Podcast S5 E2 | 33 min

I Do This for You, Mom

4 Apr 2023
One day, a woman in Baltimore received a text message from her mother wishing her a happy holiday. But something didn’t feel quite right.

Jeri Hutton Green is a mother, daughter, and advocate for survivors of domestic violence and homicide in Baltimore, Maryland. Her journey as an advocate began when her mother went missing in April 2020. A text message launched a 2-year battle for justice for her mother and other missing Black women.

Reported by Brendane A. Tynes, a doctoral candidate in anthropology and an interpersonal violence survivor advocate, this episode explores what it means to survive domestic violence and police violence as a Black woman.

SAPIENS: A Podcast for Everything Human is produced by House of Pod. Cat Jaffee was the editor for this piece, with help from producer Ann Marie Awad. Seth Samuel was the audio editor and sound designer. The executive producers were Cat Jaffee and Chip Colwell.

Brendane A. Tynes is a Black queer feminist scholar and storyteller from Columbia, South Carolina. As a doctoral candidate in anthropology at Columbia University, she studies the affective responses of Black women and girls to multiple forms of violence within grassroots Black political movements. Her scholarship has received generous support from the CAETR, Ford Foundation, and Wenner-Gren Foundation. She works with the Say Her Name Coalition and In Our Names Network to address sexual violence against Black women, femmes, girls, and gender-expansive people. Brendane also co-hosts the Zora’s Daughters Podcast, a Black feminist anthropological intervention on popular culture and issues that concern Black women and queer and trans people. Follow her on Twitter @brendanetynes.

SAPIENS is an editorially independent podcast funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation. SAPIENS is part of the American Anthropological Association Podcast Library.

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Season sponsor:

This episode is included in Season 5 of the SAPIENS podcast, which is part of the SAPIENS Public Scholars Training Fellowship funded with the support of a three-year grant from the John Templeton Foundation.

Read a transcript of this episode .

I Do This for You, Mom

Eshe Lewis: What makes us human?

Sara Hoffman: It’s a wild ride. Brace yourself.

Speaker 3: Imagine the future.

Miss Jeri Hutton Green: I will not be quiet.

Koffi Nomedji: We have to start from scratch.

Julio Tiwiram: Una revolución aquí en la mente.

Emily Willis: It gives me goosebumps.

Eshe: What makes us human?

Group: Let’s find out.

Eshe: SAPIENS: A Podcast for Everything Human. My name is Eshe Lewis, and this story comes from producer Brendane Tynes, an anthropology Ph.D. candidate and interpersonal violence survivor advocate. As a note to our listeners, this episode mentions intimate partner violence (also known as domestic violence), murder, substance dependance, and anti-Black police violence.

Brendane Tynes: Miss Jeri Hutton Green knew something was not right with her mother, Lillian Herndon, when she received a text message instead of a phone call.

Miss Jeri Hutton Green: We only talked on the phone every day, we may a skip a day, but not two. And so April 10, when I woke up, I had a message that said, “Stepping out with Erik for a couple of days. I’ll call you when I get back. I love you.”

Brendane: Talking to her mom is part of her daily routine. They don’t text, especially on a holiday.

Miss Jeri: Well, two days later was Easter Sunday. I was sitting there, me and my daughter talking, like, “Wait a minute, I hadn’t heard from Grandma.” I tried to call her, and I received a text. I’m like, “Wait. Something’s not right.”

Brendane: Miss Jeri tried to reason why her mom wasn’t responding with even a short “hello.” Erik was Lillian’s boyfriend. Lillian’s text mentioned she was spending time with his family. So maybe Lillian was cooking. Maybe they’re just enjoying each other’s company. Not responding wasn’t like Lillian. But Miss Jeri didn’t want to overreact. A few more days passed and still no phone call. Miss Jeri texted again.

Miss Jeri: I still didn’t hear from her. So that’s when I started panicking. I called her phone again, and I got a text. And I said, “Ma, we don’t text. I’m gonna need you to answer your phone, like, I need to hear your voice.”

Brendane: And again, she received a text response.

Miss Jeri: “I’m having a blast. I’m at his sister’s, and I’m gonna call you when I get back. We’re having lunch.”

Brendane: This time, she couldn’t push the feeling away that whoever was sending these texts was definitely not her mom.

Miss Jeri: So, of course, that was a red flag because we were in the middle of a pandemic, and I know she’s not going to spend the night at somebody’s house, his sister’s house at that. So I said, “OK, well, I still need you to answer your phone. I need to hear your voice.”

Brendane: Lillian’s response was the same as it had been: that Lillian was having a ball, that she will call when she returns home. That she loves Miss Jeri. Miss Jeri didn’t believe any of it.

Miss Jeri and Lillian share a phone plan. So, Miss Jeri tracked down the number most called on the plan. She tried it. No response. Then she tried calling the number from her son’s phone. This time, a man’s voice picked up, and it was Erik.

Miss Jeri: His response was, “Who this?” And I was like, “Erik.” He said, “Who is this?” And I said, “This is Jeri, and I’m looking for my mom. Where’s my mom?” And he was like, “I don’t know a Jeri or a Lillian.” But I never said my mom’s name.

Brendane: My name is Brendane Tynes. I’m a Black, southern, cisgender, queer woman, and an anthropology Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University. I moved to Baltimore in 2017 to study gender violence against Black women and girls and gender-expansive people. I use gender-expansive to include people whose gender expression does not fit traditional binary roles. I met Miss Jeri on March 30, 2021. It was the final day of a 40-hour virtual training for Maryland intimate partner violence survivor advocates. The facilitators of the training had organized a panel of survivors. The final speaker unmuted Zoom in front of a 50-person virtual audience. She was a middle-aged, Black woman with short locks who reminded me a lot of the women in my own family. It was Miss Jeri. She also looked like many of the women I had been interviewing for my research: Baltimorean Black women who had confided in me their feelings about being victims of interpersonal violence, the kind of violence that ripples through generations. I assumed her story would be like the others, but I was mistaken. I found Miss Jeri’s story so important that I reached out to her to learn more. I wanted to better understand something I ask myself all the time, “Why don’t people listen to Black women?”

Brendane: When Miss Jeri couldn’t get in touch with Lillian, she went to her house.

Miss Jeri: Banged on door, no answer.

Brendane: Miss Jeri had brought her son.

Miss Jeri: He banged on the back door. He ran around to the front and was like, “You know, just call me if somebody comes out.” So, no answer.

Brendane: No sign that anyone was inside the house. So Miss Jeri called the police.

Miss Jeri: I explained it to them, and they kind of blew me off. And they were like, “OK, well, we’re here. You can do a well check.”

Brendane: A well check or wellness check is often completed by police or other officials if there is concern that a crime has occurred in someone’s home. Usually civilians are not asked to conduct wellness checks because it could be a risk to their own safety. But for some reason, the police encouraged Miss Jeri to go herself. Miss Jeri retrieved the door key from her brother and went back to visit the house a second time.

Miss Jeri: So, my son went through the house, he came back, and he said, “I don’t see anything, ma.” I said, “OK, I’ll figure this out.” I called the police again to do a well check, because by then I started my own investigation.

Brendane: Miss Jeri kept contacting the police, their supervisors, and the detective department. Finally, a police car escorted her and her son as they went and conducted a third well check of Lillian’s home. And this time, something was different.

Miss Jeri: So, this time my son went through the house, and he came back, and he said, “Ma, what does a dead body smell like?” And I kind of panic. Like, I said, “It smells really, really bad.” And he said, “Well, Grandma’s closet smells really bad.” He said, “There’s a blanket in there, and there’s a big stain on it.” So I went to the police car, and I said, “Is that enough for you to enter the house?” “No. There are no signs of a dead body in that house.”

Brendane: To understand Miss Jeri’s story, it’s important to know about crime and policing in Baltimore. I first arrived in Baltimore in the summer of 2017. One day in June, I walked up North Charles Street and saw a giant gray billboard that read: “Whoever died from a rough ride?” The billboard referred to Freddie Gray’s state-sanctioned murder by Baltimore City police in 2015. The murder happened like this. Following his arrest, Freddie Gray was placed in the back of a police van. His hands were cuffed, and intentionally, no one buckled his seatbelt. Then the police drove quickly, slamming corners, breaking suddenly, and as a result, Freddie Gray sustained severe spinal injuries. He was admitted to a hospital and died a week later. Freddie Gray’s death was the final straw for an over-policed, under-resourced city. And it ignited an uprising.

Speaker 4: A state of emergency in place after the riots here last night. The images haunting and unforgettable. We saw those protesters overwhelming patrol cars, shattering windshields, setting cars on fire, left burning in the streets. The streets erupting in violent clashes. This protester carried away by police in riot …

Brendane: Seeing that billboard two years later made me realize how much his death meant every day to Black people in Baltimore.

The Baltimore City Police Department is notorious for its discrimination against Black city residents. Freddie Gray’s death catapulted the department into a national spotlight, leading to a federal investigation by the Department of Justice. Their report concluded that the Baltimore City Police Department, also known as BPD, has a pattern of making unconstitutional stops, searches, and arrests of Black Americans, among other civil rights violations. The report also indicated that BPD’s interactions with women victims of sexual assault and with trans people display unlawful gender bias. We’ve included a link to the report in our show notes.

Often, we see videos of police killing or harming Black men. For people who work in domestic violence and crime in Baltimore, the city has another name: Bodymore. But the truth is, police violence happens in more ways than the murders popularized on social media.

When I first heard Miss Jeri speak, I could feel heat rising in my face. That the family could report a missing person, visit the house, smell what they think is a body, find a stained and wrapped sheet in the closet, and the police still don’t enter? If it’s not the police, who are supposed to respond when families believe their loved one is missing and possibly dead in the closet?

Brendane: The police continued to give Miss Jeri the runaround. They didn’t follow through on the normal procedure for a missing person. She had to call officers repeatedly and ask.

Miss Jeri: Have you put the posters out? No. Have you binged her car? No. If it was an Amber Alert, it would be out. I said, “If my mother was Caucasian, it would be out.”

Brendane: But police promised they would bing Miss Lillian’s car, meaning they would put a search alert out for it. But they hadn’t. They kept pushing Miss Jeri aside.

Miss Jeri: He said, “Well, I’m going to need you to go there one more time.”

Brendane: And Miss Jeri pushed back.

Miss Jeri: I was afraid to go. So, I didn’t. I said, “I should not be the one to find my mother.” He said, “Well, I’m going to need you to go back one more time, and if you tell me that you smell a foul odor, I’ll go.”

Brendane: So, she went to her mother’s house again with her brother. The police waited outside. Miss Jeri and her brother started searching the basement.

Miss Jeri: I tried to open her freezer, and it wouldn’t open. So I’m like, “Oh, my God. He put her in this freezer.” I can’t get it open.

Brendane: Miss Jeri started to panic. Her brother reassured her that they would open the freezer later, but they needed to continue the search. They smelled no foul odor, so they headed upstairs to her bedroom.

Miss Jeri: And I got halfway up, and I said, “I know what a dead body smells like, and I’m telling you, she’s here. And she’s dead.”

Brendane: The smell was faint all the way up until Miss Jeri and her brother were standing in front of Lillian’s closet.

Miss Jeri: But then, as I opened the door, my brother, like, stepped in front of me and kind of moved me back. And I said, “Look, there’s the blanket that he was talking about and look at the big stain on it.” So, he was like, he blocked me, like, “Get back. Move back a little bit.” And he stuck his head in the closet and did like this.

Brendane: He put his arm in front of Miss Jeri to keep her from looking into the closet.

Miss Jeri: I was like, “She’s in there.” He’s like, “Yes.” I just started screaming and telling him like, “I just need to see her. I just need to hug her.” And he was like, “I cannot let you see Mommy like that. I cannot let you see this.” And I was like, “I just need to hug her. I just need to, just need to say goodbye. I need to tell her that I tried, I tried, but no one would listen.”

Brendane: In screams and tears, Miss Jeri and her brother went outside the house and confirmed to the police that indeed the smell and the stained blanket in the closet was Lillian’s body. And finally, police officers rushed into the home to begin collecting evidence. But why did it take so long for them to intervene? The short story is that BPD has a long history of racism against Black Baltimoreans. Before the Civil War, BPD was responsible for keeping Baltimore’s enslaved and free Black populations separate. At the time, Baltimore had the largest percentage of free Black people in the country, and the job of the police was to make sure that none of the enslaved Black community members were running off or hiding in a freed person’s basement. This meant the police were always up in everybody’s business, especially Black people’s business. Then in the 20th century, the police maintained the borders between White neighborhoods and Black neighborhoods as redlining segregated the city.

Brendane: Most recently, at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, when black youth openly protested in the streets, police brutally arrested Black people, even if they were not involved in the protests. But the violence does not end or begin with the police department. In fact, the city itself has a reputation for being a hard place to live, filled with death and misery. One would only need to listen to Nina Simone’s “Baltimore” to feel it.

Music: Oh, Baltimore / Ain’t it hard just to live? / Just to live—

Brendane: Miss Jeri went to a nearby park with her cousin to try to calm down.

Miss Jeri: I just kept screaming, like, “Ma, I tried, I tried to save you. No one would listen.”

Brendane: A man rolled by and rolled down the window. He looked at them and then drove away. Looking at his face, Miss Jeri’s intuition went off.

Miss Jeri: That MF is here. That MF is here. He’s watching us.

Brendane: The homicide detectives asked Miss Jeri to bring her files from her investigation to help them in the case. They interviewed her and her family at the police station, and she told them what she saw outside her mother’s home.

Miss Jeri: I said, “That car. That man. That was him. That was him.” And she said, “You know what? That may have been your mom’s car now that you say that.” And so at this point, they bing the car.

Brendane: After putting out the alert to search for Lillian’s car, the police found Roderick “Erik” Griffin with Lillian’s vehicle. Miss Jeri identified him from the lineup as her mother’s murderer. Erik confessed to the police.

Miss Jeri: He did confess. Said that he had killed her on April 10.

Brendane: The day she received those out-of-character texts from her mother’s phone.

Miss Jeri: My mother died of asphyxiation.

Brendane: Her body was not discovered until April 21. Lillian’s body was so disfigured that they had to cremate her remains.

Erik’s jury trial began on September 26, 2022. He was charged with first-degree murder and robbery. During the trial, his testimony was horrific.

Miss Jeri: He no longer seen her as a human being. He seen her as some kind of evil spirit. And it was crazy. He said that he’d rather be dead than homeless. She had told him to get out.

Brendane: Erik testified that Lillian wanted to break up with him and kick him out of her house. His fear of being unhoused drove him to kill her. But also in his defense, he told the courtroom that he and Lillian liked to play rough sexual games. And that they were playing these games on April 10, when she collapsed.

Miss Jeri: They said, “Well, how did she end up tied up?” Because she bounded at the hands. Her hands behind her back, her feet, and a bandana was tied around her nose and her mouth. He said that “we would play sometime. And when she collapsed, I thought she was playing. Well, I said to her, if you don’t get up, I’m going to tie you up.”

Brendane: Over the course of the trial, Miss Jeri testified on behalf of her mother in an attempt to humanize her. Finally, the day came for the jury to make a decision, and it was not what she expected.

Miss Jeri: What happened was the jury during deliberation did not understand what guidelines prove first-degree murder. So, they sent down a note saying they weren’t sure. They needed classification of first-degree murder. Well, before the state could give them that, they said, “Oh, never mind, we have a verdict.” So, they came out, and they said, “Charge number one, first-degree murder, guilty or not guilty?” They said, “Not guilty.”

Brendane: He was found guilty of second-degree murder in false imprisonment and sentenced to 40 years. The judge suspended 15 years, so he will be eligible for parole in 12 and a half. Erik’s sentence was not enough for Miss Jeri to feel closure. Justice was not served for Lillian or for her daughter. But what would have been enough to bring her the space to grieve? She had a beautiful memorial service for her mother, but even that did not give her what she needed.

Miss Jeri: And so for me to get closure, I need to see those pictures. She wasn’t even recognizable, you know, because of how tight he tied the bandana around her face. Her eyes were bulged out. It was just horrible. Everybody said, “Oh, if you see those pictures, that’s how you gonna remember your mom.” Well, it’s not. Yes. I remember what the pictures look like, but when I think of my mom, I think of that infectious smile that she had.

Brendane: 2020 was the deadliest year on record for Black women in Baltimore. Miss Lillian Herndon, at age 72, was one of the oldest of the homicide victims. She, like most Black women who are murdered, was killed by the man she loved because she wanted the relationship to end. She left behind many family and friends who miss her dearly. For Miss Jeri, the discovery of her mother’s murder took a heavy, life-changing toll.

Miss Jeri: I wasn’t sleeping. I wasn’t eating. I was never a drinker. You know, I took a step back and looked and I was drinking. And like, I would drink literally until I fell asleep, like, ’til I passed out.

Brendane: Depressed and isolated because of the COVID-19 shelter-in-place recommendations, Miss Jeri turned to alcohol to cope with her mother’s murder. Her own brothers left her to grieve alone after it was decided that she would inherit her mother’s home. She did not receive the help and support she needed to grieve. She went to homicide advocates, therapists, psychologists, and others, and was failed again and again when they did nothing.

Miss Jeri: When I say hell, it was hell. But then finally I said, “You know what? They’re not doing anything for me, I’m going to have to do for myself.”

Brendane: The only people who truly came through were her Black women cousins.

Miss Jeri: One cousin that was with me that day, you know, she was calling and coming and, like, “Did you eat?” I was like, “No, I can’t.” And she was like, “I’m on my way, and I’m going to cook and you’re going to eat something. I don’t care if it’s a bite, you’re going to eat something.” Then another cousin of mine, she came, and she stayed. So like, they would kind of switch off.

Brendane: And her doctor.

Miss Jeri: My doctor was still involved. And I said, “Listen, I need you to find me a psychiatrist.” I said, “Because if we don’t, I’m going to lose my mind.”

Brendane: Miss Jeri, like many other Black women, kept advocating for herself until she got her needs met. As she healed, her grief turned into resolve.

Miss Jeri: I am going to be heard. I’m not going to shut up. I’m not going to stop. I’m going to be heard.

Brendane: She has plans to talk to city and state officials about her mother’s case. Her ultimate goal is to create a Lillian Alert for missing Black women so that no one will have to fight as hard as she did for their missing loved ones.

Miss Jeri: I changed my email, and it’s now Idothisforyoumom@gmail. As long as I live, her legacy will live. My mother was an asset to this city. She was a drug and alcohol addictions counselor. She helped many, many people in this city. And for this city to fail her the way they did, I will not be quiet. I am sorry. I’m not going to be quiet.

Brendane: And it’s time we listen. Miss Jeri’s story is only one example of the harrowing effects of intimate partner violence and anti-Black police violence in Baltimore in the United States. At every point of her journey, from the first moment she sensed something was wrong with her mother to the end of Erik’s sentencing, she experienced a phenomenon that Black women know all too well. We are not believed. We are not seen as true victims of violence. We are not believed when we say we are in pain and in distress. Even when we have all the evidence, we still have to fight for ourselves. We know that we’re all we got. So when we say, “Protect Black women. Listen to Black women,” I wonder, who are we really talking to? Who are we hoping will hear us when the visible, tangible evidence of our pain, mistreatment, and abuse is not enough? What more is there to give?

Over the course of my advocacy work, I’ve listened to dozens of Black women, girls, and gender-expansive people describe the horrors they face when they choose to tell someone about their experiences. As a Black woman, an abuse survivor myself, I know what it’s like to be silenced and blamed. I was 15 years old the first time I can remember a man following me to the bathroom. He was 25. I was at church. When I told people what happened, they blamed me and made fun of me. They told me that my demons attracted men. And when I attempted to talk to his mother about it, she told me that he only did it because he knew I was going to be his wife someday.

At 16, I was sexually assaulted at school by a classmate. My grandmother, a dark-skinned Black woman who lived in the Jim Crow South, told me to learn self-defense. My mother, who lived in the aftermath of rape herself, said nothing. My uncle, who was my father in the absence of my own, insisted that my classmate had made a mistake. Telling the truth could ruin the boy’s life. No one considered what remained of mine.

Growing up as a poor, darker-skinned Black girl in Columbia, South Carolina, I quickly learned safety and protection were not promised. Though I was intelligent and hardworking, I would not be spared from the brunt of anti-Black gendered violence. My Black girlhood condemned me to a life in which I would have to work many times over just for the possibility of being seen as worthy of protection from harm. And even then, it would not be enough. This research has personal and political stakes for me.

When Miss Jeri spoke about being denied the basic human decency of being believed that her mother was in danger, her words spoke to the little Black girl in me who knew all too well the burden of being ignored. Being Black and woman means being excluded from movements that address Black issues because there is often an overwhelming focus on Black men and boys. It also means being excluded from women’s issues because, again, there is often an overwhelming focus on White women’s issues.

Anti-Blackness and sexism continue to shape the burden that silences us. In my research on the ways that Black women and nonbinary survivors of interpersonal violence use emotion in their fights for justice is just one way I hope to lift that burden up off us because there is no way that we can be free if we have all this shit weighing us down.

If we want to do better by Black women, it starts with considering all the opportunities to do things differently. We will only truly find safety and protection in communities where we have the resources to create the conditions for that safety. And that begins with abolition. We must get rid of the violent systems of policing and replace them with community-based structures that empower us to care for one another. That will be the only world where we get free. We cannot expect to turn the old systems founded on inequality into new institutions that are just. We must create something new.

Eshe: This episode was produced by Brendane Tynes. Brendane is currently an anthropology Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University, studying how Black women, girls, trans, and nonbinary people in Baltimore create life while fighting against injustice. You can learn more about her in our show notes, along with other details and resources for this episode. Brendane would like to give a special thanks to Miss Jeri Hutton Green for trusting her with her story.

SAPIENS is produced by House of Pod. Cat Jaffe is the editor for this piece with help from producer Ann Marie Awad. Seth Samuel is our audio editor and sound designer. Our executive producers are Cat Jaffe and Chip Colwell.

This episode is included in Season 5 of the SAPIENS podcast, which is the end product of the SAPIENS Public Scholars Training Fellowship, funded by the John Templeton Foundation. SAPIENS is an editorially independent podcast funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, which has provided vital support. Our thanks to Danilyn Rutherford, Christine Weeber, Maugha Kenny, and their staff, board, and advisory council.

SAPIENS is part of the American Anthropological Association Podcast Library. For more information, visit SAPIENS.org and check out the additional resources we offer in the show notes, on our website or wherever you’re listening to this podcast. I’m Eshe Lewis. ¡Hasta luego!


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