It wasn't the first time this had happened to Kelli, and she knew it wouldn't be the last.
When she was 17, her boyfriend pushed her down a flight of stairs, splitting her left eye "completely open." Her abuser's mother urged her to "cover up what actually happened," so she decided not to let a doctor know who'd done it to her.
By the time she was 19, she'd married her boyfriend. One day, he and Kelli got in a fight that resulted in second-degree burns all over her body, because he'd used an iron. She says she was "burnt completely on my chest, on my arm, on my face and on my neck." She'd fought back, so they both went to jail. He was released before she was, and he was waiting for Kelli on the same street as the police station where she'd been held when she got out. They went home together.
Seven months later, it was happening again. They'd gotten into what Kelli calls a "domestic violence fight" that started because her husband was "upset about some things that were laying around the house." She escaped to a neighbor's and called the cops, who came and "made a joke like, 'Dang, didn't we come here before?'" Kelli pointed to the marks on her body – not yet fully healed – and said there was a reason she called the police so regularly. Sometimes they came and sometimes they didn't, she told them.
The police decided not to kick her husband out, and asked whether she had anywhere to go. She went to her mom's, but "that day he kept calling my mom's house, threatening to kill me," she says. He threatened that "something was going to happen to me and my children because if we couldn't stay together, we were going to die together." Kelli had to return to her house to pick up more of her belongings.
But before she did, she bought a gun.
"When I went back over there, he was there," Kelli says. "He kept taunting me; he kept telling me, 'You think this is over?'
"Finally, he threatened me somehow," she says. "Whispered in my ear. And I just lost it. At that point, I pulled out the gun; he's taunting me and then he charged at me.
"And I shot him."
Kelli, now 36, spent 15 years in jail for manslaughter. She got out when she was 33 years old.
When battered women fight back
"I have no faith in the judicial system," Kelli said. "I know it's there, it's the system we have to use, it's the system we have to go by. Because I'm a domestic violence advocate and case manager, I have to call law enforcement to talk to some of the officers about our clients' cases. Nothing has really changed in the attitude of law enforcement about domestic violence and the victimizing of women."
Kelli, who declined to share her last name with OnCentral, grew up in Watts. Now she works in the heart of South Central L.A. as a violence intervention specialist for a large domestic violence program agency. About 95 percent of the population she serves, she said, are young, minority women who lead single-parent homes.
Her story is one that sheds light on the legal system's efforts to offer evenhanded and fair justice to abused women who fight back against their abusers. Sometimes the consequences are fatal.
Adriana Molina is the co-chair of the Violence Prevention Coalition of Greater Los Angeles. She connected OnCentral with Kelli and corroborated the primary details of her story.
"She's an amazing example of not just what can go wrong but also of resilience," Molina says about Kelli.
Molina made it clear in an earlier article that just because a victim kills an abuser "does not mean the history of abuse was mutual."
Oftentimes, she says, a killing like the one Kelli carried out is simply "the proverbial drop that overfilled the bucket."
That doesn't mean that Molina and her coalition back up those who are abused and then become violent, she says. But she does want to make clear that when women lack hope and support, some of them see no choice other than to commit unthinkable acts.
Stanley Goldman, who teaches at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, also tells OnCentral that courts, instead of looking at whether violence was premeditated or carried out in the heat of the moment, perhaps ought to "give more consideration to the circumstances" and the people who are involved.
"When they kill their abuser, should they be treated on a different standard than someone who's cold-blooded, has no mercy, has no pity?" he says.
In Kelli's case, the officers who interrogated her told her that whatever he'd done to her, she'd "trumped it by killing him." Prosecutors pursued first-degree murder charges against her, claiming that her violence was premeditated. They dismissed her claim of self-defense, arguing that she only thought she was in a life-and-death situation.
After a mistrial and a second trial, the prosecution sat down with Kelli and offered her a deal.
"They said, Listen, you have a dead body here," Kelli recalls. "You're not just going to get away scot-free. You're going to do some time. We're asking if you'd rather do this time, 15 years. Then you'll at least have the ability to come home and live your life."
That's how Kelli, who had no criminal history, no parking tickets and not even a drivers license, found herself in prison for manslaughter.
"I served time in prison for defending myself in a domestic violence case," she says.
'Here I was, a woman with scars'
A small, recent study suggested that judges' legal decisions regarding abused women who become violent toward their abusers is tainted with sexism. Kelli says that's been her experience.
"During the whole two years [that I was in court] I'd be chained up with other man and going to the courtroom and listening to the cases," she said – cases for drive-by shootings, robberies, carjackings, public shootings.
"I watched these men get five years, seven years, 10 years, 12 years," she says. "And I also listened to them read off their history of crime and violence … and I could not understand. Here I was, a woman sitting in the court with scars on my body and police reports as well as doctor reports from the abuse I experienced, and they were still trying to give me 35 years to life."
Kelli believes she was at a disadvantage for three reasons: She was a woman, she was low-income and she was black.
It was "like a welcome home party" once she got to prison, she said, because so many women were there for the same sort of crime. She says some had been responding as a man raped them. Some had their heads "busted wide open." Listening to stories like this prompted her to lose faith in the U.S. judicial system and to believe that it "re-victimizes" abused women.
She says she gets a lot of blame. "You'd be surprised by how society views battered women and the judgment they have for them," she says. The first thing the prosecutors said to her was: "Why didn't you call a hotline?" Kelli didn't know about hotlines, and she'd tried to get help before, but she says that even if she had, prosecutors would have used that against her as evidence of her premeditating murder. Certain members of her family, too, say she caused her situation by staying with her abuser.
But she didn't feel she had a choice, as a psychologist testified on her behalf in court. She had "battered woman syndrome," which means, in part, that she had a perceived inability to escape her situation. Kelli knows that, and her answer is strong when she's asked if she thinks what she did was wrong.
"I don't feel like I did anything wrong for protecting our children and our lives," she says. "I think people want to see a sense of remorse from the women who kill their abusers. But how can you have a sense of remorse for a person who is killing you daily?"
But she does wish that no one had died.
Her sons were four and two years old when she went to prison. When she got home, they were 17 and 16. Over her prison term, they'd visited her around eight times, and "only knew [her] as a voice over the phone." Kelli and her boys aren't close.
"In the midst of my trying to protect my children, I end up losing them," she says. "That was a hard thing to have to accept after fighting through this system to get home to two sons that I love very dearly."
People often use the word "survivor" to refer to women who've lived through domestic abuse. Kelli says the barely-made-it tone of that word is apt.
"There are different levels of survival," she says. "Some people will have a happy ending and go on to thrive. Then you have the survivor who just made it out. And they are no longer the same, and will never be the same person again. They will not trust again, they don't ever want to be in a relationship again."
Kelli says her happy ending is her job: Almost immediately upon her release from prison, she began working at the agency that still employs her today. She loves what she does, and says she doesn't carry the "baggage of domestic violence."
"I'm still here; I'm still alive," Kelli says. "I do feel like I'm a survivor. If anything, my heart survived the situation. In the midst of anything I experienced in three years of prison in my marriage and 15 years of prison, my heart still beats – and it still feels, still has compassion, still hopes, still loves."
Photo by Still Burning via Flickr Creative Commons.