Jessica Burlew has been charged for the accidental death of a 43 yr old sexual predator who took advantage of her as a 16 year old runaway from a DCS group home. She has been charged as an adult with 2nd degree murder, and offered a plea to 10 years in prison with no hope of early release.
Jessie was diagnosed as autistic and schizoaffective at a young age, and spent most of her life in special education. Jessie has been predominantly in solitary confinement since January 2014, pending trial. There has been no consideration given to her young age, mental illness, or the fact that she was supposed to be safe in DCS custody. She has been denied access to sexual assault and trauma counseling, or even basic mental health services. Her medications are changed frequently, allowing little to no time to adjust. She was not found mentally competent to stand trial until November, 2014, and her trial date was pushed back many times.
On September 4th, Jessica Burlew took a plea from the Maricopa County Superior court, which carries 10 years in prison on one count of 2nd degree murder for the accidental death of 43 year old Jason Ash. Her family and support team feel very strongly that she has been coerced into accepting this plea offer to avoid trial.
Donate Now to Jessie Burlew’s Fundraiser Here
There is still hope, however. The severity of the plea that Jessie has been offered has galvanized some of the legal experts that Jessie’s support team works with, and they have received a response from an extremely qualified criminal defense attorney who comes highly recommended by others in the legal community. This lawyer has agreed to represent Jessie on a $10,000 retainer, and charge only $20,000 overall. Murder cases typically cost upwards of $100,000 to defend, so this is the first time that a private lawyer has been an achievable goal for Jessie’s family and support team. Time is very short though, because the lawyer will need to be retained before she will be able to meet with Jessie and build a case for vacating the plea. Jessie’s sentencing is scheduled for October 5th, so retainer funds must be met prior to that.
16 year old Jessie Burlew
So many people have spoken out on Jessie Burlew’s behalf and helped share her story. Now, you can do so much more. Please help us raise the money to retain a lawyer for Jessie. DONATE what you can, SHARE the fundraiser, and FIGHT for Jessie.
Jessie cannot get back the 20 months of her life that she has spent in a cell, but there is finally a light at the end of the tunnel for her. She has not been allowed a safe and healthy environment and is now facing the complete loss of any youth she has left. Jessie Burlew has been treated as a threat to the society that completely ignored and failed her as a special needs child, a mentally ill teenager and the survivor of sexual violence when she was most vulnerable. We thank all of you for your support so far for Jessie. Now, we need all hands on deck.
Below is a One on One Q&A interview with Phoenix Anarchist Black Cross to answer some of the many unanswered questions.
1. Can you tell me about the rally before Jessie’s pre-trial: how many people were there? How did people on the street respond? Did you get a reaction from Jessie’s family or her lawyer? Was she aware of the protest?
“There were about 12-15 people at the rally and in Jessie’s pre-trial. Before court started, Jessie’s support group held a large banner for the commuters on Jefferson. It read ‘Protect Survivors of Sexual Assault. Free Jessie.’ Other supporters handed out flyers and talked to passersby about Jessie’s case and how they could get involved. Every person we spoke to was horrified to hear about Jessie’s case and interested in learning more. Jessie’s mom, Tracey, was able to be there and gave all of Jessie’s supporters a big hug. She is still in a wheelchair as a result of her car accident in November, but she is hoping to be in better health when Jessie’s trial starts.” -Beth Payne
2. What happened at the pre-trial? (I’m sorry I wasn’t able to be there. I only learned of her case late last week) What arguments were made by both sides? How long did it last? What is the benefit of pushing out the start date?
“The pre-trial only lasted about 15 minutes, because the defense filed for a continuance. They stated that they have two mental health experts they need evaluations from. When pressed by the prosecution, the defense stated that one of the mental health experts was brought in specifically for the purpose of negotiating a plea offer, and the other one was for trial testimony. The judge agreed to the continuance and pushed the next pre-trial date back to June 24th at 8:30am. The actual trial was set for July 8th at 8:00am.” -Beth Payne
3. How did Jessie seem at the pre-trial? Did she look distressed? Did she speak at all?
“Jessie’s hair has grown long while she has been in jail, and she had it pulled back in a ponytail. She was not expecting her mother to be able to attend, so when she saw Tracey in the audience, her face lit up and then she spent several minutes blinking back tears. She smiled shyly at her supporters in the audience. Jessie has very limited contact with the outside, but she knows that her supporters wear blue shirts at her court dates so that she can recognize who is there for her. Some supporters even dye their hair blue. Nobody is allowed to speak to the defendants and Jessie did not have the opportunity to talk at this court date.” -Beth Payne
4. Was her mother able to be at the pre-trial?
Yes, see above
5. Is Jessie’s father in the picture at all?
6. In one newspaper report, it says that the Jessie and Ash were at her mother’s house when the incident occurred. So she was placed in a CPS foster home, but ran away to meet Ash at her mother’s house? How long was she missing from the foster home? Where was her mother at the time? How long before had she and Ash begun communicating?
“Jessie had been missing from DCS custody for quite some time. It is very common for teenagers in DCS custody to run away (or ‘go AWOL’) from shelter, and very frequently, their case workers make little to no effort to locate them. The DCS system is enormously underfunded, under-resourced and over-burdened. The police report states that the DCS case worker had gone by the apartment a few times and knocked on the door, but did not make other efforts to locate Jessie. When she was AWOL, Jessie spent time staying with both her mother and Jason Ash, but I do not know how long she was with either. She met Jason Ash on a social media site, with a profile that gave her correct age. Ash’s profile misstated his age as much younger, in his 20s. He was 43 years old.”
7. Are you able to comment on why and for how long Jessie was in the CPS (now DCS) system?
8. On what grounds did the judge decide to try her as an adult?
“The judge doesn’t make that decision, the prosecutor does- in this case, the decision was made by Bill Montgomery’s office. In Arizona, if a 16 or 17 year old is being charged with murder, they must be tried as an adult. Jessie’s case, however, does not necessitate a murder charge. Typically, 2nd degree murder is pursued when someone intended to profoundly hurt or kill someone, but did not premeditate the act. Manslaughter, negligent homicide, etc are usually applied for accidental death and carry much lighter sentences. To give an example, someone who drinks and drives and causes a fatal accident is usually charged with manslaughter. I would argue that there is much more reckless behavior and knowledge of the ability to kill people in that decision. Jessie’s has consistently stated that she had no intent to hurt Jason Ash, that he asked her to wrap the cord around her neck, and that she had no idea he was in so much distress. The crime scene supports that. Jason Ash was a large man, much bigger than Jessie. His body was found laying on the bed as though he went to sleep. There was no sign of a struggle. He could have easily overpowered Jessie if he had tried. He likely lost consciousness before he had a chance to indicate to her that there was a problem. It’s a tragic story, but it is not a murder.” -Beth Payne
9. What sentence is she facing?
“Under the current charge of 2nd degree murder, she is facing 17-25 years in an adult prison.” -Beth Payne
10. Has she had access to her medications while in jail?
“While she has remained on most of her prescriptions while she has been in jail, her access to mental health care has been very inconsistent. She has not had access to a counselor or psychiatrist the entire time, despite the obvious trauma she has experienced and her pre-existing diagnoses of mental illness. She was removed from one of her psychotropic prescriptions cold turkey about a week before her pre-trial and has reported that she has had dramatic mood swings since, but does not know why she was removed. It has been very difficult for advocates to make any traction on the conditions of her confinement or her access to mental health, and attempts to reach out to the health care service provider within the Maricopa County Jails have been largely ignored by them.” -Beth Payne
“The conditions of Jessica’s confinement are deplorable for any juvenile, but they are particularly horrible in Jessica’s case because of her extensive history of mental illness. No juvenile pre-trial detainee should be confined to a cell for up to 23 hours a day, denied proper medical and mental health care, or be subjected to contact with convicted adults. Maricopa County must provide better care to juveniles in their custody.” -Darrell Hill, Staff Attorney, Arizona ACLU
Darrell Hill is also open to media requests specifically regarding the conditions of Jessie’s confinement. His contact info is:
ACLU of Arizona
PO Box 17148
Phoenix, AZ 85011
Contact Prosecuting County Attorney Bill Montgomery: (602)506-3411
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