Updated as of 12/08/2022 at 3:50 p.m. ET
In part two of our series, we explore Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s treatment of Tracy McCarter, a Black domestic abuse survivor, who was charged with killing her white husband.
Alvin Bragg Gives Tracy McCarter A Shout Out!
At the same time that Bragg campaigned to be Manhattan District Attorney, 46-year-old Tracy McCarter sat confined in Rikers Island because of COVID-19 delays. She had been charged with fatally stabbing her husband, James Murray, but from the moment of her arrest, she’d insisted that she acted in self-defense after Murray attacked her.
Activists at Survived and Punished, a criminal justice organization, spurred massive protests and campaigns to get Tracy released from jail.
In September, Bragg joined the chorus of voices in support of Tracy and against his predecessor District Attorney Cyrus Vance, who indicted Tracy that same day.
“#IStandWithTracy,” tweeted Bragg during the 2020 Manhattan DA race. “Prosecuting a domestic violence survivor who acted in self-defense is unjust.”
The earth shifted in that moment for Tracy’s daughter, Ariel Robbins.
“It just felt like this is somebody who really understands and that really cares,” she says. “As a Black man in America… he understood the role that racism played in her prosecution.”
In November of 2021, Bragg won the race with over 83 percent of the vote, making him the first Black Manhattan DA.
“We just knew that at the next hearing, they were going to essentially just say that they were dropping the charges,” says Robbins. “And we were just going to move on from this nightmare.”
And so they did the only thing they could do, they waited, and they waited, and they waited.
Months Went By Without Any Word On The Case
At first Robbins tried to be patient with the new District Attorney’s office. “They kept saying they needed to review the case,” she said. “We kept thinking, okay, well, it’ll be so obvious that this was self-defense that there’s no way they can’t throw it out.”
Robbins couldn’t believe that someone like Bragg would make such a public statement without seeing it through. But as the days kept ticking by, Robbins said she knew something was off, especially as prosecutors began to probe her mother to prove her abuse.
“It was confusing to me because they had the evidence that did, in fact, prove that [she was a victim of domestic violence],” she says. “So it just felt like they were playing a game.”
Robbins says the conversations between prosecutors and her mother turned from let’s review the case to offering Tracy a plea deal. “I realized that… just dropping the charges is not something that they plan to do,” she says.
Eight months after entering office, Bragg’s team went on record before the judge, stating that Tracy was in-fact a victim of domestic violence and that she should not have been indicted on murder charges. Instead they wanted to bring manslaughter charges, a lesser but still incredibly serious offense.
Judge Diane Kiesel, the judge in Tracy’s case, denied Bragg’s motion to dismiss the murder charges and move forward with manslaughter charges. She called Bragg’s efforts “tepid,” and stated that he hadn’t provided any explanation for why the charges should be downgraded “beyond vague references to evidence, materials, and statements, none of which are attached to their motion as exhibits.”
Legal experts who reviewed the motion, agreed that it was “tepid,” and was further evidence that Bragg wasn’t really interested in getting Tracy released.
Rather than immediately refile the motion, or use one of the other tools available to a DA who wants to get a case dismissed, his office moved forward with their murder prosecution for months.
“The DA’s office doesn’t believe that it’s murder, and yet they’re still moving forward with that charge,” said Robbins. “It just feels so surreal this can’t be really what it’s like to live in America like this can’t be real.”
Why did Bragg change his tune? The answer could be politics.
Political Turmoil Rocked The District Attorney’s Office
To call the initial months of Bragg’s tenure in office, “rocky” would have been an understatement.
Right-wing media outlets were never going to be kind to him. But, the leak of an internal “day-one” memo tanked any chance he had at flying under the New York conservative media apparatus.
The memo laid out Bragg’s plans to reduce prosecutions of lower-level non-violent offenses, such as theft of services, trespassing, and routine traffic violations. He also said his office would only seek pre-trial detention in a small percentage of cases, including murder, domestic violence, felony sex offenses, and public corruption.
Right-wing outlets had a field-day with the memo. The Rupert Murdoch-owned New York Post editorial board dubbed him “let-’em-loose District Attorney Alvin Bragg.”
Even some Democrats like New York Governor Kathy Hochul weren’t pleased.
If you don’t live in New York, you might imagine that every Democratic politician here is similar to progressive Representative Alexandria-Ocasio Cortez. But appearing too-progressive or “soft on crime” in New York is the last thing most city or state-wide Democratic politicians want, since they often fear challenges from the right
This was especially true of Hochul, who was in a precarious position politically since she’d only entered the office because former-Governor Andrew Cuomo resigned in disgrace. Hochul had been quite vocal about her dislike of progressive criminal justice policies like “bail reform.” And she wasn’t going to let a Democratic District Attorney in Manhattan make it seem like she didn’t have control of crime in the state’s most-populated city.
In an interview with the New York Post, she hinted at her dissatisfaction with the memo, and implied she’d talk some sense into the man she as Governor had the power to remove from office.
Hochul said she planned to give Bragg an opportunity to explain his memo to see if “there’s any adjustments in this thinking.”
However, she made sure to mention that if they weren’t in “alignment,” she had “options in terms of reassigning and making other decisions when it comes to finding out if there’s certain classes that are never going to be prosecuted.”
A week after Governor Hochul’s interview, Bragg walked back his memo.
But of course, the licks kept coming. In March, Bragg suspended his office’s ongoing investigation into Donald Trump. The decision was widely criticized, and spurred the resignation of two senior prosecutors on his team, Carey Dunne and Mark Pomerantz.
At this point, Bragg had become a frequent subject on Fox News and seemed to lack friends in his own party. Things became more precarious for Bragg when Republican Gubernatorial Candidate Lee Zeldin, who came shockingly close to victory in November, promised to remove DA Bragg from office if he won.
The political pressure on Bragg was mounting from the right and from within his own political party. Getting called “soft on crime,” for letting someone charged with murder off was exactly the kind of political headache Bragg didn’t need, even if the consensus was that she was innocent.
To many supporters of Tracy, it was clear that Bragg was hanging her out to dry in-order to maintain his hold on power and get within the good graces of his party. It didn’t seem to matter that he’d campaigned on her cause. Now that he was in office, he’d have to make nice with the “moderates” in order to stay there.
“DA Bragg sort of used Tracy as a pawn to get elected,” says Siobhan Dingwall, an organizer with Survived and Punished New York, a local criminal justice organization. “And now he’s using her as a pawn to appear tough on crime in the face of extreme criticism by those on the right.
At a March virtual town hall, organizers publicly took Bragg to task over his continued prosecution of Tracy. “As a candidate, you committed publicly to not prosecute survivors of domestic violence,” said Sojourner Rivers, another organizer with Survived and Punished, on the call. “So now that you have held office for two months, how do you justify your continued prosecution?”
It didn’t help that Bragg’s office had denied Tracy’s request to seek in-patient mental health treatment to deal with severe suicidal thoughts.
Even early endorsers of Bragg’s, like Marissa Hoechester, started to question the hold-up. “I have been myself really frustrated with the pace of change,” said Hoechester, who served on Bragg’s transition team, in March. “I think there’s the person, Alvin. And then there’s the district attorney’s office.”
Update In the Case
In a rather surprising twist, the Judge in this case has taken note of our reporting. In her decision to dismiss the charges against Tracy McCarter, Judge Diane Kiesel noted an article written by the reporter on this story as a part of the pressure campaign against Bragg.
In Part III: Bragg and Tracy come face to face in court for the first-time.