Photos by Maddie McGarvey
CHAGRIN FALLS, Ohio ― There are things that Bresha Meadows remembers about the night she killed her father and things she doesn’t. She tells me this as she slowly picks apart a chocolate chip cookie, discarding the stale edges. We’re sitting at her attorney’s dining room table in an east side suburb of Cleveland. Although Bresha is 18, she looks younger, with warm brown eyes and a slightly upturned nose, which her boyfriend playfully teased her about the first time they met. She lifts her chin when she laughs, and she laughs often. The more distressing the story she’s telling, the more she breaks into a smile. It’s a nervous habit.
Her guess, she says, is that her mind blocked out some stuff to protect her. She remembers steadily extracting the gun from under her dad’s pillow as he slept on the couch. Then putting it down. Picking it up. Putting it down. “You know when you can kinda like, foresee something?” she asked. “I sat there thinking and pictures kept flashing in my head, like my mom’s funeral casket, and then my sister and brother are old enough to move out, and it is just me and him left in the house.” Her dad had been sexually abusing her since she was 8, she said, and beating her mother for her entire life. The last thing she thought before she pulled the trigger was: It’s never gonna stop. It’s only gonna get worse. She clicked the gun and spun around like a wooden spinning top.
She was 14.
She doesn’t remember screaming, though her mother describes hearing an unearthly sound, high-pitched and deafeningly loud. When the police arrived to arrest her, she was dripping wet. After shooting her father, she bolted upstairs and jumped in the shower fully clothed. “I felt myself going into shock, so I tried to get cold water on me,” she explained. The police officers who responded, all men, allowed her to put on dry clothes before taking her down to the station, but insisted on remaining in the room as she undressed, she said.
I’d been covering Bresha’s case since 2016, but this was the first time we’d met. In court, her back was always to the public gallery. From behind, she struck a fragile figure, often visibly shaking and shifting foot to foot as she stood in front of the judge, her hands clasped behind her. In person, she was lighter, more animated, although she chose her words with a degree of caution and precision rarely observed in teens. That’s a repercussion of jail, she said. She is always bracing for something terrible to happen.
The fact that we were even having this conversation was improbable. Normally kids who kill a parent are tried as adults and go to prison for decades, even if they are victims of severe child abuse. Bresha was an outlier. Eighteen months after the shooting, she returned home to her family in Warren, Ohio. This spring, she graduated high school with a 4.0 for the year.
During one of our conversations, I asked her what she wanted from her new life. She paused and a look of confusion flashed across her face. It was the wrong question, impossible for her to answer. Her childhood was focused on survival; it left no space to dream. Recently, she purchased an old Jeep. It had a cracked windshield and an oil leak, but it ran. When she is driving, she said, she is able to capture the rare and blissful feeling of having complete control over her life.
A Childhood Deferred
The hours and minutes leading up to the shooting on July 28, 2016, were unremarkable. Jonathan Meadows, 41, drank vodka mixed with pop and yelled at Bresha’s older brother before passing out on the couch. At the young age of 14, Bresha was accustomed to this pattern. Drinking, then fighting. Her dad was prone to physical violence, she said, and his cruelty grew when he was drunk. His favorite target was her mother, Brandi, who married him when she was 19. “Most of the time he’d keep the bedroom door closed when he hit her, but if he was drunk, he’d forget and leave it open,” Bresha said. Some days, she’d come home from school to find her mother with a fresh black eye. She recalled one occasion when she was hanging out in her bedroom and heard a loud thud. She peeked her head out and tiptoed down to her parents’ room. Her mother was knocked out on the floor. “Do you remember that, mom?” she asked, turning to Brandi, who sat with her daughter during interviews in early October. Brandi shook her head no, her eyes watery. Bresha laughed nervously again.
When Bresha was little, her father used to tuck her in at night and offer up his cheek for a “zerbert,” the term for a raspberry popularized by “The Cosby Show.” She’d press her lips against his face and blow, making a silly noise. It was their special evening ritual. Later, she would come to dread bedtime. Around the age of 8, her father began molesting her, she said. He told her to keep it a secret and she did. But soon after, Bresha started asking her mother if they could leave Daddy. “She was the first one to say it to me,” Brandi said. In 2011, when Bresha was 9, Brandi had a stroke and ended up in the hospital for a week. For Brandi, the medical emergency served as a wake-up call. “I realized this is not what I want. Like, I don’t want to die here, living like this in front of my kids,” she said.
As soon as she was well enough, Brandi fled to her mother’s house in Parma, Ohio, with her three children ― Bresha and her older siblings, Brianna, now 22, and Jonathan Jr., now 24. In a protective order filed at the time, she detailed her husband’s brutality. “In the 17 years of our marriage he has cut me, broke my ribs, fingers, the blood vessels in my hand, my mouth, blackened my eyes,” she wrote. “If he finds us, I am 100 percent sure he will kill me and the children.” Sitting on the back porch of her mother’s house, Brandi opened up to one of her sisters, Martina Latessa, a Cleveland detective who knew firsthand the complexities of domestic violence. Still, a few months later, Brandi returned to her husband, a decision that she still hasn’t forgiven herself for. Once they were home, Bresha said, things deteriorated further. Her dad believed his children betrayed him by leaving, and was paranoid they’d do it again. “We wasn’t allowed to talk no more after that,” Bresha said, nodding at her mom. “If he walked in and we were talking, he’d get mad.”
When Bresha was 12, her dad raped her for the first time, she said. She hadn’t had a period yet, but started menstruating soon afterwards, which led her to wonder if the two were related. “I don’t know if that could bring a period faster,” she said, her voice trailing off. She shared a room with her sister, and her father would time his visits for when his youngest daughter was alone. At 13, she ran away to Cleveland, seeking help from her aunts. “I needed to breathe,” she said. Latessa, her aunt, was struck by how withdrawn her niece appeared. “She was rubbing her hands together and shaking and very closed off,” she said. Bresha told her that her dad’s violence was getting worse. He had strangled her mother, and threatened to shoot all of them. When Latessa told Bresha that she had to go home ― her parents had reported her missing ― she broke down crying. On the car ride back, she lay comatose in the backseat. She didn’t tell her aunt about any sexual abuse, but Latessa wondered about it after spotting cut marks on her arms. Self-injury is common among female victims of molestation, she said. Latessa made Bresha memorize her phone number and took her to the Warren Police Department so that Bresha could tell them about her father’s violence, and what it was like inside the home. Nothing came of the report, Latessa said. The police did not immediately return a request for comment.
Three months before the shooting, Bresha’s family moved houses. For the first time in her life, she had her own bedroom. Most teens crave their own personal space. But for Bresha, sleeping alone meant she was never safe from her father. She stopped sleeping and developed chronic, debilitating headaches, terrified of her father’s surprise visits. She ran away again. “Every time I left, they just sent me back. It was pointless,” she said. “You could walk through that house and you knew it, he had control, he wasn’t going to get in trouble.” One night, she was in the process of hanging herself in her closet, she said, when her friend walked in and stopped her.
Before she pulled the trigger, Bresha said, it hadn’t actually occurred to her that she would go to jail. She thought it was obvious she was acting in self-defense, and everyone would agree. Nowhere is her 14-year-old mind more evident than in this calculation. It wasn’t until she was inside the Trumbull County Juvenile Detention Center, and heard her charge ― aggravated murder ― that it dawned on her that she was in serious trouble. If she was tried as an adult and convicted, she could spend the rest of her life behind bars.
‘The Archetypal Violent Act’
Parricide, the killing of a parent, is extremely rare. Only about 50 children under the age of 18 in the U.S. kill their parents each year, according to an estimate by Kathleen Heide, a professor at the University of South Florida who was hired as an expert witness by Bresha’s defense team. Most are victims of severe child abuse. And, like Bresha, most act while their parent is asleep or otherwise incapacitated because it is the only time they believe they can fight back and win.
To a child, it’s a rational choice. “It’s when their fear level is a little lower,” said Paul Mones, a lawyer who specializes in defending children who kill their parents. But it usually dooms them in court. Under most self-defense laws, a person is only justified in using deadly force if they believe they are being threatened with imminent death or serious bodily harm, with an emphasis on imminent. There is no exception for juveniles, Mones said, although in a handful of cases, courts have allowed testimony on battered child syndrome ― a condition resulting from severe abuse ― to explain why a child might truly believe their life was in danger despite the absence of an imminent threat.
Mones, who wrote “When a Child Kills: Abused Children Who Kill Their Parents,” said that in most of his cases, his clients were charged as adults, convicted and sent to prison for at least 10 years. “There’s a strong streak of retribution against youth in the juvenile justice system,” he said. “The killing of a parent, no matter what, is still viewed as the archetypal violent act of kids, the ultimate rebellion.”
The practice of trying children as adults is commonplace in the U.S., especially if the defendant is a person of color. Bresha is Black. “We have this expression, ‘If you can do the crime, you can do the time,’ which from a developmental point of view is ludicrous,” said psychologist James Garbarino, who studies the use of violence by children. A growing body of neurological research has found that the parts of the brain associated with functions such as planning, reasoning, judgment and impulse control are not done maturing until a person is in their 20s. Kids simply think differently than adults. The Supreme Court has acknowledged this in a series of landmark decisions. In 2012, the court ruled that it was cruel and unusual to sentence a child to life in prison without the possibility of parole, because it “precludes consideration of [a child’s] chronological age and its hallmark features — among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences.” Writing for the majority, Justice Elena Kagan noted that it also prevents the justice system from taking into account a child’s home environment, from which a child “cannot usually extricate himself — no matter how brutal or dysfunctional.”
In addition to their cognitive immaturity, children are also especially vulnerable to the effects of trauma. Back in the 1990s, a landmark study found a significant link between negative childhood experiences and chronic health problems later in life. Ongoing research into adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs as they are called, has found that the more ACEs a person has, the more likely they are to develop heart disease, cancer, chronic lung disease, depression; struggle with substance abuse; or end up incarcerated. (You can take the 10-question ACE test here.) The exact mechanism that links childhood trauma to negative health outcomes is unclear, but scientists hypothesize that it has to do with the stress response. When we feel threatened, our bodies react by increasing our heart rate, blood pressure and stress hormones, such as cortisol. Learning to manage stress is a normal and healthy part of growing up. But when children are constantly stressed, it can literally shape the developing brain.
Bresha has an ACE score of 7. While extremely high, it is not out of the ordinary for girls in juvenile justice. An estimated 45% of female juvenile offenders have an ACE score of 5 or higher, according to a Department of Justice report. Like Bresha, 31% were sexually abused prior to incarceration.
For many children, you can draw a straight line between the trauma they experienced and the crime that put them behind bars. They’re not bad kids, they’re hurt ones.
The Fight Of Her Life
On Bresha’s first night in juvenile detention, she got a surprise visit from Ian Friedman, a criminal defense attorney based in Cleveland. Before they met, he wasn’t planning on taking her case. His trial schedule was full and the family couldn’t pay. But he promised Brandi, who came to see him in his office that day, that he would talk to Bresha in person before making up his mind. “My first impression was that she was a little girl who didn’t have anything, didn’t come from anything and wasn’t going to get a fair shake in the system,” he said. “I was concerned that she would get flushed down the toilet.” He took the case on the spot.
Outside the jail, Bresha’s case was beginning to go viral. A few days after the shooting, Brandi went on local television and called Bresha a hero. “I wasn’t strong enough to get out and she helped me,” she said, sobbing. The heartbreaking clip was picked up by national news outlets, including HuffPost. Latessa, Bresha’s aunt, also began speaking to reporters about the violence in the house and her niece’s recent repeated attempts to run away. By this point, Latessa was a detective in Cleveland’s special domestic violence unit. (She has said she was inspired to work with domestic abuse victims after witnessing her sister’s untenable situation.) Her clear, calm recounting of what she knew about the family lent credibility to her Bresha’s claims of self-defense. So did the account by Bresha’s cousin, Ja’Von Meadows-Harris, who described being physically and emotionally abused by Bresha’s father when he lived with them. Jonathan Meadows’ sister denies that he was abusive, and says that he was a good dad.
The racial dynamics of her case ― as a young Black girl, Bresha was more than four times more likely to end up incarcerated than her white peers ― also caught the attention of activists. An organizing collective, called #freebresha, began ginning up public support, promoting the family’s GoFundMe, organizing book drives and starting a petition to demand Bresha’s immediate release.
On the inside, Bresha was struggling. Every morning in juvenile detention, she woke up in a panic to a loud pop. It was her cell door snapping open, but to her, it sounded like a gunshot. She suffered from flashbacks to the night of the shooting, and anxiety attacks. The worst part was that she couldn’t talk to anyone about it. She was in the midst of the biggest mental health crisis of her life, and she didn’t even have a therapist, she said. When she entered the jail, her mother had to sign a form that stated “other than prescription refills and emergencies, your child will not be approved for any medical appointments while in detention.” Renae Hoso, the juvenile court coordinator for Trumbull County Juvenile Court, told HuffPost that detained youth generally have access to a licensed professional counselor, but she could not speak to any specific services provided to Bresha. Bresha, who was eventually diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, maintains that she didn’t receive needed psychiatric care while incarcerated. “I felt like there was nothing to live for,” she said. Another girl in juvie taught her to cut herself with a snapped hair elastic.
Meanwhile, she began to receive a steady stream of letters from people who had heard about her case. They sent her books to read, and encouraged her to stay positive. People thought she was brave, she said, though she didn’t see it that way. “When I think about it, I don’t think I did it because I was strong,” she said. “I did it because it was the last resort.”
Behind the scenes, her attorney, Friedman, was working hard to get her a deal. “It was terrifying the whole time,” he said. “If we made a mistake, even the slightest mistake, a little girl could end up in prison and that would alter the course of her life.” In December, he won his first victory. Four months after Bresha was taken into custody, prosecutors announced that they would not try her as an adult, removing the threat of a life sentence. The longest she could go to prison if convicted was until the age of 21. It was welcome news to Bresha, but her 21st birthday still seemed forever away. It meant she would spend the rest of her childhood behind bars, separated from her family. Being in jail was beginning to remind her of being in her dad’s house. The authorities had complete control over her life — when she ate, when she slept, whom she talked to. She felt entirely powerless. “It kind of triggered me, being in there,” she said. “I’m like, y’all don’t understand. I’ve been through this.”
As the months wore on, she sunk into a deep depression. Friedman and her family were increasingly worried about her mental state. “It was insane. You had this girl whose condition was just deteriorating every day,” he said. “To us, this was the central issue of the case.” In April, after Bresha had been in jail for over eight months, Friedman took action. He filed a motion urging the judge to release Bresha and put her on electronic surveillance pending trial, arguing that the lack of mental health services inside Trumbull County Juvenile Detention Center was akin to cruel and unusual punishment. “It was clear she had sustained some real trauma throughout her life and needed care. And here she was, sitting in jail for excess of 250 days without it,” he said. He attached study after study to his 21-page motion, showing the negative effects of long periods of incarceration on teens. “The research caused us to believe this would end with irreparable harm towards Bresha,” he said.
The motion seemed to move the needle on her case. The following month, Friedman secured a plea deal. On May 22, 2017, she pleaded “true,” equivalent to guilty in juvenile court, to an involuntary manslaughter charge. It was her 299th day behind bars. She was sentenced to a year and a day in juvenile detention, with credit for time served, as well as six additional months at a residential mental health facility and two years of probation.
She was 15.
Home For Healing
On a recent morning, Bresha was debating whether people are born optimists or pessimists, or made that way by their life experiences. She was leaning toward the latter. She used to be bubbly and chatty, she said, open to talking to anyone. Now, she shies away from big crowds. When she returned to her high school in February 2018, she was embarrassed to notice that she was walking with her hands clasped behind her back, a holdover from juvie. In any situation with multiple outcomes, she said, she is primed to expect the worst.
She plans to go to college and study criminal justice, but she’s not sure where yet. It will depend on money, mostly, and where she has enough family support. She might become a lawyer like Friedman, or a detective like Latessa. Or a domestic violence advocate, so she can support families like her own.
“Most of the kids just need help, you know?” she said, referring to the children she met while in juvenile detention. “They always had something behind why they were there. Not like, an excuse. But you gotta remember, a kid has a kid’s mind. We don’t have adult minds. And so it’s like, for them to incarcerate us as if we’re adults ― it just crushes us. It messes with the mind a lot, actually.”
These days, Bresha and Brandi spend a lot of time at home, just hanging out. In a way, they’re both convalescing. They got matching tattoos: a semicolon with an arrow through it. The image signifies that “the story is not over,” Bresha said. Life goes on. In many respects, she’s just like any other teen: She binges Netflix, Snapchats with her friends, and longs for new experiences, away from the trappings of her hometown. She’s never left Ohio, except for one time she was helping her mom deliver phone books and they crossed the state line into Pennsylvania. She’s never roller-skated. When we spoke, she had yet to take a plane ride, though that was about to change. This week, she is flying to Chicago to give a talk at an event for grassroots activists. It will be her first time speaking in public about what happened to her. She is nervous, she said, but feels compelled to do it. For all the other children who didn’t get a second chance like she did.
“I feel lucky, but I also feel bad, ’cause like, how am I any better?” she said. “I can’t do much, but I feel like I’m supposed to do something.”
This story has been updated with more information on mental health services at Trumbull County Juvenile Detention Center.