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Why Trina Garnett's Life Sentence Was Overturned After 40 Years in Prison

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Trina Garnett is on the far right hand side, seated near the piano.

Trina Garnett is on the far right hand side, seated near the piano.

Trina Garnett Finally Went Home After 40 Years in Jail

After Trina Garnett spent 42 years in jail for starting a fire that caused the accidental death of two of her friends when she was 14, Pennsylvania's mandatory sentencing laws were finally overturned and Trina got to go home. She was granted parole on November 9, 2017, and released in November 2019.

Why was she released? Here's what you need to know.

Trina Garnett's Childhood

Above is a moving song presented by women that were serving life sentences without the possibility of parole in Pennsylvania. The last woman to introduce herself in the video is Trina Garnett.

Trina lost her mother at the age of 9 and was subject to horrific mental and physical abuse by her alcoholic father. She was the youngest of 12 children and was homeless for the majority of her childhood. She has a low IQ, learning disabilities, and was later diagnosed with Schizophrenia. She spent two years in the state mental hospital at her grandmother’s request, from ages 11–13. When Trina was 13, she was released from the state hospital against her doctor’s orders and stopped taking her medication.

Trina Garnett's Mistake and Trial

A few months after she left the mental hospital, at age 14, Trina became upset that her neighbor, Mrs. Harvey, wouldn’t allow her two sons to play with Trina and set Harvey's house on fire in the middle of the night. It was about 1:40 am on August 29, 1976. The two boys, Brian and Derrick Harvey, ages 13 and 6 respectively, died in the fire.

Although the deaths were accidental, she was tried for and convicted of arson and two counts of second-degree murder. During her trial, Trina had been shown to be incapable of remembering her court-appointed lawyer’s name for more than a few minutes or of doing simple arithmetic. However, because of a previous accident in which she burned herself as a 5-year-old child, the prosecution argued that she should have known that matches can cause serious damage.

Trina Garnett's Sentencing

Although she had been declared incompetent to stand trial twice, she was tried as an adult when a third investigation deemed her competent to stand trial. Because of Pennsylvania’s mandatory sentencing laws, which hand out punishments for specific crimes without allowing the judge to use his own discretion or lawyers to present mitigating evidence, Trina Garnett was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Trina’s sentencing judge is quoted as having called her case one of the “saddest I’ve ever seen.”

Early into Trina’s sentence, she was raped by a prison guard. She later gave birth to a son, Rodney, who is in the care of Trina’s sisters. Trina has since been diagnosed with MS and is in declining health. She has spent more than 40 years in prison for two accidental deaths that occurred when she was just 14 years old and mentally ill.

"My number is 005545. My name is Trina Garnett. I have been incarcerated for 37 years, since I was 14 years old. Born and raised in Chester, Pennsylvania. And this is not home."

— Trina Garnett

Overturning Mandatory Sentencing Laws

In Jackson v. Hobbs and Miller v. Alabama, the United States Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life without parole for those under 18 is unconstitutional by the 8th amendment:

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

In January 2016, the US Supreme Court ruled on Montgomery v. Louisiana, which enforces the ruling of Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, retroactively. This meant that Trina's case was eligible for resentencing. This time, a life sentence without parole was not mandatory.

Lawyers from the Equal Justice Initiative filed a post-conviction petition for resentencing for Trina that was heard by Pennsylvania's supreme court. She was finally granted parole on November 9, 2017, after she spent 42 years in jail for two deaths she did not intend to cause. She was released in November 2019.