As she sat in prison for more than a decade, Catina Curley waited for a second chance at defending her actions the night she shot her husband in the chest with a .357 Magnum.
Out on bail since June, Curley’s day in court finally came Tuesday, a year after the Louisiana Supreme Court tossed out her murder conviction for killing Renaldo Curley on the grounds that her lawyer had failed to call experts on battered woman syndrome.
Unlike at her first trial, Curley did not testify. The diminutive 46-year-old, wearing a pink blouse and purple slacks, sat mute as experts said the fatal shooting was reasonable in light of the years of bloody beatings her husband gave her before the night of March 30, 2005.
Prosecutors still insist that Catina Curley shot her husband without physical provocation as he was trying to walk away from a confrontation.
Curley’s supporters aimed to convince Judge Arthur Hunter otherwise during a marathon, 10-hour day of testimony in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court. Hunter said he will issue a verdict by Friday.
“I believe she feared for her life, and I believe that fear was reasonable,” said Beth Meeks, an executive at the National Network to End Domestic Violence. “The police reports gave clear indication that there was a pattern of Mr. Curley using, especially, some form of strangulation and head injury or assaults.”
Both sides agree on some facts. Witnesses said Renaldo Curley, 29, was entertaining several people at the family home in New Orleans East, including a woman who lived on the block, when he received a telephone call from his estranged wife. Catina Curley soon arrived at the house and ordered everyone who didn’t live there to clear out.
According to the Curleys’ children, the couple argued as they walked upstairs to a bedroom. Renaldo soon walked back down the stairs. Catina followed with a revolver and shot him once in the chest.
From the start, however, witnesses and attorneys have argued over whether Catina Curley intended to kill her husband and whether the shooting was justified if she did.
Catina’s stepson, Renaldo “Little Renaldo” Boykins, testified Tuesday that his father was putting on his shoes and jewelry to leave the house when she came down the stairs. His father did not lunge or move toward her before the shooting, he said. Afterward, he said, Catina seemed surprised.
“I guess she was shocked that she did it,” he said. “At that moment, she looked like she was shook.”
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Boykins told police the shooting was an accident. Yet prosecutors said his testimony strengthened the argument that Renaldo Curley was trying to defuse the situation by walking away.
The defense called Curley’s daughter April, who was 8 at the time. She said she witnessed her father throw a soda can at her mother in their bedroom shortly before the killing. Then she followed them as the confrontation moved downstairs.
“My mom was just telling my dad, ‘Let it go,’ and my dad started walking towards her … and then she started shaking, and she was crying like she was scared and the gun went off,” April Curley said through tears.
Much of the testimony about what happened inside the house was presented at Curley’s last trial in 2007. But there was one notable omission: Curley declined to testify in her own defense this time. Hunter denied a bid from Assistant District Attorney Kevin Guillory to have her testimony from the first trial admitted at this one.
Instead of a firsthand account, the defense relied on relatives, friends and experts to build a narrative around its claim of battered woman syndrome, a type of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Renaldo and Catina Curley’s son Devin said he had witnessed domestic violence in the family’s house on countless occasions.
“He had a bad temper problem,” Devin Curley said. “He would hit her, scream at her, punch the walls, throw stuff.”
Devin Curley said he also received “discipline.”
“I ... used to get whipped with a belt. I used to get punched,” he said.
In reports, police documented at least six allegations that Renaldo attacked his wife. Friends said she once showed up for her job at Walmart wearing sunglasses to cover a black eye. The years of mistreatment left Catina Curley with deep mental wounds, according to forensic psychologist Kathryn Lawing, who interviewed her for hours this month.
“Leading up to the shooting, she reported to me that she had many instances where she would have dreams about the instances of abuse, and the dreams would replay the previous traumas over and over again,” Lawing said.
Meeks said she believed the cumulative abuse triggered Catina Curley’s “fight or flight” response when, as she claimed to police, her husband placed his hands near her neck in their bedroom.
“You have no control over the process; it’s built into all of us. Trying to will that process to stop would be like trying to decide for your heart to stop beating,” Meeks said.
Meeks said Catina Curley’s claim about her neck was key, since strangulation increases the risk that domestic violence will be fatal by 700 percent.
Defense attorney Majeeda Snead, a Loyola University law professor, said prosecutors failed to show that Curley had a specific intent to kill or that her actions were not taken in self-defense.
Snead said that while Curley is under 5 feet tall, her husband was closer to 5 foot 9 inches and had a 230-pound body described by a coroner as being like a bodybuilder's. Snead said Curley picked up the Magnum revolver because she wanted an “equalizer.”
Snead said her client thought of the gun as “something that is going to make him not kill me tonight … something that is going to make him not pick me up and throw me against the wall tonight.”
However, in an impassioned closing argument, Guillory said Curley’s “self-serving” statements to Lawing about being choked on the night of the shooting were fabrications. He also emphasized that the last police report to document abuse by Renaldo Curley came from the 1990s.
The prosecutor told the judge to pay close attention to the moment during her interview with a homicide detective when Catina Curley seemed to back down from a claim that Renaldo had choked her. She also told the officer that she was tired of running from Renaldo.
“She made it up in her mind, judge, that at this moment, this was going to be a situation where she ended it,” he said. “She was going to come home and she was going to put him out that house. And she put him out in a body bag. Because she was tired and she wanted to be with her children.”
Guillory prosecuted the case with Assistant District Attorneys John Nickel and Michelle Jones.
Snead was joined by Christen DeNicholas and student attorneys Eliana Green and Leila Abu-Orf from the Loyola law clinic.
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Although Curley’s second trial was completed in a day, it was more than a decade and endless legal briefs in the making. At her first trial, jurors voted 11-1 to convict her of second-degree murder. Almost immediately, her case became a cause célèbre for advocates of battered women.
Curley’s defenders said her trial attorney, John Fuller, should have hired an expert on battered woman syndrome to explain her actions to the jury. Blaming his youth and lack of experience, Fuller later acknowledged that he should at least have conferred with such an expert.
Last year the state Supreme Court agreed with Curley’s appellate attorneys that Fuller’s failure was so severe that she deserved a new trial.
Hunter, who also oversaw the first trial, ordered her released ahead of her trial on $1,000 bail. That is an unusually low figure for a court where bail in murder cases is often set between $500,000 and $1 million.
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