Jessica's Hard Time

Jessica Jeffries and her lawyer, Jeffrey Mehrens, at the scene of the alleged crimes.
Casey McKee

Jessica Karen Jeffries is 18 years old, but has the mental capacity of someone perhaps half her age. Her bedroom is decorated with illustrations of characters from Winnie the Pooh, which she has meticulously colored.

She is 5-foot-7 and weighs 437 pounds.

Jessica is going on trial next week, charged with 16 criminal counts stemming from her alleged sexual abuse of boys from her neighborhood. The two primary victims were 12 at the time of the alleged crimes, which occurred in Jessica's northwest Phoenix home last fall.

Though Jessica was 17 when she was charged, the Maricopa County Attorney's Office has chosen to try her as an adult. If she is convicted at trial of all 16 counts against her, Jessica will be sentenced to a minimumof 56 years in prison. The state's mandatory sentencing laws will leave the judge no discretion. And the jury will not be told of the draconian sentence facing Jessica.

This prosecutorial travesty is borne of a blend of pubescent peer pressure, hormonal yearning and juvenile backbiting. The plot is compounded by dubious parenting, immutable law and the county attorney's intransigence.

Two judges have intervened in an attempt to convince the County Attorney's Office to come to its senses. Prosecutors have grudgingly offered a plea bargain of seven to 10 years in exchange for her admission of guilt.

Jessica's attorney, public defender Jeffrey Mehrens, is convinced that Jessica will not survive for long in prison. Because of her morbid obesity, a seven-year prison term "would be a death sentence," says Mehrens, who calls the case "the saddest I've ever seen."

County Attorney Richard Romley is unopposed for reelection in Tuesday's general election. Yet he's exhibiting a candidate's rank expedience. A spokesman says judicial rules prevent Romley from commenting on his office's behavior in prosecuting the case.

Imagine that. Tough-talking, crime-avenging Richard Romley -- overcome by circumspection.

Jessica Jeffries is not an innocent in this case, the facts of which are as troubling as they are contentious.

Yet the Arizona legislators who enacted mandatory sentencing statutes -- ostensibly to hobble lenient judges -- surely didn't have Jessica or her alleged misdeeds in mind when they drew up required punishments for sex offenses.

Judges who hear all the evidence are powerless when it's time to pass sentence, because our ludicrous mandatory-sentencing laws treat all convicts the same.

Jessica's different -- profoundly so. She's a 9-year-old locked in an 18-year-old's unwieldy body. But neither the law nor our pious county attorney will recognize it.

In this case, justice is not merely blind, it's comatose.

Jessica Jeffries has never had many friends. Her corpulence makes her a perpetual object of derision. With an IQ of 83, she's been in special education her entire life. When she was 15, she tested at the level of a third or fourth grader. It's an understatement to say this child has no self-esteem, that she hungers for affection.

She was arrested in December after the mother of a 12-year-old neighborhood boy -- we'll call him Tom -- called Phoenix police to say that Jessica had forced Tom to have sex with her. Tom's friend -- we'll call him Mike -- also had had sex with Jessica, police were told, while Jessica's half-sister, a 7-year-old we'll call Amy, was in the room.

Tom told detectives that Jessica had called to him as he rode his bicycle past her home and had threatened to tell his mother he had broken a door at Jessica's house if he refused to have sex with her. Tom said Jessica threatened to kill him if he didn't perform.

The other boy, Mike, said nothing about Jessica issuing threats against either boy.

The statements of Mike, Amy and Jessica are all consistent in that they say the four children were playing truth or dare, a kids' game that by definition stretches the bounds of propriety.

Mike told investigators that he and Tom each had sex with Jessica "for two seconds."

When interviewed by detectives, Jessica denied having sex with the boys. She said they were "playing around." Jessica and Amy both said that Tom and Mike habitually pestered Jessica to have sex with them, and groped her.

Amy told police that Mike "was begging to see her sister's 'boobs' and they played the truth or dare game. . . . [Amy] indicated that [Mike] had dared [Tom] to have sex with Jess. And that [Tom] had begged her and kept on begging her."

After Jessica was indicted, Tom's younger twin brothers came forward with new allegations. They said that Jessica had tried to get them to have sex with Amy and that Jessica had grabbed their hands and put them on her crotch and breasts and had felt their penises through their clothing.

A fourth victim, a wheelchair-bound friend of Jessica's, would later claim that Jessica had fondled his crotch through his clothing.

Police investigators had Mike call Jessica to confront her, and they recorded the conversation. The results will be devastating to Jessica's defense. The tape has her admitting to having sex with the boys, and acknowledging that she knew it was wrong to do so.

Jessica is accused of two counts of sexual misconduct with a minor; seven counts of child molestation; four counts of public sexual indecency; two counts of indecent exposure; and one count of sexual abuse.

The boys also told investigators that 7-year-old Amy took her clothes off in front of them.

I'm surprised Romley doesn't have her in stocks.

Jessica Jeffries is not a Jezebel, a siren. A psychologist who examined her reported that she's not a predator, not a danger to society.

When she faces the wrath of "the people" next week, she'll sit in a special chair that can accommodate her girth.

With difficulty, Jessica slides into a seat at a park picnic table. Her face looks overinflated, as though it might burst at any moment. Her cheeks are flushed, her respirations strained.

Jessica speaks of her former best friend, a fellow special-ed student whose parents have forbidden her to speak to Jessica.

"I really haven't had a lot of friends," she says. "Because of my weight."

She has a swimming pool at her house, and she likes to swim when it's warm enough. She loves animals -- she has a cat and a dog -- and hopes to be a veterinarian someday. She's been going to TOPS, a weight-loss program, and has lost 26 pounds since school started. She likes TOPS, says the women there give her encouragement.

She is fond of a social worker at her high school. Although teachers and counselors will testify at her trial, the school district has forbidden them from speaking to the media about Jessica's case. The district doesn't want to be associated with the words "child molester."

Before her family could raise bail, Jessica spent nearly two weeks in the county's psychiatric lockup -- she could not be accommodated in the general jail population.

"I didn't like it," she says. "I was scared. I wanted to go home."

Jessica's mother, Sherry, says the jailers denied Jessica her medication and made her go without pants for days, saying there were none that fit.

"When we got there and signed in to see her, the pants miraculously appeared within 30 minutes," Sherry says.

"I honestly think that she's being singled out because she's morbidly obese and she's a female. They never took into consideration her mental age, nor will they. The State of Arizona only cares about your chronological age."

Sherry believes that Jessica needs counseling, not hard time. "Should she be punished for the rest of her life for this mistake?" her mother asks.

Sherry works nights. Jessica's stepfather works the swing shift. Kids -- including the alleged victims -- were left far too much to their own devices.

Jessica's acuity ebbs and flows. She'll reply instantly and lucidly to some questions, then gaze vacantly into the distance without responding to others. Yet she's competent to stand trial, to understand the proceedings, and she knows she's in big trouble.

"I just hope I win the trial," says Jessica. "I shouldn't have to go to jail for something I didn't do."

In a better world, Jessica would get the help she needs. She shouldn't have to go to jail for something she probably did do.

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