The Manhattan District Attorney says his office will no longer prosecute a woman arrested two years ago in the death of her abusive estranged husband. Alvin Bragg says he's no longer convinced that Tracy McCarter should be prosecuted in the stabbing death of James Murray.
Journalist and advocate Victoria Law wrote about McCarter's case for The Nation. She spoke with Morning Edition’s Michael Hill about the case.
Michael Hill: Victoria, good morning and thanks for joining.
Victoria Law: Morning. Thank you for having me.
You're most welcome. Would you give us a quick overview of this case?
Yes. So, Tracy McCarter is a Black woman and a nurse living in New York City.
Her estranged husband, James Murray, was a white man. The couple had been separated for about seven months. He had been living in a sober living facility after getting out of rehab and was temporarily living in an Airbnb. He had relapsed and had begun drinking again, and while he was drinking, he became increasingly abusive and violent towards her.
On March 2nd, 2020, days before the Covid 19 pandemic hit New York City, Tracy McCarter came home. Her estranged husband called her, said that he had locked himself out of the Airbnb. He had a tendency to ring every buzzer in her building if she did not let him in. So she let him in and intended to let him sleep his drunkenness off on her couch.
Instead, he began demanding money from her. When she refused to give him money, he attacked her. He tried to strangle her, and she broke free, took out a knife, held it in what her legal filings say was a defensive posture to ward him off. He tripped and fell on the knife. She immediately called 911.
The police showed up, took him to the hospital where he died, and she was arrested and charged with murder in the death of her husband.
This case has received a lot of attention from advocates for survivors of domestic violence. What is it about this particular case, and what does it reveal about these sort of domestic violence-involved cases in general?
This case is an anomaly in that it has received so much attention from advocates. Many times, survivors of domestic violence who are arrested for defending themselves against their abusers do not receive this kind of attention and support. Tracy herself has been an advocate for herself the entire time. I originally spoke to her while she was held at Rikers Island awaiting an indictment. Shortly after she had been arraigned and sent to Rikers, the Covid pandemic closed all court proceedings for several months, and she was not able to have her day before the grand jury, which would decide whether the courts could proceed with prosecuting her for murder, for a lesser charge or for nothing altogether. She began reaching out about what was happening with her way back then.
A lot of survivors have already been shamed into silence by their abusive partners and on the advice of their lawyers who often fear that they might say something that the prosecution can use against them, are not willing to talk to media or bring attention to their case. Tracy also has an amazing family that has jumped into advocating for her release and a group of advocates who have come together to say that it is unjust to prosecute a domestic violence survivor simply for surviving an attack.
Candidate Alvin Brag had tweeted in 2020 about McCarter's case saying prosecuting a survivor who acted in self defense is unjust. So why did his office keep prosecuting her for so long? What does this tell us about Bragg?
It is unclear why he decided to keep prosecuting Tracy McCarter. We know that he twice attempted to either reduce the charges or offer a plea deal that would allow her to plead guilty to two charges, a felony and a misdemeanor, and then after a year of good behavior, drop the felony charge, which would allow her to resume her nursing career.
And what we think is that there was an immense amount of public pressure placed on him. We saw this also in the case of Jose Alba, the bodega worker who stabbed a man who was attacking him in self-defense. Bragg had originally also charged him with murder and was intending to prosecute until there was an uproar of public outrage about this.
So I think that if there had not been prolonged advocacy, media attention, advocates having, rallies and speak outs and gathering signatures, Tracy's case might be going to trial next week instead of going to a hearing to see whether or not the judge will approve Bragg's motion to dismiss the charges.
Is this indicative of a larger movement, perhaps, of district attorneys to reconsider these sorts of prosecutions?
I would hope so, but it does not seem to be the case so far with district attorneys. At the same time across the country in California, there is a domestic violence survivor named Wendy Howard, who was just acquitted of murder, manslaughter, imperfect self defense and one other other charge related to the shooting death of her abusive ex-husband who had been investigated for sexually abusing their daughters. There was one charge in which the jury was hung, which meant that seven people voted to acquit her, five people voted to convict her, they were unable to reach a unanimous verdict. And the district attorney there, Cynthia Zimmer, has not announced that she is dropping that last charge so she can still bring Wendy Howard to trial on this one last remaining charge. So while we should hope that other candidates follow Bragg's example of looking at everything, in this case to say what role did abuse and domestic violence play, we don't necessarily see that being followed across the country.
Do you see on the opposite end of that, a push to prosecute women like Tracy McCarter for the sake of, “Well, we gotta be tough on crime.”
Yes. Prosecutors feel pressured or compelled to bring these types of charges rather than dropping the charges, dismissing the charges, bringing lesser charges. And it's interesting because there was a 2016 study that looked at these types of cases and found that prosecutors are more likely to decrease the charges when the defendant is a white woman than when she's a Black woman. Tracy is a Black woman accused of murder in the death of her white husband. And we have to remember when we look at prosecution and incarceration, we can never forget about the role of race.