Disposable People

Sunday, May 13th, 2012

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.

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27 Responses to “Disposable People”

  1. #1 |  perlhaqr | 

    Well, that’s pretty fantastically horrible, all right.

  2. #2 |  KRF | 

    The worst part is that she set a fire that killed people, including 2 children that never had a chance to grow up. Not getting how you think this should be handled by society.

  3. #3 |  B | 

    Thanks for this. I’m gonna go cut myself and cry now.

  4. #4 |  Radley Balko | 

    Not getting how you think this should be handled by society.

    I can think of about a thousand ways that would be preferable to sending a juvenile with clear mental disabilities and a long history of abuse and neglect by her caretakers to an adult penitentiary, allowing her to be raped by a prison guard, then letting her waste away without appropriate medical and psychiatric care until she dies.

    You don’t think we’re better than this?

  5. #5 |  Z | 

    If I were damned to hell to account for this, I couldn’t argue against it.

  6. #6 |  SPO | 

    Radley, I don’t see how it follows that LWOP for juvie killers is a problem in and of itself. There are vicious juvenile killers who should NEVER see the light of day again.

  7. #7 |  David | 

    The worst part is that she set a fire that killed people, including 2 children that never had a chance to grow up. Not getting how you think this should be handled by society.

    Maybe if there were some sort of system to determine if she was capable of understanding the consequences of her actions. And a professional who knew the rules of this system and could advocate for her. That might do the trick, as long as the people involved didn’t decide to abandon their responsibilities in favor of sending as many people to jail as possible, but really, that’s just crazy talk.

  8. #8 |  KRF | 

    If your advocating for a better system, and facilities, for handling these types of situations I could along with you on that. But If she doesn’t understand her actions and doesn’t know the difference between right and wrong then yes she does belong kept away from society as a whole. The bottom line is she is dangerous, and capable of killing again. The Harveys deserve justice too.

  9. #9 |  David | 

    If she doesn’t understand her actions because she’s schizophrenic she needs treatment for her diagnosed medical condition, not to be thrown into prison and left to rot (with bonus rape). That’s not justice for anyone.

  10. #10 |  KRF | 

    David: So in your world its ok for a mentally ill teenager, as long as they have Dr who agrees they are mentally ill, to go on a killing spree and face no consequences whatsoever? I have no problem with them receiving treatment, but have absolutely no confidence whatsoever that you can let them out of prison into society and they will be any better, and not decide to kill all over again.

  11. #11 |  demize! | 

    “You don’t think we’re better than this?” No, I’m afraid I don’t. I think this is a sick culture that is in its decadent phase. We rot from the head down. I harbor no illusions about the salad days of this republic, and it steadily gets more barbaric. Not to say the say the original sin of owning other humans was enlightened, this simply takes a more nuanced form.

  12. #12 |  Leon Wolfeson | 

    @2 – Without being able to even see the trial transcripts, it’s near-impossible to say if she even actually did it.

    Of course, I’m sure that’s not a problem for you. And I’m sure you’re fine with felony murder statutes. Intent? Why, what’s that…

    Also, bluntly, schizophrenia is HIGHLY treatable in the vast majority of cases.

  13. #13 |  Alex Wolcott | 

    Although I’m generally with Radley on criminal justice issues, here I differ.

    It is one thing to advocate on behalf of innocent motorists getting robbed by police and asset forfeiture schemes. It is one thing to advocate on behalf of drug offenders banged for mandatory 20 year stretches over possessing a cube of LSD.

    But you really kind of start to lose philosophical support from folks like me when you seem to argue that actual murderers should, what? Go free? Get some prozac and a ticket back onto the streets? Get some slap on the wrist because it is “barbaric” to punish a juvenile (rather than “treat” her.)

    Stuff like this diminishes the effect of legitimate protest against the legitimate excesses of the criminal justice system.

    This is kind of analogous to Al Sharpton crying racism when some black actor fails to win an award or some such. So when “Reverend” Al next pulls that card out of the deck I kind of tend to mentally discount whatever it is he is saying. Which is too bad, because maybe that next time he was actually correct but my only reaction is “crazy ideologue screaming about imagined injustices.”

  14. #14 |  supercat | 

    #12 | Leon Wolfeson | “Without being able to even see the trial transcripts, it’s near-impossible to say if she even actually did it.”

    Indeed. Given the circumstances as described, it would seem plausible that this girl was simply a scapegoat. If she didn’t actually commit the crime, then she shouldn’t have been locked up at all.

    If, however, she did commit the crime, it’s far less clear what should happen. True, schizophrenia is often treatable, but how much risk should society be willing to accept from people who would become dangerous if their treatment lapsed? One could certainly argue that it would be better for someone like this girl to be in a supervised living facility than in a prison, but it’s unclear how much the state should be expected to spend for such things.

  15. #15 |  ECOA | 

    Jesus H. Christ in a chariot driven sidecar, KRF, did you buy too much straw or something. I thinks it’s pretty fucking clear that nobody at all is saying that Trina should be given an ice cream cone and a bus ticket to wherever she wants. But maybe a mentally ill 14 year-old-girl, who certainly did not have competent representation during her trial, and who was undoubtedly an easy target for a justice system which has shown itself more than capable of putting perfectly innocent people into prison for life, deserves better than to be raped and impregnated by a prison guard soon after starting her sentence. Maybe she deserved better than what she got long before she reached the point where she was tried and convicted as an adult for setting a fire that killed two kids. Maybe if the system had swung into gear while she was homeless through no fault of her own, in need of psychiatric care, and completely incapable of taking care of herself, then those two boys would be alive. But instead, this: after not one but two assessments declaring her to be mentally ill and unfit for trial, the system decides a third assessment is in order, declares her fit for trial somehow, gives her piss poor representation, locks her up for life, allows her to be raped and to become pregnant as a result, and you think that this is merely regrettable? So yeah, she killed two kids, almost certainly unintentionally, likely while totally incapable of rational decision, and probably abetted by someone who later testified against her, and likely got off scott-free, and she should be condemned to a living hell until she dies for what was essentially a colossal failure of the same system that decided her later fate? That seem okay to you? As opposed to receiving that treatment she needed, when she needed it, in a rape-free environment, so that someday she might get a chance to live a slightly better life, when competent medical professionals might be able to keep tragedies like this from happening, or at least mitigate the worst of them? And it’s good to see that a highly-trained medical professional like you has the cojones to state your undoubtedly well-informed opinion that there’s nothing that can be done for people in these situations and we’re better off as a society just fucking throwing them away. It gives me no end of pleasure to know that the world’s foremost psychological clinician (what else could you be, given your uncanny ability to diagnose and recommend treatment based only on newspaper articles? You and Bill Frist should have a team-up) reads the same blogs that I do.

  16. #16 |  KRF | 

    ECOA: I never argued against any of your points about her mistreatment. All I’m saying is she belongs kept away from society. I also don’t believe you need to be a psychological clinician to know that anyone who thinks it is ok to kill another person based on if they have hurt your feelings makes a person mentally ill. I also never even came close to saying she should not have had help before this tragedy occured. So I really see no need for you to have been such a condescending ass!

  17. #17 |  ECOA | 

    Alright, KRF, fair enough. I was a condescending ass. I can own up to it; I did it intentionally.

    “David: So in your world its ok for a mentally ill teenager, as long as they have Dr who agrees they are mentally ill, to go on a killing spree and face no consequences whatsoever? I have no problem with them receiving treatment, but have absolutely no confidence whatsoever that you can let them out of prison into society and they will be any better, and not decide to kill all over again.”

    Also condescending, since David didn’t write anything like what you attributed to him. He advocated for treatment, which may, presumably include some form of custody, as she was, presumably, not mentally competent, and quite possibly a danger to those around her; nobody said she should have been released into the streets to roam free and unpunished/treated. At all.

    And you’re right. You don’t have to be a clinician to know that anyone who thinks it is ok to kill another person based on if they have hurt your feelings makes a person mentally ill. But there’s no evidence whatsoever that Trina intended to kill anyone. If she set the fire (and I can’t say, given the obvious clown court that was her trial), she obviously intended to do that. Revenge as a motive? Perhaps. I can concede that it is likely that she intended to set the fire as revenge, that sounds like just the kind of stupid thing a mentally-challenged psychologically scarred kid would do. It surely does not sound like she intended to burn two children to death. Yet here she was, convicted of second-degree murder, as opposed to, say, involuntary manslaughter.

    “If your advocating for a better system, and facilities, for handling these types of situations I could along with you on that. But If she doesn’t understand her actions and doesn’t know the difference between right and wrong then yes she does belong kept away from society as a whole. The bottom line is she is dangerous, and capable of killing again. The Harveys deserve justice too.”

    So you also advocate for better systems. Fine. But how is what happened to Trina justice for the Harveys? Two injustices does not make one justice, not at all. Your statements in this regard show lukewarm, at best, support for the necessary systems to keep things like this from happening, but I’ll concede that you do, in fact, support such systems. What I do see clearly is that you feel she should be “kept away from society as a whole.” How would you know? If she’s a cold-blooded murderer, sure. But that really doesn’t seem to be the case here. What seems to be the case is that here we have a poor kid, with problems numerous enough certainly to have been taken into consideration (though they were not) who did something stupid, incredibly stupid, that cost two children their lives. This happened because the system failed miserably. This same system then runs a poor excuse for a show trial, locks up a mentally and psychologically challenged 14-year-old for life without treatment, lets her get raped and impregnated, and the best YOU can say is:

    “But If she doesn’t understand her actions and doesn’t know the difference between right and wrong then yes she does belong kept away from society as a whole. The bottom line is she is dangerous, and capable of killing again. The Harveys deserve justice too.”

    She doesn’t understand because the system failed her, because she was a kid. Maybe treatment could have helped her understand. But not according to you. ANYONE is capable of killing, moreso do we share the capability to make a stupid decision that costs someone their life, without meaning to. But I don’t at all see that you get that. That’s why I was a condescending ass. Because you deserve it.

  18. #18 |  marie | 

    ECOA #15: That was satisfying. Thank you.

  19. #19 |  C. S. P. Schofield | 

    I agree that this is an ugly tragedy. Given my opinion of, and the history of, government run mental institutions, I’m not at all sure that having her committed to such an institution would be any better, except in intention.

    I suppose there is the possibility that the conviction is wrong. But if she did set the fire, and is mentally incompetent to know what she was doing, then society has a right to view her as a serious threat. If she set the fire and DID know what she was doing, then life without parole seems about right. The guard who raped her should (assuming we can prove we have the right guy) be castrated and then thrown to the crocodiles.

    If she did set the fire, didn’t know what she was doing, can be better under controlled circumstances, and has a doctor who is willing to supervise her in his own home, the let’s let her out. But IF SHE SET THE FIRE, she needs to be, at a minimum, supervised for the rest of her life.

  20. #20 |  Bee | 

    I must have missed the part where Radley – or anyone else – said that the girl should just be allowed to skip free. If that is your takeaway from this, you need to work on your critical thinking skills. Jesus.

  21. #21 |  C. S. P. Schofield | 

    Bee,

    My takeaway on this was not that Radley wanted her to go free, but that he thought that there was a substantially better option than throwing her in prison for the rest of her life. What I’m saying is that, barring the possibility of wrongful conviction, I’m not too sure that I see an option that would be (as opposed to should be) a whole lot better. Government run mental institutions tend (historically) to be snake pits.

  22. #22 |  Boyd Durkin | 

    The worst part is that she set a fire that killed people, including 2 children that never had a chance to grow up. Not getting how you think this should be handled by society.

    Don’t want to beat anyone up (today), but this above comment is a lot of why we have a horrific prison system today.

    No one (NO ONE) is denying the fire was a tragedy. And, for many reasons we don’t have the direct victims in charge of determining a punishment. Today’s prisons put people in tiny boxes for decades or life. That’s it…and that isn’t much of an objective…and it has a part in resulting in the largest prison population in the history of prisons and populations. While in prison they are confined to tiny boxes, degraded, sometimes tortured, and often develop mental disorders. It should also be mentioned that a large percentage of the people in prison go in suffering from one/several mental issue/s (depending on how you define such things). In other words: the prison system (USA) doesn’t “work”.

    Eventually, a lot of those prisoners are set free, dangerous and unstable, and not even remotely capable of getting within a mile of the elite who run the prisons or determine policy. But, they can sit next to your kid at the movies.

    If a group of bandits kidnapped a politician and kept him in a dumpster, raping him often, for over a decade, we’d have a lot of trouble defending that treatment of a human being. But a state run prison…!

    All this sets aside the discussion (which many view as crazy) about the “right” of the state to take on the role of punishing members of society.

  23. #23 |  brian | 

    I don’t see anything in there that indicates she was actually guilty. In fact, I took away the exact opposite, and figured she had been framed/scapegoated. Can you point to evidence of her guilt, other than the verdict?

  24. #24 |  John Spragge | 

    KRF, don’t you get that Radley Balko runs a libertarian blog? One of the basic tenets of libertarian thought holds that a government with the power to give you everything you want can, and probably will, take everything you have. How, aside from pure sentimentality, can you believe a libertarian would endorse the concept that government has within its power to make the survivors of violence whole? Even a few of the most unabashed promoters of the police/prison complex, police procedural dramas on TV, have begun to grasp the hollowness of the promise that finding and punishing the perpetrators of a violent act will comfort the victims. They have not yet noticed, although they should, that the promise to punish actually costs more than just about anything else the government does. It costs the taxpayer more to promise the state will find the perpetrator and deliver a satisfactory punishment than it does to promise a retiree that they will never want for anything.

    Also, it seems people have not noticed that a free society involves risks. And although we have an exaggerated fear of violence by the mentally ill, in reality, other aspects of our lifestyle, and in particular the automobile, pose far greater risks. We can tolerate the risks entailed in not locking up an abused, mentally ill child for quite the duration of her natural life.

    Finally, I would like to point out a toxic form of disrespect to survivors: the appropriation of their voices. KRF’s comment that the Harveys deserve justice assumes, without any basis that I can see, that the Harveys will never forgive, that the Harveys wanted, would want, and continue to want Trina Garnett imprisoned forever. Unless someone can point to a statement they have made to that effect, then I suggest that if you want to justify the continuing imprisonment of an aging and debilitated woman, you need to do it in some way other than assuming what the survivors of that tragic fire thirty five years ago want.

  25. #25 |  C. S. P. Schofield | 

    Boys Durkin,

    “largest prison population in the history of prisons and populations”

    Larger than the soviet Gulags? Or the Mainland Chinese equivalents? I’m not saying the U.S. prison population isn’t a scandal; it is. And if you have numbers to disprove my doubts, so be it. I just think that “worst ever” statements tend to be wildly inaccurate, and for that reason people dismiss them.

    But I grew up in the 1970′s, then the environmental movement was saying “worst ever” about air pollution. My mother had lived in coal-heated cities.

  26. #26 |  Nick T. | 

    A point being overlooked here is that even if we were sure of her guilt and her specific intent to kill those children, AND even if we lacked evidence of her mental deficiencies, it’s worth questioning whether a 25, 20, 40 year old should be held to account for their actions when they were 14.

    I could point out how we all did really dumb things at 14, and then someone would reply “but not murder” which is fair, but we are still elft with the idea that 14 year old kids do really dumb things becuase they are stupid human beings who lack judgment, and morals, and succumb to pressure. And that by the time they hit – hell – 21 years of age and certainly 30 they have become a *completely different person*.

    Why doesn’t our system allow for a re-evaluation to see if the person continues to be a risk. Did the person commit this crime on a dare/peer pressure (which actually happens, sadly a lot) or due to/in combination with a mental health problem, and now they are in a different better place and no threat to society, or are they a sociopath, psycho-killer who can’t be released without risk to society? With that question looming at some point then maybe we can send them to a locked mental health facility and work on rehabilitating their lives.

    This woman was just as much a victim as the boys she (allegedly) killed, and there is a realistic chance she could have been saved with treatment and support. But she was a victim who by doing something tragic that she probably could not comprehend or fully understand was regarded as, as the headline says, completely disposable.

  27. #27 |  Cbalducc | 

    I wonder why she was never pardoned.

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