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Childhood of sexual abuse gets N.H. woman prison time

stalvis Icon Posted by Silja J.A. Talvi

January 2nd, 2007

I suppose it’s an unusual way to spend New Year’s Day.

I just got off the phone with a remarkable woman doing time in the nation’s largest prison complex, located in Central California. (The two facilities: CCWF and VSPW, together, actually make up up the largest concentration of female inmates in the world.)

Beverly “Chopper” Henry has HIV, and she’s had it for 12 years. At one point, she had Hepatitis C, as well. Somehow, her body no longer shows signs of co-infection. But the HIV is still there, and Henry has devoted her whole time in prison to educating other women about the disease and living with it, without shame.

You’d think that a woman like this, who’s already been in for nine years–in the most recent case, for possessing $5 worth of heroin-would be all about talking about her case. After all, she has another 33 months to go, and could certainly use a bit of help.

Instead, Henry wanted to talk about two recent suicides in the prison (hangings, including one of a 27-year-old in on drug charges), and the other women she’s doing time with. One of those women includes a woman doing 15-to-life for shooting a man she lived with who regularly raped and beat her. The man didn’t die. In fact, he’s already married to another woman.

But the woman in question will spend most of her grown life in prison.

Justice is a curious thing in this country, especially when it comes to poor people without proper legal representation, and certainly when it comes to women who hurt or kill men. They are, without question, punished disproportionately in the U.S. when compared with men who hurt, rape, or kill women. (The same goes for people of color who hurt or kill white people; the overrepresentation on death row where the latter is concerned has been widely documented.)

People make the mistake of thinking that I somehow justify violence or murder when I talk about any of that, or the plight of abused women who “snap.”

I don’t. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

Having been a crime victim several times over, and having seen violence around me for much of my life in the U.S., I don’t romanticize what it is to experience or witness violence of any kind.

I just think that our country has so far to go in understanding what it is that sexual, physical and emotional abuse does to people, esp. when combined with the very common after-effect of drug abuse and alcoholism (and other forms of self-destruction).

To me, in that regard, it feels like we’re still in the dark ages here in the U.S.

Prevention, of course, is everything. Give a person real education, housing, job training and job placement, recipes for self-respect, responsive social service networks, and a sense of community, and people can and do go very far in their lives. (I’ve seen people build something out of *nothing* when even just *one* person reaches out to give that person a hand.)

But when that’s not done, and when women who have been repeatedly abused and they do, finally, “snap,” we have to respond carefully and with real consideration for that person’s life circumstances. We also have to consider their actual likelihood of committing another crime. Again, stats show us that most people who kill their batterers or abusers are incredibly unlikely to ever commit a crime again.

Here’s a case I want to highlight, in particular, to illustrate how twisted our criminal system can be in this regard. It’s not a happy story, but it’s one that lingers in my mind.

In early December, a woman named Melanie Cooper, 36, was sent to state prison for 3-6 years in New Hampshire. Her crime was lying to police about a man who killed her stepfather. Her stepfather had been a man who had sexually and physically abused her since she was a little child.

When he sentenced Cooper, Judge Robert Lynn was quoted by the AP as saying the following:
“My heart goes out to your family. It is very clear to me that you have done some tremendous things with your life since this tragedy.”

Her stepfather, Danny Paquette, was murdered in 1985, when Cooper was a 15-year-old teenage girl. The murder had remained unsolved for most of Cooper’s grown life.

Somehow, despite all the abuse, Cooper pulled her life together. She married, started a business, and had five children. She never had a criminal record.

But in 2004, investigators started snooping around about a man, Eric Windhurst, that Cooper had known back in the 80s. Cooper agreed to cooperate. She *did* know something about what had happened, although she insisted she didn’t urge the man to kill her stepfather. To this day, she admits that while she talked to Windhurst about her pain and suffering (esp. because the stepfather had returned from Alaska to N.H. and she now feared, again, for her very life), she says that she didn’t ask him to kill the stepfather.

I have no way of knowing what the truth of that conversation was, of course. Whether she urged an end to that man’s life or not, we need to consider what it is that a 15-year-old girl is feeling when her whole life has been full of violation and fear. That’s not a feeling I’d wish on my worst enemy.

The police interrogation, 20+ years after the murder, apparently wore Cooper down. Her cooperation ended Windhurst in prison, on a 15-36-year sentence, something that I also think is outrageous, considering when it’s not even in dispute that the stepfather had committed the acts of sexual and physical violence.

But the N.H. attorney general’s recommendation that Cooper should be allowed to stay free, especially considering what she had been through–and how old she was when everything went down–was ultimately ignored. The judge sentenced her to a women’s prison, issuing his own form of an apology in the process.

She pled guilty, so there’s no shot at an appeal. Had she been a minor when all of this went down, the situation would have looked different. She would have been sent to a youth facility, and probably released at age 18, with her record sealed. (That’s not the case in every state … in California, for instance, I’ve met women who started serving their time in women’s prisons as young teenagers.)

But that’s not how it went for Cooper.

Lt. Mark Mudgett, commander of the New Hampshire State Police Major Crime Unit, said this about Cooper’s cooperation with the investigation: “Melanie was a tool.”

A “tool.”

That keeps going through my head as I write this. That’s what Cooper now knows for sure: she’s been used and been made a “tool,” once again.

The family of the murdered man may feel good about this, and, if so, my heart also goes out to them. There’s simply no sense in violence, and retribution in this form serves a limited purpose, at best.

In the end, there’s no sense in making a grown woman live behind bars for years to come for the fundamental fact that she endured a whole childhood of victimization. This isn’t justice served, it’s justice gone awry.

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