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Gwinnett County woman fights for chance at freedom, 24 years after killing her alleged abuser

Latoya Dickens was sentenced to life in prison in 1999 and she's been denied parole six times. She said the abuse started when she was 13 years old.

GWINNETT COUNTY, Ga. — A Gwinnett County woman is calling for a change in the criminal justice system, after serving 24 years for killing her alleged abuser. Latoya Dickens was sentenced to life in prison in 1999 and she's been denied parole six times. 

Dickens said the abuse started when she was 13 years old. She's now been in prison for nearly half of her life.

"The state gave me life. God has given me life lessons," Dickens said. "My life is being taken from me a second time. That's where I was. I gave him my life, and the state is taking it all over again."

On video, she read a poem she wrote about her incarceration to her attorney Janis Mann. Mann met Dickens in Arrondale State Prison, where she shared her story. 

"She started a relationship with him when she was 13 and he was 17. She gave birth to her first daughter before she was 14," Mann said. 

Mann said Latoya was abused for 14 years before she stabbed him during a struggle over a knife in 1999. She was sentenced to life in prison after telling the court she was "tired."

"When my client said, 'I'm tired,' what she meant was, 'I am tired of being abused, I'm tired of having to fight for my life, I am tired of this abusive life that I've been living since I was 13,'" Mann said. 

Dickens isn't the only one. 

According to a study, by the Sentencing Project in 2020, 1 in 8 incarcerated women in Georgia are serving a life sentence. Additionally, 1 in 3 of those women are serving life without parole, the study shows, which is double the national average.

Over the phone in prison, Dickens told Mann that people should care about all those other women, like her.  

"It is hard for me to understand that, and it's hard for me to place it into words. It seems like no one understands," Mann said. 

Executive Director of the Georgia Coalition Against Domestic Violence Jan Christiansen has interviewed Dickens and hundreds of women like her. She said most are women of color. 

"They're not getting the help they deserve as domestic violence victims, oftentimes, they're not seen as victims," she said. "And they're just not getting the help they need or the representation they deserve."

Dickens said it's time for Georgia to make a change. 

"We all fall short at times, but I assure you these life lessons remain. No one stays the same," she said. 

Mann asked the Gwinnett County District Attorney to write a letter on Dickens' behalf. She hasn't heard back yet, but they're hopeful this time around, the parole board might give her a chance at freedom. 

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Research shows one in four people are at risk of family violence. If you or someone you know needs help, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at (800) 799-7233 or contact Georgia Legal Services

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