Jessica Burlew, a Glendale teenager charged with killing a 43-year-old man she met online, signed a plea bargain this morning after spending the last 594 days in jail. In exchange for a guilty plea, the state will charge her with second-degree murder and recommend a 10-year sentence with no possibility of parole.
It's a compromise that her supporters declare is outrageous: “This isn't justice — this is bullshit,” said one man watching the court proceedings.
As her mother and a few of her local supporters waited patiently in the courtroom for her case to come up, no one knew for sure whether she would take the deal. Many speculated she would, since at a recent status conference prosecutors and her defense team said they had a tentative agreement – second-degree murder charges dropped to manslaughter in exchange for a guilty plea.
Everyone in attendance was shocked when Burlew's lawyer announced that the charges in the final plea deal were once again second-degree murder.
Burlew, who has a long history of mental illness and has been kept in solitary confinement for most of the last 20 months, looked distressed and disoriented as she was brought into the courtroom.
“She doesn't understand what's going on,” her mother, Tracey Woodside, could be heard saying to the woman sitting next to her. “She didn't even know this was happening today. I was the one who told her last night on the phone.”
When the judge asked Burlew to state her name and date of birth, she either refused to do so or didn't understand the directions. Her lawyers took her aside and spoke to her for a few minutes, trying to convince her to talk.
She eventually agreed, and quietly said her name and birthday. From that point on, she only ever said “yes” or “no” to questions the judge asked her about whether she understood the terms of the deal or was coerced into signing.
As New Times documented in a May cover story, "The Deepest Cut," Jessica Burlew has struggled with mental illness since she was five. She's received a variety of diagnoses and spent time in psychiatric wards, special schools, and foster care. At the time of her arrest, she was technically homeless, having run away from a group home months earlier, but she would stop by her mother's apartment occasionally to shower or change her clothes.
On Friday January 17, 2014, she showed up at her mother's Glendale home with Jason Ash, a man she would later tell police was her boyfriend. (Her mother and supporters maintain he was her abuser, taking advantage of the age difference and helping her access meth and heroin.)
Ash stayed late into the night fiddling around on the computer and then, according to Woodside, was in and out of the house all day Saturday.
About 5 p.m., Woodside left the apartment to clean out her truck, and then got a panicked call from Burlew less than 30 minutes later. When Woodside returned to the apartment, she found a bloody Ash laying lifeless on the bed and called the police.
As Burlew would later tell police, Ash, who was into erotic asphyxiation, asked her to choke him, but never said the "safe word" to let her know it was time to stop. When she realized he wasn't breathing, she said she tried cutting him to get him to wake up. (After a few incisions, Burlew, who had a severe self-mutilation addiction, said she continued cutting him to help relieve her own fear and anxiety.)
She was arrested later that night and charged as an adult with second-degree murder.
Burlew's case has attracted the attention of a large group of local activists who call themselves "Free Jessie B.” They diligently go to her court hearings, send her postcards, provide emotional support to Woodside, and try to get the word out about her case and her treatment in jail – Burlew almost always is kept in solitary confinement and does not receive the mental healthcare or specialized education she requires.
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The Free Jessie B. group also has led the charge to change how many, including the media, frame the salacious headline-grabbing nature of Jessica Burlew's story: many have “characterized Jason Ash as Jessica Burlew’s 'boyfriend,' which is inappropriate for a 43 year old man having sex with a teenage girl 27 years younger than him,” the group writes. “The legal age of consent in Arizona is 18 years old [and] Jason Ash was a sexual predator who took advantage of a mentally ill young girl in need of companionship and support.”
From the beginning, her advocates have been wary of any plea deal, noting that it would not “represent actual justice in this case,” and many contend that she hasn't received the legal representation she deserves.
“Burlew is being treated as a threat to the society that completely ignored and failed her as a special needs child, a mentally ill teenage, and the survivor of sexual violence when she was most vulnerable,” Free Jessie B. writes, vowing in a Facebook post to continue fighting for her – “This is not the end of the road for Jessie's case.”
Burlew is scheduled to be sentence on Monday October 5, at 8:30 a.m.