Obinna Nwankpa was a violent man. Specifically, he was violent toward women.
In 2011, he was convicted of domestic violence in Illinois. In December 2014, Nwankpa was charged with domestic violence against another woman in Anoka County, Minnesota. Two months later, he pleaded guilty to interfering with a 911 call; he was given two years’ probation and ordered to get domestic abuse counseling and treatment.
Then, on July 2, 2015, just months after his latest domestic violence arrest, a third woman, Natalie Pollard, this time in St. Paul, Minnesota, called 911 to report that Nwankpa had broken into her home through a window. According to local press, Nwankpa was intoxicated at the time. He had been dating Pollard on and off for months. This was not her first time calling the police on him, but her fourth.
It would be the last.
Pollard, with four young children upstairs in the home, said that Nwankpa began beating and fighting her all over the house. She was pregnant and decided this time, she later told investigators, to grab a knife to protect herself. In the melee, she claimed she stabbed the man in self-defense. By the time police got there, he was bloody and breathing his last breaths. In that moment, and every moment since, Natalie Pollard, then a 32-year-old woman with no criminal record, expressed remorse, but said she did only what she felt she had to in order to protect herself.
Pollard said she did only what she felt she had to in order to protect herself. It’s imminently believable.
It’s imminently believable. Over a four-year period, Nwankpa was accused of physically abusing at least three different women in two states.
Most reasonable people would see Pollard as a victim in this case. The justice system in St. Paul thought otherwise and charged her with second-degree murder — setting her bail at $750,000, an amount often reserved for the most hardened criminals. Armed only with a public defender, she was convicted, then sentenced to nearly 11 years in prison for second-degree unintentional murder.
We’ve seen this before. Marissa Alexander, a longtime victim of domestic violence, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot into the air after an incident with her estranged husband. While American men are given enormous latitude to protect themselves from violent strangers, women are backed into legal corners with very few options. It’s no surprise, then, that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the majority of American women who are killed are murdered by their husbands or boyfriends.
After spending two years in jail or prison away from her children, Pollard was given the break of her life. The Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled that the jury in her case was given the wrong set of instructions. Instead of being given instructions on the general rules of self-defense, they were incorrectly given “justifiable taking of life instructions.” The difference in legal burden between the two sets of rules was vast. Her conviction was immediately reversed and remanded.
John Choi, the attorney for the county that includes St. Paul, was not moved and decided to try the case again. Never mind that Pollard had already been incarcerated for 28 months, giving birth to her baby during that time — he demanded more. We are talking about a woman who has lost everything — her home, her kids, and her freedom. According to family members, she is currently living in the basement of her uncle’s house, just trying to put the broken pieces of her life back together again.
Prosecutors, evidence be damned, are determined to fight for the longest possible sentence every chance they get.
And this is at the root of mass incarceration in the United States. Prosecutors, evidence be damned, are determined to fight for the longest possible sentence every chance they get. It’s a waste. Local activists expected the case to be dropped. Enough was enough.
With the possibility of serving 20 years in prison hanging over her head, earlier this month Pollard did what countless people who came before her have done: She took a lesser plea that she did not believe in whatsoever, for a crime that she does not believe she committed, in the hopes that it will keep her out of prison and buy her more time with her family. I don’t blame her even a little bit, but it’s wrong.
This is the new normal of America’s justice system. A staggering 94 percent of all state convictions now come from these types of plea deals. Frightened by the alternative, the question is rarely about guilt or innocence, but about whether or not someone will be in prison for their entire adult life or just a sliver of it. People are basically scared into these pleas.
Even if Natalie Pollard is given time served when she is scheduled to be sentenced in May — which is no guarantee — she will forever have a violent felony on her record.
In a fair system, these charges would be dropped, this case would be closed, and she would be given transitional support to help her get set back up again. But the system we live under is far from fair.