No one disputes that, on July 12, 2020, Maddesyn George shot and killed Kristopher “Buddy” Graber as he reached through the window of the parked car where George was seated. It’s the preceding 24 hours that are at issue in court.
The arguments between George’s defense team and the U.S. attorney’s office raise the question of whether, in 2021, a rape survivor has the right to argue fear for her life and self-defense.
George says that, the previous afternoon when she was at his house, Graber had threatened her with his gun and then raped her with a vibrator. He only stopped his assault after she convinced him that she was hungry and they should eat. Not feeling as if she could leave, she stayed until he fell asleep. When she left, she took his gun; she also took his stash of methamphetamine and several thousand dollars in cash. She later told police that she had decided to take the gun to ensure that he would not be able to threaten her with it again.
George, a Colville tribal member, lives on Washington’s Colville reservation. Graber, a white man, lived in Omak, Washington, about 45 miles northwest of the reservation.
“I was afraid he was going to rip me out of the car and start beating me up.”
The day after the alleged rape, according to witness accounts, Graber searched for George on the Colville reservation with a shotgun, going to three houses before someone told him where she was. When Graber found her, George was sitting in a friend’s car. She still had his gun.
“I was afraid he was going to rip me out of the car and start beating me up,” she told The Intercept. “I’d seen him do that to other females.”
He tried to reach through the car window to grab her. According to witness accounts, Graber hit her. She fired the gun through the window, hitting him in the chest. He was pronounced dead at the hospital.
George was arrested. She told tribal and Okanogan County, Washington, police that Graber had raped her the previous day. “I felt they didn’t believe me,” she said. She was not offered nor given a rape exam. Instead, she was brought to the Spokane County Jail, in Washington, where she remains today.
The legal system works in binaries, said Leigh Goodmark, director of the Gender Violence Clinic at the University of Maryland law school and author of the forthcoming “Imperfect Victims: How the Criminal Legal System Punishes Survivors of Gender-Based Violence.” Goodmark said that instead of perceiving George as a victim of a crime, several factors led the authorities to instead view her as a criminal.
“Had Maddesyn not had a previous record,” Goodmark said, “and had she not stolen the money and the drugs, police and prosecutors would have likely approached this very differently.”
“Had Maddesyn not had a previous record and had she not stolen the money and the drugs, police and prosecutors would have likely approached this very differently.”
Because the shooting took place on Washington’s Colville reservation, George was charged in federal court. Under the Federal Major Crimes Act, crimes, such as murder and felony assault, that occur on Native territory fall under federal, rather than tribal, jurisdiction. U.S. Attorney Joseph H. Harrington charged George with a slew of crimes ranging from robbery to murder. Stephen Graham, George’s attorney, argues that George’s case is one revolving around sexual assault and self-defense. (The U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment for this story.)
No national or even statewide data is kept on how many women are imprisoned or facing charges for defending themselves against sexual or domestic violence, though studies indicate that experiences of abuse are pervasive among incarcerated women. A 2012 report by the Department of Justice found that 86 percent of women in jails had experienced sexual violence before incarceration. According to the Justice Department, Native people (of all genders) experience sexual assault at a higher rate than people of other races, including at 2.5 times the rate of white people. Nearly four of five Native victims of rape or sexual assault described their assailant as white.
Lack of uniform data and reporting make it difficult to know how many Native people are imprisoned, but studies indicate that they are disproportionately incarcerated. In Washington state, for instance, Native Americans make up less than 2 percent of state residents, but over 5 percent of its prison population.
After George said Graber raped her, she did not go to the police. That’s not unusual. The majority of sexual assaults are not reported to the police. Only 33.9 percent of sexual assaults were reported to police in 2019, according to the Department of Justice.
At the time of her arrest, George was a 26-year-old single mother with a 4-month-old daughter. She was using methamphetamine, which Graber had been supplying for the past three years. Her previous felony convictions were for drugs and burglary, though the statute for those convictions was later found unconstitutional. Though she knew of Graber’s reputation for violence, George had never expected him to rape her. “We never had a sexual relationship,” she told The Intercept. “He was my drug dealer and that was it.”
What she did know was that she could not expect help from the police. When she was a child, her uncle was fatally shot by police while trying to seek help, she recalled.
In more recent years, George said she was sexually harassed by a deputy at the Okanogan sheriff’s office, who sent her unwanted messages and pictures of his genitals. She included these allegations in court exhibits to drive home why she decided not to report Graber’s assault: She thought that the police would be unresponsive — the same as before — had she turned to them.
There was also her own criminal record and continuing substance use. “I didn’t feel they would listen because of the life I was living,” George said.
Her fear is not unfounded, said Earth-Feather Sovereign, founder of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Washington, a nonprofit connected to the awareness-raising grassroots movement. Sovereign said police often do not take Indigenous women’s reports of sexual assault or victimization seriously.
“It has to do with systematic racism,” she said. “A lot of our cases are being ignored — whether domestic violence, sexual assault or someone is reported missing or murdered.”
For victims who appear to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol, she added, police often assume that the person was a willing participant rather than a victim of sexual assault.
Goodmark, the law professor, agrees. “We have spent literally billions of dollars training police and prosecutors on various forms of gender-based violence since the passage of the Violence Against Women Act and they still can’t see or won’t see victimization claims unless they come from people they deem to be credible and true victims,” she said.
George’s race, as well as her substance use and past record, make her a less credible victim in the eyes of law enforcement — a dynamic reinforced by the imbalances of justice on tribal lands and off for members and nonmembers.
“The police aren’t taking our cases seriously.”
Sovereign pointed to the 1978 Supreme Court decision in Oliphant v. Suquamish ruling that tribes cannot prosecute nontribal members who commit crimes on reservations. While the alleged rape occurred outside tribal lands, George was on the Colville reservation when Graber confronted and struck her. Had he assaulted her further, Sovereign pointed out, tribal authorities would have had no ability to arrest or prosecute him and, based on their history of declining to prosecute cases on Native lands, federal authorities would likely have done nothing.
When she first heard about Maddesyn George, Earth-Feather Sovereign said she was reminded of a landmark case involving her aunt, Yvonne Wanrow Swan.
In 1972, Wanrow, a Colville tribal member, was living with her two children in Spokane. One August afternoon, her children were at the home of Shirley Hooper, a family friend. While riding his bicycle, Wanrow’s 11-year-old son encountered a man who tried to drag him into his house. The boy escaped, but the man, William Wesler, followed the boy to Hooper’s.
Earlier that year, Hooper’s 7-year-old daughter had been raped, resulting in a sexually transmitted infection. When Hooper’s daughter saw Wesler, she told her mother, “He’s the man who did it to me.”
Hooper called the police. Though they had previously arrested Wesler for molestation, this time, they refused to arrest him. Hooper then asked Wanrow and other relatives to spend the night. Wanrow brought her children and her gun for protection.
At 5 in the morning, Wesler, visibly intoxicated, showed up at Hooper’s house to sort out the allegations. The women demanded that he leave. In the commotion that ensued, Wanrow turned around at one point to find Wesler’s imposing figure standing over her. She shot him, he died, and Wanrow was arrested for murder.
At trial, the judge instructed jurors to consider only what had happened “at or immediately before the killing.” This excluded both Wesler’s previous record of sexually abusing children and the testimony of Hooper’s daughter. Wanrow was convicted of murder and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
An appeal court, however, decided to vacate her conviction and grant Wanrow a new trial. They found that the judge’s instructions about self-defense had not allowed the jury to consider the fact that Wesler was a known child molester, that Wanrow had heard he had previously raped her friend’s daughter, and that, less than 24 hours earlier, he had attempted to grab her son. In 1977, the Washington Supreme Court upheld the vacature.
“The justification for self-defense is to be evaluated in light of all the facts and circumstances known to the defendant, including those known substantially before the killing,” the court declared. It further stated, “Care must be taken to assure that our self-defense instructions afford women the right to have their conduct judged in light of the individual physical handicaps which are the product of sex discrimination.”
By then, Wanrow had attracted the attention of women’s and Native American movements, who rallied around her case as one of a woman’s right to defend herself and her family. They formed defense committees across the country, raising public interest and legal funds. In 1978, Wanrow pleaded guilty to manslaughter and assault; the court sentenced her to five years’ probation.
“There was so much support for her,” said Sovereign, whose mother had been part of Wanrow’s defense campaign. The court decision on self-defense had been a huge step forward, Sovereign said: “She was not only able to create awareness about her situation, but put in place directions to help all women.”
Now, Sovereign and other grassroots groups have assembled the Campaign to Free Maddesyn George, urging federal prosecutors to drop the charges against George.
Federal prosecutors aren’t showing any signs of an inclination toward leniency, let alone dropping the charges — or even consider leniency.
On July 6, 2021, prosecutors filed a motion to prevent George and her attorney, Stephen Graham, from including the sexual assault or a theory of self-defense in his opening statement. Instead, prosecutors espoused a different motive: that George had stolen Graber’s gun, drugs, and money, and he was simply trying to retrieve his property when she shot him. They argued that the passage of time negates a defense that she shot him in the heat of the moment. They dismissed the link between Graber’s act and the killing, writing that “an assault with a vibrator does not justify the use of deadly force one to three days after the alleged assault.”
“Forcing someone to submit to that at gunpoint is rape,” said Graham, the attorney. “It’s not ‘an alleged assault with a vibrator.’”
Minimizing the extent of the sexual assault is not unusual, said Goodmark, the law professor. “Police and prosecutors minimize the harms that victims describe. They give other readings of the situation,” she said. “What the prosecutor is telling is a story of robbery by a drug-addicted Native woman, playing into stereotypes about substance use and Native people to undermine her claim of self-defense.”
Graber had a known history of violence, including several convictions, restraining orders, and violations of those restraining orders for domestic violence. A man who witnessed Graber’s shooting told police that Graber had been known for beating up women.
On the afternoon that Graber attacked George, he was awaiting trial for drug and gun charges. He had already been ordered by the courts to not possess firearms or controlled substances, orders that he had clearly violated the night before.
“It reinforces the idea that investigators in this country look for perfect victims.”
Prosecutors, however, submitted a motion to limit George and her lawyer’s ability to bring up Graber’s own history of violence.
“Because they can ascribe other motives to her, like robbery, the fact that he had been abusive in the past is not important because they don’t care about her story that she was sexually assaulted at gunpoint,” said Goodmark.
By July 26, 2021, George had spent over a year in the Spokane County Jail. Covid-19 has stopped in-person visits; she could only see her family, including her now 1-and-a-half-year-old daughter, through the jail’s video visiting system, which frequently malfunctioned.
Fearing the possibility of a total 43 years in prison convicted in federal court, George pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute 5 grams or more of methamphetamine and voluntary manslaughter in Indian country.
Prosecutors filed a motion asking the court to sentence George to 17 years, more than federal sentencing guidelines calling for nine to 11 years. Adding to their initial theory of robbery, they argued that, by taking Graber’s drugs, George was engaged in drug trafficking. The allegation became central to their push for harsh sentencing: “She discharged a firearm pursuant to that offense and caused a death so that she could keep and even hide the drugs she stole from Graber.”
Graham, on the other hand, insists that this is about sexual assault and self-defense. He noted that law enforcement — from the initial investigators to the prosecutors — focused on the allegations of drug theft rather than George’s report of rape.
“It reinforces the idea that investigators in this country look for perfect victims,” he said. “If you’re on the margins of society — if you struggle with drug abuse — you’re not able to avail yourself of self-defense in the eyes of the law. Self-defense is only for the NRA members who are in the rotary club with the police chief, not for a sex worker or homeless person or drug addict. Everybody has the right to self-defense.”
On October 20, a federal judge will decide George’s fate. George plans to address the court directly about what happened last July. She said, “My hope is that they’ll listen to me and understand that he did this to me.”