The Nation‘s Liliana Segura digs up a devastating, 35-year-old case that calls up the horrors of a number of tough-on-crime policies, most notably juvenile life without parole.
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.
She has since been diagnosed with MS, and is confined to a wheelchair. (Echoes of the Paul House case.) The story just gets more awful from there.
The U.S. Supreme Court will hand down its decision on juvenile life without parole in the fall.