From juvenile lifer to a place of her own: Machelle’s long climb

May 16th, 2019
Machelle Pearson at the apartment building where she now lives

In a courthouse in Ann Arbor, Machelle Pearson was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison without the chance of parole. It was 1984. She was only 17.

As she was led away in handcuffs, Machelle’s “tears turned into uncontrollable sobs,” according to a news article written at the time.

The article continued:

“Pearson told police in a taped statement that she accidentally shot Nancy Farber during a robbery she was forced to commit by her boyfriend. For that reason, the defense claimed Pearson carried out the robbery under duress. Witnesses supported Pearson’s claim that her boyfriend frequently beat her.”

Machelle began living with the boyfriend after she ran away from a foster home because the foster parent sexually assaulted her. She and her two younger siblings had been placed in foster care after her mother died of cancer when she was 12. The abusive boyfriend threatened to kill Machelle’s brother if she didn’t assist in the robbery, Machelle told authorities.

Despite the extenuating circumstances of her crime, her deep remorse, and the fact that she had turned herself in and confessed, an all-white jury issued the maximum penalty.

Machelle Pearson leaves court after her murder conviction in 1984 (Ann Arbor News file photo)

Carol Peacock was an alternate juror in the case but was not part of the deliberations.

“I was upset by the verdict,” Carol said. “The evidence showed that there was no intent to murder, and I felt that Machelle was guilty of manslaughter. I also have a sense of empathy for individuals raised in terrible situations of broken families, violence, drugs, and little impetus to get an education so they can rise to a better life. I believe in rehabilitation and redemption, and that our laws should not be so punitive as to deny people another chance.”

A decade would pass before Carol and Machelle would cross paths again. Carol was serving as an elected official in Bridgewater Township in Washtenaw County. Like other elected officials across the country, she began to receive letters from individuals connected with Amnesty International about the deplorable conditions in American prisons and the high incidence of physical and sexual abuse that female inmates endured. Carol started to wonder about Machelle and her life behind bars. She wrote Machelle, and Machelle responded.

Machelle told Carol about how she was raped in prison by a guard while she was recovering in the prison hospital after being diagnosed with a serious neuromuscular disease. Machelle became pregnant from the rape. She delivered a son in prison, bonded for three days, and then had to give him up.

“I will always remember the heartbreak when he was taken away,” Machelle said. “The emptiness never leaves you.”

The guard who raped Machelle was fired and charged with criminal sexual conducted. He reached a plea deal and received just two years’ probation.

Machelle and Carol Peacock after Carol visited Machelle in prison

Carol was deeply disturbed by Machelle’s story and asked Machelle if she could visit her in prison. Machelle agreed. As their friendship developed, they began to speak at least once a week, either in person or by phone. More than 20 years after their first correspondence, at the end of 2016, Carol and her husband left Washtenaw County and retired in Indiana. Carol remained in touch with Machelle, hopeful that recent rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court would finally provide Machelle the chance for freedom.

In 2012, the high court ruled that sentencing juveniles to life without the possibility of parole is “cruel and unusual punishment” and thus unconstitutional. Four years later, the court decided that this ruling applied retroactively. This meant that minors who had previously been condemned to die in prison needed to be re-sentenced or considered for parole. The decision affected about 2,300 “juvenile lifers” nationwide, including 50 women. Machelle was one.

Even after the court rulings, it was still a legal struggle for Machelle to have her sentence reconsidered. With the help of the ACLU of Michigan and other legal activists, Machelle was finally granted parole last August. The family of the woman she had killed when she was 16 opposed her release.

“If I could trade my life for the one I took, I would without hesitation,” Machelle said. “But it’s not possible. The best I can do is to lead a good life and try to give back and heal wounds.”

Machelle emerged from incarceration a far different person than when she entered. In prison, she earned her GED, numerous college credits, and various certifications. She participated in programs to help at-risk young women make better choices so they might not suffer like she did. She became an advocate for prison reform to address the inhumane and dangerous conditions at Huron Valley Correctional Facility for Women, where she was locked up.

After her release, Machelle lived with her brother and then with a friend for several months. She got an initial job at Bags to Butterflies, which employs returning citizens to create beautiful handbags from repurposed materials. Machelle eagerly wanted to earn a living and rent an apartment. But her felony conviction hindered her ability to gain better-paying employment and a place of her own.

Machelle after signing her lease and getting her keys at the offices of Southwest Housing Solutions

Machelle turned to RecoveryPark, which helps returning citizens with their housing and employment needs. RecoveryPark partnered with Southwest Solutions for a special program enabling individuals with a felony record to apply for affordable housing in certain apartment buildings that Southwest Solutions has renovated and owns and manages in southwest Detroit. Machelle was accepted into the program. But she didn’t have all the money she needed to pay the security deposit and the rent of $440 a month.

In a conversation with Carol, Machelle explained her dilemma. Carol then talked to husband and called Machelle back to let her know that they would provide the money so that Machelle could start renting the apartment.

“My husband and I really want Machelle to succeed,” Carol said. “She has been through so much and still faces so many obstacles. This is a period of adjustment and learning for her, and it is important to be supportive as she transitions to her new life.”

Machelle moved into her one-bedroom unit on March 1.

“It was a very emotional day for me when I signed my lease, got my keys, and opened the door to walk into my own place for the first time in my life,” said Machelle, who is now 52. “There is a feeling of freedom and independence that is both exciting and frightening. I am forever grateful for this opportunity. I want to grow stronger and become healthier, mentally and physically. And I am open to whatever will help me get there.”

Machelle in an Earn + Learn work-readiness class for returning citizens

Machelle recently finished the work-readiness component of Southwest Solutions’ Earn + Learn program. She is currently looking for employment, and would like to use her clerical and customer services skills to build a career. She also wants to continue to advocate for improvements in the criminal justice system and to engage with young people and share the hard lessons she has learned.

“After being away for so long, every day is a gift,” Machelle said. “I really appreciate the small things. To hear the birds sing. To ride the bus, to see the city go by and know I am a part of it. It all fills me with wonder. I voted for the first time ever last year. It was an incredible feeling to have a voice.”

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