Undue Time

When adult sentences for children’s crimes mean entire lives spent behind bars


Imagine teardrops left uncried
From pain trapped inside
Waiting to escape
Through the windows of your eyes

“Why won’t you let us out?”
The tears question the conscience
“Relinquish your fears and doubts
And heal yourself in the process.”

The conscience told the tears
“I know you really want me to cry
But if I release you from bondage,
In gaining your freedom you die.”

The tears gave it some thought
Before giving the conscience an answer
“If crying brings you to triumph
Then dying’s not such a disaster.”

IAN E. MANUEL, Union Correctional Institution

Trina Garnett was the youngest of twelve children living in the poorest section of Chester, Pennsylvania, a financially distressed municipality outside of Philadelphia. The extraordinarily high rates of poverty, crime, and unemployment in Chester intersected with the worst-ranked public school system among Pennsylvania’s 501 districts. Close to 46 percent of the city’s children were living below the federal poverty level.

Trina’s father, Walter Garnett, was a former boxer whose failed career had turned him into a violent, abusive alcoholic well known to local police for throwing a punch with little provocation. Trina’s mother, Edith Garnett, was sickly after bearing so many children, some of whom were conceived during rapes by her husband. The older and sicker Edith became, the more she found herself a target of Walter’s rage. He would regularly punch, kick, and verbally abuse her in front of the children. Walter would often go to extremes, stripping Edith naked and beating her until she writhed on the floor in pain while her children looked on fearfully. When she lost consciousness during the beatings, Walter would shove a stick down her throat to revive her for more abuse. Nothing was safe in the Garnett home. Trina once watched her father strangle her pet dog into silence because it wouldn’t stop barking. He beat the animal to death with a hammer and threw its limp body out a window.

Trina had twin sisters, Lynn and Lynda, who were a year older than her. They taught her to play “invisible” when she was a small child to shield her from their father when he was drunk and prowling their apartment with his belt, stripping the children naked, and beating them randomly. Trina was taught to hide under the bed or in a closet and remain as quiet as possible.

Trina showed signs of intellectual disabilities and other troubles at a young age. When she was a toddler, she became seriously ill after ingesting lighter fluid when she was left unattended. At the age of five, she accidently set herself on fire, resulting in severe burns over her chest, stomach, and back. She spent weeks in a hospital enduring painful skin grafts that left her terribly scarred.

Edith died when Trina was just nine. Trina’s older sisters tried to take care of her, but when Walter began sexually abusing them, they fled. After the older siblings left home, Walter’s abuse focused on Trina, Lynn, and Lynda. The girls ran away from home and began roaming the streets of Chester. Trina and her sisters would eat out of garbage cans; sometimes they would not eat for days. They slept in parks and public bathrooms. The girls stayed with their older sister Edy until Edy’s husband began sexually abusing them. Their older siblings and aunts would sometimes provide temporary shelter, but the living situation would get disrupted by violence or death, and so Trina would find herself wandering the streets again.

Her mother’s death, the abuse, and the desperate circumstances all exacerbated Trina’s emotional and mental health problems. She would sometimes become so distraught and ill that her sisters would have to find a relative to take her to the hospital. But she was penniless and was never allowed to stay long enough to become stable or recover.

Late at night in August 1976, fourteen-year-old Trina and her friend, sixteen-year-old Francis Newsome, climbed through the window of a row house in Chester. The girls wanted to talk to the boys who lived there. The mother of these boys had forbidden her children from playing with Trina, but Trina wanted to see them. Once she’d climbed into the house, Trina lit matches to find her way to the boys’ room. The house caught fire. It spread quickly, and two boys who were sleeping in the home died from smoke asphyxiation. Their mother accused Trina of starting the fire intentionally, but Trina and her friend insisted that it was an accident.

Trina was traumatized by the boys’ deaths and could barely speak when the police arrested her. She was so nonfunctional and listless that her appointed lawyer thought she was incompetent to stand trial.

Defendants who are deemed incompetent can’t be tried in adversarial criminal proceedings — meaning that the State can’t prosecute them unless they become well enough to defend themselves. Criminally accused people facing trial are entitled to treatment and services. But Trina’s lawyer failed to file the appropriate motions or present evidence to support an incompetency determination for Trina. The lawyer, who was subsequently disbarred and jailed for unrelated criminal misconduct, also never challenged the State’s decision to try Trina as an adult. As a result, Trina was forced to stand trial for second-degree murder in an adult courthouse. At trial, Francis Newsome testified against Trina in exchange for the charges against her being dropped. Trina was convicted of second-degree murder, and the trial moved to the sentencing phase.

Delaware County Circuit Judge Howard Reed found that Trina had no intent to kill. But under Pennsylvania law, the judge could not take the absence of intent into account during sentencing. He could not consider Trina’s age, mental illness, poverty, the abuse she had suffered, or the tragic circumstances surrounding the fire.

Pennsylvania sentencing law was inflexible: For those convicted of second-degree murder, mandatory life imprisonment without the possibility of parole was the only sentence. Judge Reed expressed serious misgivings about the sentence he was forced to impose. “This is the saddest case I’ve ever seen,” he wrote. For a tragic crime committed at fourteen, Trina was condemned to die in prison.

After sentencing, Trina was immediately shipped off to an adult prison for women. Now sixteen, Trina walked through the gates of the State Correctional Institution at Muncy, an adult prison for women, terrified, still suffering from trauma and mental illness, and intensely vulnerable — with the knowledge that she would never leave. Prison spared Trina the uncertainty of homelessness but presented new dangers and challenges. Not long after she arrived at Muncy, a male correctional officer pulled her into a secluded area and raped her.

The crime was discovered when Trina became pregnant. As is often the case, the correctional officer was fired but not criminally prosecuted. Trina remained imprisoned and gave birth to a son. Like hundreds of women who give birth while in prison, Trina was completely unprepared for the stress of childbirth. She delivered her baby while handcuffed to a bed. It wasn’t until 2008 that most states abandoned the practice of shackling or handcuffing incarcerated women during delivery.

Trina’s baby boy was taken away from her and placed in foster care. After this series of events — the fire, the imprisonment, the rape, the traumatic birth, and then the seizure of her son — Trina’s mental health deteriorated further. Over the years, she became less functional and more mentally disabled. Her body began to spasm and quiver uncontrollably, until she required a cane and then a wheelchair. By the time she had turned thirty, prison doctors diagnosed her with multiple sclerosis, intellectual disability, and mental illness related to trauma.

Trina had filed a civil suit against the officer who raped her, and the jury awarded her a judgment of $62,000. The guard appealed, and the Court reversed the verdict because the correctional officer had not been permitted to tell the jury that Trina was in prison for murder. Consequently, Trina never received any financial aid or services from the state to compensate her for being violently raped by one of its “correctional” officers.

In 2014, Trina turned fifty-two. She has been in prison for thirty-eight years. She is one of nearly five hundred people in Pennsylvania who have been condemned to mandatory life imprisonment without parole for crimes they were accused of committing when they were between the ages of thirteen and seventeen. It is the largest population of child offenders condemned to die in prison in any single jurisdiction in the world.

In 1990, Ian Manuel and two older boys attempted to rob a couple who were out for dinner in Tampa, Florida. Ian was thirteen years old. When Debbie Baigre resisted, Ian shot her with a handgun given to him by the older boys. The bullet went through Baigre’s cheek, shattering several teeth and severely damaging her jaw. All three boys were arrested and charged with armed robbery and attempted homicide.

Ian’s appointed lawyer encouraged him to plead guilty, assuring him that he would be sentenced to fifteen years in prison. The lawyer didn’t realize that two of the charges against Ian were punishable with sentences of life imprisonment without parole. The judge accepted Ian’s plea and then sentenced him to life with no parole. Even though he was thirteen, the judge condemned Ian for living in the streets, for not having good parental supervision, and for his multiple prior arrests for shoplifting and minor property crimes. Ian was sent to an adult prison — the Apalachee Correctional Institution, one of the toughest prisons in Florida. The correctional staff at the prison processing center couldn’t find any uniforms that would fit a boy Ian’s size, so they cut six inches from the bottom of their smallest pants. Juveniles housed in adult prisons are five times more likely to be the victims of sexual assault, so the staff at Apalachee put Ian, who was small for his age, in solitary confinement.

Solitary confinement at Apalachee means living in a concrete box the size of a walk-in closet. You get your meals through a slot, you do not see other inmates, and you never touch or get near another human being. If you “act out” by saying something insubordinate or refusing to comply with an order given to you by a correctional officer, you are forced to sleep on the concrete floor of your cell without a mattress. If you shout or scream, your time in solitary is extended; if you hurt yourself by refusing to eat or mutilating your body, your time in solitary is extended; if you complain to officers or say anything menacing or inappropriate, your time in solitary is extended. You get three showers a week and are allowed forty-five minutes in a small caged area for exercise a few times a week. Otherwise you are alone, hidden away in your concrete box, week after week, month after month.

In solitary, Ian became a self-described “cutter”; he would take anything sharp on his food tray to cut his wrists and arms just to watch himself bleed. His mental health unraveled, and he attempted suicide several times. Each time he hurt himself or acted out, his time in isolation was extended.

Ian spent eighteen years in uninterrupted solitary confinement.

Once a month, Ian was allowed to make a phone call. Soon after he arrived in prison, on Christmas Eve in 1992, he used his call to reach out to Debbie Baigre, the woman he shot. When she answered the phone, Ian spilled out an emotional apology, expressing his deep regret and remorse. Ms. Baigre was stunned to hear from the boy who had shot her, but she was moved by his call. She had physically recovered from the shooting and was working to become a successful body- builder and had started a magazine focused on women’s health. She was a determined woman who didn’t let the shooting derail her from her goals. That first surprising phone call led to a regular correspondence. Ian had been neglected by his family before the crime took place. He’d been left to wander the streets with little parental or family support. In solitary, he met few prisoners or correctional staff. As he sank deeper into despair, Debbie Baigre became one of the few people in Ian’s life who encouraged him to remain strong.

After communicating with Ian for several years, Baigre wrote the court and told the judge who sentenced Ian of her conviction that his sentence was too harsh and that his conditions of confinement were inhumane. She tried to talk to prison officials and gave interviews to the press to draw attention to Ian’s plight. “No one knows more than I do how destructive and reckless Ian’s crime was. But what we’re currently doing to him is mean and irresponsible,” she told one reporter.

“When this crime was committed, he was a child, a thirteen-year-old boy with a lot of problems, no supervision, and no help available. We are not children.”

The courts ignored Debbie Baigre’s call for a reduced sentence.

By 2010, Florida had sentenced more than a hundred children to life imprisonment without parole for non-homicide offenses, several of whom were thirteen years old at the time of the crime. All of the youngest condemned children — thirteen or fourteen years of age — were black or Latino. Florida had the largest population in the world of children condemned to die in prison for non-homicides.

The section of South Central Los Angeles where Antonio Nuñez lived was plagued by gang violence. Antonio’s mother would force her children to the floor when shooting erupted outside their crowded home, which happened with disturbing regularity. Nearly a dozen of their neighbors were shot and killed after being caught in the crossfire of gun violence.

The difficulties outside Antonio’s home were compounded by severe domestic abuse inside the home. From the time Antonio was in diapers, he endured abusive beatings by his father, who hit him with his hand, fist, belt, and extension cords, causing bruises and cuts; he also witnessed terrifying conflicts in which his parents would violently assault each other and threaten to kill one another. The violence was so bad that on more than one occasion Antonio called the police. He began experiencing severe nightmares from which he awoke screaming. Antonio’s depressed mother neglected him; when he cried, she just left him alone. The only activity she could recall ever attending for Antonio was his graduation from a Drug Abuse Resistance Education program in elementary school.

“He was excited to take his picture with the police officer,” she would later say. “He wanted to be a police officer when he grew up.”

In September 1999, a month after he turned thirteen, Antonio Nuñez was riding his bicycle near his home when a stranger shot him in his stomach, side, and arm. Antonio collapsed onto the street. His fourteen-year-old brother José heard him screaming and ran to his aid. José was shot in the head and killed when he responded to his little brother’s call for help. Antonio suffered serious internal injuries that hospitalized him for weeks.

When Antonio was released from the hospital, his mother sent him to live with relatives in Las Vegas, where he tried to recover from the tragedy of José’s death. Antonio was relieved to be away from the dangers of South Central Los Angeles. He stayed out of trouble, was helpful and obedient at home, and spent evenings doing his homework with help from his cousin’s husband. He put the gangs and violence of South Central behind him and showed remarkable progress. But within a year, California probation authorities ordered him to return to Los Angeles because he was on probation following his adjudication as a ward of the court for a prior offense.

In poor urban neighborhoods across the United States, black and brown boys routinely have multiple encounters with the police. Even though many of these children have done nothing wrong, they are targeted by police, presumed guilty, and suspected by law enforcement of being dangerous or engaged in criminal activity. The random stops, questioning, and harassment dramatically increase the risk of arrest for petty crimes. Many of these children develop criminal records for behavior that more affluent children engage in with impunity.

Forced back to South Central, blocks from where his brother was murdered, Antonio struggled. A court later found that “[l]iving just blocks from where he was shot and his brother was killed, Nuñez suffered trauma symptoms, including flashbacks, an urgent need to avoid the area, a heightened awareness of potential threats, and an intensified need to protect himself from real or perceived threats.” He got his hands on a gun for self-defense but was quickly arrested for it and placed in a juvenile camp where supervisors reported that he eagerly participated in and positively responded to the structured environment and guidance of staff members.

After returning from the camp, Antonio was invited to a party where two men twice Antonio’s age told him that they were planning to fake a kidnapping to get money from a relative who would pay the ransom. They insisted that Antonio join them. Fourteen-year-old Antonio got in a car with the men to pick up the ransom money. The pretend victim sat in the backseat, while Juan Perez drove and Antonio sat in the passenger seat.

Before they arrived at their Orange County destination to retrieve the money, they found themselves being followed — and then chased — by two Latino men in a gray van. At some point, Perez and the other man gave Antonio a gun and told him to shoot at the van, and a dangerous high-speed shoot-out unfolded. The men chasing them were undercover police officers — but Antonio didn’t know that when he fired. When a marked police car joined the pursuit, Antonio dropped the gun just before the car crashed into some trees. No one was injured, but Antonio and Perez were charged with aggravated kidnapping and attempted murder of the police officers.

Antonio and his twenty-seven-year-old co-defendant were tried together in a joint trial, and both were found guilty. Under California law, a juvenile has to be at least sixteen to be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for murder. But there is no minimum age for kidnapping, so the Orange County judge sentenced Antonio to imprisonment until death, asserting that he was a dangerous gang member who could never change or be rehabilitated, despite his difficult background and the absence of any significant criminal history. The judge sent him to California’s dangerous, overcrowded adult prisons. At fourteen, Antonio became the youngest person in the United States condemned to die in prison for a crime in which no one was physically injured.

Most adults convicted of the kinds of crimes with which Trina, Ian, and Antonio were charged are not sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. In the federal system, adults who unintentionally commit arson-murder where more than one person is killed usually receive sentences that permit release in less than twenty-five years. Many adults convicted of attempted murder in Florida serve less than ten years in prison. Gun violence with no reported injuries frequently result in sentences of less than ten years for adult defendants, even in this era of harsh punishments.

Children who commit serious crimes long have been vulnerable to adult prosecution and punishment in many states, but the development of juvenile justice systems has meant that most child offenders were sent to juvenile detention facilities. Juvenile justice systems vary across the United States, but most states would have kept Trina, Ian, or Antonio in juvenile custody until they turned eighteen or twenty-one. At most, they might have stayed in custody until age twenty-five or older, if their institutional history or juvenile detention record suggested that they were still a threat to public safety.

In an earlier era, if you were thirteen or fourteen when you committed a crime, you would find yourself in the adult system with a lengthy sentence only if the crime was unusually high-profile — or committed by a black child against a white person in the South. For instance, in the infamous Scottsboro Boys case in the 1930s, two of the defendants, Roy Wright and Eugene Williams, were just thirteen years old when they were wrongfully convicted of rape and sentenced to death in Alabama.

In another signature case of juvenile prosecution, George Stinney, a fourteen-year-old black boy, was executed by the State of South Carolina on June 16, 1944. Three months earlier, two young white girls who lived nearby in Alcolu, a small mill town where the races were separated by railroad tracks, had gone out to pick flowers and never returned home. Scores of people across the community went search- ing for the missing girls. Young George and his siblings joined the search party. At some point, George mentioned to one of the white adult searchers that he and his sister had seen the girls earlier in the day. The girls had approached them while they were playing outside and asked where they could find flowers.

The next day, the dead bodies of the girls were found in a shallow ditch. George was immediately arrested for the murders because he had admitted seeing the girls before they disappeared and was the last person to see them alive. He was subjected to hours of interrogation without his parents or an attorney present. The understandable anger about the death of the girls exploded when word circulated that a black boy had been arrested for the murders. The sheriff claimed that George had confessed to the murders, though no written or signed statement was presented. George’s father was summarily fired from his job; his family was told to leave town or else they would be lynched. Out of fear for their lives, George’s family fled town late that night, leaving George behind in jail with no family support. Within hours of announcing the alleged confession, a lynch mob formed at the jail- house in Alcolu, but the fourteen-year-old had already been moved to a jail in Charleston.

A month later, a trial was convened. Facing charges of first-degree murder, George sat alone in front of an estimated crowd of fifteen hundred white people who had packed the courtroom and surrounded the building. No African Americans were allowed inside the court- house. George’s white court-appointed attorney, a tax lawyer with political aspirations, called no witnesses. The prosecution’s only evidence was the sheriff’s testimony regarding George’s alleged confession. The trial was over in a few hours. An all-white jury deliberated for ten minutes before convicting George of rape and murder. Judge Stoll promptly sentenced the fourteen-year-old to death. George’s lawyer said there would be no appeal because his family didn’t have the money to pay for it.

Despite appeals from the NAACP and black clergy, who asked that the sentence be converted to life imprisonment, Governor Olin Johnston refused to intervene and George was sent to Columbia to be executed in South Carolina’s electric chair. Small even for his age, the five foot two, ninety-two-pound Stinney walked up to the chair with a Bible in his hand. He had to sit on the book when prison staff couldn’t fit the electrodes to his small frame. Alone in the room, with no family or any people of color present, the terrified child sat in the oversized electric chair. He frantically searched the room for someone to help but saw only law enforcement personnel and reporters. The adult-size mask slid off George’s face when the first jolt of electricity struck his body.

Witnesses to the execution could see his “wide open, tearful eyes and saliva dripping from his mouth.” Eighty-one days after being approached by two young girls about where flowers might be found, George Stinney was pronounced dead. Years later, rumors surfaced that a white man from a prominent family confessed on his deathbed to killing the girls. Recently, an effort has been launched to exonerate George Stinney.

The Stinney execution was horrific and heartbreaking, but it reflected the racial politics of the South more than the way children accused of crimes were generally treated. It was an example of how policies and norms once directed exclusively at controlling and punishing the black population have filtered their way into our general criminal justice system. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, the politics of fear and anger sweeping the country and fueling mass incarceration was turning its attention to children.

Influential criminologists predicted a coming wave of “super- predators” with whom the juvenile justice system would be unable to cope. Sometimes expressly focusing on black and brown children, theorists suggested that America would soon be overcome by “elementary school youngsters who pack guns instead of lunches” and who “have absolutely no respect for human life.” Panic over the impending crime wave expected from these “radically impulsive, brutally remorseless” children led nearly every state to enact legislation that increased the exposure of children to adult prosecution. Many states lowered or eliminated the minimum age for trying children as adults, leaving children as young as eight vulnerable to adult prosecution and imprisonment.

Some states also initiated mandatory transfer rules, which took away any discretion from prosecutors and judges over whether a child should be kept in the juvenile system. Tens of thousands of children who had previously been managed by the juvenile justice system, with its well-developed protections and requirements for children, were now thrown into an increasingly overcrowded, violent, and desperate adult prison system.

The predictions of “super-predators” proved wildly inaccurate. The juvenile population in America increased from 1994 to 2000, but the juvenile crime rate declined, leading academics who had originally supported the “super-predator” theory to disclaim it. In 2001, the sur- geon general of the United States released a report labeling the “super- predator” theory a myth and stated that “[t]here is no evidence that young people involved in violence during the peak years of the early 1990s were more frequent or more vicious offenders than youths in earlier years.” This admission came too late for kids like Trina, Ian, and Antonio. Their death-in-prison sentences were insulated from legal challenges or appeals by a maze of procedural rules, statutes of limitations, and legal barricades designed to make successful postconviction challenges almost impossible.

When I met Trina, Ian, and Antonio years later, they had each been broken by years of hopeless confinement. They were legally condemned children hidden away in adult prisons, largely unknown and forgotten, preoccupied with surviving in dangerous, terrifying environments with little family support or outside help. They weren’t exceptional. There were thousands of children like them scattered throughout prisons in the United States — children who had been sentenced to life imprisonment without parole or other extreme sentences. The relative anonymity of these kids seemed to aggravate their plight and their despair. I agreed to represent Trina, Ian, and Antonio, and our office would eventually make challenging death-in-prison sentences imposed on children a major focus of our work. But it became immediately clear that their extreme, unjust sentences were just one of the problems that had to be overcome. They were all damaged and traumatized by our system of justice.

Trina’s mental and physical health made her life in prison extremely challenging. She was grateful for our help and showed remarkable improvement when we told her that we were going to fight to get her sentence reduced, but she had many other needs. She talked constantly about wanting to see her son. She wanted to know that she was not alone in the world. We tracked down her sisters and arranged a visit where Trina could see her son, and it seemed to strengthen her in ways I wouldn’t have thought possible.

I flew to Los Angeles and drove hundreds of miles through the heart of Central California farmland to meet Antonio at a maximum-security prison dominated by gangs and frequent violence. He was trying to acculturate himself to a world that corrupted healthy human development in every way. Reading had always been challenging for Antonio, but he had a strong desire to learn and was so determined to understand that he would read a passage over and over, looking up unfamiliar words in the dictionary we sent him, until he got it. We recently sent him Darwin’s The Origin of Species, which he hopes will help him better understand those around him.

It turns out that Ian was very, very bright. Although being smart and sensitive made his extended time in solitary confinement especially destructive, he had managed to educate himself, read hundreds of books, and write poetry and short stories that reflected an eager, robust intellect. He sent me dozens of letters and poems. I’d return to the office after traveling for a few days and often find letters from Ian. Sometimes I’d find within a letter a scrap of wrinkled paper, which, once unfolded, would reveal thoughtful and sobering poems with titles like “Uncried Tears,” “Tied Up with Words,” “The Unforgiving Minute,” “Silence,” and “Wednesday Ritual.”

We decided to publish a report to draw attention to the plight of children in the United States who had been sentenced to die in prison. I wanted to photograph some of our clients in order to give the life-without-parole sentences imposed on children a human face. Florida was one of the few states that would allow photographers inside a prison, so we asked prison officials if Ian could be permitted out of his solitary, no-touch existence for an hour so that the photographer we hired could take the pictures. To my delight, they agreed and allowed Ian to be in the same room with an outside photographer. As soon as the visit was over, Ian immediately wrote me a letter.

Dear Mr. Stevenson:
I hope this letter reaches you in good health, and everything is going well for you. The focal point of this letter is to thank you for the photo session with the photographer and obtain information from you how I can obtain a good amount of photos. As you know, I’ve been in solitary confinement approx. 14.5 years. It’s like the system has buried me alive and I’m dead to the outside world. Those photos mean so very much to me right now. All I have is $1.75 in my inmate account right now. If I send you $1.00 of that, how many of the photos will that purchase me? In my elation at the photo shoot today, I forgot to mention that today June 19th was my deceased mom’s birthday. I know it’s not a big significance, but reflecting on it afterward it seemed symbolic and special that the photo shoot took place on my mother’s birthday! I don’t know how to make you feel the emotion and importance of those photos, but to be real, I want to show the world I’m alive! I want to look at those photos and feel alive! It would really help with my pain. I felt joyful today during the photo shoot. I wanted it to never end. Every time you all visit and leave, I feel saddened. But I capture and cherish those moments in time, replaying them in my mind’s eye, feeling grateful for human interaction and contact. But today, just the simple handshakes we shared was a welcome addition to my sensory deprived life. Please tell me how many photos I can get? I want those photos of myself, almost as bad as I want my freedom. Thank you for making a lot of the positive occurrences that are happening in my life possible. I don’t know exactly how the law led you to me, but I thank God it did. I appreciate everything you and EJI are doing for me. Please send me some photos, okay?

Excerpted from Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson, published October 21, 2014 by Spiegel & Grau, all rights reserved.

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