Betty Jean Broaden’s illustrates why reviewing convictions is critical to address past harm. The criminal legal system has been reluctant to recognize the right of self-defense for people of color and has been unresponsive and even hostile to victims of sexual and domestic violence. It also illustrates the importance of re-examining life without parole sentences, which are doled out excessively in Louisiana and are designed to ensure no further review or consideration of rehabilitation.

Ms. Broaden is a 76-year-old grandmother who walked out of prison in May 2021 after serving 38 years for an act of self-defense. In 1983, she shot and killed a man who was sexually assaulting her in her own apartment. And she was charged with and convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. After review, it was clear that Ms. Broaden defended herself – she committed no crime. Our office joined her lawyers in requesting that her conviction be vacated and we immediately dropped the criminal charges against her.

Ms. Broaden’s case is a clear example of where the criminal legal system—in its zeal to convict–has gone so wrong. Ms. Broaden was a single mother of three children who came to New Orleans to work in construction and send money back to her family in Houston, which she was doing. She had suffered abuse from men before. She told police what had happened – that the man she invited into her home had pulled a gun on her and forced her to bed and threatened to kill her if she tried to leave. She took his gun and shot him. Whether through ignorance, prejudice, or indifference, she was ignored and the police and prosecutors at the time criminalized her response to rape.

For most of our history, the right to defend one’s self has meant that certain people—typically white men—are legally justified when they protect themselves, their loved ones, or their property, while other people are treated as criminals when they attempt to do the same. This disparate treatment harms women in particular. While self-defense laws have often been applied to the prevention of violence committed by strangers, they have not worked for people who defend themselves against violence committed by someone they know. However, empirical evidence established long ago that gender-based violence is far more likely to be committed by a person the victim knows.

Ms. Broaden is now living in Baton Rouge and is receiving support by the Louisiana Parole Project.

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