Sentenced to life for burglary, woman gets second chance
WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) — Charlese Smith could only dream of getting another chance.
When Smith was sentenced to life in prison at age 23 for burglarizing a home multiple times in a heroin addiction-fueled spree, the courts labeled her a habitual offender.
She was sentenced to life in prison for stealing essentially $30 worth of property.
But on Tuesday, after serving 15 years, four months and four days, she walked out of New Castle Courthouse with the knowledge that she will soon be free.
“I can’t wait to go home,” Smith told Superior Court Judge Abigail LeGrow, her voice growing thick with emotion. “I am ready. I’m prepared. I’m willing. And I’m dedicated to becoming a productive member of society.”
Just one month shy of her 41st birthday, Smith’s life sentence was modified under new legislation to roll back the far-reaching effects of Delaware’s “three strikes and you’re out” law that mandated offenders with three violent felonies serve mandatory life terms.
In Delaware, that put at least 667 people behind bars for not only murder and assault, but burglaries, robberies and drug offenses. Seventy-four of those people were sentenced to life in prison, including Smith.
On Tuesday, Smith went before a judge to ask for a sentence modification for her second-degree burglary conviction. The state Attorney General’s Office did not oppose her petition to be released from prison, which means that after she undergoes processing — likely Tuesday afternoon or Wednesday morning — she will be released from James T. Vaughn Correctional Center.
“This is the only case I’ve had where a person was sentenced to life in prison and didn’t kill someone,” said Smith’s attorney, Kathryn van Amerongen.
During the hearing Tuesday morning, van Amerongen recounted the day Smith was found guilty of the burglary charge, a day that the attorney called the worst of her legal career. Even then, van Amerongen said, the life sentence for such a young person didn’t seem to fit the crime, and she found the case difficult to shake.
“This has been more important to me than a lot of things,” van Amerongen admitted after the hearing, adding that she had barely slept the night before.
At 23, Smith was put behind bars for crimes driven by a heroin addiction. Over the years, the addiction grew worse, prompting Charlese — who then went by her birth name of Charles Smith — to steal from neighbors.
When she was caught by police, Charlese ran from the cops for 17 blocks wearing stiletto boots and silicone breast inserts, she told The News Journal in 2016. Smith, who is transgender, later changed her name in prison and now identifies as a woman.
She began hormone therapy last year inside James T. Vaughn Correctional Center to complete her transition.
None of those details changed the fact that Smith was sentenced to life in prison under the three-strikes laws, which she talked to The News Journal about when state Attorney General Matt Denn’s office began discussing an amendment to the law.
“I don’t think I deserve the same sentence as someone who has raped an individual or murdered an individual,” she said during a 2015 interview in prison. “I understand I have broken someone’s peace in their home and violated their space, but I didn’t take a life.”
Denn — and Delaware lawmakers — agreed.
Now, the state is in the process of reviewing cases under the habitual offender statute that may be eligible for resentencing. Initially, drug cases were to be reviewed first, followed by property crimes and eventually more violent offenses in which a person was injured.
But a change to the law allowed cases like Smith’s to be heard sooner if both the state prosecutor’s office and the defense attorney agreed.
Including Smith’s, 11 sentences have been reviewed and modified through petitions under the amended statute.
“You want to see justice done and the right thing happen,” Denn said after the hearing Tuesday. “And in some of these cases, that wasn’t the case. So it’s important to go back and have the opportunity to make it right.”
Family and friends who showed up in support of Smith felt similarly, calling it a day they awaited for too long. But one important person was missing among the pews — Smith’s mother.
She died in June after years of hoping her daughter might make it out of prison.
“I’m sorry,” Smith told the courtroom, pausing to swallow her tears. “She fought for 17 years to get me out of jail. She was so proud of me.”
Tears rolled down the face of Smith’s aunt, Rose Moore, who cared for Smith’s mother in the past few years and now will take in Charlese when she is released from prison. The court recommended Smith be under home confinement for part of her step-down from incarceration at Vaughn, which Smith hopes to spend with Moore.
Smith — who got sober, graduated high school and became a skilled hairdresser while in prison — has big dreams.
She plans to work in landscaping until she can afford cosmetology school. She wants to start a family and have children someday. She intends to stay sober.
“I want to show young trans that they can make it,” she said. “I’m ready.”
Information from: The News Journal of Wilmington, Del., http://www.delawareonline.com