The pressure is on to set Kenyairra Gadson free

Organizers see Gadson as another Black woman criminalized for defending herself.
Header image: Photos show Kenyairra Gadson, left, at the time of her trial in early 2022, and, right, as a child with her sister Stacia. In the photo on the left, Gadson is wearing a suit and standing in a hallway at the Dane County Courthouse. In the photo on the right, Gadson, furthest right, is wearing a red shirt and laying on a bed next to Stacia, while an adult who is only partially in frame places a hand on Stacia’s head. Photos courtesy of Kimberly Ceesay.

Organizers see Gadson as another Black woman criminalized for defending herself.

Activists with Madison non-profit Freedom Inc. are pressing for the release of a Black Madison woman who was recently convicted of reckless homicide.

Kenyairra Gadson, 24, and her defense attorneys maintain that Gadson fired a shot in self-defense during an October 28, 2018 confrontation in the Frances Street parking ramp in downtown Madison, killing Steven Villegas. At the time of the shooting, both Gadson and Villegas were 21.

No one disputes that Gadson fired the shot that killed Villegas. The defense argued that Villegas was part of a group that followed Gadson and some friends into the garage, causing a confrontation that forced Gadson to defend herself and others with her. Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne and assistant DA Tracy McMiller, meanwhile, presented the jury with a narrative in which Gadson sought out the confrontation to retaliate against another member of Villegas’ group over a long-running dispute.

The jury returned a guilty verdict on January 26, convicting Gadson of first degree reckless homicide and illegal possession of a firearm. Dane County Circuit Court Judge Chris Taylor, a former Democratic state legislator, will determine a sentence on May 6. Gadson faces up to 65 years in prison. 

Freedom Inc. and Gadson’s advocates are demanding that Taylor sentence Gadson to the time she has already served over the course of the case. The maximum sentence for the reckless homicide charge alone would be 60 years in prison.

Gadson’s advocates believe the case went the way it did because Gadson is a visibly queer, masculine-presenting Black woman. They place her among the nationwide pattern of Black women who’ve been criminalized for defending themselves against attackers or domestic abusers. The most high-profile examples include Marissa Alexander, a Jacksonville, Florida woman who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot when her abusive ex-husband tried to kill her, and CeCe McDonald, a transgender woman in Minneapolis who was convicted of manslaughter after a confrontation with a group of men who harassed and attacked her. Both Alexander and McDonald have since been released.

Closer to home, Cierra Finkley was arrested in 2015 on a tentative charge of first-degree reckless homicide, after stabbing her ex-boyfriend in a domestic violence incident. Prosecutors later decided not to pursue those charges. That same year, Madison’s Young, Gifted, And Black Coalition championed the case of Lisa Mitchell, a Black trans woman who had been repeatedly incarcerated in male facilities. Advocates point to further evidence of inequity in the 2013 death of Aprina Paul, a Madison College nursing student. An Evansville man, Nathan Middleton, claimed that Paul died after the two had a consensual encounter, and that he then burned Paul’s body in a fire pit. Middleton was convicted and sentenced to 22 years in prison for mutilation of a corpse, but was never charged with killing Paul.

“There’s a history of this happening, with Black women being like, forced to take on so much abuse and so it’s bigger than [Gadson],” says Jessica Williams of Freedom Inc. “It’s not just a fluke that it happened here in Madison. It’s not that oh, she just had a bad jury selection. It is a system. It’s a system that chooses to villainize Black women.”

Williams and Ananda Deacon detailed Gadson’s story in a recent piece for Truthout and placed it in the context of the racism under Madison’s progressive veneer, writing:

In Madison, who is allowed to be a victim and who is always seen as a perpetrator? Despite courts saying that they aim to protect survivors, their actions have made one thing very clear: Their definition of a victim or survivor doesn’t include Black women.

Gadson’s story is tragic, but not unique. Many survivors of violence face double persecution: first at the hands of their abuser, and then at the hands of the legal system which criminalizes them instead of protecting them from harm. The fact that Gadson faces incarceration should tell us everything we need to know about our system and who it is designed to protect.

Freedom Inc. has been encouraging community members to write letters to Gadson, and has planned a week of action in support of Gadson ahead of the sentencing, kicking off with a May 1 event at Aldo Leopold Park on Madison’s South side. Gadson’s supporters are also taking donations toward her legal fees via this online fundraiser, and those interested in helping Gadson’s family can send money via Cash App.

Prosecution painted Gadson’s actions as an intentional “trap”

One Wisconsin State Journal headline summed up the competing narratives in Gadson’s trial as “A trap or self-defense?” And Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne did use the word “trap” as testimony got underway. Williams sees this as playing into bigoted narratives about queer and trans people luring victims into sinister situations—akin to a prosecutorial inversion of the infamous “gay panic” defense.

Gadson’s public defenders, Laura Breun and Matthew Giesfeldt, declined to comment for this story. Gadson also declined to give an interview, citing the advice of her attorneys as the sentencing approached. 

Prosecutors specifically argued that Gadson was laying a trap for a man named Donivan Lemons, who was hanging out with Villegas the night of the shooting and part of the group that confronted Gadson and her friends. But Williams points out that Gadson and Lemons have crossed paths on many occasions, including at house parties. That raises the question of why Gadson would choose to target Lemons in a downtown parking ramp during Freakfest—one of the busiest nights of the year in downtown Madison, with lots of parties and cops around well into the wee hours. 

Ozanne and Assistant District Attorney Tracy McMiller also made much of the way Gadson fled the scene of the shooting. As the State Journal reported:

Giesfeldt said after the shooting, Gadson was afraid and left the gun behind in the car, dumped the gun’s magazine in a trash can and walked away toward State Street. But McMiller argued that if Gadson was still afraid, she would have kept the gun, not knowing where Lemons could be. She could also have summoned one of the many police officers who were in the area that night for help, McMiller said.

This of course reads a lot of intention into Gadson’s response in what clearly was a volatile situation. It also overlooks the fact that someone involved in such an incident may have reasons to fear and distrust police, regardless of their innocence or guilt. Gadson and her defense attorneys maintained that Gadson didn’t seek out this confrontation. 

Gadson targeted by DCSO, harassment while awaiting verdict

Gadson turned herself in the day after the shooting, spending the end of 2019 and the first half of 2020 in the Dane County Jail. In July 2020, Madison’s Free the 350 Bail Fund, flush with new donations that poured into bail funds during that summer’s uprisings against police violence, posted Gadson’s $100,000 bail. As a condition of her bail, she wore an ankle monitor. Gadson remained out on bail until the date of her conviction, when bail was received and the state took her back into custody. She is currently back in the Dane County Jail, awaiting sentencing.

During her time out on bail, Gadson held down a job and adhered to a 7 p.m. curfew, her mother, Kimberly Ceesay, told Tone Madison. Between her release and her trial, Gadson was not charged with any bail violations. 

“She mentored her friends and always tried to keep them working on positive things. She’s always maintained a job,” Ceesay says, also pointing to the music Gadson has made under the name Cream Yolo and noting with pride that Gadson started her job as a temp, then quickly got hired on as a full employee. 

Good behavior while out on bail did not spare Gadson additional trouble, some of it violent and bizarre. 

Gadson was one of three defendants then-Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney and DCSO spokesperson Elise Schaffer singled out in a highly unusual July 2020 press release that targeted Free the 350. The press release noted that the charges against the three defendants included “First Degree Intentional Homicide”—a clear reference to one of the initial charges Dane County prosecutors filed in Gadson’s case. However, by the time Gadson was bailed out, that information had not been true for more than six months. Prosecutors dropped the intentional homicide charge and replaced it with the slightly less serious “First Degree Reckless Homicide” charge in December 2019. 

“It was pretty absurd… people are given bail as a right,” Williams says about the bail-shaming press release. “People have the right to be out of jail while they are awaiting sentencing or while they’re awaiting their trial. People are given bail for that reason. Because if you can get that money, you’re allowed to make that payment, you’re allowed to be out and walking free until you are found innocent or guilty. So it’s really interesting that although this is the right of citizens in this country, that our own Sheriff would be so angry that people are being bailed out… we know that people get bailed out all the time, right. We think about the officers who were charged in George Floyd’s death, we think about Zimmerman, who killed Trayvon Martin, all of these people, they get out on bail. And I don’t see our Sheriff or our previous Sheriff [Dave Mahoney], ever being so upset and publishing all of these thinkpieces and contacting all these media outlets, but I do see him being upset when it’s Black people who are getting bailed out. And because of that, to us, it looks very much like—it reminds us of us of like a slave hunt. I don’t understand why he would take such a strong stance.”

The dispute that led to the parking-garage altercation in the first place appears to have kept simmering while Gadson was out on bail and out on trial. At one point, Ceesay says, Gadson noticed a suspicious car repeatedly showing up in the parking lot of a place she was living in the Town of Madison. One night, police showed up and this car led them on a high-speed chase. Ceesay says she’s had trouble getting information about the incident from police. 

Ceesay says the threats and harassment during this period continued as Gadson and her family struggled with eviction, homelessness, and housing instability. “We had a lot of threatening calls to the building manager to put us out,” Ceesay says of one place she lived pre-trial. 

Multiple sources, including Ceesay and Williams, say that Gadson also faced harassment during the trial, while inside the Dane County Courthouse. In one incident a few days before sentencing, Gadson needed a bathroom break. While Gadson was walking from the courtroom to the bathroom, a man began following Gadson and made threatening statements to her, only letting up once Gadson entered the bathroom. One additional source who personally witnessed the incident, who asked that their name not be printed, corroborated this account. 

They also say that though Dane County Sheriff’s Office bailiffs were present in the courthouse at the time, Gadson didn’t have a security escort walking with her and bailiffs did not intervene. “It’s crazy, because none of the deputies did anything about it,” the source says. Ceesay also says the deputies present during the incident took no action.

The Sheriff’s Office, responsible for security at the courthouse, claims it has no record of this incident. “Any issues that occurred during the trial were dealt with on the spot and did not rise to the level of a report or official intervention,” says DSCO spokesperson Elise Schaffer in an email to Tone Madison. “I believe the only thing that resulted in any written documentation was the disturbance that occurred when the verdict was read.” This refers to an incident in which a person in the courtroom reacted to the verdict by shouting “Ismael Ozanne, we’re coming for you.” Bailiffs removed this person from the courtroom.

Asked to clarify how bailiffs decide which courthouse altercations warrant a written report and which do not, Schaffer responded: “A general response to your question would be if the interaction doesn’t result in action by the deputy, like an arrest or any kind of follow-up. A conversation/warning would not merit a report.” 

It is not clear why the courtroom spectator yelling at Ozanne would warrant follow-up action, but alleged threats against the defendant would not.

“In general, our security of the courthouse includes things like the weapons screening at the front door, the presence of our Bailiffs whom are all sworn deputies, along with rules about what is allowed in a courtroom and making sure we have appropriate staffing in the courtroom,” Schaffer says. “Our Bailiffs also train on how to respond if there is a major disturbance.”

For Ceesay, the altercations in the courtroom are part of a much longer pattern of suffering that Gadson has endured.

“My daughter in my mind and my heart has done time served already, just being put in this position of having to be ambushed in a parking ramp,” Ceesay says. 

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