Sorry for Life?: Ashley Ervin Didn’t Kill Anyone, But She Drove Home the Boys Who Did
Photographs by Daniel Kramer
When Ashley Ervin was sentenced to life in prison for capital murder, her bedroom was decorated with Mickey Mouse everything.
She was 17 when the crime happened in 2006 — a junior in high school who had just gotten her first job as a cashier at McDonald’s, her first bank account, her first serious boyfriend and her first car — and today when she enters the visitation room at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Hilltop Unit in Gatesville, she doesn’t look much older.
She’s strikingly small, five feet, two inches, wearing black-framed glasses and a thin strip of eyeliner on her top lid. Her bangs are parted down the middle; a comb is tucked in the back pocket of her all-white prison get-up. And at first she’s a little timid, with a fragile handshake — a demeanor that seems to belie her distinguished status at Hilltop as one of only two capital murder prisoners who will never have a chance at parole.
Ervin, now 26, didn’t kill anyone — but she drove home the boys who did. Those boys included her boyfriend and a long-lost childhood friend from back when her family lived in public housing a decade earlier. Save for when she voluntarily told the police everything, she has never really talked to anyone, not even her mom, about what happened that night. “Really, I try not to,” she says, “because I know that I’ll be stuck there if I keep thinking about it.”
So in the comfort of metal folding chairs at a wooden table — the same table Dr. Phil once sat at, the prison guard says proudly — she doesn’t talk about it for a while. Instead, she talks about her favorite thing to read: still Chicken Soup for the Soul, her favorite since junior high. She briefly mentions her Mickey Mouse fan-girl bedroom and says she doesn’t know why, but she’s just always liked him. She talks about her job sewing Texas flags and pajamas for people in hospitals with the kind of calm reserved for people who have nothing better to do.
The job falls a bit short of the one she aspired to while in high school: pediatric nurse. She was a little geeky growing up — her mother, Serena Hawkins, calls her a bookworm. Hawkins had wanted her daughter to be a cheerleader or run track, but Ervin always said no: “She said, ‘That isn’t gonna get me a scholarship,’” Hawkins remembers. She stuck to volunteering at blood drives and leukemia walkathons, with the Boy Scouts of America as a “Medical Explorer” scout and with the American Red Cross as an HIV peer educator. She wanted to go to Prairie View A&M because that’s where her mentor, Dr. Emily Bartley, who handpicked Ervin to join Forest Brook High School’s accelerated Health Science Technology program, had gone.
That’s exactly why no one understood what went wrong: How does a college-bound honor roll student end up driving around a group of boys that a Houston police detective once called the “meanest bunch” he had ever seen?
Whatever the case, it didn’t appear so confounding to the prosecution and the jury. Harris County prosecutor Lisa Andrews actually used Ervin’s book smarts against her in the trial, arguing that if she was such a good, smart kid, she should have known better.
The trial lasted two days. Jurors took all of three hours to decide how Ervin would spend the rest of her life.
But since then, attitudes about harsh juvenile sentences have shifted dramatically. In 2006, the mandatory capital murder sentence for defendants under 18 in Texas was life without parole. Once a person was certified as an adult, age did not matter. Degree of involvement did not matter, either. That was just the way it was. Then, in 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that, without first considering individual circumstances, it was unconstitutional to throw away a kid’s life before it had even begun. The justices didn’t say that courts couldn’t impose life without parole on teens — just that the sentence couldn’t be mandatory, which left the United States as the only country in the world that still found this appropriate.
The Supreme Court’s logic applied across the country to anyone under 18 — even in Texas, where 17-year-olds are considered adults. Statewide reforms followed, and in Texas, the new mandatory sentence became life with the possibility of parole after 40 years. To many advocates, though, the problem with this is that it’s still a blanket sentence — meaning that Texas courts still can’t individualize a juvenile’s sentence as the Supreme Court required, even if the kid was just sitting in the car along for the ride. Now, if Texas jurors decide to convict, they must also decide that juveniles shouldn’t have an opportunity for release until they’re old enough to retire, depriving teens of any chance at ever being self-sustaining members of society. And perhaps this is suitable in some cases.
But for many others, like Ervin, the question that is set to drive reform in coming years is this: After how many years should society be ready to forgive a kid killer? What about a kid who’s just friends with one?
Ashley Ervin, standing in front of the factory where she works sewing Texas flags — a job she may have for the rest of her life unless her attorney can help bring her home.
Twenty years ago, the answer to the forgiveness question was, in many cases, never.
The country was on board with a push for harsher juvenile sentencing because the country was scared. Back in the early 1990s, experts began warning of the “rise of the superpredator” — a whole generation of violent maniac kids about to come of age who, experts believed, would wreak havoc on society. The juvenile homicide rate had more than tripled between 1984 and 1993, and experts feared it would only get worse.
Until it didn’t. The year 1993 is, still, the most violent one for juvenile crime in U.S. history; by 1997, the juvenile homicide rate had already been slashed in half. But no matter. By then, slogans like “adult crime, adult time” had already swept through the floors of legislatures like the flu. As a result, nearly every state in the union reacted to the superpredator rhetoric by passing laws that made it easier to try kids as adults, dismantling the rehabilitative principles of the juvenile justice system established a century earlier.
The new attitude also meant that kids were more likely to receive life sentences. In Texas, while only 29 juveniles had ever been sentenced to life for capital murder before 1990, by the end of the decade, they would be joined by 244 more. Some would even be sentenced to death — like 17-year-old Randy Arroyo, who, in 1997, was driving on the morning he and an 18-year-old friend carjacked an Air Force captain, whom Arroyo’s friend shot in the back.
But in 2005, Arroyo’s life — and the lives of 28 other Texas inmates sent to death row as teenagers — would be spared. By then, the superpredator fear had subsided, and the attitude shift began. That year, the Supreme Court, joining the rest of the world, ruled that courts could no longer sentence children to death. (Which, in Texas and many states, simply meant amending the law to allow them to die in prison instead.) Next, in 2010, the Supreme Court said courts could not sentence juveniles to life without parole for non-homicide offenses.
And then came two boys named Evan Miller and Kuntrell Jackson, who were sentenced to mandatory life without parole when each was 14 years old. Their 2012 Supreme Court cases, titled Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, would launch a new wave of reform that would ultimately make Ervin’s chance of release possible.
Back in 1999, Jackson was on his way with two other boys to rob a video store when he learned that one of the boys had a sawed-off shotgun with him. When they arrived, Jackson decided to wait outside and play lookout. Growing impatient, he entered the store — just in time for his friend to shoot the clerk in the head. In exchange for pleading guilty, unlike Jackson, the 15-year-old shooter was awarded the possibility of parole.
As for Miller, his story starts much earlier than the night he killed his neighbor with a baseball bat. Since he was a toddler, he had been in and out of foster care because his stepfather abused him and his mother was a drug addict and an alcoholic. By 14, he had attempted suicide four times, first at age six. On the night of the crime, his neighbor, Cole, came over to his mom’s trailer for a drug deal, and Miller and a friend followed Cole next door to drink and smoke weed. When Cole fell asleep, Miller tried to steal his wallet — and that’s when Cole woke up and grabbed him by the throat. Miller beat him to death with the bat, then set the trailer on fire to cover it up.
While the Supreme Court’s ruling that their sentences were unconstitutional didn’t seek to justify what they did, it did seek to recognize that sometimes kid criminals are victims, too — of their environment, of peer pressure — in ways that adults are not. And so before deciding that a teenage offender is an incorrigible person who will never change, the court must first carefully consider a host of mitigating factors, as in whether they were abused or mentally retarded, that may have led them to spiral into crime in the first place.
“What [the ruling] really means at the end of the day is that we know that kids are more capable of rehabilitation, and they should have a second chance,” says Elizabeth Henneke, the juvenile justice policy attorney with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.
The decision, overturning the “adult crime, adult time” attitude of the 1990s, was driven by emerging adolescent brain science. Neuroscientists found that the part of the brain that controls decision-making and problem-solving, the prefrontal cortex, is the last to develop, around age 25. In the meantime, adolescents rely more on a part of the brain called the amygdala, which is primarily in charge of orchestrating our emotional responses to fear and danger. Sometimes, this can result in aggressive behavior. “As a result,” says Dr. David Fassler, a clinical child psychiatrist at the University of Vermont who helped prepare the amicus brief for the Supreme Court, “adolescents are more likely to respond impulsively and on instinct, without stopping to fully consider the consequences of their actions.” That’s exactly why teenagers think it’s cool to drive recklessly and steal stop signs.
In court, these findings, somehow both complex and commonsense, have come to mean that while juveniles should still be punished for their criminal behavior, they’re also less culpable for their brash actions and have more capacity for change. Which needs to be taken into consideration when they’re sentenced for serious crimes, Fassler says. “They’re not just ‘little adults.’”
Since 2012, 23 states have rewritten their laws to reflect the principles laid out in Miller. Sixteen, including Texas, and the District of Columbia, have eliminated juvenile life without parole entirely. (In Texas, this applies only to cases that have occurred since 2013 for 17-year-olds; Texas was ahead of the curve in 2009 when it banned life without parole for ages 16 and under going forward.)
While the U.S. Supreme Court is set to decide in its coming session whether Miller applies retroactively — affecting approximately 2,500 people currently serving life without parole for crimes they committed as teenagers — Texas has already decided that it does, meaning that life without parole, while still an option in resentencing hearings, is not mandatory. According to Henneke, this change has affected 26 inmates, several of whom have already been resentenced. In a few cases, they’re simply being sentenced to life without parole again, if the jury finds that the nature of their crime warrants it.
But in cases similar to Ervin’s, juries have been willing to grant the small reprieve.
Shaina Sepulvado was 16 when she came to her mother and, after years of keeping it secret, told her that her stepfather was sexually abusing her. Her mother was furious — enough so that her reaction was to hire someone to kill him. Her choice of gunman: Shaina’s 17-year-old boyfriend. Mom promised him $10,000, two trucks and a pair of Jet Skis in exchange for the dirty work. On the night he shot Shaina’s stepfather in the head while he slept, Shaina, who was borderline mentally retarded, was present. None of the surrounding circumstances of the crime — Shaina’s sexual abuse, her mental capacity, her age or level of involvement — could have mattered in her trial. Thanks to the new law, though, she will be 56 when she has the chance to live a normal life for the first time.
Which has caused many advocates to consider the reform, though a leap forward, to be just as inherently problematic. Joshua Rovner, state advocacy associate with The Sentencing Project, based in Washington, D.C., says that Texas’s new sentence is among the longest in the country that inmates incarcerated since they were teens must serve before they have a chance at release. He called it a de facto life sentence. And, he added, the possibility of parole guarantees nothing. “A chance at parole is only real if people actually receive it,” he says.
Of the 366 Texas juveniles sentenced to life with the possibility of parole for capital murder since 1962, only 17 — less than 5 percent — have ever been released.
Serena Hawkins lost her own way for a while after her daughter Ashley was incarcerated.
The first thing Serena Hawkins does every time she comes home is to say hi to her daughter. Facing the front door, Ervin is smiling back at her in her white prison uniform, standing in front of a majestic, Greek-themed photo backdrop that conceals her real location. Her presence is scattered subtly around the apartment that way, the same way any parents would decorate their homes with mementos of their children’s best attributes. Ervin’s prison GED diploma hangs proudly in the hallway. Her flowery jailhouse cards cover the surface of Hawkins’s bedroom dresser.
Hawkins is certain that her daughter is coming home — even as soon as a year or two. In the past, Ervin has caught her mother lying about hiring a lawyer. But this time it’s really happening. Hawkins even sent her the receipts to prove it. She uses the child support checks Ervin’s father, who disappeared from her life when she was young, still owes her in back pay. “I send as much money as I can to let this man know, please don’t give up on me,” Hawkins says.
David Rushing, an attorney specializing in post-conviction writs, says he sees tons of inmates who come to him crying innocence or asserting they got railroaded — only for him to waste hours reviewing their cases to find that their sentences were perfectly just. But when Hawkins came to him with her daughter’s case, even bringing him a little box of memories and photographs so he could get to know her, Rushing was pleasantly surprised. “This is exactly what the Supreme Court was addressing,” he says.
Rushing is not just trying to commute her sentence, though — “we could do that tomorrow if we wanted to,” he says. He’s also trying to get her out for good. He plans to argue that her due process rights were violated when she gave her voluntary statements to the police (that argument failed in her 2010 appeal, though Rushing declined to elaborate on his new plan of attack).
The day that police came for her, Ervin was working her cashier job at McDonald’s, at the mall. Police had already suspected her boyfriend, Keithron Fields, then 17, in the death of three people, including 61-year-old Brady Davis, a retired woodshop teacher who was shot at a car wash one month earlier, and a young couple recently found dead in the woods. The police came to Ervin to see if she knew where Fields was. At the time, they suspected only that Ervin might be, at most, a witness.
Ervin told them she wasn’t sure where he was, but agreed to go with them to the station to answer some questions. “I’ve always been told, any time you have to talk to the police, just tell the truth,” Ervin says now. “So I felt like I didn’t have anything to worry about. They kept reassuring me, ‘You’re not in trouble. You’re not under arrest.’”
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On the way to the parking lot, Ervin mentioned she drove a black Nissan Sentra — and that’s when the officer escorting her became suspicious. On the day Davis was shot, the police received an anonymous tip from someone who lived near the car wash who told them she had seen two boys dressed in all black wave down that same car in the middle of the street and get in. So instead of letting her meet them there, the police asked if they could also search her car, and Ervin said that was fine.
In it, they would soon find a Mickey Mouse doll in the back seat, resting on top of two black bandanas.
When Ervin arrived at the station — still not in custody — she started from the beginning: May 26, 2006.
That night, around midnight, Ervin, her 15-year-old brother, Louis, and Fields’s good friend Dexter Johnson, 18, were over at Fields’s house watching movies. Ervin had asked her mom if she could spend the night there, since Fields lived five minutes from her job and she had to work the next day. But Hawkins said no. After Ervin dropped her younger brother off at home, she decided to go back with Fields anyway.
She let Johnson drive, and for a while, they just went joyriding around. Ervin fell asleep in the backseat, but awoke a couple of hours later as Fields was getting in and saying, “She didn’t have any money,” tossing a female wallet in the back. This is the point where Ervin’s trial lawyer, Mike Monks, told the jury that the only thing his client was guilty of was “extremely poor judgment.”
Ervin let Johnson continue at the wheel, aware that he had a gun on him. Johnson left the two of them at around 5:30 a.m. to attempt to rob a woman in her pajamas who was delivering brownies to her favorite bus driver on his last day. Johnson pointed the gun at her and demanded money, but ran away once she insisted she didn’t have anything, the woman later testified, specifically noting his black cap and bandanna.
Johnson returned to the car and, frustrated with the fruitless spree, told Ervin she could drive again and they could return home. They were at a stoplight on Homestead, the road leading to Fields’s place, when Johnson spotted Brady Davis hosing down his barbecue pit. “Let us out here,” he said to Ervin, instructing Fields to come with him.
Confusing to everyone who knew Ervin is how Johnson came back into the picture. When Hawkins saw him once at her house, she was surprised: “We haven’t seen you since you were a kid,” she remembers thinking. That was back when Hawkins and her three kids were living in public housing, and Hawkins had made it a goal to save up enough money to get out of there. They had lost touch with nearly everyone who had lived in that public housing — Ervin didn’t reconnect with Johnson until she started dating Fields, since both Fields’s and Johnson’s grandmas lived on the same block, where Fields spent his summers. To him, Johnson was more like a brother.
And now they were approaching Davis together, guns drawn.
Ervin would later tell police that, after she heard a gunshot, she drove back toward the car wash to find Johnson and Fields flagging her down. Johnson would tell her he had to shoot Davis because Davis had elbowed him as if he were going to run. Johnson and Fields darted away without taking anything from Davis except for everything. When they got to Fields’s house, Johnson turned on the news, wondering what had become of the man he shot.
“I didn’t know what to say,” Ervin says. “I didn’t say anything. I didn’t tell anybody, because I didn’t know what would happen.”
But that didn’t stop her from driving the boys to another crime three weeks later. The next month, the day after Father’s Day, Ervin was driving home from a cousin’s graduation party with her brother, her 19-year-old cousin, Fields and Johnson when Johnson decided he wanted to steal a car. Bringing Ervin’s little brother and boyfriend with him, Johnson ordered the young couple out of their car at gunpoint and into the backseat, where Louis would keep them hostage with the gun Johnson gave him. Johnson drove them to the woods and marched the couple into the trees with Fields while the rest stayed behind. Though Johnson at first pinned the murders on Ervin’s cousin, he later admitted to shooting both victims and raping the woman, too.
This time, when Ervin learned what Johnson had done, she told her cousin she wanted to go home. “I couldn’t believe what had happened,” she told Houston Police Sgt. Paul Motard, who arrested her less than 24 hours later.
Prosecutor Andrews said that, although they confirmed Ervin’s involvement only in these two incidents, she estimates Johnson and Fields attempted to rob 15 to 20 people on their own that spring, and at least two others were involved. Ervin was indicted in both cases, but the carjacking case was later dismissed after her conviction in the Brady Davis incident. (Her brother was not indicted in the carjacking, given his age and his cooperation with the authorities, Andrews said. He later testified against Johnson, who received the death penalty.) In her own trial, Ervin never took the stand to offer her side of the story. But the question that Andrews could never put her finger on is why Ervin would go a second time. Wasn’t she afraid?
In the visitation room at Hilltop, Ervin says she was — which is why she kept quiet. She says there was never a “plan” that developed before they left the house that she agreed to, that she just listened to what Johnson told her to do at the wheel once they got on the road. “I think they knew that, if they were to flat-out tell me, I wouldn’t have,” she says. “So it was always just a detour, like we had to be going somewhere. I feel like I was tricked. And yes, I was mad. But at the same time, I felt like there was nothing I could do, because it was over with.”
On her first day in jail, Ervin, afraid of what might happen to her, asked Sgt. Motard if she could stay in a cell by herself so she wouldn’t have to find out. So she did, for 19 months as she awaited trial. She had her own TV and her own shower, and left only to visit her mother, who came every day. Alone with her thoughts for most of the day, Ervin became suicidal. She went on medication for depression. She went off it when it made her feel funny.
Her mentor, Dr. Emily Bartley, came to see her twice, but had to stop coming because it got too hard for both of them. When Bartley first saw Ervin’s mugshot flash across the news, four students from Ervin’s high school — all of whom knew her — were shadowing Bartley at her dental clinic. “And we all went into shock,” Bartley said. “We kept saying, ‘Not Ashley.’ But we could see her face. We didn’t believe it. We just kept saying, ‘It’s gotta be a mistake.’”
The next time Bartley saw Ervin, she was testifying as a witness in her trial — the single character witness her attorney, Monks, called. Bartley was in an odd position. When she started teaching at Forest Brook High School several years earlier, Brady Davis was the seasoned teacher assigned to help her settle in. She had never taught before, and Davis showed her how to command a classroom, especially in a lab setting. This man, whom one of her best students was accused of killing, had soon become her mentor. And he and his wife, Adelle Davis, had soon become her close friends and patients, too.
Now Adelle Davis was looking on from the courtroom gallery.
Before the trial began, Lisa Andrews tried to offer Ervin a plea deal of 35 years. Monks advised her to take it, warning her that if she didn’t, she might never return home. But as Judge Denise Collins asked her how she pled, Ervin paused and turned around to see her mother shaking her head no. And so at the last minute, Ervin said what she and her family believed was the truth: not guilty.
Today, Andrews says she does not feel sympathy for Ervin. In her closing argument, she eviscerated her for appearing unremorseful when talking to the police: “Do you shed one single tear for Brady Davis? One bit of emotion? It’s just flat affect. She doesn’t care.”
Andrews says she had read various letters Ervin wrote to friends and family, sad that she was missing prom, missing school, missing everything — which Andrews said disgusted her. Doesn’t she care that someone has died?
Other letters to her mother, however, convey a tragic kind of naïveté that can come only from a teenager grappling with an uncertain future.
To her mother she writes, “I really wanna finish school and be successful in life, not just for me but for you as well. By me coming here I’m starting to worry about the one thing you always feared for your children.”
She writes her a poem called “O’ Mother of Mine” that ends, “O’ Mother of Mine, I know that you’re not whole because you don’t have the three children that god gave you to hold. But I say to you do not worry and do not cry just hold out your hands and reach for the sky.”
She writes in another, “Sometimes I just feel like I can’t go on in here. What hurts me the most is that I know I’m coming home I just don’t know when.”
Seventeen months later, when the judge read her sentence, “It didn’t feel real,” she says.
Louis Ervin, who was 16 when his sister was sentenced to life without parole, had “Free Ashley” tattooed beneath his eyes a few years later.
The letters penned by juvenile lifers begin to change once petty teenage drama and desires are replaced with cinder blocks and no-contact visits. About a year ago, Elizabeth Henneke started receiving dozens of them. She set out to survey not only the 26 juvenile lifers in Texas who had no chance of parole, but also the 349 others whose chance at parole after 30 to 40 years is, she knows, actually not that real. She’s one of a small handful of advocates around the country who have attempted to uncover not only who these people are, but who they were.
The report, due out this month, has taken her longer than expected.
“Every day I sit down to work on this,” she says, “I get a letter from a person sitting in jail, and I end up responding to the letter instead of working on the report. I’m literally looking at a stack of papers sitting on my desk that say, ‘I can’t believe that you’re calling me, Ms. Henneke. You’ve given me a sense that life can go on.’”
As part of her research, she and a group of students from The University of Texas law school have traveled the state to speak with the majority of those who have no chance of release. Lochlin Rosen, the student who supervised all the interviews, says the students came away feeling almost startled. Most had never been to a prison before. They sat down behind the glass expecting an interview with society’s most threatening thugs. Instead, the people on the other end wanted to know how the Dallas Cowboys were doing and wanted to talk about playing on the varsity basketball team. “They saw that there was more to these people than the worst thing they’ve ever done,” Rosen says.
Shortly before the Supreme Court’s Miller decision, Joshua Rovner’s organization, The Sentencing Project, was among the first to probe into these people’s daily lives nationwide, surveying almost 1,600 inmates. The report, titled “The Lives of Juvenile Lifers,” showed that cases like Shaina Sepulvado’s and Evan Miller’s are by no means exceptions. By its own description, the report is “a portrait of disadvantage.”
According to the findings, 79 percent of the juvenile lifers witnessed violence in their homes. Forty-seven percent overall had been physically abused at home — for girls, that rises to 80 percent. Seventy-seven percent of girls also reported a history of sexual abuse. A third of all juvenile lifers (nearly all of whom were people of color) were raised in public housing. Sixty percent came from single-parent homes. And 59 percent, at some point or other, had a family member in prison. At the time Ervin was sentenced, her father was doing two years for possession of cocaine.
Hawkins had left him years earlier when he began abusing her, when Ervin was three. Years later, he would be found homeless and strung out. Save for a felony forgery charge when Ervin was ten, Hawkins stayed out of trouble throughout most of Ervin’s childhood — until Ervin was arrested, and Hawkins began to unravel, committing a series of offenses. Hawkins was incarcerated on the same floor as her daughter, on three different occasions before her daughter’s trial: driving with a suspended license, failure to identify to a peace officer, and credit-card abuse. “I called it taking care of my family,” Hawkins says. “But it did — it hurt me. Because if I knew what I know now, that lifestyle I lived, I never would have done it.”
One area that Henneke’s report will cover that The Sentencing Project’s did not is the number of juveniles who, like Ervin, were convicted under the law of parties — the ones who fell victim to peer pressure, utterly lacked judgment or made the worst mistake of their truncated lives by deciding to disobey Mom that night. While Henneke is still working on finalizing the data, she said she already knows that these accomplice cases are more common than not.
“We’re pretty horrified in general by how many of them are cases like this,” Henneke said. “It really goes to these hallmark features of youth, which is that these kids aren’t planning to hurt anybody. They’re not the shooters. They’re not the people who actually intend anything. They’re the kids who can’t see the future. They literally cannot think through the consequences in the way that an adult does, and the law treats them as though they can.”
State Sen. José Rodríguez (D-El Paso), a former juvenile prosecutor, has proposed a bill that could change that. Instead of a mandatory sentence of life with the possibility of parole after 40 years, Rodríguez’s bill proposes a range of sentencing options, starting at five years minimum and increasing to 99 max. As for parole, Rodríguez says, “We want to make sure that, even if you impose a life sentence under my bill, you still have to consider giving them parole at 25 years instead of waiting for them to have served a full 40 years. That doesn’t make any sense to me. It’s too draconian.”
Should it pass next session, the bill would be among the most progressive reforms in the country. Connecticut passed one similar to it in June 2015 allowing for a range-of-years punishment — 25 to 60, with parole eligibility ranging from 15 to 30 years — as opposed to a mandatory blanket sentence. West Virginia passed a bill allowing for a term ranging from 15 years to life, with guaranteed parole eligibility. And in Nevada, though there’s still a mandatory life sentence, juveniles are now eligible for parole in 20 years. In all three states, consideration of a juvenile’s mitigating circumstances is required.
But even getting these types of bills onto the floor, Rodríguez says, confronts rather straightforward barriers: conservative, tough-on-crime Republicans. Often a push for reformed sentences for juveniles is easily construed as excusing their crimes because of their age. Nationwide, Joshua Rovner of The Sentencing Project says, the most common barrier has been a seemingly intentional misunderstanding of the science by legislators. “The misunderstanding of the brain science often makes it sound like ‘This teenager didn’t know that what she was doing was wrong,’” Rovner says. “That’s not correct. The people who understand the brain science understand that this is about the way that maturity will change those juveniles as they age.”
But then there are also the victims, who cringe at the idea of their son’s or wife’s or brother’s killer having a chance at release. And that’s hard for state legislators to get past.
Adelle Davis, now 72, says she has forgiven the teenagers who killed her husband — it took her about four or five years. “I didn’t want to live with that hate the rest of my life,” she says. But the pain is still there, and though it will be ten years this spring since Johnson shot her husband in the stomach, Davis says that it still feels as if it happened yesterday.
She is certain that she would never want to see the day that Johnson or Fields is released. But as for Ervin, Davis says her role has always confused her. “I just wondered, why would a girl be out at that time of morning with those boys?” she said. “Why would you want to be involved?”
As for Ervin’s release, Davis says, “I really don’t know how I would feel. I just can’t say.”
There are days that Ervin still feels like she’s 17. In the outside world, her best friend from high school, whom she has since lost touch with, already has two kids. Her fellow students from the Health Science Technology program have gone on to start their own businesses and supervise whole floors at hospitals, and have traveled the world to volunteer in third-world nations as they’ve marched toward degrees. In her own world, where time passes with Chicken Soup for the Soul and work sewing Texas flags, it still feels like 2006.
“Sometimes I don’t want to make a decision without talking to my mom about it first,” she says. “I know it shouldn’t be like that. But it’s like I’m stuck there.”
Ervin says that she’s gotten to the point where her mother is the only person she needs, having lost touch with nearly everyone else, including her two siblings, her father, her friends and the rest of her family save for one aunt. The same is true for Hawkins, who says she is still stuck in 2006, too.
On the night that Ervin was sentenced, Hawkins disappeared. It would be that way for months. She dropped her kids off at her mom’s house, where she was living after having been evicted months earlier, then started living out of her car. She decided that she didn’t want her children anymore. She didn’t care that they had dropped out of school. When she finally came back around, she told her son Louis that he should have been the one given life without parole instead. She didn’t want to go on without Ashley, who had always been her backbone, she says.
Back on that first night, when the idea that a daughter bound for big things would never walk across a stage or vote for a president or have a drink or a wedding or a baby was all so new and unbelievable, Ervin, back in jail, called to make sure Hawkins was okay. She had just tried the landline at home, and family informed her that her mother had taken off and no one could find her. So Ervin tried her cell. “When I called, she answered the phone, and she was just hysterical,” Ervin says. “And she was thinking some really crazy stuff, and I felt like I had to be strong for her, and I told her, ‘Do you really believe that God’s gonna allow me to be gone for the rest of my life? Knowing that I don’t belong here?’”
Hawkins came out of the fog about two years ago, believing she could find a way to get her daughter back. For a long time, her apartment was decorated with Mickey Mouse everything: a Mickey Mouse telephone, lamps that said “The light’s on!” in a Mickey Mouse voice, the shower curtain, towels, pillows and blankets. “I didn’t have her with me, so this was a piece of her that I could keep,” she says.
But then something about it started to feel wrong, as if she were memorializing Ervin instead of fighting for her. So she took all of it down and changed the colors in every room. “Everybody was like, ‘You took down all the Mickey Mouse?!’ And I said, ‘Yeah — if I have so much faith in God bringing my baby home, why am I holding onto her like she’s dead?’”
She is keeping all of it in storage, so her daughter will find it in good condition.
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