These Women Were Sentenced as Children to Die in Prison
When Machelle Pearson learned last July that her life sentence would be vacated, she sent home a sepia-toned Polaroid of her late mother that she’d kept in a Bible during her 33 years of incarceration. But then her hopes of release were dashed. Pearson, like many of the roughly 2,500 people sentenced as teenagers to a mandatory sentence of life without parole, has been on a legal roller coaster ever since the Supreme Court ruled in a pair of decisions that juvenile lifers must be provided with a reasonable opportunity for release. Miller v. Alabama (2012) established that indiscriminately sentencing people under 18 to die in prison is unconstitutional. Montgomery v. Louisiana (2016) requires the Miller decision to be applied retroactively. These decisions establish that resentencing must take into account the fact that juveniles are inherently less culpable than adults due to brain-development patterns and their potential to be rehabilitated. In these cases, advocates successfully proved that teenagers sentenced to life in prison weren’t the irredeemable “superpredators” that they were made out to be in the 1980s and ’90s, when most of these individuals were sentenced—and that they didn’t deserve to die in prison. Nineteen states have eliminated mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles entirely. Hundreds of people have been resentenced to lesser terms since Miller, many since Montgomery. But most, like Pearson, have been in a kind of legislative limbo this past year, unsure of their rights. While the Supreme Court decisions have been hailed as victories of criminal-justice reform, some states are dragging their heels when it comes to giving juvenile lifers their day in court. These 2,500 adult men and women remain uncertain whether they’ll die in prison or be offered a second chance.
The Supreme Court decisions grant some flexibility: Montgomery allows states to maintain life sentences for those whose crime illustrates “irreparable corruption” or “permanent incorrigibility.” The phrases are intended to apply to people with a record of heinous violence, but their flexibility is keeping large numbers of juvenile lifers in prison, many of whom receive only cursory hearings. “The problem with Montgomery/Miller is that it stopped short of banning life without parole for children altogether…. Judges and prosecutors [are] interpreting this guidance from the Court in different ways,” said Jody Kent Lavy, executive director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. “Your sentence is going to be determined by which state you live in rather than your culpability or role in the crime and individual circumstance.”
The states with the highest juvenile life-without-parole (JLWOP) populations have some of the most punitive and troubled resentencing processes. Pennsylvania has over 400 juvenile lifers—the highest number in the country—with many of these cases stuck in a legal quagmire and only a handful of people resentenced. In Louisiana, more than 200 men and women are serving out mandatory JLWOP sentences. Judges still regularly impose new life sentences on teenagers in court. Pearson is incarcerated in Michigan, which has approximately 360 JLWOP offenders—the second-highest number in the country—and prosecutors are seeking new life sentences for the vast majority of them. Those for whom prosecutors are not seeking new life-without-parole sentences are subject to legal wrangling for resentencing dates to determine a new prison term with a set number of years.
Today, Pearson is a tough 50-year-old woman with cropped, graying hair. She has changed dramatically since the days when she was an immature, traumatized 17-year-old who, she alleges, accidentally killed the wife of an editorial columnist in Ann Arbor, during a robbery initiated by Pearson’s abusive boyfriend. She has been waiting for more than a year to prove that to a judge.
The country’s approximately 50 female JLWOP inmates represent a small fraction of the juvenile-lifer population, but the number of women serving life sentences overall is growing more quickly than that of men, according to a study by Ashley Nellis, a senior research analyst at the Sentencing Project. The women interviewed for this article also told me that they felt less informed about what was going on with their cases legally than their male counterparts.
The culpability of girls in their commission of crimes is often entwined with their role as caretakers for younger siblings. They’re also more likely to suffer sexual abuse during childhood. A 2012 study found that 77 percent of JLWOP girls, but only 21 percent of juvenile lifers overall, experienced sexual abuse. Internalized shame made them easier targets for violence by male correctional officers. From my own conversations with these women, many were teenage mothers who were separated from their babies shortly after giving birth. Others were incarcerated throughout their viable childbearing years.
I have been traveling the country to interview female juvenile lifers. Every time I visited one of these women in prison, I was haunted by the things we had in common. We were all approaching middle age. As a young adult, I too had gone off the rails and done dangerous things—the sort of things that could easily have gotten me arrested, even killed. Yet unlike the women I was interviewing, I had the option of leaving those aspects of my past behind.
The women I spoke with represent a distinct minority among juvenile lifers. They do not fit a narrative that is often centered around young men. Their stories are rarely told, even when the law demands it. The Miller and Montgomery decisions call for consideration of a teenager’s upbringing and maturation in prison, but as these women describe it, their experiences are rarely explored in depth in the courtroom. Instead, women’s resentencing is all too often shaped by ignorance and sexism. By interviewing these women, I hoped to share their unheard stories with the public. I hoped, too, that their unconventional stories might help us to reconsider our attitudes toward juvenile crime and rehabilitation—attitudes that still pervade the resentencing process.
This past January, Pearson stood in front of a courtroom in Ann Arbor, holding her small-boned frame up against the weight of her waist restraint, and blinked back tears. The judge and the prosecutor, Brian Mackie (the assistant prosecutor on her original case), had agreed to postpone resentencing—again—until the Michigan Court of Appeals decided, in People v. Skinner, whether a judge or jury would determine the outcome of JLWOP cases.
“I was just fed up,” Pearson told me. “I feel like they’re playing Russian roulette with my life.” She isn’t alone. These are the stories of just a few of the women who were sentenced to life without parole as teenagers, as they told them to me.
LISA DAWN HARRIS
RAPE AND RETALIATION
The State Of Missouri devised one way to comply with the Miller and Montgomery decisions, passing a statute that permitted all juvenile lifers sentenced before August 28, 2016, to apply for parole after serving 25 years. Their fate will therefore not be determined in resentencing hearings, but rather by the parole board.
Lisa Dawn Harris is a 47-year-old woman with thick, brown, graying hair and a few wrinkles near her eyes. She bears little resemblance to the girl who, with five other drug-addled teens, beat a friend’s rapist to death in 1987. Harris’s five co-defendants are now free. Among them is her younger brother Billy, the person she was protecting when, she says (and Billy agrees), she falsely confessed to striking the fatal blow. Harris became eligible for parole on February 12, and despite mistrusting the parole process, she may apply for a hearing in the future.
Miller recognizes poverty and witnessing acts of violence as factors that should be considered during resentencing—and Harris and her brother certainly qualify. Neosho, where they grew up, is a town of 12,000 people in the Ozarks marked by rolling hills, Pentecostal churches, and Angus cows. A handful of farmers still earn a living there. The town’s other source of employment is hit-or-miss temporary factory work at La-Z-Boy furniture, Jarden repackaging, and Talbot Industries. Neosho’s culture is private and self-sufficient. “This is the Ozarks. We got some hillbilly people down here, we got some rednecks, and a lot of them take care of their own business,” said Linda Harris, Lisa’s mom, who with her dad, Bill, owns Bill’s Exhaust Center—a muffler shop. “If you do something to me, then I’m going to do something to you,” Linda continued. “If you hurt my best friend or you hurt my kid, I’ll come after you. It’s just the mentality around here, and Lisa and Billy grew up around that.”
Harris and her brother roamed Neosho looking for pigeon eggs and messing around on old-school metal-key roller skates. She remembers tripping on acid, and staring at herself in the mirror putting on frosty eyeshadow and roll-on lip gloss for hours.
On February 10, 1987, Harris’s best friend, Jennifer Fair, revealed that she had been raped by 34-year-old John Hill. High on mushrooms, pot, and beer, the six friends visited Hill and wound up beating him to death. “We didn’t associate going to the police with a rape. We associated a retaliation,” Harris told me. “I know it sounds stupid now, but I don’t think I was ever taught things like that—I don’t recall it being part of my knowledge. Somebody pushes you, you push back. It seemed like a normal thing to do.”
Linda Harris remembers the night that police officers dragged her children out of their rooms and hauled them away to jail, where they were promptly interrogated. This is when Lisa claims she decided to take the fall for Billy: “They kept telling me that somebody was going to die, that somebody was going to get the death penalty. They told me my little brother was going to fry.” So she concocted a story that she had wielded the claw hammer that delivered the fatal blows to Hill. At Billy’s last parole hearing, he confessed that he had been the one with the hammer—information that could have kept him in prison longer. He was released anyway.
Four of the six defendants took pleas, and one turned state’s evidence. Harris was convicted and sentenced to life without parole on November 16, 1987. She was 17 years old. Linda Harris remembers not being able to see through her tears when her daughter’s sentence was read, and her last glimpse of Lisa’s pink-and-white sweater and braided hair as she left the courtroom.
In prison, Harris changed. One afternoon when she was still a teenager, she recalled, a female corrections officer told her that she was going to have a tough life in prison if she didn’t learn to check her anger. “She referred to me as a wild stallion, how if they’re caught and they’re fenced in they can continually ram themselves into a fence and scar themselves—but they are still going to be inside that fence.” The conversation touched Harris, but she still had a bit of the wild stallion in her: She managed to escape from the prison in 1991.
“I just wanted to go grocery shopping,” she told me. “I wanted to have a child. I wanted to walk down the sidewalk and go to the park. I wanted to do things that I had learned since I had been in prison were precious and valuable.” She borrowed a fake birth certificate, then got a state identification card and even a passport. Over her five years on the lam, she worked in Alaskan canneries, walked barefoot on Miami Beach, visited England, attended a Grateful Dead concert, hopped a Greyhound to Wyoming for a Rainbow Gathering, and met a man. Lisa gave birth to a baby girl, Fallyn Cheyenne, who is autistic. Two months and five days later, somebody turned her in.
Harris was returned to prison—the Chillicothe Correctional Institution—on Valentine’s Day in 1996 and given a year in solitary confinement. During her first few weeks in solitary, her breast milk dried up. “It was painful, because it’s an emotional connection when your breasts are engorged and your child is not there and you know why. That was exceptionally difficult.” The guards brought her plastic bread bags filled with ice to help. There was a moment when she considered smothering herself with the bread bags, but “Creator showed me that if I committed suicide, I would never smell my daughter’s hair again. I would never kiss her face. I would never touch her fat little fingers. I chose to live for her.”
Fallyn just celebrated her 21st birthday on a supervised visit with her mother. And Harris believes that life under any circumstances is a gift. “Just because we are living in prison doesn’t mean we have to live our lives negatively,” she said. “I truly believe all human beings have the responsibility to make a positive impact on someone’s life, whether you are at the grocery store or in prison.”
Today, the parole board would likely look only at the circumstances of her crime. “There’s no real meaning for Miller in the processes being afforded these guys or gals,” said Mae C. Quinn, director of the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center at St. Louis. “There is no real sense that the parole board gives any weight at all to the understanding that kids are different, or reflects any understanding of adolescent development or what the Supreme Court has said at all. They are handled as no different than any other parole case.” Quinn explained how the Missouri parole board, long criticized as one of the least transparent and most dysfunctional in the country, conducts its 15- to 30-minute JLWOP hearings. The offenders are expected to participate in “this bizarre Kabuki dance where [the parole-board members] are quizzing them on their recollection of what happened at their original trial or circumstances of the offense in significant detail.” But many of these crimes and the subsequent trials occurred decades ago. Nor do the hearings consider whether the prisoners have changed or matured.
Although these parole-board petitioners are allowed a representative, that person cannot function as a lawyer (they can’t even see parole records). The Missouri public defender’s office isn’t providing assistance to JLWOP prisoners petitioning for parole—perhaps because it is ranked almost dead last (49th in the country) in terms of funding. Approximately a quarter of Missouri’s 82 juvenile lifers have seen the parole board since November 2016. Most were turned down.
Harris’s hopes hang on this process. Her brother Billy is currently an office manager and information-technology coordinator at the Saint Louis Effort for AIDS, and he’s never stopped advocating for her with organizations like the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. “I think back to that little girl who was sitting in the room that day, and she really made a huge sacrifice for me,” Billy Harris said. “I know that I didn’t deserve to get out of prison when Lisa is still locked up.”
As for Lisa herself, she believes that she’s ready to come home. “I can honestly say I didn’t deserve a day less than 20 years in this place—but if I’m a danger to society, then how come over all these years, I don’t fight, I don’t threaten, I have no violence on my record in an environment that tests you every single day? Maybe that’s because I’m not a danger to society; maybe that’s because the mistake that I made is an incident and not a defining moment.”
LAQUANDA FAYE JACOBS
On Laquanda Faye Jacobs’s 17th birthday, February 22, 1992, she walked through the alley behind the Little Rock City Jail in handcuffs, leg cuffs, and waist restraints to her first court appearance. She was a juvenile, so she was placed in her own row—male inmates in front and female inmates behind her. Jacobs’s case was high-profile; news cameras flashed and reporters screamed questions. Her brother Rodney tried to push them back and was restrained by police. “I was shaking inside and outside. I was so scared I almost urinated on myself,” Jacobs recalled. She had been accused of shooting and killing her classmate, 17-year-old Kevin Gaddy, on February 9 for his Chicago Bulls jacket.
But Jacobs, who maintains her innocence, had two alibi witnesses—friends she’d been doing errands with that day, going from the laundromat to their homes. There was no forensic evidence connecting her to the crime. Police were looking for a woman who was approximately 30, had scars under her eyes, and was wearing pants, a blue-gray coat, and a knit cap. Instead, they picked up Jacobs, a 16-year-old ninth grader at Mabelvale High, who was wearing the same long white dress in which she’d gone to church that morning. At the station, the police dusted her hands for gunpowder residue and then let her go.
Almost two weeks later, Jacobs’s parents and pastor walked her into the police station to clear her name. “We didn’t know anything about the law, none of us. Nobody in our family had ever been to jail,” Jacobs said.
Her parents never saw their daughter in the free world again. Jacobs was taken into custody and later offered a plea. She consulted her father, who worked in a slaughterhouse for Kruse Meat in Benton. He was a loquacious Baptist renowned for his ability to talk people out of violence, and he and Jacobs were very close. Her father advised her not to confess to something she didn’t do.
Each day that Jacobs was held awaiting trial, “it felt like somebody was pressing a pillow over my face and taking away my breath,” she recalled. “Every once in a while, they’d lift it up and I could get a breath, but then I’d go get dragged right back under again.”
For her defense, the court appointed what Jacobs refers to as a “public pretender,” who she says met with her for the first time on April 19, 1993, the day before her trial. At the end of a two-day trial, she was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
Jacobs says that she was forced to take pills in prison—possibly antidepressants—and threatened with solitary confinement when she tried to refuse. She remembers eating with her eyes closed and not combing her hair. When her dad complained, he was told that the drug regimen was standard procedure for juveniles. He fought back, and Jacobs was eventually taken off the pills. She tried to fight however she could, composing handwritten letters from her cell to anyone she thought would pay attention. An attorney told her father that he could get Jacobs out in 105 days if he coughed up $100,000—money that her father didn’t have. “That was a blow to my dad,” Jacobs said. “I wonder if he felt he let me down. He always said he prayed to God not to let him die before his daughter gets out of prison.”
Now 42, Jacobs has been in prison for 25 years. She is currently incarcerated at the McPherson Unit in Newport, a series of low-lying brown concrete buildings that look as if they’re disappearing into the surrounding boggy, treeless countryside. There is nothing for miles around except bush-airplane landing strips, the occasional farm, and a clear 360-degree view of the horizon. McPherson’s population includes all of Arkansas’s female death-row inmates (there are currently none) and Jacobs, the state’s only female juvenile lifer.
When I visit her, Jacobs is wearing a white prison jumpsuit with the words Arkansas DOC inmate stamped on the back. She has a high-neck T-shirt on beneath it because she is self-conscious about her large breasts. Jacobs is heavyset, with a delicate, cared-for appearance. She often wears gold metallic eyeshadow, and her mohawk is carefully styled with Royal Crown hair dressing.
Jacobs is a devout Christian and sings in the prison choir. She is also something of a newshound. A combination of faith and logic has helped her put things in perspective. She reads the Arkansas Democrat Gazette every morning; a decade into her incarceration, she started noticing friends’ names in the obituaries or police blotter. “In those years, I was on the fringe of getting involved with gangs that could have brought me trouble,” she said. “I don’t know what would have happened if I hadn’t been locked up. But it could have been bad. I choose to believe my life was saved in prison.”
In August 2011, Jacobs watched the release of the West Memphis Three—a trio of teenage boys whose conviction for the murder of three 8-year-olds had been shown to be fraught with doubts. “On the one hand, it gave me hope, because they were letting other juveniles go as the truth came to light,” she recalled. “On the other hand, I was thinking, ‘But what about me?’”
This March, in response to the Miller and Montgomery decisions, Arkansas passed Act 539. Much like Missouri’s statute, it established that juvenile lifers could receive parole-board hearings after serving 30 years in lieu of resentencing hearings. Then the Fair Sentencing of Minors Act of 2017 was signed into law, barring sentences of life without parole for minors entirely—including those already convicted. This act effectively vacated all juvenile life sentences in the state, sparking a debate between prosecutors and defense lawyers in Pulaski County, where Jacobs will seek either parole or resentencing. Defense lawyers argue that Miller and Montgomery entitle their clients to individual resentencing hearings, at which a judge might offer a greatly reduced sentence. Further, they note that juvenile lifers have already had hearings over the past few years, prior to passage of Act 539, and some have received shorter sentences. Thus, juvenile lifers who haven’t had a hearing yet should be entitled to equal protection under the law. For their part, prosecutors argue that since all life sentences for juveniles have been vacated, the resentencing required under Miller and Montgomery no longer applies—after all, these inmates are technically no longer lifers. All of them will be up for parole eventually, and so their fates should be decided by the parole board.
Jacobs found faith combing through the stories of the male juvenile lifers who had been resentenced in the state. She was especially interested in the case of Detric Avelle Franklin, who after serving 25 years had been resentenced to a 40-year term and then been granted parole. Franklin had been resentenced in Pulaski County, where Jacobs was slated to appear for her own hearing. In anticipation, she spent more time working with the social-reentry app on her MP4 player, practicing everything from changing a tire to ironing clothes to creating a résumé. It was her only option, since lifers aren’t allowed to take vocational-tech or reentry classes. Jacobs started to believe that she’d be going home, and she was excited to do all the things she’d dreamed about: helping her elderly mom, driving a car, finishing cosmetology school, having a baby.
With the stories of her male counterparts giving her hope, Jacobs stood in front of the courtroom on January 12. Her family and friends sat in the benches; she’d convinced them that the judge would resentence her that day, maybe even let her out.
Then she found out that her lawyer had filed a continuance for summer.
“I had lost touch with reality, I guess, at that moment,” Jacobs confessed. “It was a shock. I didn’t cry because I wanted to appear strong for my family.”
Prosecutors and defense attorneys are now wrangling over whether the five juvenile lifers in Pulaski County are entitled to new resentencing hearings. Jacobs believes that Arkansas legislators passed Act 539 to save the state money on the costly proceedings. She thinks it’s really more a “manipulation of what the Supreme Court actually asked for.” If her resentencing hearing is canceled due to Act 539, she’ll have to wait another five years to apply for parole—and at a parole-board hearing, she would not have the opportunity to tell her full story or insist on her innocence. “It’s very disappointing. I have hope, but you know there are others who don’t have hope, especially those who are just arriving. I have 25 years [served]. I can’t imagine having done only five years and now Arkansas is saying, ‘We want you to do 30.’ It’s heartbreaking.”
Jacobs always has a backup plan. Under the worst-case scenario, her resentencing hearing is canceled and she’ll have to wait five more years to appear before the parole board. Instead of sitting around idle, she wants the opportunity to take classes. Jacobs completed her GED in her first year of incarceration and has since taken whatever classes she’s allowed to pay for out of pocket, from sociology to psychology. She acts as a peer mentor and watches kids during visiting day. But lifers aren’t allowed to take most courses.
And as to whether she’s still a lifer? Her sentence was formally vacated by a Jackson County Circuit Court judge in order to comply with Miller. On the Arkansas Department of Correction’s paperwork, however, she still has a sentence of life without parole.
“The way I understand it, I have no sentence at all now—I was waiting for resentencing for a sentence. None of it makes any sense,” she said.
In Jacobs’s case, it never did.
KENYA EVETTE DAVIS
On January 25, 2017, Kenya Evette Davis sat in the dayroom in the black-and-white horizontally striped “ring-arounds” at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility, waiting. She’d just received word from the warden that she would be transported to court in Jones County the next day. She had no idea why, and neither did the warden.
Davis was understandably nervous. She hadn’t been out of the prison since she was first incarcerated, at age 17. She distracted herself by looking at her tattoos. On her left arm was Tenderheart, a Care Bear. She moved her bifocals back and touched the key tattooed there, which she had done at the same time that an older lifer named Tanya—who’d taken Davis under her wing in prison—got a lock. She touched the hand of her best friend Lydia, whose name was tattooed on her wrist. Lydia was praying out loud; she had Davis’s emergency-contact numbers.
The next day, Davis sat in the conference room at the Jones County Correctional Center across from her lawyer. The room brought back bad memories. It was here, she says, that she signed a plea deal for simple murder in exchange for a sentence of life with the possibility of parole. But she’d misunderstood the plea.
Davis had just found out the previous month, after nine years of incarceration, that she was serving a sentence of life without parole.
Her actual sentence was life with a conditional release at the age of 65. (Parole was never an option in Mississippi.) According to Jacob Howard, an attorney at the law firm McDuff & Byrd, “lawyers and judges got in the bad habit of referring to this as ‘life with parole.’” A ruling in a Mississippi case, Parker v. State, asserts that life with a conditional release at age 65 is essentially life without parole. But Davis had never heard of Parker, Miller, or Montgomery.
“All these years, they had me thinking I’d be able to make parole, but that was really a lie,” she said. “I was holding on to hope when it really wasn’t there.” After Montgomery, Mississippi courts began the process of resentencing roughly 80 juvenile lifers, and so Davis was back in court. She was held at the Jones County Adult Detention Center from January 26 to March 7 with no court date that she could discern.
Davis was terrified: The crime she’d been convicted of had been committed nearby. She didn’t trust the county, largely because, as her mother’s husband Robert Bell succinctly put it, “She’s a black woman in Mississippi accused of killing a white teacher. That’s why they did her like that.”
Davis first met Ricky “Slick” Gavin (whose nickname is tattooed on her neck) at the middle school where her 11-year-old brother Adrian and Gavin’s little sister went. Davis was 14, Gavin 21. Davis says her mom was out partying with boyfriends and frequently left her and her little brother alone. When they ran out of food, Davis went to a local food pantry or shoplifted from stores.
Davis got up the nerve to ask Gavin “to show me the ropes of the street.” He turned her away. Later, she says, he gave her “half a cookie” of crack cocaine and taught her how to deal. It was supposed to be a onetime thing to help tide her over, Davis says. Eventually, she started having sex with Gavin and moved into his house. “I felt like the only way to repay him was to be with him.”
On November 23, 2008, when she was 17, Davis and Gavin went to the home of Rebecca Pruitt, a local teacher, to collect money. Davis went outside to smoke a cigarette. What happened next is unclear; she said that for years she had flashbacks that confused her. She remembered seeing Gavin hit Pruitt. Pruitt came out of the kitchen with a knife. She and Gavin struggled, and Pruitt was stabbed. Davis cursed Gavin. She ran to Pruitt, listened for her heartbeat and tried CPR, while Gavin ransacked the house. Eventually, Davis realized that Pruitt was dead.
After her arrest, Davis was interrogated for several days by the police, who, she said, “threatened to give her the needle right there in the station.” In August 2009, she met with her public defender, who suggested that she take a plea deal. Davis wanted to consult her family, but she was told there was no time. Davis’s mother was at home, braiding her mother-in-law’s hair in the living room, when she saw her daughter on the 6 o’clock news. The newscaster announced that Jacobs had pleaded guilty to murder and was given a life sentence.
Davis spent time in solitary confinement, and the total isolation in the tiny cell nearly broke her. She developed terrible rashes and practically stopped eating. Over the eight years she’d been incarcerated, Davis didn’t have any outside visitors, although older lifers like Tanya adopted her as a kind of surrogate daughter. The warden favored her, because she’d been so young when she had first arrived. Eventually, Davis graduated from cleaning inmates’ clothes in the cell sink to sewing fancy contraband clothing out of bedsheets and vo-tech fabric and doing hair and nails.
On March 8, 2017, history repeated itself: Davis was brought into the Jones County court. This time her mother came as well, and they were assured that Davis would not be resentenced that day.
The court session began as promised. Later, after several minutes of closed-door consultation between the judge, the prosecutor, and the defense attorney, the three men came back into the courtroom, and Davis was resentenced on the spot.
She was given life with parole—the sentence she thought she’d had in the first place.
When I sat across from Machelle Pearson in the visiting room of her prison in Michigan, I had to smile at the recognition of the things we had in common. We were both middle-aged. She reminisced about her teenage beauty: how her light-brown skin, long hair, and hazel eyes had attracted the guys. She reminded me of my friends—also prone to romanticizing their appearance before the arrival of wrinkles, cellulite, and gray hair.
Pearson had been convicted of committing first-degree murder during a robbery. Michigan has passed a statute allowing juvenile lifers to apply for parole after serving between 25 and 40 years, depending on their crime. Pearson has her resentencing hearing on June 28. She could be released as soon as the end of this year.
Pearson told of taking care of her siblings from an early age. She described her mom lying in a metal hospital bed in the basement of their home after a mastectomy. Pearson, then 11, had just finished spooning baby food into her mother’s mouth. She was the eldest daughter, and her mother made her promise to take care of her brother, Alan “Junior” Montgomery (then 2), and her sister, Edna (then 8). The photo of her mother that she sent home last August reminds her of the only person she truly trusted.
After her mother died, Pearson tried her best to make good on that promise. “There were many days we didn’t have food,” she said. “I’d go to the neighbors and ask for help. I’d beg. I’ve taken food to feed them because I didn’t want them to go hungry.” Pearson was 14 when she ran away from a foster home, fleeing a sexually abusive foster parent. She later heard that her siblings were in trouble, so she returned to LaForge, the projects where they again lived with their father. She got work filing medical records at a hospital.
Pearson shuttled between their apartment, the streets, and the home of an abusive boyfriend, Ricky Hart, 20. Montgomery remembers watching Hart “hitting my sister and punching her and throwing her up against the wall and floor like a rag doll.” Pearson took the beatings because “I didn’t know anything else. He loved me—that’s what he said—and I figured that’s how you were supposed to do.”
Pearson committed the murder with Hart just outside of a Kroger’s parking lot. According to Pearson, Hart forced her to come along on the robbery, threatening to kill her younger brother if she didn’t comply. Pearson said she had never held a gun before, and it accidentally went off. She turned herself in to the police. The victim was pronounced dead in the hospital three days later.
“Ultimately, it was my choice to, and I chose to go with him, unfortunately,” Pearson said. But a person’s “life was taken, and I can’t take that back. Do I regret it? Yes. Now that I’m older, I know I could have handled it differently—but back then, all I knew was, I needed to save my little brother.” Montgomery agrees that his sister sacrificed her life for him.
Pearson’s trauma only deepened in prison. When she was 28 years old, she was eating a sandwich when her body shut down. She said it was like somebody had kicked her legs out from under her. The sandwich lodged in her throat; a correctional officer had to reach in and pull it out. Pearson became paralyzed.
At the University of Michigan hospital, Pearson was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, an extremely rare and debilitating neuromuscular disorder. Feeling and movement returned gradually to her body. On her eighth day of hospitalization, she says, a correctional offic
er named Thomas Robinson followed her into the bathroom, hoisted her onto the sink, pinned her legs behind his arms, and sexually assaulted her. Her IV tube was still attached to a pole beside her.
“Your pussy is better than my wife’s,” she alleges Robinson told her; then he wiped himself with a towel, threw it out the door, and sat down to read the paper.
When Pearson found out that she was pregnant, she reported him. Eleven months later, a DNA test proved that Robinson was the baby’s father. He was fired and pleaded no contest to criminal sexual misconduct. He received two years’ probation.
Later, Pearson filed a civil suit against him and was awarded $500,000, which she says was never paid. She was also part of a class-action lawsuit brought by hundreds of women against the Michigan Department of Corrections. They accused the department of failing to protect female inmates against rampant and pervasive sexual assault and rape. The successful lawsuit paved the way for change: Male correctional officers are no longer allowed in certain areas of the women’s prison.
One of the happiest moments in Pearson’s life was when the nurses put her newborn son Michael into her arms. “He smelled so fresh, and when I held him it was like he melted into me and we became one,” she recalled. “I held him on my chest and fed him, put my thumb under his chin to hold it up because he had no suction.”
Three days later, a nurse took Michael away, and Pearson was returned to prison. In her cell, the grief crippled her.
Pearson signed over the guardianship of her son to a woman who brought the prisoners’ children to visit and said that she had known Pearson’s mother. The woman brought Michael to see Pearson regularly, but the last time they visited was when Michael was five, in 2001. In 2002, a Washtenaw County Circuit Court judge issued an order declaring that her parental rights had been terminated.
“If you’ve lost a child, it makes you have a void, an emptiness inside you that nothing seems to fill,” Pearson told me. “No matter how much I smile, there’s an open wound that’s not going to heal until I connect with my son again.”
Pearson recently asked her brother to find out about her son. Montgomery found him on Facebook and sent her some photos. Pearson recognized her own features in Michael’s light skin and green eyes. She saw him posing in ways that she had once posed, and his love for martial arts and Bruce Lee mirrored her own. “To look at him is to look at me,” she said. “He’s a neat kid.”
Pearson also kept a scrapbook in her cell that she started for Michael when she was pregnant, which included poems, drawings, and descriptions of her dreams for him. Last September, hopeful that she’d be released, she sent that book home.
Danielle Wolffe‘s work has appeared on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered; in the Nation, the Huffington Post and The Associated Press. She is currently writing a book about the women sentenced as teenagers to life without parole she has visited in prisons across the country.
Co-published with The Nation.