Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Janet Danahey Deserves Special Consideration for Clemency

Janet Danahey, N.C. Department of Correction
Photo Caption

by Diane Dimond

Any parent would agree that young people can do impulsive and thoughtless things.

But what if one of their stupidly spontaneous acts accidently turns deadly? Should society give that young person special consideration? Should it depend on the kid’s past good or bad character? Should the justice system treat them the same as career criminals?

The case that caused these questions to pop into my mind comes from Greensboro, North Carolina, and involves a young woman named Janet Danahey. It doesn’t take much imagination to see that what happened to Janet could happen to any one of our kids.

It was Valentine’s Day 2002, and since Janet and her boyfriend, Thad, had recently (and amicably) broken up, the then-23 year old got together with two girlfriends that night to play cards and drink some wine.

Their circle of friends was always playing pranks on each other and this night the three girls – Janet, Nicole and Adrianne – schemed about what kind of trick they could pull on Thad. They decided to sabotage his car and visited a grocery store looking for fish oil or something smelly to pour into the young man’s fresh air vent. They bought a bottle of clam juice and headed to Thad’s apartment building. When they discovered his car wasn’t there Janet grabbed charcoal lighter fluid and set a small fire atop an old futon outside Thad’s door. They could hear people inside the apartment and the idea was to knock and run leaving Thad’s roommates to stamp out the flames.

The night was windy and the fire soon engulfed the apartment building. Four people were killed – sisters, Rachel and Donna Llewellyn, ages 21 and 24; Ryan Bek, 25; and Elizabeth Harris, 20.

Janet never stopped to think what heartache would result from that childish and senseless act.

Janet admitted to police and to the father of Elizabeth Harris that she had set the fire and begged for forgiveness. But she was soon faced with the cold reality of North Carolina’s felony murder statute which dozens of other states also have on the books. Under the felony murder rule if anyone is killed during the commission of a felony (in this case – arson) the perpetrator of the felony can be charged with murder and sentenced to death. It holds even if the victim’s death was an accident.

Janet had to choose between pleading guilty and receiving life in prison with no chance of parole or going to trial where, if found guilty, she would automatically get the death penalty. She pleaded guilty. (The felony murder rule is applied differently depending on the jurisdiction, but, generally speaking, the underlying felony must present a “foreseeable danger to life.” In some cases, accomplices can also face the ultimate penalty too – if they exhibited “extreme indifference to human life” – but in Janet’s case, her two girlfriends never spoke to her again and were not charged. Janet assumed full responsibility.)

As you ponder this tragedy realize that before this happened Janet had been an exemplary child. As a high school student she was described as “sweet, responsible, and very respectful.” Janet had won the Girl Scouts top award, was active in several clubs including the Young Christian Society. She played the viola, carried the Olympic torch during part of the run to Atlanta’s 1996 Summer Olympic Games and she made the dean’s list in college. None of this, of course, absolves her of blame but the record shows Janet Danahey made one awful decision on one horrific night.

On the other hand, as prosecutors rightfully pointed out in court Janet was an intelligent college graduate – a woman who should have known that using an accelerant and setting a fire on a windy night could result in catastrophic damage. And, the state maintained, Janet and her friends exhibited complete indifference by leaving the scene without making sure the fire was actually put out.

Now, 10 years later, Janet’s lawyers note that she has been a model prisoner and they have filed a petition for clemency with the outgoing governor to have her sentence reduced to time served. The attorneys call what happened on that February night, “A joke … A foolish prank. A thoughtless act, but with no malicious intent.” They have asked for an adjustment: “To a sentence that is out of all proportion to the conduct involved.”

One of Janet’s most visible supporters is Elizabeth Harris’s father, Robert, who said he forgave Janet years ago. His words are part of the clemency petition:
I still picture Janet, standing with outreached hands, handcuffed, trembling, shaking almost violently, crying intensely, speaking almost incoherently, ‘These are the hands that are responsible for Beth’s death.’ My reactions were instinctive. I went over to her, held her tightly … (and) whispered …‘I forgive you, Janet’ several times.
At this writing there have been no comments from other victim’s family members so there is no way to know if they will challenge the clemency request.

As one North Carolina newspaper pal wrote me recently, “Two-and-a-half years per life doesn’t seem like much punishment for a deliberate act of arson that went bad.”

I guess I agree with that but I have this nagging feeling that our felony murder laws should be adjusted for people like Janet. I think only career criminals should get life in prison with no chance at parole.

10 comments:

Queen Mary said...

I strongly disagree on the facts as presented. She was 23 years old, an adult; she made a gravely bad decision. She could have stayed around to make sure the fire was put out. This is definitely not the same as a 14 year old making a stupid decision.

Queen Mary said...

I will add however, that I think life without the possibility of parole is arbitrary and capricious, as are most sentencing requirements.

Anonymous said...

A bad situation all the way around. NC is one of the harshest states for anyone who disobeys the laws there. It is a very no-nonsense place where even simple traffic violations are met with a heavy hand.

Anonymous said...

Bad situation and decision indeed. However as a joke I would not have thought to start a fire. LIke a teacher said to me "You have the think of the consequences.."

rob said...

I agree, this was not a child. Maybe the families of all 4 victims should be asked 'is 10 years enough". I don't know how I would feel if I were in there shoes.

Sandy said...

I think if Janet has demonstrated her ability to be a contributing member of society, has learned the lesson of thinking through her actions, then clemency is an appropriate solution. If I had lost a child under these circumstances, it would be hard to see that only one of the girls involved suffered any consequences when obviously the others were equally involved.

FredRick said...

Sometimes there is no harsher punishment than having to live with doing something so horrific. Esp. when it was not intended. I don't have a problem with her release if the parents don't have a problem with it. How they feel about it should weigh heavily in this. That one parent is forgiving is a blessing for her. But there are two more families who will be affected by this. It is always sad when death is completely avoidable.

safety consultancy service said...

its really very bad to hear this story but any how i like the way you written your post ...keep it up good job !!

A Voice of Sanity said...

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/story/2012/10/04/bc-laura-szendrei-guilty-plea.html

Someone like this who went out looking for someone to kill before he turned 18 is far more dangerous than someone who made such a poor decision. He will remain a danger all of his life and yet may only serve 7 years.

Note this: "Crown says they also found a device which they described as disturbing — a kind of home-made choking device made from plastic zap-straps."

Anonymous said...

We as part of society must consider the consequences before we act. While she may consider this just a "foolish" prank and has had time to reconsider those killed that night do not have the opportunity to "redo" what they would have or could have done in that situation. I happen to have known one of the victims and a light went out and we as a society lost when her life was cut short.