This Battered Woman Wants To Get Out Of Prison

Tondalo Hall was sentenced to 30 years in prison for allowing child abuse — while the actual abuser got only two years. Now she seeks clemency, and a women’s rights group is backing her with an online petition.

In December 2006, Tondalo Hall’s boyfriend pled guilty to breaking the ribs and femur of their 3-month-old daughter. For his crime, Robert Braxton Jr. served two years in prison.

In court, prosecutors presented no evidence that Hall herself had harmed the child. But for failing to intervene against Braxton’s abuse, Hall was sentenced to 30 years behind bars.

Her tough sentence was meted out despite evidence that Braxton had also been violently abusing her. In statements to authorities in and out of court, and in a recent interview with BuzzFeed News, Hall described Braxton choking her, punching her, throwing things at her, and verbally assaulting her. Even the judge who sentenced her said that during her testimony, Hall seemed to fear her boyfriend.

Hall is one of 28 mothers in 11 states who a recent BuzzFeed News investigation found were sentenced to 10 years or more for failing to protect their children. In every one of these cases, there was evidence the mother herself had been violently abused by the man. Hall is one of three cases BuzzFeed News found in which the mother got a longer sentence than the man who actually abused the child.

Braxton walked free eight years ago, having been let go for time served. Meanwhile, Hall has been locked up in an all-female prison in McLoud, Oklahoma. She said that she has seen her children only once since she went to prison but that they write each other monthly. In letters shared with BuzzFeed News, the children tell her about sports, school, and clothes. They make reference to her case, too. “I hope God Let's [sic] you out of jail,” one letter says.

Hall has been trying to get her sentence reduced. She currently has 20 years left behind bars. She appealed but lost, and the trial judge in her case has denied a request to modify her sentence. She will not be eligible for parole until 2030.

But she is pursuing one last hope: clemency. Earlier this month, Hall applied for her sentence to be commuted — which would release her while not absolving her of her crime.

In the wake of BuzzFeed News’ original investigation, a women’s rights organization took up Hall’s cause, creating an online petition to the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board. “Tondalo Hall shouldn't be in prison while the man who abused her and her children is free,” wrote UltraViolet, a group that claims nearly 600,000 members nationwide. On Tuesday, an UltraViolet official said that more than 44,000 people had signed the petition since it was first circulated on Nov. 6.

In Oklahoma, a pardon or commutation cannot be granted without the approval of the state’s parole board. It is unclear when the parole board will make a decision on Hall’s case.

Hall herself almost missed the deadline to apply for a commutation. In Oklahoma, only inmates with 20 or more years left on their sentences can apply. When she mailed her application, Hall had 20 years and five days left behind bars.

Another Oklahoma mother, Alishia Mackey, also received a longer sentence than the abuser, and the victim, her son, believes she should be free. But Mackey has 10 years left on her sentence, so she is ineligible for a commutation.

The parole board declined to comment on Hall’s case.

Some prosecutors defend the long sentences given to battered women who don't intervene to stop their children from being harmed as sending a message that mothers have a duty to protect their children, even if they must risk their own safety. But many domestic violence advocates women counter that such punishments blame the victim and demonstrate a profound misunderstanding of what it means for women to be trapped in abusive relationships. Such women often fear alerting authorities because doing so can provoke their partners to extreme violence and because the authorities often fail to protect battered women and their children.

Hall, who dropped out of high school in 10th grade, told BuzzFeed News that she met Braxton in either 2000 or 2001, when she would have been between 15 and 17. They soon began dating, and Braxton, who is two years older than Hall, seemed ambitious and nice — in the beginning.

She can’t quite remember what it was that set him off the first time: “I didn’t tell him where I went, or something,” she recalled. They got into an argument, she said, and he punched her in the face.

He apologized, she recalled, and said it wouldn’t happen again, and it didn’t, for a while at least. But then, during another argument, this time when she was pregnant, he put his hands around her throat. “He told me that my mouth was too smart,” she would later testify in court. With her head on the seat of the blue couch in her apartment, he choked her.

The abuse, both physical and verbal, picked up once her third child (and second with Braxton) was born in August 2004, Hall told BuzzFeed News. He isolated her from her loved ones, driving “a wedge between me and my family,” she said.

Hall summed up the alleged abuse in her commutation application: “Robert regularly choked me, blackened my eyes, threw objects at me and verbally assaulted me, while my children were in the home.”

Somewhere along the way, Hall’s friend Gayla Watts-Sparger noticed changes in Hall and her children. Watts-Sparger has known Hall since kindergarten and said Hall was always goofy and outgoing. “You know how you meet somebody, and everything they say is funny?” Watts-Sparger said.

But after Hall moved in with Braxton, Hall became “a lot quieter,” Watts-Sparger said, and Hall’s children acted strange too. Watts-Sparger recalled seeing Hall’s son, who was maybe a year old at the time, sitting upright and very still for a young child. When Braxton came by, Watts-Sparger said, the young boy would flinch.

Reached through his Facebook account, Braxton at first said he would speak with BuzzFeed News but then did not respond to subsequent messages. After BuzzFeed News left repeated voicemails and sent a detailed letter to Braxton’s address given in court papers, a woman identifying herself as “Ms. Braxton” called and said that Robert Braxton does not live there and that she doesn’t know where he is.

In the fall of 2004, Hall said, she noticed that her 20-month-old son’s leg was swollen. Braxton told her he didn’t know what might have happened. The problem persisted for several days, so she brought the boy to the hospital.

Doctors determined he had a fractured femur and other broken bones. Suspecting child abuse, authorities checked on Hall and Braxton’s 3-month-old daughter, and found similar injuries. Both Hall and Braxton were arrested.

Detectives at the Oklahoma City Police Department brought them both into the same interview room. Before the interrogation, Braxton was heard whispering to Hall, “Don’t say nothing.”

Hall initially told the police that she had hurt their son by throwing him on the bed as they were playing — a version she later said was a lie. After Braxton admitted he had squeezed his baby daughter too tightly and cranked her leg, detectives concluded that he was the one who had injured both children, not her.

Hall remained in jail, though. She pled guilty to enabling child abuse, which carries a maximum penalty of life in prison. She agreed to testify against Braxton — though she did not receive a deal from prosecutors for a reduced sentence.

Braxton took his case to trial. Hall wrote in her commutation application that Braxton “repeatedly threatened me” during their initial court hearings. “For example, when Robert and I were being shuttled to and from court he would terrorize me. He would tell me that I would spend the rest of my life in prison and he would be out with our children.”

Still, Hall agreed to testify against him. During Braxton’s trial, she was the main witness who could have seen Braxton actually harming the children. Yet Hall could not point to any specific abuse that she witnessed — because, she told BuzzFeed News, she didn’t actually see any abuse happen. In court, she also couldn’t recall the date her son began having trouble walking.

Prosecutor Angela Marsee grew frustrated that Hall was not providing enough testimony to nail Braxton. “What do you know?” she asked.

Hall replied that she had once woken up to hear that her daughter was screaming. Braxton had been changing the girl’s diaper. He told her nothing was wrong and that she should go back to sleep.

The prosecutor asked for more. “Was there anything else that happened in your apartment that gave you reason to know that your children were in danger at the hands of this defendant?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Hall replied. That’s when she began to describe the time that Braxton had choked her, when she was pregnant. Yet Braxton’s lawyer objected to this line of questioning, saying it was not relevant to the child abuse charge against him. The judge sided with Braxton.

Prosecutors, who wanted life in prison for Braxton, sensed that their case against him was crumbling. With the trial in recess, the state and the defense worked out a deal. Braxton pled guilty but admitted to having harmed only one child. He said he grew frustrated while changing his daughter’s diaper and then broke her bones by “using too much force and pressure for a baby.” He was sentenced to 10 years in prison — but eight of those years were suspended, and he was released for time served.

Hall was upset with the verdict. “I didn’t feel like there was any justice for my kids,” she told BuzzFeed News.

Someone else was also upset with the trial’s outcome: Marsee, the prosecutor. And she would lay much of the blame on Hall.

While Hall remained in jail waiting for the court to decide her punishment, the county probation office conducted a pre-sentence report. Investigators interviewed Hall, who declared that Braxton had been abusive. They also interviewed Hall’s cousin, who took custody of her three children. According to the report, the cousin stated that Hall was a good mother but that Braxton was very controlling, kept Hall away from her family, and did not want the boys to be kissed or hugged because doing so would make them a “punk.”

The report noted that Hall was 22 years old, had no prior arrests, and suffered from depression. The report recommended a “split sentence,” which means some time in prison and some on probation. If released to probation, the officers said, “She would be supervised as a low-level offender.” Marsee, the prosecutor in both the Braxton and Hall cases, said in court that she had no issues with any of the facts in the report.

Hall’s sentencing hearing began on Dec. 20, 2006, two weeks after Braxton was released. Marsee called for Hall to spend “a significant portion of the rest of her life” in prison. “She's their mother,” Marsee told the court. “She is the one person in this world who should be standing up for them,” she said, yet “they were in pain because of what she didn't do, and she should pay for that."

Marsee also had another reason for recommending a long sentence: Hall, she declared, was part of the reason the case against Braxton “fell apart.”

“He definitely should have received a more significant sentence,” Marsee told the court, “but because of her minimizing and continuing to protect herself and protect him, that had a real impact on what we were able to do with him in the jury trial. So she should not benefit from that.”

In response, Hall’s attorney Bill Smith pointed to the choking incident. “She was scared of Robert Braxton,” Smith told the court. He asked that she receive the same sentence as Braxton.

When it came time for Judge Ray Elliott to announce his decision, he told the courtroom that he had noticed some things about Hall’s testimony. After certain questions, Hall would “make direct eye contact” with Braxton before “taking a moment or two to respond.”

“That tells me something, based on my years of experience,” Elliott said. But this did not excuse her. “Was she scared of him? Probably,” he said. “But, again, even weighing that factor into the equation I’m of the opinion she was less than candid.” He sentenced her to 30 years in prison.

“I was speechless,” said Hall’s friend, Watts-Sparger, when she heard the news. “All I could do was cry.”

Hall appealed her sentence to a three-judge panel and lost, though a dissenting judge declared that she was a “poor, pathetic young woman with three young children who was involved in an abusive relationship.” She filed another petition that asked Elliott, the trial judge, to modify her sentence. He denied it, because too much time had elapsed so he no longer had jurisdiction.

Elliott told BuzzFeed News that he didn’t have any recollection of the details of the case — it was too long ago for him to remember. Still, he said, “I feel very comfortable with my decision, because I take every decision seriously.”

Smith, Hall’s attorney, also said he couldn’t remember the specifics of the case. Marsee, the prosecutor, told BuzzFeed News that she, like Hall, felt that Braxton’s prison term was far too short. “I don’t need to tell you how frustrated I was with that whole situation,” she said. “It’s very unfortunate.”

But the fact that she was scared does not absolve her of her duty as a mother. “Her sentence is appropriate for what she allowed him to do to her children,” she said. “They lived in pain because of what she did not stop.”

Now Hall awaits the result of her commutation request.

The author of the law under which Hall was convicted serves as the interim executive director of the parole board. Jari Askins was an Oklahoma state representative in 2000 when she wrote a bill that created the crime of “enabling child abuse,” with the word “enabling” meant to drive home that a failure to act was enough to warrant prosecution.

Her law makes Oklahoma one of at least 29 states that explicitly criminalize parents’ failure to protect their children from abuse. Prosecutors in at least 19 states can use other, more general laws, such as ones against placing a child in a dangerous situation.

Askins, whose long career in public service includes stints as a judge and lieutenant governor, told BuzzFeed News that she is sensitive to the plight of battered women. When her law was being considered, she said, she and her fellow legislators didn’t contemplate that it might help imprison women who themselves had been victimized by their partners. As executive director, she does not vote on clemency requests. Speaking generally, not of Hall’s case, she said that being battered is a mitigating circumstance that defendants could raise at trial.

In her application for clemency, Hall wrote that the opposite happened. “I believe that my testimony detailing the violence in our home was used against me,” she stated. “Rather than being protected by the State, I was prosecuted.”

Hall expressed remorse for not getting her children out of the home sooner: “I had a duty to protect my children and I failed.” But, she wrote, “I was trapped in an abusive relationship and I feared that alerting authorities would provoke Robert to increase his violence.” She said she also feared that Braxton would gain custody of her children. “My decisions, although detrimental to my family, were made out of fear rather than rationality.”

Since she got to prison, Hall has completed her GED and taken parenting classes. She holds down a job in the laundry department. And she writes letters to her children, the youngest of whom is now 10. They write her back maybe once a month or so, she said, telling her how they’re doing and what they’re up to.

The letters update Hall on how grades are going, when spring break is approaching, what the word perimeter means. The children talk about riding bikes and what presents Santa might bring. Some feature drawings. One has two stick figures, with the person on the left labeled “me” and the person on the right labeled “you.”

One letter tells Hall that about some new shoes and a favorite football team, the Dallas Cowboys. It also asks her a question:

“Why did my Father break my leg, and ribs? I love you.”

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