BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — A jury has begun deliberations in the trial of Cherelle Baldwin, a young woman accused of killing her allegedly abusive ex-boyfriend, Jeffrey Brown. She maintains that she was acting in self-defense.
The tiny courtroom was packed with family members of both the victim and the defendant, along with an army of domestic violence advocates who came to support Baldwin during closing arguments.
This was Baldwin’s second trial. The first, held in 2015, ended with a hung jury. Eleven jurors wanted to consider lesser charges against her or acquit her completely, but one juror refused to continue.
Baldwin, 24, has been held behind bars on $1 million bail for almost three years.
On May 18, 2013, police say Baldwin killed Brown, 24, by striking him with her car and pinning him against a cement wall.
When police arrived, they found Baldwin on the ground with a broken leg, crying out for her 19-month-old baby who was left unattended inside the house. She told police that her ex-boyfriend had tried to kill her, and she wasn’t sure how he ended up in front of her car.
Baldwin is charged with murder, and faces 25 to 60 years if convicted.
During her testimony in court, she told jurors that Brown broke into her house, whipped her with a belt and then wrapped it around her neck and strangled her. After she escaped to her car, without glasses or shoes, she said, he followed her and continued his attack in her vehicle.
Brown exited the car and was coming around the front of it when she hit the gas, she said.
"I didn’t mean to kill Jeffrey," she said.
During an emotional hourlong closing argument, Baldwin’s defense attorney Miles Gerety encouraged jurors to find his client not guilty, arguing that her actions were clearly made in self-defense.
Gerety reminded jurors that Brown was found holding a man’s black leather belt, and that he sent a barrage of menacing texts to Baldwin just hours before his death, including one that read “doa on sight,” which Baldwin interpreted as "dead on arrival."
Jurors listened intently as Gerety described how Baldwin survived a terrifying strangulation attempt just moments prior to Brown’s death.
While police noted she did not have any visible marks on her neck, Gerety walked the jury through evidence that he said proved that many strangulation victims don’t have injuries, especially if they have dark skin.
He also pointed the jury’s attention to a photo of Baldwin, taken in the hospital, which appeared to show her naked back covered in welts. Karen Jubanyik, an emergency medicine physician testifying on behalf of the defense, told the jury earlier that the marks were consistent with injuries made by a belt.
"You don’t leave your house without your glasses, without your phone, without your baby, and wearing only a nightgown," Gerety said. "The desperation of her escape from Jeffrey Brown is obvious by how she left the house, and how she left her baby crying alone on the bed."
He said that the prosecution purposely ignored the text messages -- which he characterized as the strongest evidence in the case -- and simply wanted the jury to forget that Brown had been threatening to kill Baldwin in the moments leading up to the altercation.
"She had no intent to kill Jeffrey Brown," Gerety said. "Her only intent was a desperate one, to get back to her baby, to avoid being a dead mother, to avoid being further strangled and beaten. Would any of us have done anything different?"
Her only intent was a desperate one, to get back to her baby, to avoid being a dead mother, to avoid being further strangled and beaten. Defense attorney Miles Gerety
Pamela Esposito, senior assistant state’s attorney, used her closing argument to raise questions about Baldwin’s credibility, and to highlight inconsistencies between her statements to police and her testimony in court.
"What you heard in this courtroom casts a long shadow over the credibility of the defendant," she said.
Esposito showed the jury a selfie that Baldwin took that morning as evidence that Baldwin was not upset by the texts she received from Brown. In the photo, Baldwin is looking into the camera, her eyebrows gently raised and her hair partially askew.
"That is not the face of fear," she argued.
Esposito talked the jury through crash reconstruction evidence that she said disproved Baldwin’s story of being assaulted inside her car.
"He was never in the car," she said. "She chased him down. She used her car like a gun: She pointed, aimed and shot."
Even if Baldwin was acting in self-defense, Esposito said, she had a duty to retreat.
Under Connecticut's self-defense law, a person has to reasonably believe she is in danger of imminent death or serious bodily injury in order to justify the use of deadly force. In addition, the individual has a duty to retreat, as long as she can do so in a safe manner.
"In that car, she had so very many options," she said. "Jeffrey Brown did not have to die."
Baldwin, who was dressed in a black-and-white patterned dress and had her ankles shackled, visibly shook throughout the proceedings.
If jurors can’t agree on the murder charges, Superior Court Judge John Kavanewsky Jr. instructed them to consider lesser charges, including manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide, or decide she is not guilty. If the jury finds she acted in self-defense, she will be acquitted of all charges.
During her testimony, which stretched out over two days, Baldwin told the jury that she met Brown when she was 19.
Within the first few months of dating, she was pregnant with his child. After the baby was born, she testified, Brown became controlling and abusive. She described how he would go through her phone as often as possible, and would follow her when she left the house. Physical violence, such as pushing, shoving, hitting, choking and hair-pulling soon followed, she said.
One text that Baldwin sent Brown, which she read aloud during her testimony, alleges that he physically assaulted her while she was holding their child.
"You hit me not once, not twice, but three times with my baby in my arms," she said, reading her text.
According to court documents, police responded to alleged altercations between Baldwin and Brown on at least two occasions.
In February 2013, just months before Brown’s death, he was arrested for snatching Baldwin’s phone out of her hand while she tried to call 911.
Ten days before his death, he was convicted of breach of peace, and was under a court order barring him from committing violence, threats or harassment against Baldwin.
Earlier this month, 38 domestic violence organizations from across the country called for state prosecutors to drop the charges against Baldwin, which they say were a prime example of how black domestic violence victims are disproportionally targeted by the criminal justice system when they try to protect themselves.
A petition urging Connecticut State's Attorney John Smriga to drop the charges against Baldwin, launched by nonprofit Ultraviolet, has gathered almost 28,000 signatures.
Beth Richie, professor of criminal justice and gender and women’s studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said it was all too common for black women who act in self-defense to be punished by the justice system.
"Their victimization is minimized and their response to the victimization is criminalization," she said. "They are seen as the perpetrators of the violent acts, not victims of violent crimes."
Richie said that due to institutionalized racism, a host of negative stereotypes are triggered when a black woman kills an intimate partner.
"The angry black woman … the crazed black woman out of her mind, who is vindictive and jealous and couldn't control her anger," she said. "It is almost as if black women in the court system are seen to not have a full range of emotions, and only act out of anger, aggression, vindictiveness -- not fear, pain or terror."
Rachelle Kucera Mehra, executive director of the Domestic Violence Crisis Center, said she and nine other staffers and volunteers came to court on Tuesday to stand in support of Baldwin.
"There is not a victim of intimate partner violence who I have ever known who desires to bring harm to another human being -- especially the person who they thought would love them all the days of their lives," she said.
As the jury began its deliberations, Cindy Long, Baldwin’s mother, said she was full of nerves.
"He tortured her in front of her child," she said. "What choice was she left with?"
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