Family Member Affected By 'Death By Incarceration' Wants Pa. Law To Change
A Pennsylvania woman gave birth in a sports bar bathroom and left the baby there, where it soon died. Now the woman is sentenced to spend the rest of her life in prison.
Pennsylvania keeps more than 5,300 inmates behind bars for life, as the result of a state law that mandates life sentences for people convicted of non-capital first- or second-degree murder. The Commonwealth second only to Florida in number of life sentences nationwide.
90.5 WESA’s An-Li Herring spoke with Jane Hein, whose niece, Amanda, will spend her life in prison unless the law changes.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
AN-LI HERRING: Jane Hein’s niece Amanda was sentenced to life without parole, or what opponents of the practice call “death by incarceration,” five years ago. I'm joined by Jane Hein now. Jane, thanks for coming in.
JANE HEIN: You're welcome. Glad to be here.
HERRING: Now Jane, can you start by telling me how your niece, Amanda, ended up serving a life term in prison − what was she convicted of?
HEIN: Well, Amanda gave birth to a baby in a sports bar. She thought she was about two-and-a-half months pregnant. It turns out that she was full-term. The baby was born in the bathroom and appeared to be stillborn. And Amanda abandoned the baby there.
So, Amanda thought that she left a dead baby behind.
She was confronted with the fact that the baby had been born alive and was threatened with the death penalty. She was offered a plea deal where she would plead guilty to murder, and the jury would find her either guilty of murder-one [first-degree murder], which is a mandatory life without parole sentence, or murder-three [third-degree murder.]
And the jury found that given the [District Attorney's] definition of intent, that since she didn't come out of the bathroom saying, “Somebody please help my dead baby,” that she did not intend for the baby to live. And they found her guilty of murder-one.
HERRING: When you think about the possible sentences, it sounds like capital punishment was a possibility. Do you take any comfort in the fact that Amanda is still alive even though she is serving a life sentence?
HEIN: Not really, because when somebody is sentenced to capital punishment we don't execute people anymore. So if she had been subject to that sentence, she would be alive. I wouldn't be able to have any contact with her.
But the way the state prison system is set up, there's only two female prisons in this state, and neither one of them is close to a city center. Amanda is at [State Correctional Institution] - Muncy, [which is a] five-hour [trip] for me. So that's an overnight stay.
The way I do visit her is that there’s a company that sets up virtual visitation. I'm allowed to visit her once a month, for an hour, by going to a site in Pittsburgh and video-conferencing with her.
HERRING: Were you close with Amanda?
HEIN: Amanda grew up on the other side of the state. When she was little, her grandmother would bring her to visit me when my children were born. And my mother-in-law was a very special person. And she took care of Amanda, when her parents split up.
When she died and this happened to Amanda, I had to get involved because there is no one else left who loved her like my mother-in-law did.
HERRING: Had you always felt so passionately about this issue before Amanda had her experience?
HEIN: I never gave this issue a thought. I'm like most of America. The prison system is set up to take these people and hide them away from polite society. It took me a while to even talk about Amanda’s case, and I still get very emotional about it.
It took a long while to overcome the stigma of having someone that you know in jail. But once I got to know what exactly happens in this state, I'm appalled.
And it's also created some issues within the family.
The prison system is designed to alienate the incarcerated person from the rest of society. And with Amanda, a lot of her family members have chosen to just kind of write her off. And that makes me quite angry.
HERRING: Stepping back, what does it say to you − having someone who has felt fully the consequences of our sentencing policy here in Pennsylvania − what does it say to you about our criminal justice system and how we treat people convicted of serious crimes that we have this policy on the books?
HEIN: I consider myself to be a Christian. This policy flies in the face of every Christian principle.
Jesus could use murderers. He used Moses. He used Paul. Murderers and serious criminals can be rehabilitated, can be redeemed, can have value.
As a matter of fact, these people that were sentenced to die in prison, that have been in prison for 30 or 40 years, and are now 40, 50, 60 years old − they want to get out. They want to change their communities. They want to be there for their families and make sure the rest of their families don't take this path, and that the other people in their communities do not take this path.
Kieran McLean contributed to this report.