DALLAS ― Before she died, Delashon Jefferson tacked a certificate to her bedroom wall.
The piece of paper, edged in gold like a diploma, was proof that her boyfriend had completed an anger management program. For Delashon, 20, it was more than that. It was a promise that her boyfriend was getting better.
Lagarius Rainey, 24, wasn’t going to hurt her anymore.
The young Dallas couple were expecting their second child, a sister for their toddler son, whom they called Rayray. A white crib was set up in the corner of the bedroom, ready for the baby. Delashon never got a chance to meet her.
Earlier this fall, police say, Rainey shot Delashon inside her bedroom when she was eight months pregnant. She was killed in front of her son.
Doctors at Baylor University Medical Center performed an emergency cesarean section and rushed her baby to the neonatal intensive care unit. Rainey was arrested and charged with Delashon’s murder.
In death, Delashon became one of the three women killed by their boyfriends, husbands and lovers every day in the United States. Domestic violence does not discriminate, and victims span all races, ages, ethnicities and religions.
The suffering, though, is not equally distributed.
In the U.S., black women face higher rates of domestic violence than do women of all other races, except Native women. In Dallas County, the most likely type of person to be killed by a romantic partner is a black woman, age 20 to 29, just like Delashon. Black women are four times more likely than their white peers to be murdered by a boyfriend or girlfriend, and twice as likely to be killed by a spouse. And they are seven times more likely to be slain while pregnant than white women.
Experts say this is not because black men are more violent. Rather, black women are more vulnerable to domestic violence due to a constellation of factors, including high rates of poverty, lack of access to resources and systemic racism within systems designed to help victims of abuse.
Since the passage of the Violence Against Women Act in 1994, the central response to domestic violence in the U.S. has been criminal. Victims are told to call the cops, press charges and help prosecutors put their abusers behind bars.
But relying on police can leave black women facing an impossible quandary: How can they trust a historically racist criminal justice system, one that systematically imprisoned their brothers and fathers, to protect them?
Two weeks after her daughter’s death, Sharon Jefferson, 44, sat on her couch and burst into tears. She was there the day Delashon died, in the house she was still living in, and she couldn’t stop replaying it in her mind. The shriek of gunshots. Her daughter’s eyes rolling back in her head.
The house was full of ghosts. Sharon wanted to move, and fast, but money was tight.
The carpet in the hallway was still splotched with bloodstains when HuffPost visited in early October. Every time Sharon walked past the kitchen, she said, she expected to see her daughter standing over the stove. Delashon was always cooking, she said. Broccoli and cheese casseroles, or thick gumbo with cornbread.
She described her daughter as a homebody; a generous, smiley young woman who was good at doing hair and took great pride in her identity as a mother.
Sharon said she was unaware that Rainey was abusing her daughter. She’d seen him get jealous or angry on a few occasions, but she considered him to be like a son.
“Whatever they did, they did behind closed doors,” she said. “I never saw no bruises.”
Delashon called Rainey “husband” and he called her “wifey,” and though they were not technically married, they had been together more or less since she was 13 and he was 17.
On social media, Delashon projected an image of happy coupledom, posting dozens of photos of Rainey and herself.
“I LOVE MII HUSBAND HE GIVES ME LIFE,” she wrote on Facebook.
Once in a while, Delashon alluded to romantic problems. When she shared inspirational quotes, they were often about persevering through hard times, standing by your man. She called herself his “ride or die.”
In real life, Rainey was frequently in trouble with the law and had a history of violence. In 2012, he was accused of armed robbery. A woman told police he showed up at her house with a gun, told her to “suck his dick,” punched her in the head and stole her Sony PlayStation 3, according to a court document.
The state later dismissed the case after the victim changed her mind: She didn’t want to testify against him.
It is impossible to know when Rainey first turned violent toward Delashon. But by the time she was 16, a witness called police to report a domestic dispute involving the couple. It was 2014, and when the police arrived, Rainey was gone.
Delashon told them she didn’t want to pursue charges.
“i just wish it was me and him in dis world 😘😘😘😘😘” she wrote on Facebook the following day.
Her sister, Lajoyce Robertson, 21, said Delashon didn’t talk about abuse in their relationship. “She kept her business to herself,” she said.
Domestic violence wasn’t really discussed in their community, she added. Women and girls were afraid of being judged or having their partners judged. So they stayed quiet.
Why Black Women Don’t Report
While victims of all races experience shame about domestic violence, there is a deep culture of silence in black communities, said Zoë Flowers, a domestic abuse advocate and author of From Ashes to Angel’s Dust: A Journey Through Womanhood.
One reason is that many black women are socialized from a young age to believe they must be strong all the time.
“We are taught that telling your business, asking for help, showing vulnerability ― these are signs of weakness,” Flowers said. “We think we can handle whatever comes our way because that is the expectation.”
Many black women are also taught to protect the race at all cost, she said. That means victims of domestic violence may stay quiet to shield their communities from additional negative attention.
“People already feel like black men are more violent, that black women are loud ... all these stereotypes,” Flowers said. “You don’t want to open your community up for more scrutiny.”
There’s also a general attitude that women should stand by their partners, no matter what, she added. “Why? Because the world is hard on black men.”
The legal system incarcerates five times more black people than whites.
It’s not uncommon for black victims of domestic violence to recuse themselves from the criminal justice system, said Beth Richie, professor of African American studies and gender and women’s studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
“There is a feeling in black communities that the only time violence against black women is taken seriously is when it can be used to feed the arrest and detention of a black man,” Richie said.
That belief can sometimes lead women to make decisions that are not in the interest of their own health and safety, she added.
When black women do involve the police, it can open them up to arrest themselves, said Gretta Gardner, the deputy director at Ujima Inc.: The National Center on Violence Against Women in the Black Community.
“There’s this pathology about black women that we are kind of combative, the angry black woman trope,” Gardner said. “We aren’t seen as true victims.”
Another major reason why black women don’t report abuse is economic, said Lisalyn Jacobs, an expert on the intersection of race and domestic violence.
Black women are more than twice as likely to live in poverty than white women. They are disproportionately single heads of households and often don’t have the financial means to leave their abusers.
“They may not have enough for first and last month’s rent” to get their own apartment, she said, or they may rely on their partner to provide child care.
When black women call the police, some risk being evicted by their landlords due to “nuisance ordinances,” which penalize victims for crimes committed in their homes. Reporting an abusive partner can mean ending up homeless.
Many black women have witnessed how seemingly minor interactions with police can quickly have life-changing consequences, Jacobs added.
“African-American communities have historically been over-policed,” she said. “It is completely reasonable for black women to worry that somehow the situation could go sideways and their children end up with child protective services.”
Spiraling Out Of Control
By the time Delashon was 18, she was desperate enough to call the police herself.
In February 2016, the couple got in an argument over the phone, according to court documents. After they hung up, Delashon later told police, Rainey showed up at her house and knocked on the door. When she opened it, she said, he grabbed the back of her neck, scratching her, then pulled her out of the apartment and smacked her on the side of her head with a handgun.
Delashon was able to get away and call 911 from inside her house. When she went back outside, he started shooting at her, she said.
Police officers took photos of Delashon’s neck and filed an arrest warrant for Rainey, who had fled the scene. He left a gun behind, which police confiscated. They also asked Delashon if Rainey had impeded her breathing when he grabbed her neck, as research has found that men who strangle are more likely to go on to kill their intimate partners. She said no.
The couple reconciled soon after, but the peace was short-lived. Three weeks later, Rainey assaulted Delashon again.
She was spending the night at Rainey’s house, which he shared with his mother. Delashon later told police she was asleep in Rainey’s bed when he woke her, demanding sex. She said no. That upset him, she said, and so he knocked her to the ground and began beating her. Her screams got the attention of Rainey’s mother, who ran to help her. So did Rainey’s sister’s boyfriend, who eventually pulled Rainey off of her.
Undeterred, Rainey grabbed a gun from underneath his bed and started firing at random, threatening to shoot everyone. One bullet grazed his mother’s thumb, but no one else was hit.
This time, Rainey was taken to the Dallas County Jail. For the two separate incidents involving Delashon, he faced four counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, charges that could bring up to 20 years behind bars.
But Delashon had her own worries.
The 18-year-old discovered she was pregnant.
As Rainey sat in jail, prosecutors struggled to build a solid case against him. None of the witnesses who saw Rainey assault Delashon wanted to testify against him, his defense attorney Kenneth Weatherspoon told HuffPost. Ultimately, Delashon didn’t cooperate.
“The family members were all pretty adamant that they didn’t want the state to prosecute him,” Weatherspoon said.
It’s also highly likely that Delashon was too terrified to testify.
Her sister, Robertson, said she didn’t know about the charges or Delashon’s choice not to cooperate. But she speculated that she was probably scared.
Although Delashon spoke with police on at least three separate occasions about Rainey’s alleged abuse, it appears she did not receive any domestic violence services. In that sense, her experience is typical. Most women killed by intimate partners in Dallas County never got a protective order or stayed at a domestic violence shelter.
Especially in poor communities of color like South Dallas, where Delashon lived, victims of abuse are not likely to access resources, said Mariame Kaba, an anti-violence activist and prison abolitionist. They might not know such options exist or may feel alienated by the racial biases of people who provide services.
Kaba believes community accountability is the key to addressing domestic violence. Everyone who can should sign up for training at a domestic violence organization to learn how to safely intervene when they see harm occurring in their own communities, she said.
“The prison industrial complex has actually de-skilled everybody in intervention,” she said. “It makes it so easy to pick up the phone and call 911 as your form of action.”
The shift has to happen on a societal level, she said, with communities addressing the internal violence instead of turning a blind eye.
“There is no magic bullet,” Kaba said. “It is us who are going to have to change the culture to keep people safe. I know that’s not comfortable for people, but you know what? It’s fucking uncomfortable to be abused.”
Delashon, 18 and pregnant with Rainey’s child, decided to stand by him.
She visited him in the county jail every week, her sister Robertson said. On Facebook, Delashon posted photos of her pregnant belly, along with a quote that expressed what it felt like to have her partner behind bars.
“I didn’t make it all this way alone,” the message said. “He’s been right there with me the whole time <3 incarcerated or not. We’re a team.”
In October 2016, she gave birth to Rayray.
It was a lot of work providing for a baby while his father was in jail, but Delashon embraced the challenge, Robertson said.
“She was a very good mother,” she said. “And she was handling it on her own. But she wanted her child’s father to be in his life. She was going to do nothing but wait until he got out.”
In November 2017, Rainey was set free in a plea deal after a year and eight months behind bars.
He pleaded guilty to four charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon in return for four years of “deferred adjudication” probation. That meant his charges would essentially be dismissed if he stayed out of trouble for four years and completed the conditions of his release.
Weatherspoon, Rainey’s then-attorney, said the deal was the best outcome that prosecutors could get, given the circumstances of the case.
“I think the district attorney took the position that it was probably better to get him on some type of probation instead of going to trial and not getting any kind of conviction at all,” he said.
In a statement, Kimberlee Leach, a spokeswoman for the Dallas County district attorney’s office, said it is not uncommon for first-time offenders like Rainey to be placed on deferred adjudication. In this case, she said, all of the witnesses, including Delashon, said they wanted no jail time for Rainey and indicated they were not on board with prosecution if the case went to trial.
“They pleaded for him to get help (probation) and not go to prison,” she said. “They represented to our office that they had no safety concerns and did not want stay-away orders. They believed his issues could be dealt with through medication and treatment.”
Rainey’s probation conditions required him to undergo drug testing and barred him from owning or purchasing a gun. But they didn’t require him to attend a “batterer intervention program,” a class specially designed for abusive partners. Leach said this was because his family asked that he not have to do so. Instead, the court referred him to anger management classes.
That was the wrong call, said Paige Flink, CEO of Family Place, Dallas’ largest domestic violence agency. Anger management does not address the issues of power and control that exist in abusive relationships, she said. Batterer intervention programs do.
In Flink’s opinion, Rainey presented as an extremely high-risk offender: He had twice fired a gun during a domestic violence incident.
“The access to guns is a real problem,” Flink said, pointing to a study that found victims are five times more likely to be killed if their abuser is armed.
Less than a year later, Delashon was dead.
Rainey and Delashon reunited as soon as he was released. Within a few months, she was pregnant again.
Her family said it was hard to tell how she really felt about Rainey. If she was in love, or worried about her future, or scared of him, or a mix of all three. Her sister said she sensed that something was wrong a few times, but Delashon said everything was OK.
“Out of respect, I left it alone,” Robertson said.
Delashon, who had dropped out of high school in 11th grade, planned to get her GED and pursue a nursing degree after she gave birth to her second child, her mother said.
“I was going to watch the baby while she goes to school,” Sharon said.
On Facebook, Rainey played the part of a committed partner and father. He posted photo after photo of Rayray and declared his love for Delashon. On Valentine’s Day, he bought Delashon a gift basket with a pink teddy bear.
“Happy Valentine’s Day bae we been aht Dix Shit Like 7yrs Strong 💙♿🎁🎀,” he wrote. In May, he took Delashon to the doctor for a checkup, posting a photo of the two of them in the waiting room. She was due in October.
On an ordinary Sunday in September, everything changed.
It is a day Robertson will never forget.
As she recalls it, her sister was in the kitchen, cooking a turkey leg. Rainey was in Delashon’s bedroom. Rayray played with his cousins in the hallway, taking turns riding a tricycle. When the kids began to quarrel, Delashon carried Rayray into her bedroom for a timeout.
She closed the door behind her. Rainey, Delashon and Rayray were in the bedroom for a few minutes, out of sight. Robertson remembered playing on her phone, wasting time. Then she heard yelling.
Delashon was screaming her name, pleading for help.
Robertson burst into Delashon’s bedroom, she told HuffPost, and found Rainey attacking her sister. She jumped on him, and then so did her fiancé, 25-year-old Daveron Sanders. Rainey pulled out a gun. It is unclear where he got it.
Just as he had on at least two other occasions, he started to shoot. Only this time, Robertson said, his bullets connected. Two went through Sanders’ shoulder. Another went through Delashon’s back as she was running out the door.
Rayray watched everything.
Delashon fell down in the hallway. Her mother ran to her and held her, squeezing her wrist to feel for a pulse.
“I thought I’d keep her safe here,” she said. “I was supposed to protect her.”
At the hospital, doctors performed a C-section to deliver Delashon’s baby.
At 20, Delashon died of her gunshot wounds.
A New Life
Almost three months after Delashon’s death, her family is awash in grief, throbbing with questions that can never be answered.
Rainey, who has been charged with murder, is being held in jail, with bond set at $350,000. His attorney, Douglas Schopmeyer, said his client has a mental health condition and asked that judgment be reserved until he is examined by a forensic psychiatrist. He faces up to life in prison if convicted.
The newborn baby girl is named Delashon, after her mother. Her family says she looks just like her. Baby Delashon has been released from the hospital and is still recovering. Her family is raising money for her online.
Robertson is struggling to accept that her sister is gone for good. She tries not to think about it, she told HuffPost. It’s too much. Rayray keeps asking for his mother, she said. He is too young to know, and yet he knows she is not coming back.
Sharon Jefferson cannot help but wonder how her daughter’s death could have been avoided. Did it have to be this way? And why did no one seem to care?
Right after the shooting, local news outlets descended on Sharon’s house, writing about the tragedy, and how her baby granddaughter was miraculously saved. Now everyone was gone.
They were left to manage their pain alone.
Every other day, Sharon said, she goes to visit Delashon’s grave and brings an offering, a bunch of flowers or balloons. She thinks about the good times she had with her daughter, cooking and going to church, running errands. The little stuff. Even though she’s eager to move out of the house where her daughter died right in front of her, she is also worried about forgetting things. She has so many memories with her daughter in that house. She doesn’t want to lose them.
It was Delashon’s birthday this week, she told HuffPost in a recent phone call. That was extra hard.
“I take it one day at a time; I miss her so much,” she said. “It is hard for me to get over it. I don’t think I’ll ever get over my child’s death.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost.