Ruling of a lifetime: Pa. woman, grown old in prison, could be set free

Sharon "Peachie" Wiggins has been in Pa. state prison for 44 years, the state's longest-serving female prisoner. (Harrisburg Patriot-News)
Sharon "Peachie" Wiggins has been in Pa. state prison for 44 years, the state's longest-serving female prisoner. (Harrisburg Patriot-News)
Posted: September 12, 2012

MUNCY, PA. - What would she do if she got out? After 44 years in prison, Sharon Wiggins savors the question.

"I want to know what it feels like to wake up by myself. Here, you live on public view. There's always a big piece of glass on your door [for correctional officers to see in]. I want to wake up by myself," said Wiggins, 61, who's in the State Correctional Institution at Muncy, in Lycoming County.

"I want to know how it feels to walk down the street.

"I want to know how it feels to sit in the car and hear the rain just beat down.

"I want to know how it feels to sit with my sister and have a cup of coffee."

She smiles as she imagines life outside, finding thrills in what others consider humdrum, because for the first time in decades, she has hope.

Wiggins was just 17 in 1968, when she killed a man during a bank robbery, a crime that earned her a lifetime behind bars. She always thought she'd die in prison.

But in June, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling declaring automatic life-without-parole sentences cruel, inhumane and unconstitutional for minors.

Nowhere did the decision make more waves than in Pennsylvania, which leads the nation - and the world - in the number of juveniles it condemns to prison for life. Lawyer Bradley Bridge, a juvenile-law reformer, estimates that about 500 people are serving that sentence in Pennsylvania, representing one-fifth of about 2,500 juvenile lifers nationwide. The tally is the result of Pennsylvania's tough mandatory sentencing for homicide offenders that discounts an offender's age, background or role in the crime.

The June ruling prompted a flood of juvenile lifers statewide to appeal for resentencing. On Wednesday, the state Supreme Court will hear arguments in two juvenile lifers' cases, and their ruling is expected to set precedent on how the state should handle all its juvenile lifers.

"I'd like to see them abolish life-without-parole" for minors, said Julia Glover-Hall, a Drexel University sociology professor who chairs the Pennsylvania Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.

Brain scientists have proved that people "do not fully mature until they're in their mid-20s," Glover-Hall added. "You can actually see this on an MRI. The science there is pretty well-accepted. So it doesn't make sense to hold someone as culpable and give them these long sentences when they are not fully mentally developed.

"How can you form criminal intent if you have half a brain?"

'What will God think?'

Sharon "Peachie" Wiggins won't talk about the day that put her in prison for life.

"I don't want to give them anything that they would try to twist and use against me," said Wiggins, who has applied 13 times to have her sentence reduced.

But newspaper reports and public records provide a thorough account.

Wiggins and Foster Tarver, 17, walked into a Harrisburg bank on the morning of Dec. 2, 1968, with handguns held high. Samuel Barlow, 18, stood watch at the door.

The three had known each other since kindergarten and lived in the same poor, crime-infested neighborhood in Pittsburgh's Hill District. Runaways and drug addicts who already were dabbling in crime, they fled their troubles at home, seeking fun in the state's capital city, where Tarver had friends. After partying for a few days and attending a Thanksgiving Day high-school football game, they decided to rob the Dauphin Deposit Trust Co.

In the bank, Wiggins kept her gun trained on the cowering customers, while Tarver filled two gym bags with cash.

Then George S. Morelock walked through the door. Morelock, 64, a retired operator of a trucking company, ignored Wiggins' order to line up with the other customers.

Witnesses told the Harrisburg Patriot-News, in a news article that ran the next day, that Morelock was hard of hearing. He couldn't hear Wiggins' order and moved closer to hear better, they speculated.

But later news stories painted him as a would-be hero.

"Do you know what you're doing?" Morelock asked Wiggins, approaching her.

She shot him twice.

Tarver sprinted over and fired twice more.

In her most recent rejected application for clemency, Wiggins explained that she fired only because she panicked when Morelock lunged, grabbed her and struggled to take her gun.

Morelock died at a hospital.

With more than $70,000 in hand, the teens fled in a stolen car, police in close pursuit. The robbers wrecked the car when driver Barlow, ducking to avoid police gunfire, lost control and hit a stopped car.

In court, the trio pleaded guilty to murder, allowing a three-judge panel to decide the penalty.

The judges sparked a furor when - after deliberating less than an hour - they sentenced the teens to die, even though the district attorney hadn't asked for the death penalty. The punishment later was reduced to life without parole after the NAACP appealed to the governor and local clergy protested.

Today, all three remain incarcerated. Wiggins is the state's longest-serving female prisoner and among its oldest.

"Later on, after I had become much more mature, my remorse changed from a kid who thought: 'What will my mother think? What will God think?' to me understanding how final my actions were and how many people I impacted with a decision I made in 10 seconds," Wiggins said during a recent interview with the Daily News at Muncy. "Prior to [Morelock's murder], everything I had ever did, I could apologize for. But this was something that happened that was so final."

Is she rehabilitated?

Pretend that Wiggins is not in prison, then check out her resume, which rambles on for three pages:

She's a Penn State graduate who then worked for Penn State coordinating Muncy's postsecondary-education program. She's a "peer assistant," running groups on everything from relationships to violence prevention to drug and alcohol abuse. She's a math tutor who helps inmates get their GEDs. She runs a "back-on-track" group for parole violators. She has picked strawberries on a farm in a work-release program and participated in community cleanup efforts after Hurricane Agnes.

She's a licensed cosmetologist, mechanic and upholsterer who also has training in photography, drafting and architecture, construction and maintenance, electronics, computer programming and catering.

"I got a lot of certificates in a lot of different things - about 10,000 of them in a box," she said with a laugh.

For anyone who believes that prison is about rehabilitation, Wiggins has earned admiration among activists championing sentencing reform for juvenile lifers.

She's also proved to be a poster child in two other ways:

* She's old, at least by prison standards (the state considers an inmate senior at age 50), and sick. Older inmates typically cost more than younger ones - up to three times more, experts say - due to health and mobility issues that arise with age. (Per-inmate spending now averages $34,500 a year.) Wiggins has had two heart attacks, two angioplasties and a stent, and expects she'll need coronary bypass surgery. She also has bleeding stomach ulcers, hypertension and other age-related ailments.

And Pennsylvania's prisons have been graying faster: About 16.4 percent, or almost 8,500, of the state's 51,300 inmates were 50 or older in 2010, compared with just 6.6 percent in 1995. That trend burdens an already overburdened system, experts say. Geriatric-jailbird advocates also argue that they deserve a shot at freedom because they're unlikely to reoffend.

* She had a horrible childhood. Mandatory sentencing means that judges can't consider mitigating evidence that could explain what drove someone to crime. In Wiggins' case, her childhood was "chaotic," she said. Her mother had mental problems and was abusive, she said. Wiggins started using and occasionally selling drugs at 12, and she was a frequent runaway, mostly staying with friends rather than shoulder the burden of being a surrogate mother to three younger siblings. "I was just in survival mode, trying to wake up every day," she said of her teenage years.

Wiggins is awaiting a hearing before the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons on another - her 13th - request for parole consideration. And the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center is handling her appeal for resentencing under the recent high-court ruling.

Some say Wiggins deserves no second chance.

"Let's not talk about these criminals as if they're victims," said Bobbi Jamriska, Pennsylvania director of the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers.

"We, as victims, didn't get a do-over," added Jamriska, whose pregnant 15-year-old sister was stabbed to death by her 16-year-old boyfriend in 1993 in suburban Pittsburgh.

But Wiggins said she has never forgotten her victim.

"I am sorry for the death of Mr. Morelock and the pain I have caused his family," she wrote in her most recent rejected application for clemency. "The kind of sorrow I feel on a daily basis eats at me like a cancer."

She just wants a chance to do good on the outside.

She already has two job offers lined up from friends. But if she gets out, she'd like to move to Philadelphia, where she'd advocate for prisoners and lifers.

"Sharon has gone through major depressions, because there is that hopelessness that lifers have. But she has not let that stop her," said Nancy Sponeybarger, a former Muncy counselor who first met Wiggins in the early 1970s and has maintained a friendship since.

"She's grown into a really insightful, compassionate, capable older woman - despite all the odds, because it's not like you have a ton of role models when you're in prison, especially when you're tossed in there as a little girl."


Contact Dana DiFilippo at difilid@phillynews.com or 215-854-5934. Follow her on Twitter @DanaDiFilippo. Read her blog at phillyconfidential.com.

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