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.