By Charlie Asher  

“ Every client I have had experienced this pivotal moment,
where an institution that was meant to protect and care for him,
broke him in a way that he could not come back from. 
What did we think was going to happen when
this kind of violation occurs to a child?”   

Elizabeth Vartkessian
Ex. Dir., Advancing Real Change

 

The Defense Map Project is dedicated to Cindy White (born Sarah Isabel White), one of the most courageous and deserving client it’s ever been my privilege to represent. 

Years after her 1976 murder convictions for a fire that unintentionally took six lives, Cindy White came to my attention via a call and visit from then-Indiana Parole Board member Richard “Dick” Doyle.  “It’s maybe the most unfair sentence you could ever imagine,” was Dick’s opening summary.

I had to conclude Dick was right.  Without some legal miracle (it’s never come), Cindy would live out her life in prison for an act of desperation where the State never proved, nor even alleged, she’d intended to hurt anyone.  And her attorney never uncovered that Cindy’s sole motivation was to cause the smoke damage she thought would lead to her escape from over 10 years of harrowing sexual victimization.

A fuller summary of the facts developed at trial and at the post-conviction proceedings is found in Cindy’s Clemency Submission for Cindy White

But even a few of the devastating facts are enough to capture some of Cindy’s helplessness when as a chronically abused teen in December 1975 Cindy set a fire for the sole purpose of escape from predatory sexual abuse.

  1. Ten years of predatory sexual and physical victimization, first by two family members and then by a couple who posed as Cindy’s protectors.
  2. The complete failure of Cindy’s mother to protect her from the sexual victimization in her family of origin—and instead insistence that she remain quiet.
  3. Two suicide attempts made to try to escape this hell.
  4. Almost a year of confinement at a psychiatric hospital in response to a conversion reaction—actual paralysis due to these ongoing traumas with no ability to talk about them.
  5. The psychiatric physicians’ and nurses’ failure to ever inquire about the possibility of sexual victimization.
  6. Defense counsel’s and the legal process’s failure to account for the nude photographs of Cindy kept by her abusers in their family photo album and personal wallet.

No one even remotely sensitive to the plight of such a profoundly damaged and resource-deprived teen would have the temerity to deny one thing: Cindy did the best she could.  She made a decision that made sense in the world that was forced upon her—and with no intent to harm anyone.  Never imagining people would be killed or injured, Cindy set a fire she thought would make enough smoke to render this home (the site of her ongoing victimization) uninhabitable. 

Neither before nor after the tragic fire has Cindy ever acted aggressively or dangerously toward anyone.  Yet because of a pre-1979 quirk in Indiana sentencing law disallowing parole for anyone with more than one life sentence, Cindy can never be paroled.  (Had this fire been set a few years later, Cindy would likely have been released in less than 20 years.)

For all the failures from adults in her life, Cindy suffered one more deficit.  There was no tool like a Defense Map that could have allowed her to privately and patiently reveal the truth behind the bizarre appearance in the family’s photo album and personal wallet.  Behind the earlier conversion reaction rendering her actually paralyzed.  Behind the year of psychiatric hospitalization. 

Behind it all.

For all the ways adults have failed Cindy (adults in her family, in her medical care, and in the legal system), she herself has led a wonderfully praiseworthy life.  She’s found meaning in helping fellow inmates in distress, in guiding new inmates in living honorably and growing well, and in encouraging others to do their best.  

And at my request, she’s given us permission to dedicate the Defense Map Project to her. 

Because hurt, desperate, and shut down people—whatever they’ve been accused of—deserve the chance to have their real stories understood.  And society deserves the protection of those revelations as well.