In 2004, Tondalo Hall was 20 years old with three kids, no degree and an abusive boyfriend.
He regularly choked her, punched her, threw objects at her and barraged her with verbal abuse, according to testimony in court documents. He kept her from her family and friends, even tried to stop her from showing affection to her kids. Whenever it seemed like she might bolt, he threatened to take her children — a son from a previous relationship, and two kids with him — and never allow her to see them again.
When he seemed to turn his ire on their children, Hall worried inwardly, but outwardly did nothing. She questioned him about a bruise on her son’s head, the sound of her daughter screaming from another room, and he explained the concerns away. Finally, when her 20-month-old son’s leg started to swell suspiciously, she brought her kids to the hospital. The young boy had a fractured femur and 12 fractured ribs; her newborn daughter also had a fractured femur, seven fractured ribs and a fractured toe.
Not long after that hospital visit in late 2004, Hall and her boyfriend, Robert Braxton Jr., were arrested and charged in the abuse of their children. Braxton pleaded guilty to hurting the infant girl and was sentenced to 10 years in prison, eight of which were suspended. He was released in 2006, according to BuzzFeed News, which profiled Hall last fall.
Hall, who took a so-called “blind plea deal” — a deal without knowing what her sentence would be — in Oklahoma County District Court, is a third of the way through a 30-year sentence for permitting child abuse.
She appealed, and lost. She asked the judge for a modified sentence, and was denied. Her best chance of release was a request for commutation, which would have ended her sentence early without absolving her of a crime.
On Wednesday, that request was denied, too.
“The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board had the responsibility to make things right and they failed with today’s decision,” Shaunna Thomas, executive director of the group UltraViolet, which has advocated on Hall’s behalf, told BuzzFeed. UltraViolet is one of several activist groups to take up Hall’s cause.
But the board, which recommends applications for commutation to the governor, seemed “incredulous” that Hall hadn’t taken more action as it questioned her, BuzzFeed reported.
That sentiment echoed remarks from Hall’s sentencing 11 years ago, when prosecutor Angela Marsee remarked that Hall seemed to be “choosing herself and her co-defendant over her kids,” in Marsee’s words.
When investigators first came to Hall’s apartment, she told them that she didn’t know how her children had been hurt. Then Hall said it was her fault — she threw her son on the bed while playing, she said.
“I made up the story, I lied,” Hall acknowledged at Braxton’s trial.
“Why were you lying to this detective?” Marsee wanted to know.
“I didn’t know what to say,” Hall replied. “I had never been questioned before.”
Though Hall immediately pleaded guilty, Braxton’s case went to trial. There, Hall was a key witness in the case against her boyfriend, but she was unable to provide a firsthand account of his abuse of the children. The case against Braxton began to “fall part,” as Marsee, who was also the prosecutor in his case, put it at Hall’s sentencing, and Braxton was offered a plea deal that released him after two years.
“He definitely should have received a more significant sentence, 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,” Marsee said, according to court records.
Ray Elliot, Hall’s sentencing judge, seemed to agree.
“There would be certain questions that would be asked of her where she would look over at the defendant and make direct eye contact with him prior to taking a moment or two to respond,” he said at the sentencing. “That tells me something, based on my years of experience. Was she scared of him? Probably. But again, even weighing that factor into the equation, I’m of the opinion she was less than candid.”
But Hall and her lawyers say she was ashamed, and scared. According to her commutation application, Braxton continued to intimidate Hall even as his case went to trial.
“He repeatedly threatened me during the court proceedings,” she wrote. “… He would tell me that I would spend the rest of my life in prison and he would be out with our children.”
In a way, he was right. Though her children aren’t living with Braxton, he was released while she remained imprisoned.
“Rather than being protected by the State I was prosecuted,” Hall wrote in her application for commutation.
Activist groups like UltraViolet and the Monument Quilt, a organization that tells the stories of abuse survivors, say that the reasoning used in Hall’s sentencing underscores the problems faced by victims: they are blamed for not confronting their abusers. According to the Domestic Abuse Project, battered women often suffer from depression, low self-esteem and feelings of paralysis. Fear of their partner — and fear of a future without him — can make them reluctant to leave their abuser or testify against him in court.
Lorraine M. Bittner, legal director of the Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in a similar case that it’s unreasonable for prosecutors to base their cases on victims’ testimony.
“If you leave it up to the victim, then all the pressure is on her,” she said. “We don’t want to go back to that. You’re turning to the most vulnerable person to set policy for law enforcement.”
In the years since her sentencing, Hall says she has done her best to become a better mother. She writes letters to her children, learned of bike rides and birthday parties. After dropping out of school in 10th grade, she’s finally earned her GED. She’s held a steady job at Mabel Basset Correctional Facility, where she is serving out her sentence. And she’s taken class after class on pain management and better parenting: “Certificate in Positive Outlook,” “Faith and Character Community Program,” “Anger Control,” a course in “Purpose Driven Life.”
“I had a duty to protect my children and I failed,” she wrote in her application. But now, she says, she’s equipped to deal with the problems that overwhelmed her a decade ago.
“I now recognize the warning signs of domestic violence as well as the avenues available to those involved in abusive relationships. If I could go back in time, I would have contacted the Oklahoma City YWCA for help in creating a safety plan to securely remove my family from Robert’s violence,” she wrote in her application. “… Despite my failures, I did not physically abuse my children. I was an active parent and a proud mother. I loved and cared for my children and I would appreciate the opportunity to watch them grow up.”
Hall’s sentence ends in 2034, when she will be 50 and her children fully grown adults, according to the Oklahoman. She isn’t eligible for parole until she serves 85 percent of her sentence — not for another 15 years.