Theresa Debo has survived a lifetime of horrific abuse. Now 14 years into a 22-years-to-life sentence for second degree murder, Theresa will turn 62 in November 2018. Unless Governor Cuomo grants clemency, she will remain in prison until she is at least 70 years old.
From early childhood, Theresa suffered severe physical abuse by her birth mother and sexual abuse by an uncle. After the state finally removed Theresa from that home, she was adopted into a loving family. However, her childhood trauma continued to haunt her and she became involved in a series of classically abusive relationships.
At age 45 Theresa began dating Richard. Initially he was “sweet as pie,” but soon he began drinking excessively and controlling what Theresa wore, where she could go, and whether she could see her family. When Theresa moved in with him, he demanded she quit her job to “take care of the house,” “have dinner on the table,” and “have his drink ready when he got home.” He threatened to kill both Theresa and her family if she disobeyed him — and with four guns in the home, Theresa absolutely believed him. He called home constantly to ensure Theresa never left on her own. He began beating her anytime she fell short of his expectations. Theresa “learned” how to avoid a beating by doing everything exactly as he ordered it. After Theresa had back surgery and was on bed rest, he demanded she still clean, cook, and submit to sex. When she started receiving disability payments, Richard stole her checks. Richard completely controlled of every aspect of her life.
One night, about three years into their relationship, Richard and Theresa were arguing when he became violent. He slammed Theresa against the wall, hit her in the head with a beer bottle, and, terrifyingly, pulled a 44 magnum handgun out of the dresser. He had threatened her life so many times and now it seemed he was really going to kill her. She tried to run but he caught her, still holding the gun. Theresa screamed and pushed him away with all her strength. Richard fell back against the couch and dropped the gun. Desperate and afraid, she grabbed it before he could and shot him.
After shooting Richard, Theresa was in shock and “lost more than three hours.” She was taken to the police station, where she initially told police that someone broke in, beat her, and then shot Richard. She made up the story because she was terrified of the criminal justice system and ashamed to admit that she had let Richard hurt and control her for so long.
Prior to trial Theresa was offered a plea bargain of 13 years in prison. If she had taken it, she would be home today. However, she was overwhelmed by the complexities of an unfamiliar criminal justice system and didn’t understand what the deal meant or what the consequences might be if she didn’t accept it. None of the domestic violence was admitted into evidence at trial — like so many survivors, she never reported it. The district attorney told the jury that Theresa shot Richard while he slept, which was simply untrue and unproven.
Theresa has accomplished much since being incarcerated. She trained service dogs in the Puppies Behind Bars program for 8 years, and is a certified Hospice Aide in the prison Regional Medical Unit. She volunteers in the long-term care unit, facilitates the Alternatives to Violence program, and works in the law library. Through her participation in the Family Domestic Violence Program, Alternatives to Violence Program, and Spousal Violence program, Theresa has gained insight into cycles of domestic violence and how to end them. She has lived in the prison’s “honor cottage” for four years.
The love and support of Theresa’s adoptive family has helped keep her going throughout her incarceration. She hopes to be granted clemency so she can be with her elderly adoptive parents and help her siblings care for them while she still can.