The Fist and the Knife

She said she couldn't get away. The prosecutor said she never tried. Now the courts must decide: Did Donna Miller kill her boyfriend in self-defense, or was it murder?

God, baby. Valentine's Day. My birthday's Monday and they won't even let him come here and talk to me. Shit, he's not fucking with me, he ain't beatin' me up. He's been beating me.

Everything all right in here. He can't beat the shit out of me. I miss work. He's going to get pissed off at all you motherfuckers. Bring my ass home, that's all he's going to say. Bring her long ass on home.

Better stop hitting on me. Tired of that. How am I going to deal with it? Keep on standing, baby. Oh, 'cause I know you love me, but you can't hit me here. I just want to be home in the bed. Pick up my check tomorrow. Got to go to the grocery store and you're changing my lock, as you said.

Mike Wohnoutka

 

The whole thing was just too unreal. This bare, white room with no windows and nothing on the wall. Her own hair, still up in rollers, her long, thin arms poking out of the baggy sweatshirt she'd only planned to wear while getting ready to go out. The police officer who kept coming in telling her that her boyfriend was dead, that she was under arrest for his murder.

Over and over she tried to explain what had happened. She and Earl were supposed to go to a bar with friends to celebrate Valentine's Day and her 40th birthday. They'd been drinking Milwaukee's Best and Thunderbird wine, and she and her girlfriend had been looking for red dresses to wear in honor of the holiday. At some point he'd started "trippin'" on her, shoving and hitting and shouting that she wasn't going anywhere, that he was "gonna fuck [her] up." He'd thrown a chair at her and backed her against the kitchen table. Only then had she picked up the knife. His eyes had gone wide and surprised after the stabbing, but he was still talking when the police took her away.

When the officer left, the hidden video camera in the Minneapolis Police Department interrogation room kept rolling. It captured Donna Miller sobbing into her hands, crying so hard she doubled over and her face grazed her thighs. As the night dragged on, with the video still going, she got tired and hugged herself as if she were cold.

But between spells she talked to Earl. She knew he couldn't be dead, laid out on a gurney over at North Memorial Medical Center. He'd come get her, and she would lie for him, and they would go home.

 

They'll let you get out. They're going to bring you home. Shit, they ain't got no choice. We got our bedroom set up, our living room set up. I ain't got to work this morning. I woke up at 6:15, yup. They goin' to release you right at noon. Make you a better damn house. You going to be here and there and going through all our kind of junk, I mean all the clothing and stuff in the bedroom.

Come on get me, baby. I ain't going to hurt nobody; can't keep beating me. Just come on home. I'll cover it up. I did before. Come on. Come on, baby. It's time for us to go to sleep. Shit. Let's go home, baby.

Over the weeks that followed her arrest, Miller's horror grew deeper as she realized what had happened. She'd waived her right to an attorney and talked to police because, even drunk and disoriented, she was convinced they'd see the case her way: She loved Earl Cosey, and she'd stabbed him only when he left her no choice.

Sgt. Christine Arneson and the other officers investigating the case seemed sympathetic, asking her about injuries Cosey had inflicted on her and trying to get hospital records from prior incidents. The judge who heard early motions in the case didn't appear to consider Miller a threat to society; she released her on bond and helped her get into chemical-dependency treatment. Even the prosecutor--a veteran assistant county attorney who at the time supervised domestic-violence prosecutions in Hennepin County--didn't seem to see her as a cold, calculating killer. She proposed a deal in which Miller would plead guilty to second-degree murder, then serve only a year in the workhouse instead of the state-recommended sentence of 12 years in prison.

But Miller rejected the plea bargain. "She felt very strongly that she had not committed a crime here," says Rick Trachy, the assistant Hennepin County public defender who represented her at the time. "And she would not say she was guilty of murder." That refusal set Miller on the path to a trial, a conviction, an appeal, and, now, the Minnesota Supreme Court. A decision by the justices on whether to review her case is expected in the next few weeks.

Miller was convicted after the prosecutor, Kathryn Quaintance, argued to the jury that the defendant had plenty of alternatives to stabbing Cosey. She could have left the house that night, or earlier in the afternoon when he shoved her down the stairs. She could have pushed for his prosecution when he sent her to the hospital weeks before. She could have broken up with him when he first started beating her. In short, Quaintance raised the question that has perplexed many of those dealing with domestic-abuse victims: "Why didn't she leave?"

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