On-again off-again on-again off.
In many ways Leione and Gabriel’s relationship was fresh off the CW airwaves. They were young and attractive. Leoine was petite with black hair and glossy auburn highlights. Gabriel was thick chested with a strong jawline and bright smile. The romance was a whirlwind – the kind of young love whose pattern of explosive breakups and steamy make-ups fringed on melodrama. When Leione started working as an exotic dancer at a North Hollywood strip club, Gabriel didn’t approve. When Gabriel bought a gun for protection, Leoine was pissed because she hated weapons. They confronted each other’s families, dated each other’s friends, and yelled at each other from second story windows. And it all escalated into an end-of-season worthy twist: Leoine was pregnant and Gabriel wasn’t the father. The couple split but moved in together after Leoine had the baby. Gabriel was going to help her raise the child. They were going to be a happy family.
Happy never happened. This wasn’t like the couples on TV.
Gabriel’s demeanor changed. He became abusive. He allegedly punched Leoine in the head, broke her toe, stabbed her with a razor, broke her finger, sexually violated her, and pushed her out of a moving car. Exhausted and scared, Leione finally broke down and told a social worker about the abuse. That’s when Gabriel was arrested.
It’s almost exactly a year from the day of the arrest and I’m watching the opening statements in the People vs. Gabriel Jackson. Deputy District Attorney Tina Behboudi is short in stature with light brown hair, a grey skirt and a splashy purple blouse. Delicate hoop earrings dangle from her earlobes. They swing as she tells the jury that Jackson is a known abuser. His aggression is documented on Leione’s body – the bruises, broken bones and scars photographed by the forensic nurse at Antelope Valley hospital where Leione was admitted after calling the police. Bar Panel Attorney Dale Atherton adjusts the Dasani water bottle and the small bottle of Extra-Strength Five Hour Energy on the counsel’s table. He stands and peers at the jury through his black-rimmed glasses for just a moment. Then he sprints through his opening statement.
“What it comes down to is credibility,” he blurts. “Who is this young lady?” He raises his eyebrows. “She is an exotic dancer. That’s what she does for a living. She spins on poles – lots of poles. She does this naked.” He says this as if we all can agree that sexuality is a prime indicator for dishonesty. The matter is handled with glib anachronism. Ladies and gentlemen, who could believe such a trollop? She spins on poles!
Atherton keeps barreling through reasons to believe Leoine may be a liar – she didn’t report other instances of abuse to the police, she visited him in jail, she put money on his books. Intellectually, I understand that the defense is simply doing his job but my gut reaction to this litany of statements is a dry repulsion. I thought we all got the memo on why women stay with abusive domestic partners. I’m no psychologist, but I can list a few reasons: the self-hatred, the power imbalance, the fear, the economic insecurity. And love. They say that love makes you do silly things. But sometimes it doesn’t make you do anything. Sometimes it paralyzes you.
Prosecutor Tina Behboudi calls her first witness: Leoine. She looks so young. Leoine just turned 20, but with her clean face and Adidas sweatpants, Nike sneakers and a threadbare grey t-shirt, she could pass for a highschool freshman. This is not a TV teen – some 28-year-old actress sprayed with foundation and buoyed by a ponytail and a Jansport – this is a young woman who can’t buy a beer. She can’t buy cigarettes. She can’t rent a car.
Leoine looks like a child.
Behboudi walks her through a series of past events in which Gabriel Jackson allegedly abused her: fights in the park, in their apartment, and in the car. Leoine speaks softly, her shoulders cave in towards her heart. While the prosecutor adjusts the projector, Gabriel mouths something from the counsel’s bench. Leoine’s eyes dart towards him. She shakes her head and whispers “This is so crazy.” Gabriel mouths something else. Leoine looks him dead in the eyes.
“You put your hands on me.”
She says it like a mantra. Not a hot-yoga-green-juice-feng-shui-mantra. A mantra that is necessary for survival.
The judge intercedes in the exchange between victim and defendant and admonishes both parties that the proceedings are not a place for a conversation. By the time the defense attorney begins his cross-examination, Leoine is already squirming in her skin. Atherton strikes, his questions firing on a hair trigger.
“You said you dance at the Blue Zebra?”
“Is that totally naked?”
“And you don’t ever get bruising from the dancing?”
Yes. Yes. No. Leoine answers the questions with singular words. Judge Michael Abzug reminds Atherton that the proceedings are not a race, but the defense attorney is just catching his stride. He’s racing towards something that we can’t see.
“The day I was appointed, did you come up to me and say, ‘Excuse me. The whole case against Mr. Jackson is a lie?’”
The prosecutor squints. The judge cocks his head. The clerk looks up from her desk. I fumble my pen. Leoine shakes her head. “No.”
The response doesn’t stop Atherton, whose verbal speed now reaches the mileage of an auctioneer. His questions rapidly recreate a narrative like a kind of reverse testimony. Did she remember the preliminary hearing? Did she remember calling Jackson afterwards and asking for a description of his new attorney? Did she remember confronting Atherton on the courthouse steps after the proceedings? She doesn’t remember.
Testimony ends minutes later. After the jury files out, Atherton throws his hands up and approached Judge Abzug. “As you can see, I have to testify.” Abzug rubs his temples and calls the defense counsel back to his chambers.
I don’t understand. My internal compass of this trial’s true north is lost. A straightforward story about a young woman abused by her boyfriend is now convoluted into a possible fabrication. I see no reason for a lawyer to lie about such a meeting – why would a bar panel attorney risk his reputation with such a flagrant falsehood? But if Atherton is telling the truth, if Leoine did tell him that the whole case was a lie, then why did she break down to the social worker in the first place?
The next morning I rush to court desperate for answers and explanations. I arrive just in time to see the attorneys leave the courtroom with their boxes of discovery in tow. Judge Abzug had declared a mistrial in order to avoid putting the Bar Panel Attorney on his own witness stand. Gabriel Jackson will get a new attorney within the week, but now the trial will be postponed until October.
It’s feels like turning the TV off mid-episode. Right when you were most invested, the screen goes black. The courtroom empties, leaving fluorescent lights to shine on vacant seats.
Without a verdict, I’m left to form my own conclusions. Leoine is so young. Maybe she was having second thoughts about sending the boy she loved to jail. Maybe she did tell Atherton the case was a lie, but maybe that wasn’t the truth. Characters on TV are supposed to make sense, but people in the real world frequently don’t — especially people caught in the cycle of abuse.
On-again off-again on-again.
Leoine’s last name was excluded from this piece for her privacy.
Gabriel Jackson’s next court date is December 17th for a pre-trial conference. His new jury trial is set to commence January 7th.