The trial for Jessica Burlew, a 17-year-old autistic and schizophrenic teen charged with second-degree murder, was slated to begin this week but has been pushed back to July 8.
Burlew's case made headlines last year after she was arrested for strangling a 43-year-old man, Jason Ash, during what she says was consensual sex. (Others say the age difference makes consent impossible and instead makes him a sexual predator.)
Before the crime, Burlew, 16 at the time, ran away from a Department of Child Safety home to her mother's house in Glendale. She had spent much of her life shuffled between foster care and group homes because, according to a press release from her jail support group, Free Jessie B, her "psychiatric disabilities were sometimes more than her single mother could handle alone." Despite this, it does appear that the mother-daughter pair remained close over the years.
Photos and YouTube videos of Burlew at the time scream "troubled teen." She wrote dark songs about death, had multiple face piercings, and kept her hair dyed bright colors. She was also a frequent user of online chat forums, which is how she met Ash. He claimed to be in his 20s.
The two bonded over shared musical tastes and hobbies, and at some point the teenager from Glendale and the middle-age man from Phoenix began to meet in person. Ash introduced her to hard drugs, and the two began a relationship many say hinged on an unequal power dynamic.
On January 18, 2014, Burlew's mother says she went out, leaving Ash and her daughter in the home. What happened next, according to Burlew's testimony, was that she and Ash were engaged in consensual BDSM sex, when he asked her to choke him with an electrical cord. He promised her that he would use a "safe word" when it became too much.
Burlew says she doesn't exactly remember what happened next -- those in her support team point out that disassociation is common among schizophrenics in traumatic situations -- but he never uttered the word letting her know it was time to stop. Ash died from the strangling, and Burlew attempted to revive him by making small incisions in his body with a razorblade. She said later that she continued cutting him to relieve her own pain.
When she realized he was dead, she called her mother, who called 911 and immediately came home and tried to revive Ash with CPR until paramedics came. After calling her mother, Burlew fled to a neighbor's house.
Beth Payne, part of Burlew's support team, tells New Times in an e-mail that "Jessie has consistently stated that she had no intent to hurt Jason Ash, that he asked her to wrap the cord around his neck, and that she had no idea he was in so much distress. The crime scene supports that. Jason Ash was a large man, much bigger than Jessie. His body was found laying on the bed as though he went to sleep. There was no sign of a struggle. He could have easily overpowered Jessie if he had tried. He likely lost consciousness before he had a chance to indicate to her that there was a problem. It's a tragic story, but it is not a murder."
Critics say the media sensationalized the story, perpetuating lies, and the tendency to "victim blame" in sexual-assault cases. They wonder if the media did it because ignoring the power dynamic made for a sexier headline, or if they bent the facts because Burlew's long history of mental instability would complicate a salacious story.
Most news outlets reported pieces with headlines like "Goth Arizona teen strangled 43-year-old boyfriend to death during sex," and "43 year-old boyfriend killed by teen during sex games."
Payne is one those people disgusted by the way the media handled the story, furious that no one called the situation what it was: statutory rape. She and others close to the case maintain that Ash was not Burlew's boyfriend but rather her sexual predator.
"Jessie was a mentally impaired child being sexually abused and exploited by Jason Ash, right up until the moment of his death," the support team wrote in a press release. "Jessie is being charged with second-degree murder as an adult. She is facing 17 years to life in an adult prison. There has been no consideration given to her young age, mental illness, or the fact that she was supposed to be safely in state custody at the time that she entered a sexual relationship with a much older man."
Burlew was booked in Estrella Jail -- an adult facility -- and has spent most of the past 14 months in isolation. Her case has languished in pre-trial, and she wasn't deemed mentally competent to stand trial until this past November. Despite much protest, the prosecution maintains that she should be tried as an adult.
"In Arizona, if a 16- or 17-year-old is being charged with murder, they must be tried as an adult. Jessie's case, however, does not necessitate a murder charge. Typically, 2nd degree murder is pursued when someone intended to profoundly hurt or kill someone, but did not premeditate the act. Manslaughter, negligent homicide, etc are usually applied for accidental death and carry much lighter sentences," Payne's e-mail continues.
When asked about Burlew's access to mental healthcare and prescriptions in jail, Payne tells New Times that "while [Burlew] has remained on most of her prescriptions while she has been in jail, her access to mental health care has been inconsistent. She has not had access to a counselor or psychiatrist the entire time, despite the obvious trauma she has experienced and her pre-existing diagnoses of mental illness. She was removed from one of her psychotropic prescriptions cold turkey about a week before her pre-trial and has reported that she has had dramatic mood swings since. It has been very difficult for advocates [to learn much about] the conditions of her confinement or her access to mental health, and attempts to reach out to the healthcare service provider within the Maricopa County Jails have been largely ignored by them."
A staff attorney from the ACLU of Arizona, Darrell Hill, writes to New Times that "the conditions of Jessica's confinement are deplorable for any juvenile, but they are particularly horrible in Jessica's case because of her extensive history of mental illness. No juvenile pre-trial detainee should be confined to a cell for up to 23 hours a day, denied proper medical and mental health care, or be subjected to contact with convicted adults. Maricopa County must provide better care to juveniles in their custody."
Burlew's mother, Tracey Woodside, was in a serious car accident in November and has been unable to visit her daughter in jail. Since the two have only communicated by letter since the accident, Burlew was not expecting her mother to be present at the most recent pre-trial hearing last week.
"When she saw Tracey in the audience, her face lit up and then she spent several minutes blinking back tears," writes Payne, who was also present at the conference.
Burlew has one more pre-trial conference scheduled for June 24, exactly two weeks before her trial begins.
"The responsibility of the state in this case should be to address the extreme failures of the Department of Child Services, not to hide Jessie away in the prison system as though she is a mistake," her support team writes. "County Attorney Bill Montgomery has the power to offer Jessie Burlew a plea to a lesser charge and time served. A guilty plea would not represent actual justice in this case, but it could put an immediate end to the nightmare Jessie has faced as a mentally ill teenager in adult prison."
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