digital collage on an orange background with a triptych of three color photographs of a Black woman holding an infant child in her arms
Auzhanae ReeseDrayden and her child. (Designed by Lara Witt)

CW: descriptions of rape

Auzhanae ReeseDrayden, a 22-year-old mother and sex worker, frequently feels dismissed and rejected because of her life experiences. “Me being a victim is most [misunderstood] because I’m looked at as a sex worker, somebody who just sells their body for money,” she told Prism in a written statement from Dallas County’s Lew Sterrett Justice Center, where she was awaiting trial and sentencing. ReeseDrayden was recently convicted on murder charges and sentenced to 27 years after being caught on camera shooting Howard Darnell Reed, a man whom she has maintained assaulted her. “I’m not looked at as a victim, or I’m not looked at like that girl that was abused. I’m not looked at as the woman that I am.”

On Jan. 17, 2022, the Dallas Police Department contacted New Mexico State police to arrest ReeseDrayden as a murder suspect. Her arrest and detainment made the local news in Hidalgo County—“a Texas murder suspect is behind bars”—featuring a mug shot of a then 21-year-old ReeseDrayden. By Feb. 5, she was arraigned on the charges of capital murder, and a month later, she was formally indicted on the same charges. 

What the indictment failed to disclose is that ReeseDrayden’s actions were not without context. On the night before his death, Reed—whom the defense alleged to be a “known drug trafficker”—lured, planned, and participated in a gang rape of ReeseDrayden alongside others in his apartment. The allegation against Reed is not without precedent—Reed had twice been charged with felony rape in 2013. Although both cases were dismissed, an archived police report details a brutal violent assault by Reed and another associate in 2012 of multiple young women, including a minor. Despite this, ReeseDrayden remains at the mercy of the state, denied the mantle of victimhood. 

“When no one cares about sex workers or runaways or homeless people or people that are very vulnerable in particular ways, then they have to stand up for themselves. There’s no one that’s going to defend them,” says ReeseDrayden’s attorney, Adwoa Asante. “However, if they do stand up for themselves and utilize lethal force, the entire culture sort of believes that they put themselves in that predicament.” 

ReeseDrayden is the latest story in the well-documented “abuse-to-prison pipeline”—a multi-pronged infrastructure that funnels women and girls into incarceration as a direct result of their victimization, especially in the context of sex work and sex trafficking. Part of the paradox that these women consistently face is the limiting victim-offender binary that exists within the criminal legal system. In a system that criminalizes individual incidents and offenses, it minimizes the context of interpersonal dynamics over time, particularly in the space of sex work and sex trafficking. 

This is something that ReeseDrayden implicitly understands. “I feel that I’m being penalized because I’m looked at as a ‘prostitute’ instead of a victim,” she states. “I wish people could know how good of a person and how good of a mother I am, and your circumstances don’t define who you are as an individual. There is definitely more to me than just sex work.”

In the public case record, ReeseDrayden’s rap sheet was enclosed to indicate her predilection toward criminality. Of the 10 listed convictions, four were from when she was still a minor, two were for the crime of prostitution (both were dismissed), and one was a disorderly conduct citation. The remaining three were either dismissed (battery) or placed on probation (shoplifting, embezzlement). Like many working-class sex workers of color, her life has involved interactions with the legal system from an early age and is being used to indicate a pattern of violence. 

“The institutionalization of this racialized ‘good victim/bad criminal’ dichotomy, including within the anti-violence movement, has left a huge portion of survivors, overwhelmingly Black women, without recognition, much less support, from the anti-violence movement,” write the contributing writers of Survived and Punished in their Survivor Defense toolkit.

Before her conviction, ReeseDrayden was held on a $1.5 million bond. Her mother contacted Asante for a consultation. Asante went to go see her at the jail and hear her story. From her perspective as a defense attorney, the capital felony charge was the prison-industrial complex at work again. “The state has this obsession when it prosecutes members of the underclass—when it prosecutes sex workers, marginalized genders, trans people—of nitpicking what they took from their abuser,” she explains. “You can see it in the Chrystul Kizer case.” 

Kizer, who is close in age to ReeseDrayden, was charged with first-degree intentional homicide in Kenosha, Wisconsin, for killing the man who was trafficking her. Assistant Attorney General Timothy M. Barber maintained that her texts prior to the killing, including one that implied a plan to drive his BMW after shooting him, revoked her right to the affirmative defense that her actions were a direct result of trafficking. Barber argued in March 2022 that affirmative defense law “is not a license for a victim to kill a trafficker.” 

Cyntoia Brown was criminalized under similar circumstances: her trauma as a sex worker and trafficking victim was overridden, prosecutors argued, by supplemental robbery charges, nullifying her right to self-defense. 

“We have self-defense laws that necessitate immediacy, which is just not reasonable when someone is being raped or someone is being trafficked or someone is being abused,” Asante explains. “The very law of self-defense misunderstands what abuser-victim dynamics are like and requires a very short time span for it to be legally justifiable to defend yourself physically. So if you don’t defend yourself while you’re being abused in that moment, then you’ve lost the opportunity for legally justifiable self-defense.”

In a 2004 report funded by the Department of Justice, 60 women from a range of demographic backgrounds were surveyed at a maximum security state women’s correctional facility in the Southeast. Approximately half the participants were found to have acted in self-defense or retaliated to abuse. “The women acted in response to being pushed, slapped, punched, beaten, choked, raped, or threatened with a weapon,” the report read. “A few of the women acted after an immediate assault had subsided, but within several hours of the attack when the abuser and threat of further harm still lingered.” 

The report also details how other cases of women’s physical reactions to verbal threats to beat, kill, or sexually assault them or their families, have resulted in criminal charges such as manslaughter. 

“To expect someone who is less powerful to find the right exact moment to utilize force or deadly force or lethal force is not reasonable because the victim is going to die,” Asante points out. “What a lot of victims and a lot of survivors do is find the right time—when the abuser is not on guard, when the abuser is vulnerable, when the abuser is not as powerful.”  

This exact power imbalance is weaponized to further criminalize survivors—a willful misreading of imminent danger in an abuse dynamic, whether that be physical, financial, or otherwise dominant—that can easily be contorted to represent premeditation instead. “If you’re being abused by your husband every day, and then you shoot him while he’s sleeping, you’re going to be charged with murder, and the state’s going to make the argument that he wasn’t a threat to you in that moment,” Asante adds. “Defense lawyers have to help explain this to juries, and then juries either have to make it work, or a lot of times they just don’t, and survivors get convicted and sent to prison.” 

ReeseDrayden’s case was similarly elevated to capital murder due to her alleged robbery of Reed after shooting him. From Asante’s perspective, this was the state finding any excuse, particularly in Texas, to file capital charges, which is the worst criminal offense you can get. 

“Worst-case scenario you could get the death penalty; the state can kill you. And then best-case scenario, if you’re found guilty on a capital [offense, which] is life without parole,” she points out. “You’re looking at death in two different ways. You’re either looking at death by incarceration, or you’re looking at death by the death penalty—by lethal injection, right? They’re both deaths.”

Many survivors, understandably, don’t want to take the risk on a jury trial, which is why even high-profile victories, such as Brown’s case or Marissa Alexander’s stand-your-ground defense, are often ultimately negotiated with a plea or clemency as opposed to an appeal or dismissal. 

When Asante initially spoke with ReeseDrayden, it was quickly clear that she couldn’t afford the attorney’s services, and she initially entrusted her case to the capital wheel, the rotation of public defenders assigned to take on capital felony cases. Over the following four or five months, however, thoughts about the case lingered with Asante, as she continued her work as a defense attorney and attended legal training on the death penalty. After speaking with a mentor, he encouraged her to follow her heart. She soon took the case as pro bono work, requesting that the court allow her to work with a second chair from the capital wheel, Richard Carrizales. “I feel supported because I have a team behind me fighting for me,” says ReeseDrayden, who also noted the support of her family as they prepared for trial. 

Asante and Carrizales opted for a strategy of a guilty plea to murder and then a punishment trial on the charges—similar to sentencing in other states—hoping to secure ReeseDrayden the best possible terms in a murder conviction, which can range from five to 99 years. The state accepted ReeseDrayden’s plea on this lesser charge, allowing them to bypass trial on the guilt-innocence phase but build a case around extenuating circumstances and context in sentencing. Ultimately, Auzhanae was sentenced to 27 years—not life without parole, but still longer than she has been alive. She will be eligible for parole after half of her prison term is completed.

Asante hopes to make visible what the state disposes of and how a consequence of the criminal legal system using gruesome cases to manufacture consent from the public is that they can cast a wide net on condemning and incarcerating the neglected underclass. In a recent criminal defense training for the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association that Asante attended, member and former president Lydia Clay-Jackson spoke. “She said, ‘Don’t go around saying that you’re trying to humanize your client. Your client is already human,’” Asante recalled. “Auzhanae has a righteous story—but there’s some other people that don’t have righteous stories that also deserve to be viewed in complicated ways because they’re also human.”

Shamira Ibrahim is a Brooklyn-based writer and reporter by way of Harlem, Canada, and East Africa, who explores identity, cultural production, and technology.