Jessica Burlew, a Glendale teen accused of killing 43-year-old Jason Ash during a sex act gone wrong, was sentenced to 10 years in state prison today.
Burlew had accepted the state's plea bargain last month — pleading guilty to second-degree murder in exchange for a 10-year sentence — and today, Judge Scott McCoy reviewed the mitigating factors put forward by the defense and agreed to the terms of the deal.
"I know there's been a great deal of debate about this case, but today is not the day for debate," McCoy said before reading his sentencing decision. "Despite the very unusual circumstances of this case . . . there are a considerable amount of mitigating [factors], so much so that it justifies reducing the sentence down to 10 years." (A second-degree murder charge can bring up to 25 years in prison.)
McCoy gave Burlew credit for the 644 days she's already served in a Maricopa County jail and reminded her that she has 90 days to file a petition for post-conviction relief should she believe there was an error in the way her case was handled.
Overall, it was an emotion-filled final day in court for what has been a complicated and often controversial situation:
In January 2014, Burlew — who was 16 at the time — told police that she accidentally strangled Ash, the older man she met online and had been involved with sexually, after he asked her to choke him. She said she didn't stop because he never said the "safe word."
As New Times detailed in the May cover story, The Deepest Cut, when Burlew realized that Ash was non-responsive, she cut his body with a razor blade in what she says was an attempt to revive him. According to the police report, she later clarified that the first cut “was an attempt to get a reaction to see if he was still alive or if he would wake up,” and that the subsequent ones were to “get things clear in her mind.”
Burlew then called her mother, Tracey Woodside, who was nearby cleaning her vehicle. Woodside rushed back to the apartment, saw Ash's body, and immediately dialed 911. By the time police arrived, Burlew had fled the scene. She came back hours later and was arrested and charged with second-degree murder.
In the time since Burlew's arrest — most of which has been spent in solitary confinement — her case has inspired a great deal of controversy. She has a strong and vocal group of supporters in the group Free Jessie B., who are furious about the way her case has been handled.
Burlew's advocates also maintain that she, not Ash, is the true victim in the situation. They point to the age difference, the fact that she was not of legal age to consent to sex, and that Ash helped her access drugs — mostly heroin and meth— as proof that Ash was a sexual predator. And they point to her mental-health issues, self-mutilation, and the myriad ways the state's social safety nets failed Burlew as proof that Ash would still be alive if she had been cared for properly.
In speaking to the judge this morning, Marcia Ash, Jason's mother, acknowledged that both her son and Burlew are "victims" in this situation — Jason because he "died in such a horrible way" and Burlew because "she fell through the cracks [of society]" — but stated boldly that while her son "wasn't perfect and didn't always make the best choices . . . he was not a pedophile or a sexual predator."
Marcia Ash went on to say that while strangling someone could be construed as an accident, the type of "unimaginatively horrific post-mortem mutilation" Burlew inflicted on her son's body could not — and she placed much of the blame on Burlew's mother, Tracey Woodside, who also was in the courtroom.
Woodside, who declined to comment for this article, watched the sentencing from the back of the room, rarely taking her eyes off of her daughter. She decided not to make a speech in front of the judge but could be seen wringing her hands, the same way her daughter sometimes does, as both Marcia Ash and prosecutor Jay Rademacher spoke.
"The state acknowledges the substantial mitigating factors: her upbringing, her mental-health problems, the drugs . . . However, there other other factors to consider," Rademacher said. "The defendant was engaged in adult activities, and she needs to face adult consequences."
He also disputed the notion that Jason Ash was any sort of sexual predator: "If you look at the texts [between Ash and Burlew], they don't paint a picture of a child molester . . . Jason seemed like a little puppy dog that would do anything for Jessica."
At this comment, Woodside and her friend sitting next to her exchanged frustrated glances.
"I understand the age of consent, but this defendant lied about her age [and] she initiated a lot of the drugs, mutilation, and sex [in the videos retrieved from her cell phone]," Rademacher added. He ended his remarks by calling the situation a "recipe for disaster" and saying, "This wasn't an accident, because at the end of the day, Jessica was holding the cord around his neck, and she killed him."
Ashely Meyer, Burlew's public defender, spoke next. She called the plea bargain the "final and best plea offer" and listed seven mitigating factors she wanted the judge to consider before sentencing Burlew:
1. That Burlew was only 16.
2. That she has no prior felonies on her record.
3.That she didn't have the capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of her actions because of the drugs he gave her.
4. That she has an extensive history of substance abuse.
5. That she has significant mental-health issues and had a dysfunctional childhood.
6. That the slaying was not premeditated and was, in fact, the result of a consensual act.
7. That the relationship between Burlew and Ash was completely inappropriate.
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"He was 43, she was 16," Meyer said. "Both are victims of different crimes."
Before announcing his sentencing decision, McCoy gave Burlew a chance to speak:
"He also lied about his age," she replied. "He said he was 26 on the internet site where we met, then he said he was 28. He kept saying he was 28, and I believed it."
While at her last court hearing, Burlew looked disorientated and upset, today she appeared calmer. As the court bailiff led her out of the courtroom, she looked back over her left shoulder and gave her mother a little smile.
Woodside, who had tears in her eyes at this point, continued to stare at the tall wooden door of the courtroom long after her daughter was out of sight.