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Waiting to Die: A Tale of Modern American Justice

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PRISON JUSTICE
AP

This is a love story about a quadriplegic woman named Sarah and a heroin addict named Rick.

It begins on a sunny afternoon in 1968, when a Ford Mustang GT Fastback, heading to Muir Woods in California, slipped across the yellow line and into oncoming traffic.

There is a very brief pause -- and then it happens.

It's possible that the sun listing over the Pacific and bending the day's light might have blinded the driver's view of the oncoming car. We'll never know for sure: memories spilled like blood and the Mustang was too mangled to provide clues. Sarah Wallace was in the passenger seat.

All she remembers from the incident is that seven days later she awoke in a hospital bed unable to move her arms or feet. She was only 18 years old -- a freshman at Harvey Mudd College.

"The driver broke both his legs," she said. "The only bone I broke was in my neck."

Time had stopped. Life had happened. At first, she said, "there's always hope that your nerves will reconnect." Hers never did. Instead, Sarah built a new life.

She got a degree in software engineering followed by a job at IBM. And, slowly, she settled into a stable new routine. That is, of course, until she met Rick.

Rick's biological mother had put him up for adoption at birth and his stepmother died of cancer when he was 11. His stepfather, a traveling salesman, wasn't around much. The boy also struggled with dyslexia.

He dropped out of high school and landed in auto mechanics, liquor and then the Army, which sent him to Germany to keep an eye on the Soviets.

It was there that Rick first put heroin into his veins and felt the pain melting. "Things just kind of spiraled out of control after that," Sarah told me.

Heroin became a part of Rick. In 1980, it played a crucial role in his decision to pick up a sawed-off shotgun and, on three separate occasions, scare people into giving him money.

In turn, it played a crucial role in the four years he got at the Correctional Training Facility -- a prison just outside of Soledad.

Finally, in 1984, it played a crucial role in his decision to write a letter to a church in San Jose looking for a pen pal to help him stay clean after his release. Sarah just happened to read that letter. Eight years later, they were married.

Unfortunately, heroin is not an easy addiction to kick. And it continued to consume Rick. "At one point, he couldn't comprehend that I could love him as much as I did," Sarah said. "He felt like he didn't deserve it."

Nonetheless, she stuck with him and he with her. Rick helped Sarah with meals. He wrapped her in blankets. He carried her to her wheelchair and stayed near through the night.

They did what all couples do -- they leaned on each other and loved one another.

"There was a big old duck pond at the IBM plant in San Jose," Sarah said. "We would go there on the weekends and we'd take our duck food and we'd feed the ducks. It was just so much fun to watch them come waddling out of the water with their little babies and stuff. They were just so cute.

"Do you want to see his picture?" she asked.

2011-05-19-gregandsusan.jpg
A photo of Rick and Sarah from their mantelpiece

In 1995, Rick had a bad relapse. Heroin drove him to digging through trashcans for things to sell.

In a trashcan that he found a stranger's credit card information, which he used to purchase $795 worth of stuff over the phone, landing him back before a judge.

Rick's conviction came just after California passed the Three Strikes Law, a controversial initiative aimed at keeping criminals that commit multiple felonies behind bars.

In practice, however, Three Strikes doesn't just place severe penalties on repeat violent offenders. It places them on any citizen that commits any second or third felony, assuming their first offense was violent.

"Rick faced two convictions," Sarah said, "one for use of a credit card, the other for possession of other peoples credit card information."

A judge deemed Rick's crime a "third strike". He received the mandatory sentence of 50 years to life in prison.

He was 39 years old and "he'll probably die in prison," Sarah said.

So for the second time in her life, she had to start over. Today Sarah lives confined to a bed in her house. I visited her there in March.

"Just knock and let yourself in."

In the back corner of a spacious living room there sits a bed surrounded by memories of a frozen marriage. In it lies Sarah, alone, like she has been since 1995.

She'll be 61 this year. I touched her hand. We talked.

"The most expensive thing is just having to pay someone to be here," she said. Without Rick, home health care costs her $80,000 a year. "I've got a pension plan and my IRA but I'm going through that really fast."

Harder still is the lack of emotional support. Sure, attendants come by three times a day to help her with meals and bathing, "but it's not the same," she said. "They're here because I pay them to be here."

Rick recently received his GED in prison. Now he's taking college classes in marketing. "I feel like I've got a future," he recently told Sarah.

And Sarah, too, is hopeful. In the face of our economic downturn, many organizations are pushing for reform of Three Strikes.

For her part, Sarah wants Rick home for a lot of reasons. She wants him home so she doesn't need to hire strangers to hold sandwiches in front of her mouth. She wants him home for the money he'll bring in. But, most of all, she wants him home because she wants to end the silence, she wants to see him smile, she wants to walk through the last years of her life with the man who fed ducks with her by the pond -- the only man she's ever loved.

Our interview ended. And as I packed up, I felt a weird sense of guilt. "I just don't want to die alone," Sarah had told me.

But what could I do? I helped her fix her blankets. Then I grabbed my things and I left.

Rick and Sarah are pseudonyms to protect the real people involved in this story.

Around the Web

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT / Politics of 'three strikes' law

Prison reform - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

PRISON 'JUSTICE' - NYPOST.com

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Three Strikes - 60 Minutes - CBS News

The California Criminal Law Observer: The Three "Strikes and You ...

Are Three-Strikes Laws Fair and Effective?