Pressure mounts for Manhattan district attorney to drop charges of criminalized survivor Tracy McCarter. On the campaign trail, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg expressed support for Tracy McCarter—but after three months in office, he’s been silent on her case.
Article by Tamar Sarai Davis, excerpt below:
While running for office in September 2020, then-Manhattan District Attorney candidate Alvin Bragg tweeted in support of Tracy McCarter, a domestic abuse survivor who had been charged with second degree murder after the death of her abusive ex-husband, James Murray: “I #StandWithTracy. Prosecuting a domestic violence survivor who acted in self-defense is unjust.” Advocates took Bragg’s statement as a hopeful promise, but in the months following his election, he grew increasingly tight-lipped about McCarter’s case, leaving her at the mercy of a criminal justice system that has mismanaged prisoners’ safety in the midst of a pandemic and has an even worse track record in supporting domestic abuse survivors.
After being charged with her ex-husband’s death in 2020, McCarter, a 46-year-old nurse, was locked in Rikers Island for six months while COVID-19 ravaged New York City and posed a significant threat to those detained in the city’s jails. Two weeks after DA Bragg tweeted his support of McCarter during his campaign, McCarter was released on home detention in her Harlem apartment, where she’s remained for the last 18 months as her case winds through the system. In the middle of this March, McCarter was joined by her attorneys, her family and friends, and a growing cohort of supporters to hear the outcome of her first court hearing of 2022. McCarter’s attorneys had sought modified bail restrictions that would allow her to leave the state to receive inpatient treatment in Florida for her deteriorating mental health, urging Judge Melissa C. Jackson to consider McCarter’s recent hospitalization due to ongoing PTSD and trauma.
Judge Jackson denied the request for modified bail restrictions, and Bragg, whose successful run for office included avowed support for domestic abuse survivors facing charges stemming from their abuse, has failed to answer questions about dismissing McCarter’s charges or provide any indication that he plans to do so. If convicted, McCarter could face a sentence of 25 years to life. McCarter’s indictment and Bragg’s unwillingness to drop her charges reveal the consequences of carceral feminism—reliance on the carceral system to address gender-based violence—and how the myth of the “progressive prosecutor” obscures how the criminal legal system compounds harm for survivors like McCarter who have already faced unimaginable violence.
The then-Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance denied McCarter bail and pushed to keep her in pretrial detention despite the suspension of grand jury proceedings due to the spread of COVID-19. McCarter was held in Rikers Island and subjected to conditions that would be a public health nightmare even outside of the context of the pandemic. During the earliest days of the pandemic, McCarter said that she and others who were held at Rikers were only given a single mask to be reused for the duration of their incarceration, and hand sanitizer was removed from the jail’s clinic. Rikers staff routinely wore masks incorrectly or not all. In addition, McCarter’s time inside also meant missing the birth of her first grandchild, the loss of her job, and a suspension from the nursing courses that she had been taking at Columbia University.
Given the role that McCarter’s history of abuse played in her case, volunteers at Court Watch NYC reached out to Survived & Punished New York City (S&P), a coalition of defense campaigns and grassroots groups committed to both ending the criminalization of survivors of domestic and sexual violence and eradicating the culture that contributes to it. Organizers with S&P reached out to McCarter and also connected with her family, answering their questions and providing them with support through check-ins and sending care packages. With McCarter’s permission, the group coordinated the “I Stand With Tracy” defense campaign, publicly advocating on her behalf and using social media to uplift her story and garner more media attention around it. By September 2020, pro bono lawyers had taken on McCarter’s case, and she was granted release on electronic monitoring. However, despite these victories, the primary goal of having McCarter’s case dismissed remains unfulfilled, as does Bragg’s seeming commitment to not prosecute survivors of domestic abuse.
As reported by Prism, more than 80% of women detained in jails in the U.S. are survivors of abuse. In New York, two-thirds of women incarcerated for killing someone close to them had been abused by that person, and a great deal of discourse and advocacy around the criminalization of survivors has rightfully focused on those currently in prison. In New York State, the passage of the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act in 2019 opened the opportunity for these incarcerated survivors to seek reduced sentences because the judicial system failed to properly recognize the role their abuse played in the offenses for which they were convicted.
McCarter’s case, however, reveals the importance of making those connections before sentencing and draws attention to the fact that prosecutors’ offices can decide at any point pretrial to drop charges. When increased media coverage around McCarter’s case began to coincide with the 2021 Manhattan District Attorney race, it posed a direct query to candidates who claimed they supported survivors and would seek an end to their criminalization: will you drop the charges against Tracy McCarter?
The myth of the progressive prosecutor
Bragg continues to claim that cases involving domestic abuse survivors have “significant profound importance” to him pointing to his appointment of Joyce Smith, a career prosecutor whose past work has largely focused on domestic violence cases, to head his office’s trial division as evidence of his commitment. But in a town hall hosted this February by the People’s Coalition for Manhattan DA Accountability, Bragg remained vague about how and if he will prosecute future cases involving survivors of domestic abuse. Prism reached out to DA Bragg’s office for this article, but they declined to comment. Bragg’s refusal to drop McCarter’s charge now that he is in office after his willingness to publicly tweet that ongoing prosecution of her case would be “unjust” has not only frustrated advocates, but also speaks to the political utility of making commitments toward progressive demands while on the campaign trail even if a prosecutorial candidate has no intention of fulfilling them.
Art above: Photo of “Free Tracy” poster by author, original painting by Donna Franks-Tapley