Collin Grant wishes he had never told anyone that his stepfather raped him.
Jimmy Don Mackey would hold Collin down, punch him in the back if he tried to move, and cover his mouth if he tried to scream. On one occasion, Jimmy Don duct-taped Collin’s mouth shut. He told Collin that if he ever disclosed the abuse to anyone, he would kill him.
Yet Collin eventually did tell the authorities in Muskogee County, Oklahoma, about Jimmy Don’s abuse. Collin testified about it in court, where it also emerged that Jimmy Don had repeatedly beaten his mother, Alishia Mackey. Jimmy Don pled guilty to rape, forcible sodomy, and other sex crimes, and was sent to prison.
Yet Collin’s mother was also sent to prison for failing to protect her son.
As a 12-year-old recovering from repeated sexual abuse, Collin was cut off from his mother.
Today, Collin is 22. He said he misses his mom and believes she does not deserve to be in prison. She should be pardoned, he said.
He also wishes he had never come forward about what his stepfather was doing to him. “Honestly,” Collin told BuzzFeed News, “I would rather have gone through the abuse for the rest of my life.”
A recent BuzzFeed News investigation exposed cases in which mothers have been given sentences of up to life in prison for failing to protect their children from their violent partners — even when, as in Alishia’s case, there is evidence that the mother herself was battered.
In Texas, for example, Arlena Lindley was sentenced to 45 years, despite the fact that she tried to grab her 3-year-old son from her partner the day he beat the boy to death, and despite the fact that she herself had been beaten viciously for months. The prosecution said she should have called 911.
Collin Grant’s case illuminates what domestic violence advocates say is a different problem: the collateral damage to the children of mothers sent away to prison for years.
“What are we really doing on behalf of that child who is the victim of the crime?” said Deborah D. Tucker, executive director of the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence. “How is that” — imprisoning the mother — “helpful to them?”
At least 29 states have laws that explicitly criminalize parents’ failure to protect their children from abuse. In addition, prosecutors in at least 19 states can use other, more general laws against criminal negligence in the care of a child or placing a child in a dangerous situation.
Only a handful of state laws provide specific defenses for parents who reasonably feared they would be harmed if they stepped in to stop child abuse.
Many prosecutors defend the laws and the harsh sentences as sending a message that mothers must defend their children, even if their own safety is at risk. Domestic violence advocates counter that such sentences are unjust — and a sign that the criminal justice system does not understand how battering victimizes women.
Altogether, BuzzFeed News found 28 cases in which mothers were sentenced to at least a decade in prison despite evidence they themselves were victims of their violent partners. Alishia Mackey was one of those mothers. She was tried under Oklahoma’s “enabling child abuse” law, which has the same maximum sentence — life in prison — as actually committing child abuse.
Alishia testified that Jimmy Don “would punch me repeatedly, hit me with things, choke me, hold the back of — hold a gun to my head, threaten to kill me and my kids if I even told anybody” that he beat her. A former friend told the court that Alishia had confided in her at the time that Jimmy Don was battering her. Collin testified that he saw his mom get beaten. She escaped once, he told the court, but Jimmy Don “tracked us down.”
One night, Alishia woke up to find she was alone in bed. She got up and went to her son’s bedroom. What exactly she saw is unclear. Collin testified that Jimmy Don was molesting him, and Alishia first told police that she saw Jimmy Don on top of Collin with both of their pants down. But in court, she and Collin testified that he and Jimmy Don were both clothed.
On the stand, Alishia changed many parts of her story and contradicted herself. “She was her own worst enemy,” David Pierce, the prosecutor, said in an interview.
That’s not uncommon. In its investigation, BuzzFeed News found that many battered mothers lie and take other actions that make them look guilty. The terror they feel sometimes lasts even after their partner has been arrested. Then too, repeated trauma, like PTSD, can harm a person’s mental health. “There are many times when victims don’t put their best foot forward for a host of reasons — including their own sense of guilt and failure,” Tucker said.
Alishia also testified that she suffered from petit mal seizures that led her to have a faulty memory.
At trial, prosecutors alleged that the moment when Alishia walked in on her husband and her son came two years before authorities learned of it. Police pointed to an interrogation in which she allegedly said the incident happened in January of 2002, but officers didn’t tape that interview. Collin testified that it happened in the fall of 2003, which would mean that the abuse came to light within a few months of her seeing it.
Whatever the details, prosecutors argued that Alishia failed to protect her son by neither leaving the relationship nor going immediately to the authorities. On the stand, Collin estimated that Jimmy Don molested him “maybe” five more times after his mother first learned of the abuse and before Jimmy Don was arrested.
Pierce, the prosecutor, declared in court that Collin wanted his mother put away. “He’d like to see her spend the rest of her life in prison,” Pierce told the judge. Asked about this, Collin told BuzzFeed News he was on psychotropic medication at the time of the trial and, because he was screened off from his mother during his testimony, did not realize he was testifying at her trial. He said he thought he was at his stepfather’s trial.
One thing that Pierce never disputed was the fact that Jimmy Don had violently abused Alishia. Indeed, Pierce cited his battering of Alishia as evidence of her poor decision-making. “She made the decision to stay,” he told the jury.
Jurors found Alishia guilty and recommended 20 years in prison. Alishia’s attorney, Corrine O’Day, protested that the prosecution had sought only 15 years when Jimmy Don pled guilty to raping Collin. “The state is not fully consistent,” she said. But the judge went with the jury’s recommendation.
Told that Collin recently said his mother should not be in prison, Pierce said, “I’m not surprised with that at all. It’s his mother.”
But that does not change Pierce’s view on Alishia’s sentence. “I believe that that was an appropriate punishment for what she did,” he said.
Jimmy Don’s case was handled by a different prosecutor, Sejin Brooks. Now an attorney in Austin, Texas, Brooks said “you’re absolutely right” that it might look strange that Alishia, who was convicted of permitting abuse, got a harsher punishment than Jimmy Don, who actually raped Collin. But, Brooks said, Alishia did not plead guilty but instead went to trial, risking the wrath of a judge and jury.
The courthouse would be the last place Collin saw his mother for more than five years, until he turned 18. During those years, he said, he was shuttled among group homes and shelters, never quite feeling like he fit in anywhere.
Without his mother, he lacked someone to confide in as he grew up, he said. “The one person I was supposed to be able to turn to for almost anything — I didn’t have that.”
He and his siblings now live with Collin’s grandmother. Alishia is more than 100 miles away, and visiting hours at Mabel Bassett Correctional Center are on weekend mornings. They make it out there about once a month.
“My mother is one of the most caring people in the world,” Collin said. “And I will say that to anyone.”