Before all that followed—before she was sentenced to life without parole, before the levees broke during Katrina, before Leon Cannizzaro became one of the nation’s most notorious district attorneys—Catina Curley’s story led the 10 p.m. broadcast on local CBS affiliate WWL-TV. “New Orleans police say a woman shot and killed her husband in New Orleans East tonight,” said a newscaster on March 30, 2005. “Police say the couple was arguing in their home when the woman, Catina Curley, pulled a gun and fatally shot her husband in the chest. Police booked her on second-degree murder charges. Officers say the couple had no history of domestic violence, but they are investigating.”
Ever since, the narrative surrounding Renaldo Curley’s death has reflected a similar story. Within hours, police decided that Catina shot Renaldo Curley because she was angry and jealous, killed the father of her children because of an argument gone wrong. Prosecutors framed her case as a singular instance of hot-headed depravity, a moment of irredeemable sin. But the truth is more forgiving to Catina. For over a decade, Renaldo physically abused Catina and their children. She wasn’t the aggressor, but the victim. She wasn’t angry; she was terrified.
But when Catina went to trial in 2007, her attorney, John Fuller, failed to explain the psychological effects of the violence she endured, which could possibly be characterized as battered woman’s syndrome. She was convicted of second-degree murder, and sentenced to life without parole. Until recently, it seemed certain that she would die in the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women.
Almost 10 years later, in 2016, her sentence was overturned by the state trial court, after they determined that Fuller failed to provide effective assistance of counsel because he didn’t present a battered woman’s syndrome defense nor did he investigate the benefits of presenting expert testimony on this subject. But Cannizzaro’s office appealed and an appellate court reversed. It held that there was insufficient evidence for a jury to find Catina legally insane, which requires a showing that the person can’t tell right from wrong. The Louisiana Supreme Court reversed the appellate court’s decision. In late June, the state’s highest court recognized that battered woman’s syndrome can justify the use of self-defense and found that Fuller “failed entirely to investigate the proper way to defend [Catina],” and ruled that she was entitled to a new trial. Late last month, Catina was released on $1,000 bond, providing her with an opportunity to spend time with her family for the first time in over a decade.
On June 29, Cannizzaro called the bond “disturbing, disheartening, and unprecedented,” implying Catina is a danger to the community.
Law enforcement remains intent on ignoring a decade of unrelenting physical abuse, abuse that Fuller characterized as “probably the worst [he’d] ever seen.” Thirteen years ago, prosecutors charged Catina more harshly than many men who abuse and kill their wives. Now Cannizzaro, too, wants to ignore the abuse she faced.
Catina now joins a growing group of criminalized survivors of domestic violence fighting for their freedom. Women like Cyntoia Brown, a sex worker who in 2004 was just 16 and living with an abusive pimp. Brown shot and killed a 43-year-old man who, after picking her up for sex, allegedly became violent. She was sentenced to life in prison. When Marissa Alexander’s abusive husband threatened to kill her, she fired a warning shot inside their Jacksonville, Florida, home. Though no one was injured, she was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Like these women, Catina was not only a victim of domestic abuse, but a victim of the criminal justice system and prosecutors who use their discretion to rack up prison sentences instead of supporting survivors.
Catina and Renaldo lived in Little Woods, a neighborhood in New Orleans East on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain. Ninety-six percent African-American and with an average household income hovering around $40,000, Little Woods is blacker and poorer than the rest of the city. The two were married for nearly 10 years, with seven children between them, five of whom lived in the house.
The day of the shooting, Catina and Renaldo argued over another woman who had spent time with Renaldo in their house. A witness heard their daughter April, then 8, say to Renaldo, “Please don’t hit Mom.” But, as he often did, Renaldo got physical.
It wasn’t the first time. According to Catina’s habeas petition and the subsequent Louisiana Supreme Court decision, for over a decade, Renaldo, then 29, beat Catina, then 32, mercilessly. There was the time he threw her to the ground, kicking her so hard that she dislocated her shoulder. There was the time he punched her in the nose on both sides, breaking her nose. Her face and eyes were black, and so swollen that she couldn’t open them. There was the time he tried to push Catina out of a moving car. After she managed to convince him to pull over, she and her daughter April got out of the car and ran home. Her boss testified that he saw signs of abuse many times, “trauma” to her face and swollen forehead, eyes, and cheeks.
In the 11 years before the shooting, police filed six reports alleging domestic abuse involving Renaldo, records of him choking her while hitting her in the face, biting, striking, and punching her. The reports note Catina’s black eyes, the “visible teeth marks on her skin.”
Catina usually didn’t call the police—often because Renaldo wouldn’t let her. “If I’m going to call the police or if I’m trying to call someone for help or something, he will break the phone,” she testified.
Renaldo beat her in front of their children so often that Catina’s daughter Brittany testified that she “could not count how many times she had seen the victim hit [her mother],” according to the Louisiana Supreme Court. When asked how often Renaldo beat his mother, their son, only 10 at the time of the shooting, replied “a lot.”
And Renaldo allegedly beat his own children, who claimed he choked, hit, and “slam[med]” them. When his son was just a year old, he struck him with a telephone, according to police reports.
The evening of the shooting, in March 2005, Renaldo threatened her, shoved her onto the bed and threw a soda can at her. “Bitch, you going to make me hurt you,” Catina recalled him saying. She tried to call her grandfather to ask him to come to the house, and spoke briefly to her aunt. She later testified that Catina’s voice made her worried she would be beaten again.
Catina hoped to just leave the house, avoiding her husband on the way out. But she couldn’t—her keys were in the same room as him. So she grabbed an “old rusty revolver” he kept under the mattress for self-protection.
He began confronting her again. “I was very frightened. I was scared, I mean, really delirious,” she testified. “Stop, don’t come toward me,” Catina recalled telling him, pointing the gun at him. But he just “kept coming and coming.” As he moved closer, Catina was “shaking. I never handled a gun[.]” She recalled thinking, “If he gets close enough to me, he is going to take this gun from me and he is going to beat me again.”
He came closer. She fired one bullet, hitting him in the chest. In two minutes he was dead.
Catina was arrested and taken to the police station where she tried to explain the terror she felt when tension between her and Renaldo escalated. “Anytime we’d get into an altercation, I think my whole life is just in danger,” she said the night of the shooting. “ I’ve been got beat up so many times.” Her fear wasn’t unfounded. In 2007, the year Catina was convicted in New Orleans of second-degree murder, Louisiana had the highest rate of women murdered by men, roughly twice the national average. According to the Violence Policy Center, around 60 percent of those women were killed by their partners.
That Renaldo had repeatedly been violent toward Catina was no surprise to the New Orleans Police Department. They had over a decade’s worth of evidence to indicate that Renaldo was a serial abuser. Yet, by the time the 10 p.m. news ran—just two hours after the shooting—police had already decided to hold Catina for second-degree murder, which carries a mandatory sentence of life without parole. “Officers say the couple had no history of domestic violence,” the WWL-TV broadcast said, an explicitly false statement.
Orleans Parish prosecutors, like prosecutors everywhere, have near total discretion in charging decisions. They could have reduced the charges against Catina, but instead chose to try to put her in prison for life. At trial, prosecutors implied she wasn’t really scared of him. Why, if she was so scared, did she not ask one of her male cousins to accompany her to the house? Why didn’t she call the police? Why didn’t she call someone and ask them to get her keys?
Three days after Catina was sentenced, a man named Jeremy Colbert faced a jury in the same courthouse. For years, he had allegedly abused his former girlfriend. One night he hid in her parking lot, violating a restraining order she had against him. When he saw her with a male acquaintance of hers, Colbert shot and killed him. “Colbert’s lawyer successfully argued to the jury that Colbert’s ex-girlfriend ‘riled him up’ so he should not be subject to a murder conviction,” Tania Tetlow, now president of Loyola University New Orleans, wrote in 2007.
Colbert was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 40 years. Catina was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Forty years is at the upper end of the sentencing range for manslaughter in Louisiana, but the disparate sentences for Colbert and Catina are not uncommon. “The national average sentence for men who kill their female partners is two to six years in prison,” wrote Tetlow. “In contrast, women who kill their male partners are sentenced to an average of 15 years … despite the fact that many of these women killed in self-defense.”
It is unsurprising that Cannizzaro’s office has defended Catina’s draconian sentence. Since he was elected in 2008, Cannizzaro has consistently been among the nation’s harshest prosecutors. Currently, almost one in six of Louisiana prisoners come from Orleans Parish, a remarkable feat given that Louisiana is the second most carceral state in the nation.
Cannizzaro has bragged about how seriously his office takes domestic violence. But often, his aggressive tactics end up hurting the victim more than the offender. He made headlines last year when it was discovered that he often issues material-witness warrants, giving him the power to jail victims of rape or sexual assault to compel their testimony. According to data analysis by students at Yale Law School, Cannizzaro’s office obtained more than 150 of these warrants in just five years. In May, The Appeal’s Aviva Shen reported that about 50 of those people were actually arrested.
It’s worth noting which victims Cannizzaro chooses to incarcerate. According to the New Yorker, “Poverty, homelessness, precarious immigration status, and mental-health issues were all invoked by the DA’s office as reasons to jail crime victims, who included survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, and child sex trafficking.” Demographics matter, too. Shen reported that 78 percent of material witnesses were Black. Of those actually arrested, only one was a white male. Some of these stories were particularly disturbing. Take the 19-year-old sex trafficking victim who was arrested in 2014, soon after giving birth. “She had failed to appear at a hearing during her pregnancy because she was supposed to be on bed rest and had a doctor’s note to prove it,” Shen wrote. “Even so, she was held in jail for nearly four months until she testified against the father of her child.”
In one case, Cannizzaro’s office set a $100,000 bond for Renata Singleton, who was an alleged victim of domestic abuse. When she chose not to cooperate with prosecutors, they served her with a fake subpoena and then sent police to arrest her. Her abusive boyfriend’s bond was $3,500.
It wasn’t the only time Cannizzaro’s office set a higher bail for a witness than the person who allegedly committed the crime. “[A study] identified at least 25 cases in which witnesses were held on a higher bond amount than the person charged with a crime,” Shen reported.
Cannizzaro’s insistence on punishing victims is threaded throughout his tenure as district attorney. But instead of rethinking his approach to domestic violence, he’s doubling down. He fought the court’s decision that the jury should hear about the psychological toll of Catina’s abuse and the effect it had on her and her family. Even today, he insists she’s a dangerous criminal.
Cases like Catina Curley’s are beginning to get more attention, especially from criminal justice reform advocates and domestic violence prevention organizations. One organization, Survived and Punished, is particularly focused on ending criminalization of survivors. “Survived and Punished focuses on survivors because we want to highlight the specific pipeline between surviving sexual and domestic violence and being arrested, locked up, and/or deported,” Mariame Kaba, organizer and co-founder of Survived and Punished, told The Appeal. “We believe that survivors who live at the intersection of gender and criminalization deserve our solidarity and should be supported by our organizing.”
In many cases, the attention has worked. Thanks to support from organizers and attention from national figures like the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Marissa Alexander was freed in early 2017 after serving about five years of her sentence. And celebrities like Kim Kardashian have spoken out against Cyntoia Brown’s sentence. But often these stories go unnoticed because domestic violence remains disturbingly common. It is largely women who are at risk of beatings, injury, and even death, and minority women and those living in poverty are even more vulnerable.
And yet, according to a 2015 ACLU survey of lawyers, advocates, and other domestic violence experts, many survivors of domestic abuse and sexual assault avoid the criminal justice system, in part because the process often compounds the trauma. This is the logical result of a system that punishes those it is meant to protect. “In essence, power is shifted from the abuser to the state,” said one survey respondent said.
There’s still the possibility of a happy ending for Catina. She will get the chance of another trial, where she’ll finally get to present the battered woman’s defense she was entitled to over a decade ago. It’s a critical opportunity, but justice is not a guarantee. Cannizzaro still insists on treating her like a heartless murderer instead of a survivor of decade-long abuse. As long as prosecutors care more about convictions than victims, abused women aren’t safe at home or in the courtroom.