workplaces to train with regards to domestic violence situations, so that if such an issue is brought to their attention, they know to know to notify security or take extra steps to make sure the abuser does not gain access to the workplace.

To be clear, my points about the lack of resources is not to dissuade victims from leaving — it is to raise awareness about the challenges surrounding domestic violence as well as ways we can do better as a society. If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic violence, you do not have to suffer in silence.  Click here for resources.

May Dr. O’Neal and all of the victims rest in peace. May their families find comfort and healing. And may their deaths not be in vain — but instead, stimulate discussion, legislation and change around the issue of domestic violence.

chicago victims
Victims of Mercy Hospital Shooting: Dr. Tamara O’Neal, Officer Samuel Jimenez, Dayna Less. Photo Credit: CNN




Domestic Violence: The Story Behind the Glory

awareness DV

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month; it is a cause near and dear to my heart. Last year I did a series RLD on DV, outlining the reasons why folks stay with their abusers and resources to help those who are victims.

It is interesting to note, and bears repeating, that this is an issue that affects all levels of the socio-economic rainbow.  I love hearing stories of women who overcame violence to find success.  In the months since I published the story about singer Michel’le and the abuse she suffered at the hands of rapper/producer Dr Dre in my piece “Straight Outta PR: Hip Hop, Violence Against Women & An Apology”, Lifetime TV did a movie about her story. I think it is critical that the stories continue to be told on the small and big screens.

In pain, there can be found resilience and strength. I absolutely adore Taraji P. Henson — I watch her religiously every week on the hit show Empire. There is an intense story behind her glory — before the fame and the awards (as in Golden Globe, Emmy, and NAACP Image Award), there was an abusive mate. She left him, even though that meant she would have to struggle as a single mom; but found success beyond her wildest dreams. See her story in People Magazine. 

Taraji P. Henson in Glamour Magazine; photo credit Jason Bell

But let us not forget the perils of leaving. A tragic story out of Chicago  where a woman tried to break off her engagement — she went to her ex’s apartment to return the ring, where he stabbed to death and subsequently took his own life. It is heartbreaking to know that in her last moments, she called her father. The tale of this victim is a cautionary one; if you are trying to leave someone who is abusive or unstable, do not encounter the person alone. Never underestimate the power of desperation to control and violence. 

What gives me hope is some of the great programs that working with victims of domestic violence. It is more than just the abused spouse; it is the children who have to witness their family member — the person that is supposed to protect them — abusing and being abused. The “Camp HOPE America” program featured in the Huffington Post does a great job working with the children of trauma in domestic violence relationships. Also, one morning on the Tom Joyner morning show, I learned about Daylight Inc, a program started by a DV survivor in Atlanta which helps women leave. Sometimes shelters are not available exactly when you need them; her program seeks to fill the gaps.

Domestic violence is a serious serious crime. It hurts so many; we must not turned a blind eye and assist those who are trying to make a difference in their communities.

If you are a victim of domestic violence, the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. If you are a friend of someone who is going through a violent situation, stand by the person. Abusers thrive on isolating victims from support systems, their families, and the outside world. Make sure that your friend knows that you are there to assist them. It does take several tries before a victim will eventually leave the relationship; often as many as 4 to 5 attempts to be finally free. It’s a tough situation to be in, but just know that your actions may save a life.


The RLD on DV: Final Thoughts

20140712-155146-57106832.jpgAs I bring this series to a close, I cannot end without talking about the most hotly debated topic in the country, as well as in domestic violence circles — the use of firearms. Statistics show that a woman is eight times more likely to die at the hands of her abuser if there is a firearm in the home.  African American women are 2.5 more times likely to die than their White female counterparts.

This past May, I had the honor of joining a roundtable discussion/working group with the Battered Women’s Justice Project. As a prosecutor, I came in with the very specific mindset that if there’s any opportunity to protect a domestic violence victim by removing a firearm from the home, I’m going to take it.

But it was very interesting to hear of the other participants in the discussion, who came from the perspective of victim advocates, as well as law-enforcement. The participants came from across the country, from cities, rural areas and native tribes. The biggest debate came from the fact that sometimes the victims will say “yes my spouse is abusing me, but he never uses the gun to abuse me”. “Yes I am afraid of him, but he never threatened me with the gun he always hits me with his hands. If you take his gun, this will make him more mad and place me in more danger.”

Another consideration that was discussed is that of survival. The folks in rural areas will use guns to hunt, which is a major component of how they eat. There’s no driving to Publix, Walmart or Whole Foods, which some of us take for granted. Taking their gun is literally taking their ability to survive. Additionally, there are cultural concerns, where you have firearms or rifles that have been handed down from father to son. So by taking away the firearm, you are literally taking away a family’s history or disrespecting a tribal symbol.

This is why the battle continues. It was very eye-opening for me, and a reminder that life is not cut and dry, black-and-white. As a city dweller, I learned a lot from that discussion. On a personal note, I am married a man who has a ranch in Idaho. When I first went out to the area with my husband (aka the Cowboy), there was definitely a few cultural differences (high heeled boots are never the fashion in that particular town in northern Idaho. I am a Diva after all!). I had some exposure to using firearms in the past; but I definitely learned a new respect for them because it is the instrument of your survival in the woods when wildlife is your next-door neighbor. I understood the arguments that were made at the roundtable; I found some more persuasive than others.

Ultimately, the prosecutor/women’s empowerment side of me strongly believes that it takes just one angry word, one moment of rage, one moment in that explosionary part of the cycle of violence coupled with the easy availability of that firearm for a domestic homicide to happen.

So the discussion continues. There are no easy answers. But I believe that if we keep talking, if we keep raising awareness, and if we keep rallying around victims — letting them know that they are loved, supported, and that they do not have to stay with their abusers, we will find a way to eradicate this problem. And if we give victims support in testifying against their abusers, and getting justice, whether it be in the form of a prison sentence or psychological counseling for their abusers, we will go along way in restructuring how our society thinks about violence along with how relationships should be.

Here are a few resources.

National Domestic Violence Hotline  (800) 799-SAFE (7233) or (800) 787-3224 (TTY) or visit their website

National Network to End Domestic Violence List of State DV Coalitions visit their website

American Bar Association For legal assistance visit their website

Stalking Resource Center (800) FYI-CALL or visit their website.

Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (800) 656-HOPE or visit their website.

Whatever you are going through, you are not alone. There is help — you are loved, you are worthy, and you are STRONG!