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Self defense — or murder? A Philly woman killed her alleged abuser and faces prison

Letoya Ramseure of Frankford is one of thousands of victims of domestic violence who wind up facing criminal charges.

Rashena Carter, left, and her daughter Letoya Ramseure, right, meet with advocates to discuss the case.
Rashena Carter, left, and her daughter Letoya Ramseure, right, meet with advocates to discuss the case.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

Letoya Ramseure was in shock, pacing up and down the street with the gun still glued to her hand. Ramseure had never used a gun before — had never been charged with a crime. Yet she'd fired this one five times, killing Devon Roye, her daughter's father and her first love.

Ramseure didn't ask for a lawyer after her mother calmed her down and called the police. "I didn't think I needed one," she said. To her, it was a clear case of self-defense: She had a protection-from-abuse order against Roye, who, she claims, had texted her a death threat on July 12 before he burst into her Frankford home and assaulted her and her mother. She says Roye was coming at her when she shot him — with his own gun.

Yet, on July 14, she was charged with third-degree murder.

With that, Ramseure became — if her telling is true — one of thousands of victims of domestic violence who wind up facing criminal charges. The number of women in jail is now 14 times higher than it was in 1970, according to a Vera Institute analysis, and 77 percent have experienced intimate-partner violence.

One survey of 60 women at a maximum-security prison found nearly half had committed assaults in self-defense or in retaliation against abuse.

Over the past several years, however, victims who've fought back against abusers have gained a new national platform. #FreeBresha trended after Bresha Meadows, then 14, faced a possible life sentence for fatally shooting her father, who reportedly had abused her. A GoFundMe drive raised $157,000 for her defense. She was ultimately charged as a juvenile and diverted into a treatment program. Marissa Alexander, a Florida woman sentenced to 20 years for firing a "warning shot" during a domestic dispute, became the focus of a national advocacy campaign and in 2014 received a plea deal reducing her sentence.

Now, activists are seeking a similar wave of support for Ramseure.

Step one: Philadelphia Community Bail Fund, with help from National Bailout, scraped together 10 percent of Ramseure's $100,000 bail. That got her out of Riverside Correctional Facility, where she'd spent three weeks, some portion of it on suicide watch after she attempted to hang herself with a towel.

Next, a week before Wednesday's preliminary hearing, the Center for Returning Citizens, an organization that assists people with reentry into life outside of prison, convened a meeting with Ramseure and supporters to strategize, explain the court process, and assess her needs: a safe place to stay, supporters in the courtroom, therapy, help enrolling in school.

"We all feel strongly that people should not be punished for being survivors of abuse," said Cara Tratner, a Bail Fund organizer. "That's a common thing we've seen in  women we've posted bail for: They were acting in self-defense or were survivors of abuse, so we've been trying to support women who've been criminalized because they survived."

Up until the preliminary hearing, her lawyer, Michael Coard, still hoped to avoid a trial altogether.

But on Wednesday, Assistant District Attorney Cydney Pope argued it was a clear case of third-degree murder, a charge defined as an intentional, knowing, negligent, or reckless killing. She pointed out that Ramseure could have left, gone for help, called 911 — and instead grabbed the gun and shot Roye.

"I don't know if she intended to kill him, but I do believe she intentionally shot him five times," Pope told Common Pleas Court Judge James DeLeon.

Coard urged DeLeon to dismiss the charges. "There's no evidence of a crime," he said. "A killing, a homicide, but not a criminal homicide."

The District Attorney's Office and Philadelphia Police Homicide Unit declined to comment on the case. But in an interview, Roye's mother, Kelley Roye, said it's simple. "This girl murdered my son. We told him to stay away from the girl, because the girl is crazy."

Roye's mother described him as a loving father and a hard worker. She said Ramseure, on the other hand, "she's a fighter. She likes to hit. She fights everyone." She believes it was her son who was trying to leave, and Ramseure who couldn't let go.

‘Why did I go back?’

Roye showed up in Ramseure's life when she was just 13, a student at Julia de Burgos Elementary School. He was about 20, and seemed worldly and mature. He was studying at Lincoln Tech and also, according to court records, dealing crack and marijuana, a trade that would mire him in the justice system for much of his adult life, with convictions of possessing drugs and illegal guns.

"I liked older guys. I actually liked him as a person," said Ramseure, now 24.

When her mother, Rashena Carter, found out, she sought help from the Department of Human Services, she said, in order to protect her daughter. But at 14, Ramseure got pregnant. That's when Carter decided to make the best of the situation for her granddaughter's sake. "Even though it was statutory rape, I was like, well, it is what it is," Carter said.

According to Ramseure, it was shortly after their daughter was born that Roye first hit her.

Their relationship was on and off in between his jail and prison stays, and their relationships with other people. She was left with the occasional black eye or busted lip, she said, but avoided contacting authorities, seeking medical care or even revealing the violence to her family when she could avoid it.

A cousin, Yasmine Moorefield, 31, said one night last year she heard an argument outside on Ninth Street: She and her boyfriend ran out to find Roye choking Ramseure. They had to pull him off her.

It wasn't until last July, when Ramseure claims Roye pistol-whipped her, that she sought a protection-from-abuse order. The order, signed by both Roye and Ramseure, notes that a weapon was involved in the incident but specifically states the agreement was not an admission of guilt.

Still, this past March, they started talking again, Ramseure said. "I ask myself every day: Why did I go back?"

The fights worsened. Roye didn't like it when she went out at night, said Ramseure, a home health aide, so she dropped out of school to appease his insecurity. Another night, after he'd warned her not to go out, she found her car tires flat.

It all culminated July 12, when Ramseure told Roye it was over and to come get a bag of his things, including the gun he'd left tucked under a mattress. She tried to push the bag out the door — but he burst into the house, first punching and kicking her, then tackling her mother. He was demanding to know where his gun was, Ramseure said. So, she went and grabbed it from the bag and, pointing it at Roye, told him to leave. Instead, he came toward her, and she fired. "I really thought he was going to kill me," she said.

Men run, women confess

Ramseure’s case is not shocking to those who study domestic violence, like Susan B. Sorenson, a professor of social policy at the University of Pennsylvania and director of Penn’s Ortner Center on Violence and Abuse in Relationships.

"We've known for decades from research that when a woman tries to end a relationship, when she's doing exactly what society tells her to do, that's when she increases her risk for being murdered by the abuser," said Sorenson. "The highest-risk time for homicide is not when she's in the relationship, but when she's trying to end it."

Women kill far less frequently than men do, but when they do, their victims are most often family members. One study, by the New York Department of Corrections, found that 67 percent of women in prison for killing someone close to them had been abused by the victim.

Sorenson said one reason so many women are convicted in these cases is that, like Ramseure, they tend to call the police and confess. "Whereas male perpetrators or abusers who kill their victims don't call the police — they get out of there — the women seem to be many times stunned by their actions and then call authorities."

Because of that risk of violence — which is even higher among non-married partners, Sorenson found in new research — she's been advocating to extend laws barring gun ownership for abusers to those in such relationships. Ownership of a gun, she said, increases the risk of death in an abusive relationship four- or five-fold. Harrisburg lawmakers all but killed such a bill in June.

At the Wednesday hearing, the prosecutor played Ramseure's tearful confession to a Philadelphia homicide detective in a scuffed white interrogation room.

To Judge DeLeon, her claim that she put Roye's gun outside the house made clear that she had no intention of shooting him.

"If it was a purposeful thing, she could have kept the gun in the house," he said. That made it manslaughter. He dismissed the murder charge.

That means whether it was manslaughter or a justifiable case of self-defense will be up to a judge or jury to decide at trial.

Cindene Pezzell, legal coordinator at the Philadelphia-based National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women, said she couldn't comment on Ramseure's case. In general, she said, women face a difficult road in pursuing a claim that a killing was justifiable self-defense.

"When victims of battering use self-defense, there are often stereotypes and misconceptions at play," she said. "For example, a jury might disbelieve a defendant's claim that she was in fear of her abuser because she chose to be in a relationship with him."