Pat Johnson holds a medallion with an image of Jesus at the Logan Correctional Center in 2022.

Pat Johnson holds a medallion with an image of Jesus at the Logan Correctional Center in 2022. The medallion was given to Johnson by his family. Johnson is in prison for a murder committed by his then-partner and abuser. What’s known as “theory of accountability” law allows people to be punished for the acts of another person.

Shannon Heffernan / The Marshall Project

Domestic violence survivors in Illinois are in prison for abusers' crimes

Pat Johnson ended up in prison for murder — one of nearly 100 people nationwide the Marshall Project identified who were convicted of assisting, supporting or failing to stop a crime by their alleged abusers.

Pat Johnson counted the locks on the apartment door. One. Two. Three.

There were too many to undo and escape before Rey Travieso would get to her.

He’d just killed three people. He turned to her, her face covered in tears and snot.

“Don’t worry, Pat, I ain’t going to kill you,” she remembers him saying. “You believe me?”

She didn’t. For seven years, she’d been in an abusive relationship with Travieso. He had hurt her so badly that she landed in a hospital. She knew what he was capable of. So she did what he told her to do and helped stuff jewelry and money into a bag. And she kept her mouth shut.

Even though he didn’t kill her, in a way he still took her life. Since 1993, Johnson has been in an Illinois prison for the killings she says Travieso committed.

Cook County prosecutors didn’t have to prove that Johnson killed anyone to charge her with murder. Under Illinois law, what’s known as the “theory of accountability” allows someone who assisted in a crime to be charged with the crime another person committed.

That meant Johnson was charged with murder. And, just like Travieso, she faced a life sentence.

There is no comprehensive data about how many people are in prison for the crimes of their abusers. Through a search of legal documents, though, the Marshall Project was able to identify nearly 100 people across the country convicted of assisting, supporting or failing to stop a crime by their alleged abusers. Some of the women showed clear signs of abuse at the time they were arrested. One Illinois woman was in a neck brace.

Pat Johnson as a child. Johnson has been incarcerated since 1993.

Pat Johnson as a child. Johnson has been incarcerated since 1993.

Provided

Johnson met Travieso when she was 17. He was 35.

Travieso could be controlling, dictating where Johnson could go, whom she could see. But he also made sure she had what she needed. He once gave her a pair of dangly gold earrings. Johnson was the youngest of six girls from a poor family. The earrings were a symbol of Travieso’s ability to provide for her.

One day, in the parking lot of a Sizzler restaurant, that changed.

Johnson complimented another man’s car within earshot of its driver. Travieso was furious that Johnson paid another man attention and slapped her so hard that one of the earrings flew out of her ear. It wasn’t so much the pain that stayed with her but the utter embarrassment. The restaurant had big windows, and its staff and customers saw everything. Johnson wanted to crawl under the car and hide.

After that, she says, Travieso’s abuse escalated — a belt buckle to the face, a shattered glass table, black eyes and bruises. During one fight, Johnson screamed that God was going to punish Travieso for how he treated her. “I am your god,” he replied. And it felt true.

“I was so afraid of Rey. I don’t think I ever feared anyone that much,” Johnson said years later. “Sometimes, it was almost like fearing God.”

Eventually, Johnson discovered Travieso wasn’t really a truck driver, as he had told her when they met, but a drug dealer.

The afternoon of Jan. 16, 1992, Travieso asked Johnson to come with him to “take care of some business.” At her trial, she described what happened that day: They drove to the home of Travieso’s business partner Juan Hernandez in Lake View. Johnson knew they’d been fighting because Travieso said Hernandez owed him about $40,000. But they’d argued before and always made up. Hernandez answered the door and walked them to the living room, where his wife Olga sat holding their 10-month-old baby Evelyn.

Travieso and Hernandez began yelling. Then, there was a knock on the door.

When Hernandez got up to answer, Travieso pulled a gun and told him to sit down. Travieso pointed the gun at Johnson and told her to tell the pizza delivery man that the order was canceled. She obeyed. Olga gathered up a few thousand dollars and some jewelry, but it wasn’t enough to satisfy Travieso. He tied Hernandez’s hands, and as medical examiner reports later showed, pistol-whipped him and slit his throat. Next, he killed Olga and the baby. Johnson was sure she would be next.

So she wiped her tears on her shirt and followed his instructions: Gather the jewelry in a bag and casually walk to the car with him.

This is what Johnson testified at trial. It’s not the only version of events. Travieso’s story has varied over time, sometimes saying he wasn’t there at all despite strong evidence to the contrary. Asked recently about what happened, Travieso told a reporter Johnson “should never have been in prison. … All these years, I’ve felt bad about it all.”

Johnson has remained consistent in saying it was Travieso alone who killed Hernandez and his family: “God was there. He knows I didn’t hurt anybody. He knows I didn’t kill anyone. God was there. He knows that.”

Since going to prison, Johnson has come out as a transgender man. He remains in a women’s facility and still uses she/her pronouns when talking about his life before prison — and requested that this be done for this story because he said living as a woman was central to the abusive dynamic.

Rachel White-Domain, his lawyer, began working with incarcerated survivors of domestic violence in 2008 as a project begun with other volunteers around a kitchen table. At first, most of the cases involved women who had killed abusive husbands or boyfriends. But hundreds of letters from women’s prisons poured in, and she realized that many were in prison not for killing abusers but for aiding them in committing a crime. She estimates that these cases make up about one-quarter of her clients at the Illinois Prison Project, an advocacy organization for incarcerated people.

Attorney Rachel White-Domain, director of the Illinois Prison Project's Women and Survivors Project, at the organization's Loop offices. She is representing Pat Johnson.

Attorney Rachel White-Domain, director of the Illinois Prison Project’s Women and Survivors Project, estimates that cases in which people are imprisoned for aiding their abusers in committing a crime account for about one-quarter of the clients she represents through the advocacy organization for incarcerated people.

Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

Many of the cases against the people White-Domain represents aren’t about evidence or proof. They aren’t whodunits. Based on the laws that politicians write, juries and judges must decide: What should a person be held responsible for? How should the conditions of a person’s life be weighed when they are involved in a crime?

White-Domain said she believes accomplice liability cases like Johnson’s are more common than self-defense cases but harder to explain to the public and get far less attention.

When people defend themselves against deadly attacks by killing their abusers, it’s relatively easy to sympathize. It’s more complicated when the victim is not a violent husband but an innocent third party. It’s even more difficult when the offense involves young victims or especially gruesome killings — crimes that make some people so afraid and furious that they want to make sure anyone even remotely involved is punished.

Pat Johnson (center) with his nieces Persaphanie Turner (left) and Brittney Turner.

Pat Johnson (center) with his nieces Persaphanie Turner (left) and Brittney Turner.

Provided

At Johnson’s trial in 1993, she was allowed to introduce evidence of Travieso’s abuse. The jury saw pictures of injuries Johnson said Travieso gave her: wounds on her lips and shoulder from a hanger, bruises on her backside from the handle of a plunger. But the jury also saw and heard descriptions of the crime scene: the parents’ slit throats and a baby’s pacifier in a room splattered with blood.

A juror, who asked not to be named because she is afraid Travieso could somehow retaliate against her, said in an interview that she and her fellow jurors struggled to know what to do. The physical evidence didn’t prove how much Johnson had helped. But the juror remembers believing two things: that Johnson had provided Travieso at least some support but also that Johnson never would have done anything like this had it not been for Travieso and his control over her.

The juror said she grew up in a home with domestic violence and understood why a woman could be so afraid that she wouldn’t flee an abuser no matter how dire the circumstances. But she also wanted to do a good job and follow the law. She said there was almost a hung jury before ultimately finding Johnson guilty.

She said she still believes Johnson was the fourth victim in that crime and that the world is not safer with Johnson behind bars.

The judge sentenced Johnson to life in prison. At her sentencing, addressing the family of Juan, Olga and Evelyn Hernandez, Johnson said: “My pain is nothing compared to theirs, but I am truly, truly sorry for not coming forward.”

Olga Hernandez’s sister Dora Arrona said in an interview that Johnson has played the victim but that Olga and her family were the real victims. Arrona discovered the bodies of her family members and said that trauma still affects her physical and mental health. She’s skeptical of Johnson’s story and thinks she should stay behind bars.

Illinois lawyers, lawmakers and advocates who believe people like Johnson should not be in prison have tried different approaches to change the system.

At an Illinois legislative hearing last year on a proposal to limit the theory of accountability, a lawmaker argued that the law hurts victims of domestic violence. But Democratic state Rep. Dave Vella, D-Loves Park, pushed back, saying: “You’re accountable for the people you do nasty things with. And if something bad happens, you should be accountable for the bad act.”

The legislation went nowhere. Activists say they are continuing to push for changes.

Another approach lawmakers and activists in several states have taken is to rethink how domestic violence victims are sentenced. In 2015, Illinois passed a law that allows people to apply to be resentenced if their crimes were connected to abuse.

The state doesn’t track how many people have been freed under the law. Experts estimate it’s only a handful. One reason is that, unlike New York’s law, it doesn’t say judges can diverge from mandatory minimums. That’s key in Johnson’s case because he already is serving the minimum sentence for his crime: life.

In Illinois, the governor can grant clemency to people in prison they believe no longer need to be incarcerated. But Gov. J.B. Pritzker recently denied Johnson’s clemency bid. Johnson will be eligible to apply again in October.

If Johnson ends up being released because of clemency or changes to the law, two family members have bedrooms set aside for him.

Johnson is now 55 and has spent more than half of his life behind bars. His teeth are in bad shape, and he sometimes uses a cane.

He said he no longer fears Travieso.

And Johnson said he prays constantly, that he owes it to God to be brave.

Attorney Rachel White-Domain (left), director of the Illinois Prison Project's Women and Survivors Project at the Illinois Prison Project, is representing Pat Johnson. Her team also includes Cindy Murillo Carbaja, Yuchabel Harris and Ingrid Hofeldt.

Attorney Rachel White-Domain (left), director of the Illinois Prison Project’s Women and Survivors Project at the Illinois Prison Project, is representing Pat Johnson. Her team also includes Cindy Murillo Carbaja, Yuchabel Harris and Ingrid Hofeldt.

Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

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Shannon Heffernan reports for The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the criminal justice system. This report is published in partnership with The Marshall Project and Mother Jones.

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