Though she didn’t do it, Darlene Benson-Seay is incarcerated for killing her boyfriend, Ronnie, who abused her violently for years. He’d fallen into debt to two drug dealers, who came to collect one night—knocking Darlene out and stabbing Ron. After Darlene called 911 and tried to help Ron survive, she was charged with his murder.
Darlene had come from an impossible difficult background. She experienced abuse – sexual, physical, and emotional – by her grandfather, brothers, and boyfriends. As a child, Darlene was hit in the head so hard it left her comatose for three days. She was raped and held captive by a police officer. Her father lined Darlene and her siblings up against a wall as if planning to shoot them execution-style. When Darlene was eight years old, she lost her mother, who was stabbed to death while pregnant. Afterward, Darlene raised her younger brothers and sisters.
Darlene continued to suffer abuse as an adult, inflicted by boyfriends and neighbors. In a couple instances, she used a knife to defend herself. She met her partner, Ron, at AA and they dated on and off for 15 years. She enjoyed their relationship for the first decade, but then Ron reconnected with an old friend; he started doing drugs and became violent. Darlene found herself fighting him off every other day. She was in no shape to move because she was thrown down the stairs. He cut her and threw knives are her. Once, Darlene stabbed Ron in the foot to stop him from attacking her. She called the police repeatedly, but eventually they began threatening to arrest Darlene too—so she stopped calling. Darlene did what she could. She took long walks to give herself and Ron a cooling-down period. She would go away and stay with her family. She suffered two strokes because of the abuse.
Ron not only beat her—he fought with his old friend and another man, to whom Ron owed money for drugs. In 2012, Ron was being pursued for the money and Darlene couldn’t take it anymore, and started packing to leave. She was worried the men, who’d historically used gruesome violence to collect their debts from Ron, would hurt her too. As she and Ron fought over her plans, the med showed up and knocked Darlene unconscious; she woke up to find Ron had been stabbed. Ron’s eyes were open and he seemed to gesture for Darlene to take the knife out of his chest, in order to help him. She did and put pressure on the wound and called to her brother, who lived downstairs, to call 911 because she had no phone.
Darlene was told by police that she didn’t need a lawyer. Confused and traumatized when they asked if she’d stabbed Ron, she said yes—referring to a time years prior when she’d stabbed him in his foot in self-defense. This hurt her case at trial, and so did her ineffective counsel, who put Darlene on the stand despite her insistence she wasn’t in the right mental state. She felt coerced into a plea deal for manslaughter. She says she would never kill anyone—after the trauma and grief of her mother’s murder, she knows acutely what it’s like to lose someone. Darlene is strong after so many years of abuse, but she’s still incensed at the plain injustice of her incarceration.