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Pat Johnson medallion

Pat Johnson holds up a medallion with an image of Jesus in Logan Correctional Center on April 18, 2022. The medallion was given to Johnson by his family. Johnson is incarcerated for a murder committed by his then-partner and abuser. The little known “theory of accountability” law allows people to be punished for the acts of another person.

Shannon Heffernan/The Marshall Project

Domestic violence survivors in Illinois are in prison for abusers’ crimes

The little known law allows people to be punished for the acts of another. Victims of intimate partner violence are particularly vulnerable for prosecution.

This article was published in partnership with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system, and Mother Jones. Sign up for The Marshall Project’s newsletters, and follow them on Instagram, TikTok, Reddit and Facebook.

Pat Johnson counted the locks on the apartment door. One. Two. Three. There were too many to undo and escape before Rey Travieso got to her. He’d just killed three people. He turned to her, her face covered in tears and snot. “Don’t worry, Pat, I ain’t going to kill you,” she remembers him saying. “You believe me?”

She didn’t believe him. For seven years, she’d been in an abusive relationship with Travieso. He had hurt her so badly, she landed in the hospital. She knew what he was capable of. So she did what he told her to do and helped stuff jewelry and money into a bag, and kept her mouth shut.

Even though he did not kill her, in a way, he still took her life. Since 1993, Johnson has sat in an Illinois prison for the murders she said Travieso committed.

Cook County prosecutors didn’t have to prove that Johnson killed anyone to charge her with murder. Under Illinois state law, the “theory of accountability” allows a person to be charged for a crime another person committed, if they assisted. That meant Johnson’s charge was murder, and just like Travieso, she faced a life sentence.

There is no comprehensive data about how many people are in prison for the crimes of their abuser. Still, through a search of legal documents, The Marshall Project identified nearly 100 people across the country, who were convicted of assisting, supporting or failing to stop a crime by their alleged abuser. Some of the women showed clear signs of abuse at the time they were arrested. One Illinois woman was in a neck brace.

Johnson as a young girl

A photo provided by the family shows Johnson as a child. Johnson has been incarcerated since 1993.

Provided by Johnson’s family

Abusive relationships rarely begin that way. Johnson met Travieso when she was 17 and he was 35.

Travieso could be controlling, dictating where Johnson could go and who she could see. But he also made sure she had what she needed. He once gave her a pair of gold, dangly earrings. Johnson was the youngest of six girls and her family was poor. To Johnson, the earrings were a symbol of Travieso’s ability to provide for her.

But one day, in the parking lot of a Sizzler restaurant, their meaning changed.

Johnson complimented another man’s car, within earshot of its driver. Travieso was furious at Johnson for giving another man attention and slapped her so hard that one of the earrings flew out of her ear. It wasn’t so much the physical pain that stayed with her, but the utter embarrassment. The restaurant had big windows, and customers and staff inside saw everything — she wanted to crawl under the car and hide.

After that she said Travieso’s abuse escalated– a belt buckle to the face, a shattered glass table, black eyes and bruises. During one fight, Johnson screamed that God was going to punish Travieso for how he treated her. “I am your god,” he replied. And it felt true.

“I was so afraid of Rey. I don’t think I ever feared anyone that much,” Johnson said years later. “Sometimes, it was almost like fearing God.”

Eventually, Johnson discovered Travieso was not actually a truck driver, as he had claimed when they first met, but a drug dealer.

On the afternoon of Jan. 16, 1992, Travieso asked Johnson to come with him to “take care of some business.” At her trial, she described what happened that day: They drove to the home of Travieso’s business partner, Juan Hernandez, in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood. Johnson knew they’d been fighting because Travieso said Hernandez owed him about $40,000. But they’d argued before, and always made up. Hernandez answered the door and walked them to the living room, where his wife, Olga, sat holding their 10-month-old baby, Evelyn.

Travieso and Hernandez began yelling. Then there was a knock on the door.

When Hernandez stood up to answer, Travieso pulled out a gun and told him to sit down. Travieso pointed the gun at Johnson and told her to tell the pizza delivery man that the order was canceled. She obeyed. Olga gathered up a few thousand dollars and some jewelry, but it wasn’t enough to satisfy Travieso. He tied Hernandez’s hands, and as medical examiner reports would later show, pistol-whipped him and slit his throat. Next, he killed Olga and the baby. Johnson was certain she would be next.

So she wiped her tear-stained face on her shirt, and followed his instructions to gather jewelry in a bag and walk casually to the car with him.

This is the story Johnson told at trial, but it’s not the only version of events.

Travieso’s story has varied over time, sometimes claiming he wasn’t there at all, despite strong evidence to the contrary. When I reached out to ask him about his version of events, he responded briefly: Johnson “should never have been in prison. … All these years I’ve felt bad about it all.”

Johnson has remained consistent that it was Travieso alone who killed Hernandez and his family.

“God was there. He knows I didn’t hurt anybody. He knows I didn’t kill anyone. God was there. He knows that.”

Rachel White-Domain

Rachel White-Domain, director of the Women and Survivors Project at the Illinois Prison Project and attorney for Pat Johnson, stands in the Illinois Prison Project’s office in the Loop, Tuesday, July 2, 2024. White-Domain estimates that cases in which a person is incarcerated for aiding their abuser in committing a crime make up about a quarter of her clients at the Illinois Prison Project, an advocacy organization for incarcerated people.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Since going to prison, Johnson has come out as a transgender man. He remains in a women’s facility and still uses she/her pronouns when talking about his life before prison — and has requested we do the same, because he said living as a woman was central to the abusive dynamic with Travieso.

His attorney is a woman named Rachel White-Domain.

When White-Domain began working with incarcerated survivors of domestic violence in 2008 it was a passion project she did with other volunteers around a kitchen table. At first, most cases involved women who had killed abusive husbands or boyfriends. But as hundreds of letters from women’s prisons poured in, she realized that many were in prison not for killing an abuser, but for aiding them in committing a crime. She estimates these cases now make up about a quarter of her clients at the Illinois Prison Project, an advocacy organization for incarcerated people.

Many of the cases against the people White-Domain represents aren’t about evidence or proof; they aren’t “whodunnits.” Instead, juries and judges (and the politicians who write the laws that govern them) must decide: What should a person be held responsible for? How should the conditions of a person’s life be weighed when they are involved in a crime?

Another attorney once asked White-Domain, is it worse if they don’t believe your story of abuse, or is it worse if they believe you, but it doesn’t matter?

White-Domain believes accomplice liability cases like Johnson’s are more common than self-defense cases, but they are harder to explain to the public and get far less attention.

When people defend themselves against deadly attacks by killing their abusers, it’s relatively easy to sympathize. It’s more complicated when the victim is not a violent husband, but is instead an innocent third party. And it’s even more difficult when the offense involves young victims or especially gruesome murders — the kinds of crimes that make some people so afraid and furious that they want to make sure anyone even remotely involved is punished.

Johnson with family

Pat Johnson in the middle, with his nieces Persaphanie Turner (left) and Brittney Turner (right).

Provided by Johnson’s family

At Johnson’s trial in 1993, she was allowed to introduce evidence of Travieso’s abuse. The jury saw pictures of injuries Johnson said Travieso gave her: wounds on her lips and shoulder from a hanger, bruises on her backside from the handle of a plunger. But the jury also saw and heard descriptions of the crime scene: the parents’ slit throats and a baby’s pacifier in a room splattered with blood.

I recently spoke to a juror, who asked not to be named because she is afraid Travieso could somehow retaliate against her. She and her fellow jurors struggled to know what to do.

The physical evidence did not prove how much Johnson had helped. But the juror remembers believing two things: One, Johnson had provided Travieso at least some support. And two, Johnson would have never done anything like this had it not been for Travieso and his control over her.

The juror who spoke with me grew up in a home with domestic violence. She understood why a woman could be so afraid that she wouldn’t flee an abuser, no matter how dire the circumstances. But she also wanted to do a good job and follow the law — it wasn’t her place to rewrite it. She said there was almost a hung jury, but in the end, they reached an agreement and found Johnson guilty.

To this day she believes Johnson was the fourth victim in that crime and that the world is not safer with Johnson behind bars.

The judge sentenced Johnson to life in prison. At her sentencing hearing, Johnson addressed the family of Juan, Olga and Evelyn Hernandez. “My pain is nothing compared to theirs, but I am truly, truly sorry for not coming forward.”

Olga Hernandez’s sister, Dora Arrona, said in a recent interview that Johnson has played the victim, but Olga and her family were the real victims. Arrona discovered the bodies of her family members after they were killed, and that trauma still affects her physical and mental health. She’s skeptical of Johnson’s version of events and believes she should stay behind bars.

White-Domain postcards

Attorney Rachel White-Domain stands near a wall of cards from clients at the Illinois Prison Project’s office in the Loop, Tuesday, July 2, 2024.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Illinois lawyers, lawmakers and advocates who believe people like Johnson should not be in prison have tried different approaches to change the system.

At an Illinois legislative hearing last year on a proposal to limit the theory of accountability, a lawmaker argued the law hurts victims of domestic violence. But Democratic state Rep. Dave Vella pushed back. “You’re accountable for the people you do nasty things with,” he said. “And if something bad happens, you should be accountable for the bad act.”

The proposed legislation, which would have narrowed the theory of accountability in Illinois, went nowhere, but activists say they are continuing to push for changes.

Another approach lawmakers and activists in several states have taken is to rethink how domestic violence victims are sentenced. In 2015, Illinois passed a law that allows people to apply to be resentenced if their crime was connected to abuse.

The state doesn’t track how many people have been freed under the law, but experts estimate it’s only been a handful. One reason is that, unlike New York’s more comprehensive law, it doesn’t say judges can diverge from mandatory minimums. That’s key in Johnson’s case, because he is already serving the minimum for his crime: life.

In Illinois, governors can grant clemency to people in prison they believe no longer need to be incarcerated. But Johnson’s petition was recently denied by Gov. JB Pritzker. Johnson will be eligible to apply again in October.

If Johnson is released, because of clemency or changes to the law, his family will be ready. Two different family members have bedrooms set aside for him. Johnson is now 55 years old and has spent more than half his life behind bars. Prison can be hard on a body. His teeth are in bad shape, and he sometimes uses a cane.

He no longer fears Travieso, no longer thinks he is as powerful as God. Instead, he prays constantly: on calls with his family, with women who come to his cell for help and at the end of our interview. Johnson said he owes it to God to be brave.

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