Failing to protect Oklahoma women
On Tondalao Hall’s case
In 2004, Tondalao Hall was a 19-year-old mother of three children who were present when their father, Robert Braxton Jr., strangled Hall on the couch of their apartment. Braxton then broke the bones of their two youngest children when their mother was at work.
After returning home, Hall noticed that her youngest baby was whinier than usual, and when she addressed the issue with Braxton, he denied any knowledge of the condition. She called the pediatrician, who told her to put an ice pack on her son’s leg. After following the doctor’s orders and waiting a couple of days, she arrived at the hospital, where she was promptly arrested for failing to protect her children from the abuse of their father.
Hall had no criminal record—not even a traffic violation. Braxton previously had been served with a protective order by a former girlfriend. Despite their histories, Hall was sentenced to 30 years in prison while Braxton received 8 years of probation and walked out of the courthouse a free man following his trial.
Currently, Hall sits in her cell at Mabel Bassett Correctional Center with 18 years left to serve in her sentence, while Robert Braxton Jr. posts to Facebook about what he wants to eat for lunch, inquiring about whether I-HOP or Denny’s serves the best pancakes, and reposting GIFs about, for instance, running over an ex-girlfriend with a car. Justice is served?
“This case is not an anomaly,” said Allie Shinn, director of external affairs at the ACLU of Oklahoma, which took on Hall’s case in 2016. “All over the state, the law is being disproportionately applied to women, particularly women of color.”
Oklahoma locks up more women than any other place in the world, and our average rate of female incarceration of 142 per 100,000 is almost twice the national average of 63 per 100,000.
“We are holding women to an impossible standard when we ask them to simply leave, when leaving is one of the most dangerous times for her and her children,” Shinn said. “In Tondalao’s case, she didn’t even know this [abuse] was happening.”
The chances of being murdered by an abusive partner skyrocket by 75 percent in the year following a separation, and the chances of children being injured increase significantly. Without family or social support, staying in an abusive relationship may be the safest, most reasonable option for a woman and her children at that time.
Domestic Violence Intervention Services (DVIS) in Tulsa seeks to provide a safe option for victims like Hall.
“We work every day to ensure survivors have a safe place to recover from the trauma they have experienced,” said DVIS CEO Tracey Lyall. “Many times, people do not realize the risk survivors take when they choose to leave an abusive relationship. This is why it is so important to reach out and safety plan with an agency that specializes in assisting families affected by domestic and sexual violence, such as DVIS.”
While the decision to leave an abusive relationship is complex, the criminal justice system demands black and white answers to matters that aren’t so clear.
“Courts don’t take into account the accepted science on how victims of abuse behave,” Shinn argues.
Domestic violence is highly traumatizing and can lead victims to lose track of timelines or downplay their victimization. They also may be less than candid with their answers due to fear, intimidation, and shame.
Oklahoma’s courts should be especially attuned to domestic violence issues, since one in four women in Oklahoma will experience domestic violence in their lifetime, and far less will seek help from formal institutions. Women of color, in particular, are less likely to seek supportive services due to barriers like systemic racism, stereotypes, and historical trauma—all of which are reflected in Hall’s case.
In addition to blaming Hall for being a poor witness in Braxton’s trial and the reason he received a light sentence, Assistant District Attorney Angela Marsee argued that Hall should get life in prison, adding, “She’s their mother. She’s responsible for them … They were in harm’s way because of what she did, and they were in pain because of what she didn’t do, and she should pay for that.”
Failure to Protect laws frequently silence victims of domestic violence. The fear of having your children taken away, of long-term imprisonment, or of having an abuser end up with custody of one’s children are enough to cause an ethical dilemma for any mother.
Oklahoma’s criminal justice system puts the onus solely on mothers to be responsible for children, regardless of any danger they might face. Moreover, society’s antiquated views of women’s duties led to a severe case of injustice in which a domestic violence survivor sits in jail for 30 years while her—and her children’s—abuser walks free. Tondalao Hall deserves better than this. Our community deserves better than this.
Both District Attorney Angela Marsee and Judge Ray C. Elliott declined to comment on the case due to ongoing litigation.
For more information on this case, please visit the ACLU of Oklahoma at acluok.org.
If you are affected by domestic violence and would like help, please call DVIS at 918-743-5763.