“Before this, I was always a private person,” April Ross says. She means before the former Atlanta prosecutor was shot by her husband, survived and became an unofficial spokesperson for domestic violence and gun control as an Assistant District Attorney in Atlanta. And before she was on Jon Stewart’s Apple TV+ show “The Problem” along with fellow survivor Janet Paulsen.
Before all that, she was married to a man she hoped would change, but who had no intention of doing any such thing.
In 2011, when she was 29 years old, Ross married Tranard McConnell, her so-called high school sweetheart, though that term doesn’t seem applicable for a man who was controlling, domineering, and threatening from the get-go.
Ross had high hopes for their future. Hopes that this man, who wooed her for a short period of time during their teenage years, might revert to that boy again.
Ross described her husband’s outward personality as charismatic and likable. Behind closed doors, there was a different side to him. A harsher, less amicable side. He believed in traditional gender roles. The man was in charge. And by “in charge,” he meant he made the decisions, and she was expected to be both subordinate and submissive. It meant the former pitcher would forcefully throw objects angrily across the room when things didn’t go his way. It also meant putting his wife, an accomplished prosecutor and undeniably the breadwinner in the family, on a “budget,” though by all definitions, it was an allowance. A hundred dollars a month. Enough to fill up the car with gas and not much else.
“We had awful fights and arguments about that,” she says.
Though there wasn’t outright physical abuse, his verbal abuse cut just as deep.
“He would say things he knew would hurt me. It’s hard to explain how verbal abuse isn’t just name-calling. It’s tearing you down, sometimes in a very subtle and systematic way, to make you feel like you’re not worth anything.”
It was made worse by McConnell’s constant infidelity.
“He told me he felt like we needed an open marriage. I knew he wanted the ability to sleep with other women. I already knew he was sleeping with other women.”
Initially, she says her response was “Hell no.” But she would come to change her mind. The thought of passing him off to someone else might be a relief.
“I agreed to it because sex with him was horrible.”
McConnell believed his wife owed him her body and would use sexual coercion as a punishment for her not doing what he asked. The sex, she remembers, was just as unkind and volatile as he was. “He cared nothing about true intimacy or even my consent,” she says.
Initially, leaving him didn’t seem like an option.
“My self-esteem was very low and I did not want to be alone. And I didn’t believe that another man would want me.”
In early 2014, things changed. Ross decided she’d had enough.
“I couldn’t see a way out of the chaos without separating.” She wanted to show him what he could lose, but she wasn’t sure she was ready for divorce. She still held out hope things might change, that he might change. Until that is, she tasted freedom.
“When I moved out, I felt like I could breathe. I felt free. I realized if I went back it would be the same thing that I’d always done…thinking that me leaving would change him and then him going back to the same behavior.”
Then she ominously remembered McConnell’s words repeated over and over from the moment they were married.
You got me for life. There’s only one way out of marriage—it’s in a grave.
Divorce is not an option.
“That was his mantra from the moment we were engaged,” she says.
After she left him, he reminded her of his stance. There’s only one way out. It started to scare her.
Friends and family encouraged her to get an order of protection, but she didn’t think her husband’s threats would be enough to convince a judge. In her profession, she’d helped women in the past get orders of protection. She knew you needed certain proof. Proof she was afraid she didn’t have because things had never gotten physical.
She didn’t know McConnell had a gun. She also didn’t know until later that he’d put a tracking device on her car. He knew exactly where she’d be, and he decided to make good on his promise by trying to kill Ross on April 25, two days after she filed for divorce and served him with the papers.
Approaching the car where Ross sat with a friend, McConnell fired three bullets into his wife, hitting her jaw, arm, and spine, the latter of which would cause paralyzation from the chest down. Her friend, who sat in the passenger seat closest to where McConnell stood outside the car, was shot six times after trying to block Ross from the gunfire. Miraculously, he survived.
Later that day, McConnell would die by suicide.
It took months of hospitalization for Ross to initially recover, followed by years of intensive therapy, rehab, and additional surgeries. During that time, she spent three months at the Shepherd Center, a rehabilitation hospital predominantly for people with spinal cord injuries, adjusting to her new life as a quadriplegic and wheelchair user. Though she still has use of her arms, her hands are impaired as a result of the paralysis.
Today, she lives mostly independently, with a caregiver stopping by in the mornings to help her and a service dog named Hershey all other moments. She can drive a car using hand controls.
“I’m a bit of a rebel and fighter because I refused to believe I was just going to be stuck living in my parents’ house, laying there and having folks do everything for me,” says Ross. She remembers thinking, “This is not going to be my life, otherwise it’s going to be a short one because I wouldn’t survive.”
After well into her healing journey, Ross decided to go back to work as an assistant prosecutor in Atlanta. Then in 2019, Georgia Gov. Kemp had a new role in mind for her—executive director of the Georgia Commission on Family Violence, a role Ross relishes, but which comes with its challenges.
“Being in this role where I’m staring down the face of incidents and issues that are very much reminders of my story can be triggering. I have to take mental breaks and remember to take care of myself.”
As her story of survival emerged, the victim-blaming in the comment sections was harsh. Among the critiques there was a constant refrain: She’s a prosecutor—she must not be very good at her job to end up in a situation like that. Though her friends urged her to ignore the trolls, she questioned herself.
“I thought, hell, why wouldn’t a prosecutor know about this? Why couldn’t I see victimization when I was living with it?”
Her goal today: is to educate others on the signs of abuse. The red flags she missed that indicated escalation. And to petition the lawmakers to prevent it from happening to someone else.
“You should be able to be immediately notified if there’s an attempted gun purchase,” she says, referring specifically to survivors of abusers who have a known history of domestic violence while a divorce or custody case is pending.
“With all the loopholes, it won’t save you in every instance. But we can’t choose to make policy based on if everyone will be saved.”
She says Georgia also recently became a “permitless” carry state, which means exactly what it sounds like. Initially, Ross tried to work with legislators to enact safeguards for victims of domestic violence but says her attempts were unsuccessful. But it doesn’t mean she’s given up.
“We are planning to work with partners …. and bring back previously proposed legislation to strengthen Georgia’s gun laws,” says Ross.
At the Shepherd Center’s request, Ross would return as a peer support person, which is how she met Janet Paulsen. The two survivors bonded over similar traumas—both women were shot by their abusive husbands. Both husbands then took their own lives. And both women left to navigate life in a wheelchair.
In November 2021, they were contacted by Jon Stewart’s show, “The Problem,” on AppleTV+. The two women were asked to be guests in Episode 4, “The Problem with Guns.”
She describes Stewart as gracious, funny, down-to-earth, and focused on actual solutions to issues like gun violence.
“What I really loved about being on the Jon Stewart show was that he really took time to understand the issues,” Ross says. “Sometimes, I think, whenever the subject is guns, people are so dug in, and the issue is so divisive that it’s hard to just have a conversation about how to approach the issues. The reality is people are dying who don’t have….I think that [Stewart] adding his voice and his platform will make an impact.”
Together, Ross and Paulsen are among an estimated group of 1 million women alive today who have been shot by an intimate partner and have survived, according to statistics from Everytown for Gun Safety. Likely, it is a vast underestimation. Not every woman shot by her partner will be classified as a domestic violence survivor, either by her own choosing or law enforcement’s definition. In some cases, women like Ross will realize later that their partner wasn’t just controlling, but abusive. And wasn’t getting better, but rather getting more dangerous.
On top of that, Everytown says that another 4.5 million women have been threatened with a firearm by their partners. What follows a threat of violence is often stalking, like in Ross’ case. More than 75 percent of intimate partner homicides and 85 percent of attempted homicides of women were preceded by at least one incident of stalking in the year before the attack.