The NY Times published a story Wednesday on the case of Michelle Jones. Jones is a convicted murderer. Now 45 years old, she has spent the past 21 years in prison for the murder of her four-year-old son, Brandon.
Jones was sentenced to 50 years in prison for the crime but got out early for good behavior. In the view of some, Jones became a model of the kind of rehabilitation that society should applaud. While in prison she earned a college degree and wrote a paper on the history of her own prison which last year won an award from the Indiana Historical Society. Jones also wrote a play which is scheduled to be performed at a theater in Indianapolis soon.
What Jones wants to do now (she was released last month) is get her Ph.D. in history. She applied to Harvard and was rejected but was accepted by NYU. And that’s what the NY Times story is really about. It’s titled, “From Prison to Ph.D.: The Redemption and Rejection of Michelle Jones” and the basic idea is that Harvard was wrong to reject Jones’ application because she has paid her debt to society. The story suggests she was rejected not because she wasn’t qualified but because top administrators were concerned about the bad optics of giving a child murderer a coveted slot at the university:
After the history department accepted her and the American studies program listed her as a top alternate, two American studies professors flagged Ms. Jones’s file for the admissions dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. In a memo to university administrators, these professors said the admissions dean had told them Ms. Jones’s selection would be reviewed by the president and provost, and questioned whether she had minimized her crime “to the point of misrepresentation.”
“We didn’t have some preconceived idea about crucifying Michelle,” said John Stauffer, one of the two American studies professors. “But frankly, we knew that anyone could just punch her crime into Google, and Fox News would probably say that P.C. liberal Harvard gave 200 grand of funding to a child murderer, who also happened to be a minority. I mean, c’mon.”
Predictably, there are lots of people who are outraged. Even the prosecutor who put Jones behind bars says, “what Harvard did is highly inappropriate: I’m the prosecutor, not them. Michelle Jones served her time, and she served a long time, exactly what she deserved. A sentence is a sentence.” The story, which was written for the NY Times by a staff writer for an advocacy group called the Marshall Project, also strives to depict Jones as a victim whose later actions actions were the result of her own trauma:
Ms. Jones got pregnant at 14 after what she called non-consensual sex with a high-school senior. Her mother responded by beating her in the stomach with a board, according to the prosecutor who later handled her case, and she was placed in a series of group homes and foster families.
In a personal statement accompanying her Harvard application, Ms. Jones said she had a psychological breakdown after years of abandonment and domestic violence, and inflicted similar treatment on her own son, Brandon Sims.
The boy died in 1992 in circumstances that remain unclear; the body was never found.
Two years later, during a stay at a mental-health crisis center, Ms. Jones admitted that she had buried him without notifying the police or Brandon’s father and his family. At her trial, a former friend testified that Ms. Jones confessed to having beaten the boy and then leaving him alone for days in their apartment, eventually returning to find him dead in his bedroom.
As horrifying as this sounds, the Marshall Project account actually minimizes the horror of what happened quite a bit. When I first read this relatively anodyne account, I imagined that Jones had gone on a bender of either drugs or alcohol and returned to find her son dead. At which point, in my mind, she broke down in sobs, confessed to having left him alone and went to prison for murder. That’s not at all what happened.
According to court documents, Jones left her 4-year-old son alone to attend a weekend-long “theater network conference” in Detroit with a friend. She told the friend she had placed a babysitter in charge of her son. But after that weekend no one ever saw the boy again. A few weeks later her landlord noticed “hundreds of flies covering the inside front bedroom window.” He went inside and discovered an empty child’s bedroom with a strong smell of urine. Jones told the landlord her son was wetting the bed. But after she moved out the landlord discovered a “brown stain” on the floor.
Around this time, Jones was also seen repeatedly cleaning the inside and outside of her car. She told friends her son was living with his father. More than a year and a half later, Jones admitted to a friend that she had returned after the theater conference, found her son dead and taken his body to a wooded area to bury it. A month later she checked into a mental health center where she confessed to finding Brandon dead. Police investigated but were never able to find his body. Jones later admitted she had misled the police about the location of the body.
Months later Jones returned to work and changed her insurance coverage to show she had no dependents. More than a year passed before she admitted to another friend that she had beaten Brandon before leaving him alone in the apartment. At this point, it had been more than three years since the boy’s death.
Finally in late 1996, more than four years after Brandon’s death, Jones was charged with murder. As mentioned above, she was found guilty and given a 50-year sentence. But the story actually gets worse. Approximately two years into her sentence, Jones filed an appeal which argued that her conviction should be overturned on the grounds that Brandon’s body had never been recovered:
Jones contends the trial court erred in admitting her various confessions into evidence. According to Jones, the State produced insufficient evidence of corpus delicti to justify admission of the statements. In support of this contention, Jones argues that the evidence apart from her confessions does not support an inference that she committed either Murder or Neglect of a Dependent, but indicates merely that “Brandon is missing or has been placed somewhere by Jones.”
So even after her conviction, Jones was using her own cover-up of the crime to attempt to escape justice. I don’t think that demonstrates anything like remorse. It seems to me to demonstrate a callous and depraved mind. And her deception continues. Brandon’s body still has never been located. No doubt it could still reveal something about the crime, i.e. the nature of the injuries he suffered prior to death.
Jones has also never explained the motive for the murder. Brandon was born with a serious health condition called gonadotropin-independent precocious puberty. In essence, it’s the early onset of puberty in childhood, sometimes caused by a tumor which leads to a release of sex hormones. The result is a young child who can develop body hair, acne and other signs of puberty very early. The disease can be treated and this health encyclopedia entry says without treatment the child will not reach their full height later in life. In discussing Brandon’s condition with her boyfriend’s mother, Jones said “she did not want to raise a freak.” The appeals court felt this statement provided evidence of motive. In other words, Jones may have murdered her son because she was embarrassed by him.
Even if you put the question of motive aside, Michelle Jones beat a four-year-old and left him, either dead or dying, so she could go to a theater conference. She then lied about it to the boy’s father and everyone else for several years. Even after she was convicted years later, she attempted to use her own refusal to admit where she buried her son’s broken body to escape justice.
Yes, Jones did her time, but she doesn’t deserve much credit for that seeing as she fought it every step of the way. Legally she has paid her debt but calling her rehabilitated is a stretch when the body of her son is still lying in an unmarked grave. Second chances are a good idea, even in cases of murder, but they should go to people who show some remorse. I don’t see that in Jones’ story and, clearly, Harvard didn’t either.