Throwaway People: Teens Sent to Die in Prison Will Get a Second Chance

Throwaway People: Teens Sent to Die in Prison Will Get a Second Chance

Throwaway People: Teens Sent to Die in Prison Will Get a Second Chance

Trina Garnett accidentally set a fatal fire when she was 14. That was in 1976. Could today’s Supreme Court ruling against juvenile life without parole finally bring her home?


On Monday, June 25 the Supreme Court issued a 5-4 ruling striking down mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles on Eighth Amendment grounds. As reflected during oral arguments, the justices were particularly concerned that mandatory sentencing statutes—which are responsible for the vast majority of cases in which teens have been sent to die in prison—fail to take into consideration the defendants’ youth, background, and the specifics of the crime. “Such mandatory penalties, by their nature, preclude a sentencer from taking account of an offender’s age and the wealth of characteristics and circumstances attendant to it,” Justice Kagan wrote for the majority. “Under these schemes, every juvenile will receive the same sentence as every other—the 17-year-old and the 14-year-old, the shooter and the accomplice, the child from a stable household and the child from a chaotic and abusive one.” This ruling means that prisoners like Trina Garnett will be entitled to a re-sentencing hearing and, in her case, after 35 years behind bars, may be freed.

On August 29, 1976, around 1:40 am, a fire erupted at 1138 Spruce Street in Chester, Pennsylvania. The building, in a row of two-family homes just south of the Delaware Expressway, burned for two hours, killing two boys: 13-year-old Brian Harvey and his 6-year-old brother, Derrick.

Neighbors spotted two local girls at the scene: 16-year-old Frances Newsome and 14-year-old Trina Garnett. But according to early reports in the Delaware County Daily Times, “the immediate focus” was Trina, a “mysterious girl” with a “grudge” against Sylvia Harvey, the boys’ mother. Investigators theorized that she had broken a kitchen window and climbed through, lighting matches throughout the first floor of the house and then escaping before it went up in flames. On September 3, Trina was arrested and charged with homicide, arson, conspiracy and burglary. She was held without bail; police told reporters she would be tried as an adult.

The youngest of twelve kids, Trina was known as a slow child. She had a very low IQ and couldn’t read or write. Kids made fun of her for sucking her fingers. Her mother died when Trina was 9, and her father was a violent alcoholic capable of unthinkable cruelty. (Sworn affidavits describe, in addition to horrific abuse against his wife and kids, how he once beat the family dog to death with a hammer as Trina watched, then made his children clean up its remains.) From the time Trina was young, she was mostly cared for by her siblings: among them, Edith (or Edy), the eldest, who took over her mother’s responsibilities, and twin sisters Lynn and Linda, just a year older than Trina. In and out of homelessness, Trina and the twins slept in cars and abandoned buildings, washing their clothes in police stations and foraging for food wherever they could, including from trash cans.

When she was 11, Trina was sent by her grandmother to Allentown State Hospital for mental treatment; she was discharged at 13 against the advice of her doctor and stopped taking her medication.

Following the fire, prison officials requested she be given a psychiatric evaluation, after which she was deemed unfit for trial and hospitalized. A second evaluation yielded a diagnosis of schizophrenia. But a third assessment, just a few weeks later, deemed her competent to stand trial. Her lawyer did not challenge the decision. Nor did he challenge the prosecutor’s successful push to try Trina as an adult. (He would later be jailed and disbarred.) Trina was tried in March 1977. Trial transcripts have been lost, but it’s clear that she took the stand as the sole witness for the defense. Frances Newsome was the key witness for the prosecution, telling the jury Trina had set the fire as revenge on Sylvia Harvey for forbidding her sons to play with her.

Trina was found guilty of arson, two counts of second-degree murder and “causing a catastrophe.” The conviction sealed her fate. Had she been facing the death penalty, she would have had the right to introduce mitigating evidence, according to a Supreme Court ruling the previous year striking down mandatory death sentences as cruel and unusual punishment. But no such right extended to defendants facing mandatory life sentences. In Pennsylvania this meant that Trina’s age, severe mental problems, history of abuse and neglect, and, most crucially, rehabilitative potential were not up for discussion. Bound by the state’s mandatory sentencing statutes, on July 7, 1977, Delaware County Judge Howard Reed handed down two life terms plus up to forty years in prison. He called her case “one of the saddest I’ve ever seen” and expressed worry that there was “no facility whatsoever to take care of these few juveniles in desperate need of a secure, safe and meaningful facility.”

His words would prove prescient. Trina had barely begun her sentence at the State Correctional Institution (SCI) at Muncy when she was raped by a prison guard. She got pregnant and delivered the baby, which was taken into foster care. Trina’s sister Brenda (who died in 2003) eventually won custody of the child. His name is Rodney.

* * *

Today, Trina is one of approximately 470 prisoners in Pennsylvania serving life without parole for crimes they committed as teenagers. In thirty-five years the state has gone from holding a small handful of juvenile lifers with no chance at release to holding the highest number in the country. Nationwide, the number stands at around 2,589; of these, only a small fraction—seventy-nine—were sentenced for crimes committed when they were 14 or younger. Eighteen are in Pennsylvania.

But an upcoming Supreme Court decision could give these prisoners a second chance. On March 20 the Court heard oral arguments in Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, two cases involving lifers who were 14 when they committed murder. At the heart of their defense is the argument that regardless of the crime, 14 is too young to be discarded as beyond repair. Teens are impulsive, prone to risky behavior and susceptible to peer pressure, and the youngest among them are light-years from mental maturity. “At fourteen,” the Miller petition argues, “the major transformation in brain structure that will result in a sophisticated system of circuitry between the frontal lobe and the rest of the brain, enabling adults to exercise cognitive control over their behavior, is barely underway.”

The same science on teenage brains provided the basis for the Court’s 2010 ruling in Graham v. Florida, which struck down life without parole for youthful offenders in nonhomicide crimes. That case turned on the Court’s 2005 ruling, in Roper v. Simmons, that outlawed the death penalty for juveniles. Roper established “that because juveniles have lessened culpability, they are less deserving of the most severe punishments,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote. Moreover, “when compared to an adult murderer, a juvenile offender who did not kill or intend to kill has a twice diminished moral culpability.”

Graham led to a wave of appeals from people serving sentences of life without parole for second-degree and felony murder—in which someone participates in a fatal crime but is not the actual killer—on the basis that they, too, lacked intent to kill. Among them was Trina. Not only did she have no intention of starting a fire, her lawyers argued; she “could not even form the specific intent to kill” because of her mental limitations. Her appeal was denied. But that of Arkansas prisoner Kuntrell Jackson—who was part of a robbery during which another teen killed a woman with a sawed-off shotgun—is now before the Court.

Combined, Miller and Jackson give the justices much to grapple with. Beyond questions of culpability and the very young age at which the defendants were sentenced—a rarity their attorney, Bryan Stevenson, says constitutes cruel and unusual punishment—both, like Trina, were subject to mandatory sentencing statutes. In fact, as Stevenson told the justices during oral arguments, “The overwhelming majority of those sentences come from a handful of states” with such statutes. In Pennsylvania, he said by way of example, “we have 14-year-old children…convicted of clearly unintentional killings that have been subject to mandatory life without parole.”

The role of mandatory sentencing seemed to trouble the Court. “What is the justification for not giving the defendant any opportunity to point to mitigating features in his lack of development, in his age, in his upbringing, et cetera?” asked Justice Stephen Breyer during Miller. “That to me is a difficult question.” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg seemed disturbed by the total lack of hope for release for very young prisoners. “I mean, essentially, you’re making a 14-year-old a throwaway person,” she said during Jackson.

For many, another difficult question is how to approach cases that, unlike Trina’s, involve intentional, brutal violence. Evan Miller, for example, joined an older teen in beating a neighbor with a baseball bat and setting fire to his trailer. But as Stevenson told the Court, teens’ “deficits in judgment are not crime-specific”; the same mitigating factors apply. Like Trina, Miller had an abusive, alcoholic father and suffered from severe mental problems. He tried to kill himself several times starting at the age of 5. Kuntrell Jackson also had a life full of “mitigating factors”: as Stevenson told the Court, he “was born in a household where there was nothing but violence…. His grandmother shot his uncle. His mother shot a neighbor. His brother shot someone.”

In March the Sentencing Project released the results of the first national survey of prisoners sentenced to life without parole as a juvenile. Its scope was significant: 1,579 prisoners, or about 60 percent of the total population, had responded. Of those prisoners, 79 percent reported “witnessing violence in their homes.” Almost half “experienced physical abuse, including 79.5% of girls.” Poverty, neglect and trauma were consistent themes.

* * *

I met Trina’s sisters Edy and Lynn and her brother Gary in Harrisburg the Sunday before the oral arguments. Most of the family has moved there to be closer to SCI Muncy. Lynn brought pictures: Trina as a smiling little girl in braids and a pale pink dress, Trina outside Allentown Hospital in winter, Trina and her son during a visit in 1987. The most recent, taken in April 2011, showed her with Rodney, now a tall broad-shouldered man in his 30s, against a backdrop of trees and puffy white clouds. Rodney’s arm is around his mother, and she is smiling. Her hair is gray around the edges. The border features a cartoon rabbit in a bowtie saying, “Hoppy Easter.”

At 50, Trina suffers from multiple sclerosis. She can hardly walk and relies on a wheelchair. “She requires a lot of assistance,” says Edy. “She has lost a lot of weight.” At one point she was sent to SCI Cambridge Springs, a minimum-security facility with better medical care than Muncy, but the distance—250 miles from Harrisburg—was too great a burden for her family, so she asked to be transferred back.

When she was younger, Trina participated in prison athletics and schooling, as well as a program that allowed her to train puppies to be service dogs. “She adores dogs,” says Lynn. But cellblocks that are eligible for the program are not wheelchair accessible. Her sentence prevents her from taking part in other activities. Because they are considered the “worst of the worst,” prisoners serving life without parole are often ineligible for prison programs.

The first time Trina’s siblings visited her, they were all adults. Because they were scattered in different places at the time, they have no recollection of the fire or the trial. “I never ever went to any of her hearings because we weren’t aware,” Edy explains. They do know that Trina insists she did not mean to set the fire and that Frances helped boost her into the window, which she couldn’t have climbed through alone. But at trial, she was ill-equipped. “I don’t think she had a full understanding of what was happening,” says Edy. “No, definitely not.”

“We all knew Trina was different,” says Lynn. Growing up, “she was so far behind in reading and activities—she was like a baby.” While Lynn and Linda were dressing themselves, recalls Edy, “Trina couldn’t do that….She would have her shoes on backwards.”

When Trina was 5, she accidentally set herself on fire. It’s not clear how—she was probably playing with matches—but as Edy recalls, she was sharing a bed with Trina and woke up. “I felt the heat going across my foot and [saw] the light.” Their brother Wayne ran into the room “because I was hollering ‘There’s a fire! There’s a fire!’… When he got there, he realized it was Trina—she was in flames.” Trina was badly burned and left with disfiguring scars.

In 1982 Trina’s lawyer sought a new trial on the grounds that she had received inadequate representation. At a 1983 hearing challenging her competency at trial—and overseen by her sentencing judge, Howard Reed—court-appointed psychiatrist Mark Shulkin described Trina’s profound mental issues. During a recent examination, she had not known what year it was or how to add three and two. She could not remember who her lawyer was minutes after being told his name. Even if Trina lit the matches at the Harvey home years before, Dr. Shulkin said, “to foresee that it would turn into a fire in which two children could not escape and would die….was thinking beyond her capability.”

But citing the accident when she was 5, the DA pressed Dr. Shulkin to admit that Trina would have known the matches could cause harm to the Harveys. “In view of her having set herself on fire and suffered really serious injuries,” Dr. Shulkin conceded under questioning, “she would know that setting a fire could cause serious damage to people.” At the same hearing, the DA seized on Dr. Shulkin’s description of how, according to a counselor who knew Trina as a child, “if she was angry at another child…she might destroy a favorite toy or some property of the child…to make that child be unhappy.”

“And under that circumstance she would form an intent to revenge against that person,” the DA said.

“Yes,” the psychiatrist responded.

Trina’s request for a new trial was denied.

* * *

Pennsylvania was once at the forefront of the rehabilitation movement, one that extended to juveniles—albeit along starkly racial lines. In 1828 the House of Refuge of Philadelphia opened as an alternative to adult prisons for youth offenders. But for two decades, only white children were sent there for rehabilitation; black children were often sent to adult prisons. The House of Refuge for Colored Children was opened at the end of 1849, at the behest of progressive reformers.

Houses of refuge eventually gave way to juvenile prisons. The Juvenile Court Act of 1903 established juvenile courts for minor crimes; in the 1930s their jurisdiction would be extended to all crimes except murder for defendants under 18. But as juvenile courts shed their paternalistic origins in favor of formal due process—Pennsylvania’s Juvenile Act of 1972 codified such rights—notions of rehabilitation as a central goal of the criminal justice system were eroding. The law-and-order rhetoric of Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign and his declaration of the “war on drugs” in 1971 were followed by racebaiting predictions in the ’80s and ’90s that a generation of “teenage superpredators” would lay waste to cities across the country. States passed a wave of tough-on-crime laws allowing children to be tried as adults for a variety of offenses. In 1995 Pennsylvania amended the Juvenile Act to narrow the jurisdiction of juvenile courts, shuttling more youths into the adult system.

The ramped-up sentencing of children as adults had a disparate racial impact, reflecting long-held attitudes that kids of color are more criminal in nature and have less rehabilitative potential. Today, black and Latino teens are far more likely to be sentenced to life without parole, particularly for killing a white person. Of the 13- and 14-year-olds sent to die in prison, 70 percent are, like Trina, kids of color.

* * *

Today in Pennsylvania, a child of any age can be charged with first- or second-degree murder and automatically sent to the adult system—where the burden is on the defense to prove the child should be tried as a juvenile. Upon conviction, life without parole is mandatory. There are virtually no avenues for release.

“The only way that anybody can hope to get out at any point is through the commutation process,” says William DiMascio, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, which dates back to the 1700s. And that’s a long shot. Under reforms implemented by Governor Tom Ridge in the ’90s, the state’s five-member Board of Pardons must recommend commutations unanimously. The attorney general and lieutenant governor both sit on the board. “Being politically active and ambitious,” says DiMascio, “it’s become almost automatic that they vote no rather than take the chance that letting somebody out will result in some crime that they’re going to get blamed for.”

DiMascio met Trina at SCI Muncy a couple of years ago as part of a routine session with prisoners seeking advice on the commutation process. “She actually came in a wheelchair,” he recalls. “I was a little surprised about that, because I was not aware of her condition…. I remember distinctly asking her how she thought she could support herself [if she got out]. And I think she said that she felt like she could get a job at McDonald’s.”

“We have a number of cases like this,” DiMascio says, “where you really wonder what interest is being served by just keeping people in a prison situation.”

A number of groups are devoted to reforming youth sentencing. But in the realm of criminal justice activism, life sentences have not been a focus (indeed, many opponents of the death penalty have pushed life without parole as the best alternative to executions). “A good deal of [advocacy] focuses on removing low-level, nonviolent offenders from jails and prisons because they comprise such a large proportion of the incarcerated population,” says Ashley Nellis, an analyst with the Sentencing Project. Whereas the obvious excesses of the drug war have met resistance, when it comes to violent crimes, even young defendants have comparatively few advocates in their corner.

* * *

The spot where the Harveys lived is now a vacant lot. On a Saturday in April, a minivan was parked in it, surrounded by debris. A number of houses in the neighborhood were boarded up, some with foreclosure notices out front.

Linda Garnett lives two miles from Spruce Street in the adjoining suburb of Brookhaven. When I arrive at her home, she is holding a set of jacks. Only one of the red balls is left. As she tells it, young Trina was playing with them, and in a fit of frustration, bit the other ball in half. Jacks are not allowed in the visiting room at Muncy. But at home they are Linda’s touchstone, the single item she salvaged from her years with Trina.

“Everyone who knew Trina, if they’re not deceased, they probably can’t remember her,” says Linda. Sometimes she’ll run into former inmates who recognize her from Trina’s photos. “And then they’ll say, ‘You know, I used to be at Muncy with Trina—and she’s all right.’”

Linda goes to Muncy with Edy, Lynn and her brothers every few months. Like them, she describes joyful visits where they relive the best parts of their childhood. “We still hug and kiss and rub our faces together like we did,” she says. They buy her candy bars and soda—“things that will make a child happy.” When not reminiscing, “we talk about the things she would like to have done. She would like to have graduated from school, and be able to pick out her graduation dress—you know, things like that. Things like a normal teenager would have wanted to do. Have a home. Be able to pick out furniture for her own home.”

If the Supreme Court decides to limit life without parole for juveniles—whether by drawing a line above age 14, or striking down mandatory sentencing statutes, even abolishing it altogether—Trina would be entitled to a resentencing hearing. Her family hopes this will be her ticket home.

“We would probably all want to take her,” says Linda, smiling, adding that Trina would likely choose to go to Harrisburg, where Rodney lives. Regardless, Linda says, “she would never worry about a place to stay—ever.”

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