It’s been a year since a viral video showed a Florida judge berating, humiliating, and degrading a disabled Black woman in her courtroom. Splashed across the headlines, the enduring image of Sandra Faye Twiggs, who suffered from COPD, coughing and struggling to breathe as Broward County Judge Merilee Ehrlich berated her, painted a bleak portrait of Florida justice.
Confined to a wheelchair, Twiggs tried to explain to Ehrlich her need for her breathing treatment, to which the judge coldly dismissed her.
“Ma’am I’m not here to talk to you about your breathing treatment,” Ehrlich shouted.
Days later, Sandra Twiggs died at the age of 59. Ehrlich, who was just months shy of her retirement, stepped down and the news cycle seemingly moved on.
But long after the headlines faded, Twiggs’ family found themselves faced with the daunting task of picking up the pieces of their lives without her. Her sister decried the judge’s actions to the media, boldly advocating for justice for Sandra. But a lesser-known victim in the situation was Twigg’s teen daughter, Michelle Ballard, who had just turned 18 when her mother was arrested.
Since those fateful events, she tells ESSENCE that she’s struggled not only with homelessness and feeling abandoned by much of the rest of her family, but also with the heavy weight of being a young woman navigating the world without her mother.
“My mom was always joyful—smiling, joking and laughing,” she tells ESSENCE. “She would always call my name when she needed me or wanted to mess around with me. We would have a few disagreements, but we always bounced back you know? And it hurts me that I can’t see or hear her voice. I miss walking in the house from school hearing, ‘Chelle, girl you homeeee?’”
In the days leading up to her mother’s death, there had been tension at the home where she lived with Sandra and Sandra’s sister, Anna Twiggs, to whom contact attempts made by ESSENCE were unsuccessful.
Michelle says she and her aunt argued constantly. Anna didn’t like Michelle’s boyfriend and had, along with Sandra, even filed a restraining order against him, a move which Michelle says was all a misunderstanding. According to Michelle, Anna also wanted to move a male friend of hers into the house, who made the teen deeply uncomfortable after years of alleged advances.
Sometimes, Michelle says she would go stay with her sister in Miami, especially when arguments would result in Anna “cutting off the lights or the water.”
On the night of Sandra’s arrest, Michelle and her mother got into a minor argument that Michelle says she thought little of at the time.
“My mom wanted something that belonged to me out of my room,” Michelle said. “I told her no, she fussed for a little and scratched me, but it wasn’t on purpose.”
Anna, however, seemed to think otherwise, and called the police to say that her sister and her niece were fighting. When police arrived, they arrested Sandra on misdemeanor charges.
All of that led to the now-infamous court appearance with Ehrlich, whose treatment of Sandra was so brutal that Broward County’s elected public defender Howard Finkelstein wrote a letter to the county’s chief judge, calling Ehrlich emotionally unfit and her actions “shocking.”
“I don’t think [Ehrlich] ever saw Ms. Twiggs as a person,” Finkelstein tells ESSENCE. “I’ve seen a lot of bad things in my 42 years in the law. But that video will really stick with me. This woman spent her last days on earth being shamed. She died awfully.”
For Sandra’s family, each share of the video of the encounter forced them to relive her last terrible days and the powerlessness they felt in losing her.
When Sandra came home, she didn’t want to go into too many details to her daughter. But what she did share was that she was deeply traumatized by the encounter.
“My mom told me that they treated her really bad,” Michelle says. “She had bruises on her wrist and bruises on her arms … she said that they handled her really rough. They pushed her around and everything.”
Worse, Michelle says her mother told her that Ehrlich actually instructed authorities not to give her the breathing treatment she needed for her COPD, forcing her to spend hours struggling to catch her breath. The night took a toll on Sandra’s mind and body. When she came home, Anna told the local press that Sandra was extremely weak and despondent.
It was during that time that Michelle and Anna got into another altercation. According to Michelle, it began when she tried to come home from school and found her aunt had locked her out of the house.
“My aunt wouldn’t open the door, so I crawled through my window in my room to get in,” she said. “She called the police and tried to put me out.”
According to Michelle’s account, when the cops arrived, she asked an officer to stay with her because she felt her aunt was trying to destroy her belongings out of rage. She tells ESSENCE that the cop declined to get involved and instead sat idly by while her aunt continued.
Angry at the situation, Michelle told him, “don’t worry about it” and picked up one of the broken items. She “tossed it to a storage bin,” missed, “and it fell in front of him.” From there, Michelle was arrested on charges of assaulting an officer.
“He put on the report that I threw something at his head,” she said.
That day, April 17, was the last time she ever saw her mother, who died late that night.
Because she spent the night in jail, she did not find out the news until the following morning when she called her sister ahead of her court appearance. The news broke Michelle down to her core.
“At some points, I’ve blamed myself like I should have been there, but I couldn’t be,” she said. “My mom didn’t deserve to die, she should be here right now, talking and joking with me.”
Since her mother’s death, nothing has been the same for the teen, who says her aunt kicked her out, threw away all of her possessions and sold the home. They have not spoken since the day of Michelle’s arrest.
As she tries to put back the pieces and work through the emotional aftermath, Michelle says the financial burdens of doing it on her own are weighing heavy on her. She tells ESSENCE that a Go-Fund-Me that was set up to cover funeral expenses for her mother was mysteriously emptied without her seeing a penny from it. While her family says otherwise, Michelle says she was forced to pay for the whole funeral herself, all on her cashier’s salary.
After living in her car for months, it was ultimately towed away, forcing her to move in with her sister. She’s since set up her own crowdfunding account to get back on her feet and plans to pursue damages against Judge Ehrlich, who has remained largely out of the spotlight since her retirement, as well as Broward County.
But, as Finkelstein notes, Broward County doesn’t exactly have a positive reputation when it comes to the professionalism of its authority figures, especially its judges. Over the last few years, several judges have either stepped down or been disbarred for issues such as showing up drunk to work, substance abuse and corruption. Winning a civil case in that environment could prove to be an uphill battle for the teen.
Still, she’s not ready to give up on justice for her mother just yet, even as she knows it won’t heal her grief.
“I miss her so much. I just want her back,” she says. “But I know it doesn’t work like that. So I guess I have to wait until we meet again.”
Allison McGevna is a writer and editor based out of New York. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @alliemcgev