In 1977, a 14-year-old mentally disabled girl was charged with second-degree murder after setting a fire that tragically killed two people in Chester, Pennsylvania. She was tried in adult court and sentenced to die in prison. EJI is now challenging her sentence and seeking relief for Trina Garnett, whose story is profiled in this month’s issue of The Nation.
Trina was a homeless 14-year-old who had suffered severe abuse, trauma, and mental illness. As a young child she was disfigured and scarred after being severely burned. She had an IQ in the borderline intellectual disability range, suffered from speech impediments and other learning disabilities, and lived a life marred by chaos, extreme abuse, and poverty.
Her mother died when she was just nine years old. She was left living on the streets, where she had to forage for food in garbage cans, was victimized by older teens and adults, and was denied medical attention for emotional and mental health problems in the period prior to her arrest.
Reviewing courts found Trina’s mental impairments meant she was incapable of forming an intent to kill and was not competent to stand trial. Despite these findings, she was tried in adult court and convicted of second-degree murder during the course of an arson and burglary.
Her trial judge had no choice but to impose a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without parole, although he remarked “[i]t is a deplorable situation that the state does not provide facilities where young people such as Ms. Garnett can receive help while learning in a secure environment.”
Trina was sent to an adult prison at age 15. Shortly after she arrived there, she was raped by a male prison guard and became pregnant. She gave birth to a son, who was immediately taken from her.
For more than 30 years, Trina has been denied treatment and care appropriate for someone with her disabilities because of her death-in-prison sentence. She is now physically disabled due to multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair.
EJI took on Trina’s case as part of its work challenging life-without-parole sentences imposed on young teens. EJI attorneys filed a post-conviction petition challenging Trina’s sentence in 2008. The case is now pending before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
EJI argued in two cases at the United Supreme Court, Jackson v. Hobbs and Miller v. Alabama, that sentences to die in prison imposed on 14-year-olds like Trina Garnett are unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment. The Court will decide those cases this summer, and its decision could provide Trina relief from her death-in-prison sentence.