Betsy Ramos has been behind bars for 22 years for second-degree manslaughter. At 15 years, she had served her minimum sentence. Nonetheless, in January of this year, she was denied parole for the fourth time. She is 54 years old, has cancer, and is HIV positive. Based on her age, gender, and illness, Betsy has a greater chance of dying in prison than of ever recidivating. Her story serves as a sharp indictment of the system we call the “justice system.”
On the morning of May 26, 1998, Betsy woke to two police officers at her door. They had come to serve a warrant on her abusive boyfriend, Joseph. Fearing arrest, he instructed Betsy to tell police that he was not present while he hid in the closet. In Betsy’s own words, at that point in their relationship, she feared her boyfriend more than she feared the police. The officers searched the apartment twice before finding Joseph. He resisted arrest, grabbing hold of one officer’s gun. He and the other officer, Anthony Mosomillo, shot and killed each other. Betsy was arrested and charged with Mosomillo’s death.
Betsy’s story, and the circumstances leading up to that day, began years earlier. As a teenager in Brooklyn, she was abandoned by first by her mother, then her father. She began using heroin, which led to three years in federal prison followed by ten years of supervision. In 1996, she met Joseph at a halfway house, not knowing that he would be abusive and controlling, using her HIV status to manipulate her and telling her repeatedly that no one else would love her. That control soon extended to every aspect of her life — beating her with his fists, choking her, and, at one point, holding her down and forcibly sodomizing her. As the abuse progressed, Joseph would beat her “where the marks wouldn’t show.” As a single woman without children, it was hard to find shelter, although she tried to leave on multiple occasions and her abuse is documented by multiple domestic incident reports to NYC police.
By that fateful May morning, Betsy had suffered over 600 days of abuse. She was afraid to not obey Joseph’s demand to hide him, but hoped the police would take him, or that he’d be scared to come back. Never could she have imagined what would transpire. The Brooklyn DA used Betsy’s past drug convictions to paint her as an unsympathetic defendant, rather than someone who had been victimized herself, arguing at trial that she had helped Joseph grab the officer’s gun. This charge was disputed by Betsy and her attorney. Betsy does not downplay the impact of her decisions that day, and feels tremendous remorse for the loss of life and pain caused to the officer’s family.
Betsy has “served her time”, and then some. To keep her behind bars exposes the hypocrisy of a system that continues to seek punishment, not justice. While the events surrounding her incarceration are different from many survivors, the circumstances leading up to it are remarkably similar: trauma in childhood and early adulthood, interpersonal violence, lack of access to adequate resources and treatment, and a system that criminalizes survivorship. As a community, we all benefit when Betsy comes home.