People are wrongly sentenced to die in prison for crimes they committed as children Opinion

People are wrongly sentenced to die in prison for crimes they committed as children Opinion

“At the end of the day we are going to be judged on what we have been to the poor, to the hungry, the naked, the homeless. They, like all suffering humanity, like all ‘Christs in distressing disguises’ deserve love and compassion.” — St. Teresa of Calcutta

In 1976, 14-year-old Trina Garnett was living on the streets of Chester, Pennsylvania. She was the youngest of 12 children many of whom were born from rape. Growing up in extreme poverty she regularly witnessed her father brutally humiliate and beat her mother and siblings.

Trina was nine when her mother died. When her alcoholic father began sexually abusing her and her sisters, they ran away and moved between relatives, each time fleeing violence or sexual abuse, and always ending up homeless. With all of her traumas in addition to a diagnosis of schizophrenia as well as intellectual disabilities Trina was in and out of hospitals for psychiatric problems.

Her mother’s death, the physical and sexual abuse, the poverty and homelessness all exacerbated Trina’s emotional and mental health problems. In 1976 Trina and a friend broke into the house of two friends whose mother had prohibited Trina from visiting. Trina lit her way with matches and accidentally caught the house on fire. The boys died. 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.

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 14-year-old Trina as an adult. Trina was convicted of second-degree murder.

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 physical and sexual 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 14, Trina was condemned to die in prison. After sentencing , 16-year-old Trina was immediately shipped off to an adult prison in Muncy.

Trina was terrified, still suffering from trauma and mental illness and intensely vulnerable – with the knowledge that she would never leave Muncy. Not long after she arrived at Muncy, a male correctional officer pulled her into a secluded area and raped her. Trina was completely unprepared for the stress of childbirth but delivered her baby while shackled to her prison bed.

In his book “Just Mercy” Bryan Stevenson, a distinguished New York University law professor and MacArthur grant recipient, states that there should be a total ban on housing children under the age of 18 with adults in jails or prisons. Children 13-17 years old should never be tried in an adult court. He states that they are vulnerable to all sorts of problems that increases the risk of wrongful conviction. He concludes that no child of 13-17year olds can defend themselves in the adult criminal justice system.

In 2010, the US Supreme Court announced its decision that life imprisonment without parole sentences imposed on children convicted of non-homicidal crimes is cruel and unusual punishment and constitutionally impermissible. In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a constitutional ban on mandatory life without parole sentences imposed on children convicted of homicides.

These court decisions meant that no child accused of any crime could ever again be automatically sentenced to die in prison. Over 2000 people sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for crimes when they were children were now potentially eligible for relief or reduced sentences. Some states changed their statutes to create more hopeful sentences for child offenders. In 2018, Trina turned 56 in Muncy State Prison She has been in prison for 42 years.

Over the years she has become less functional and more mentally disabled. Prison doctors have diagnosed her with multiple sclerosis, intellectual disability and mental illness related to trauma. Pennsylvania is a state that does not recognize her right to a re-sentencing despite the Supreme Court rulings.

Trina is one of nearly 500 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 13-17. It is the largest population of child offenders condemned to die in prison in any single jurisdiction in the world.

Pat Bruno, M.D., lives in Selinsgrove

Published at Tue, 31 Dec 2019 09:14:00 +0000

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