If I had visited even just a few years ago, Robin Ledbetter told me the
other day, she would have been ready with her sob story. She owned that
story back then, or rather it owned her:
How she'd watch her mother shoot up through a crack in the bathroom door.
How she and her half-sister would be left with strangers, sometimes for a
month at a time, while their mother ran the streets.
How her father walked into the Hartford Police Department in 1996 just in
time to offer her perhaps the worst advice of her life - to confess her role
in a robbery-murder when she was just 14. Her mother died of AIDS a year
after she was arrested. Her father was back in prison on a shoplifting
charge while she stood trial.
But that was then, when the anger and bitterness of neglect consumed her.
That was before she listened to the words of the father of the cab driver
she was convicted of killing, heard him speak of the love and loss of his
son and realized that yes, there was a victim in all of this - it just
She still says she was not the one who stabbed Colin Williams the night she
and a 15-year-old friend decided to rob a cab driver. But what does that
matter? An innocent person died that night, she said.
"Wasting is part of her life," Joseph Williams wrote in a letter that was
read during her sentencing. "She wasted her life, wasted my son's life and
would keep on wasting lives if she gets the opportunity."
His words haunted her, she said, and convinced her that if she had any
chance of survival, if not freedom, she had to let go of the feelings of
blame and self-pity that set her on a path to ruin. She was a runaway the
night she was arrested and when her friend suggested they go rob someone,
she went along. She always went along.
"I just couldn't let those feelings dictate my life anymore," she says, her
voice echoing off the white concrete blocks of the small room where we
talked at York Correctional Institution.
She looks younger than 23 in her oversize gray sweat shirt, but she sounds
grown up, mature. So different from the little girl in childhood pictures
her grandmother showed me. And what she says makes sense: There comes a time
when a person just can't use their past as a crutch, an excuse. Not if they
ever hope to move on.
But back when Robin's life was dictated by her family's destructive
decisions, when she was being swallowed whole by a life beyond her control,
she was a kid.
It bears repeating - she was a kid.
A kid whose bad upbringing and bad decisions were compounded by bad timing.
The juvenile justice pendulum that is continually swinging from merciful to
merciless was on the punishment end of the arc. She took part in a killing
at a time when Americans were sick of children with guns getting away with
murder, when politicians and pundits throughout the country told Americans
to brace themselves for a generation of "super-predators." When states
embraced harsher criminal justice policies for children without stopping to
consider whether they would work. The year before Ledbetter was arrested,
Connecticut passed a new law that sent serious felony cases straight to
And that debate clearly raged in the courtroom while Ledbetter was on trial.
"How does the community devote itself to the issue of saving children, young
children, from parents who are ill equipped to raise them," the judge mused
during her sentencing.
"The ultimate answer has to come from the community. And the resolution,
down the road, may require that some of our own personal liberties and
freedoms be constricted in order to save this great wash of children who are
being lost to us."
Then he sentenced her to 50 years.
Do you get that logic? I don't. Save the child from her parents' fatal flaws
by throwing the child away?
Robin Ledbetter was prepared to speak directly to Joseph Williams at her
sentence review hearing a couple of weeks ago - she had worked and reworked
her six-page letter to make sure she had it right. But the Williams family
wasn't there and she was told her comments should be limited. It didn't
matter how remorseful she was, how much she has changed. It was too late for
any of that.
But she wanted Mr. Williams to hear it anyway, so she handed me the letter.
"To you Mr. Williams, The emotion and the depth of your suffering showed
plainly through and that has haunted me almost everyday since. ... Nothing
is more powerfully damning than to know there is someone who truly hates
you. Someone that you have hurt so badly and you can't undo that hurt."
More than anything that has happened in the 10 years she's already been in
prison, his words motivated her. And now she wants a life. Nothing too fancy
- an apartment of her own, kids if she meets someone she loves. A chance to
prove that redemption is possible.
A decision by a three-judge panel to reduce her sentence can offer her that,
but it's a long shot.
She knows that. And she knows she's asking the Williams family for something
that if she's being honest, she probably couldn't give if Colin Williams was
her brother - forgiveness.
But then, she says, isn't prison supposed to be about more than just
punishment? Isn't it supposed to be about rehabilitation?
Clearly not to those who wrote and called Thursday, when I first wrote about
Robin Ledbetter, to say she should rot in jail. Colin Williams' family will
never get him back, not now, not 50 years from now.
Of course that's true. And they are suffering, and no matter how deep they
dig - and they have, his sister Barbara Findlay told me - they can't, they
just can't forgive.
But there's a reason we look to the courts to mete out justice, not to
grieving families. Just like there are reasons we think a 14-year-old is too
young to drive, too young to vote, too young to marry - too young to do many
things that require sound judgment.
Then 14-year-old Robin Ledbetter makes an admittedly horrendous decision,
and we decide she should pay for it the rest of her life.
During our two-hour visit, Robin remained hopeful, upbeat - until I asked
her what she will do if her sentence isn't reduced. She has already tried to
commit suicide a few times; the last time, she tells me, when her last
appeal was denied.
For a few minutes, the only sound in the room is of muffled inmates' voices
and their friends and family outside. Finally, she says she doesn't know
what she will do if this is it, if she has to serve the rest of her 50-year
Is it possible to thrive behind bars for 50 years? she asks. I start to
answer, but then realize she's asking herself, straining to envision herself
at 30, at 40, at 60 years old within these walls.
If she does get out at 64, she says, what kind of life will be waiting for
her? Everyone she knows and loves will either be dead or gone.
And for the first time during our visit, she resembles the overwhelmed
little girl in her childhood pictures.
"How do you restart a life at 64 when you never started it in the first
place?" she asks.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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