As Jessica Burlew Considers Plea Deal, Her Supporters Blast Its Terms

Eighteen-year-old Jessica Burlew has been in jail for 571 days as her public defenders and the state of Arizona waded through the complicated and drawn-out process of preparing for a homicide trial. A source close to the situation now tells New Times that attorneys and relevant parties have discussed and debated terms of various plea bargains for months, and court documents suggest that a tentative settlement of a manslaughter plea has been reached.

In return for a guilty plea, Burlew’s second-degree murder charge would be lessened to manslaughter. If she accepts, she would face up 10 to 12 years in prison, as opposed to the 10 to 25 years a guilty verdict in a second-degree murder case carries. 

While Jerry Cobb of the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office says he thinks it’s more than likely that the defense will agree to the deal, Burlew’s vast network of community and non-legal supporters are not thrilled with the terms. In fact, as far as they are concerned, Burlew is a victim in this situation and shouldn’t have been charged in the first place.

As New Times wrote in a May cover story "The Deepest Cut," Burlew was 16 when she was arrested for allegedly strangling 43-year-old Jason Ash — whom police documents say she called her boyfriend but whom her advocates call her abuser. The exact nature of Burlew and Ash’s relationship remains unclear, but as was documented in cell phone videos, the two often did drugs and engaged in “knife play,” i.e., cutting themselves or each other for gratification.
Burlew has a long history of mental illness, and many say the systems our society has in place to help troubled youth let her down again and again through her adolescence and teenage years. Her mother, Tracey Woodside, provided paperwork showing how, for years, her daughter had been in and out of foster care, special schools, and psychiatric hospitals — she often was discharged for reasons, Woodside says, having more to do with insurance and money than her mental health status.

At the time of Ash’s death, Burlew technically was homeless, having run away from a Child Protective Services group home. She would stop by her mother’s Glendale apartment from time to time to eat or shower or say hello, and it was in that apartment, on Burlew’s bed, that Ash died.

There appears to be little doubt that the death was an accident. Burlew told the police that he had asked her to choke him — it was one of the “games” they played — but that he had never said the safe word to let her know it was time to release his airway. (This account is backed up by forensic evidence, which shows no sign of struggle on Ash’s part.)

When Burlew noticed Ash no longer looked conscious, she used a razor blade to cut him a few times in an attempt to wake him up. When she realized that was futile, she continued cutting him to calm herself down, she told the police. Burlew then called her mother, who says she was cleaning out her truck by the dumpsters near the apartment complex at the time. Woodside came home, saw Ash, and called 911.

Burlew ran away once she realized police were coming but returned later that night, and she was arrested.

She was charged with second-degree murder, which unlike the lesser charge of manslaughter, gave the state no discretion in whether to try her in juvenile or adult court.

“We charged the offense we felt the evidence supported,” Cobb says, adding that even if the charge had been manslaughter from the beginning, given her age, the state would have chosen to try her as an adult so that she wouldn’t age out of the system before the matter was concluded. (Whether this practice is fair is a hot topic among those urging reforms of the justice system across the country.)
Burlew’s advocates, including the grassroots group Free Jessie B., sent letters to County Attorney Bill Montgomery and staged demonstrations to petition him to reduce the charge to manslaughter and try her as a juvenile for something, they allege, was an accident and never should have been allowed to occur in the first place given her mental-health issues.

Free Jessie B also has been at the forefront of a movement to change how many, including the media, frame the situation — it’s not a sex act gone wrong, they say, but rather an example of an older man capitalizing on an unequal power dynamic to manipulate a vulnerable teenager. Ash was not her boyfriend, they maintain; he was a 43-year-old drug addict who provided her with heroin and meth and sexually exploited her. (It’s unclear what role their age difference would play in the case if it went to trial, and Burlew’s defense team repeatedly has not responded to requests for comment.)

At a status conference, terms of the plea deal were announced, which Cobb says is a sign that the defense is willing to accept. “There’s always a back and forth when negotiating a plea agreement,” he adds, and the defense’s “willingness to accept usually goes up over time, [or when] they see the evidence [the state will] present against them.”

After news of the plea terms were discussed openly in court, her supporters were outraged.

“The only humane and appropriate plea offer for Jessica is credit for time served, not the 10 to 12 years the state is offering,” says Sumayyah Dawud, a local resident who has followed the case closely and attended all of Burlew’s status conferences during the last year and a half. “While lowering the charge from murder to manslaughter is a step in the right direction, it still isn't justice. From the beginning, Jessica should have been treated as a victim of a predatory relationship and given mental healthcare rather than tried as an adult for what was a tragic accident in a situation she never should have been allowed to be in the first place.”

The Free Jessie B Facebook group has many comments from people urging her defense not to take the deal because "she’s not guilty." 

“This is an absolute outrage,” one person wrote. “The only acceptable deal for Jessica is for her to be released immediately and for a lawsuit to be filed against every agency involved in this ordeal.” Organizers from Free Jessie B declined to comment.

Court documents show that last week’s settlement conference lasted 10 minutes and that “a tentative settlement [was] reached.” The defense is expected to announce whether it accepts the deal at Burlew’s next court appearance — which is listed in the court calendar as a status conference/possible change of plea — on Friday, September 4.

And if Burlew’s team accepts, Cobb explains, the sentencing portion of the case will begin.

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Miriam is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Miriam Wasser