Happy Mothers’ Day, Poor Little Thérèse

How could I – a mother of two with a 10-year drug problem – be facing a life sentence for something stupid I did at the local Rite Aid store?

I tried to steal deodorant and toothpaste and got caught. I’d been in that same store over a year earlier, and they let me go when I tried to take something. I was wearing a different jacket, not like the mans’ jacket I had from my boyfriend this time. This jacket had a needle in the pocket. I used the needle earlier that day and had hoped to get high with him later that night. How was I supposed to know I’d poke myself with it when getting arrested?

Yeah, stupid me. I had my hand in my pocket where I kept the syringe when the store clerk – some overweight geek wearing glasses and smelling too much of Old Spice after shave – grabbed me from behind and yanked me by my hair. He lied at the preliminary hearing, saying he grabbed me by the arm. No, he pulled me by my hair and I almost left my feet as my whole head got yanked toward his fat and oily face.

I barely had time to stay on my feet and try to find my balance when I pulled my hand from my pocket. The exposed needle had punctured the web of my hand. You know, that spot between the base of the thumb and the index finger. I don’t know how I did it, but I got it out of my skin with just the one hand and was able to hold it in the palm of my hand as I turned and swung my arm to protect myself while also trying to steady myself.

Once again, the clerk lied about what happened. He said I was trying to stab him with the needle. How could I? He was like two feet away from me and I couldn’t get close enough to him once I got out of his grasp and swung around. The manager was right there, standing in front of me, holding me as I bumped into him. He had circled around the aisle I had last walked, pinning me between himself and the clerk. He saw how far away I was from the geek. Yet he kept his mouth shut when the judge held me on the charge of attempted murder.

Little ole me. One hundred pounds soaking wet in my 4-foot, 10-inch frame. Held for trying to kill the geek, a 200-pound gorilla who nearly decapitated me when he pulled me from behind.

They said I had hepatitis B and that I was trying to spread it to him with the point of the needle. I once had Hepatitis B, but not anymore. The test they did at the Philadelphia Prison was a false positive. I could prove it if I could find the name of the doctor or nurse or whomever it was that told me of the results. All the DA (district attorney) had in her file was the first report which she read to the judge with no challenge by my court-appointed lawyer, not that he knew anything about it. I never told him until now.

But even if we could get the charge thrown out, my lawyer said I’d still be facing what they call a mandatory minimum sentence of 25-years-to-life. Twenty-five years-to-life! Can you imagine what that means? You have a better chance of becoming canonized than you do of getting out of prison alive when you’re sentenced at my age, 39. I’d be 64 by the time I’m freed from jail. Sixty-four. Remember the song, “When I’m 64?” “Will you still be sending me a valentine, birthday greetings, bottle of wine?” You wouldn’t have to send me a thing. I’d be long dead by then.

My mother died at 54; my father, of whom I met only once, never made it to age 40. Both were alcoholics. I got their genes and going to jail for 25 years would be like imposing a death sentence on me.

(For anyone wanting more information or a way to help Thérèse, please contact decarceratepa.info. Otherwise, leave a comment whether you like or dislike the mandatory-minimum laws of Pennsylvania.)

You see, I’m what you call a “repeat offender.” someone who has repeated the same crimes over and over. The crimes started out as misdemeanors, but soon got to be felonies, the more serious offenses that carried much stiffer sentences.

I got arrested for drugs and shoplifting. That’s it. One time I got caught selling reefer. I had some crack on me and got initially charged with sale of both marijuana and crack, even though I never sold a lick of crack ever. I’d take a lie detector test to prove it, too, but my lawyer was able to get the crack charge thrown out!

It’s the shoplifting that did me in, said my lawyer. Here in Pennsylvania, they have a law which makes shoplifting a serious offense. The first time, they only charge you with a summary offense. That’s like spitting on the sidewalk, they say, but I never heard of anyone being charged for it. I guess it’s on the books, though.

A second offense will get you a misdemeanor charge. Now, that’s more serious than a summary offense. Both are called by the legal name of “retail thefts.” (“Retail theft” — I thought that applied to the type of store a shoplifter would frequent, like a department store where they sold things at a retail price.)

Remember Woolworths? That’s where I first took something. I was about 7 or 8 and the woman who caught me grilled me, wanting to know where I went to school and who my second-grade teacher was. I told her everything. “Sister Josephine Francis wouldn’t like to hear one of her students was stealing, would she?” the clerk asked me, my head pointed to the old wooden polished floors, afraid to look up and make any type of eye contact.

Guilty. I’m guilty as sin, I thought. Worse yet, I got caught being guilty as sin and that sin is about to be made public. They’re going to tell my teacher and I will go to hell. Not right away, but I’d be on the path to hell, just as sure as I was on the path to receiving my first Holy communion, if I could ever turn back the clock and never, never again take something that didn’t belong to me.

Please God. Please Jesus. Help me! I’m scared. I’m afraid!

The lady, a tall, thin woman with dark brown hair pulled back with a small beret at the top, stood in front of me for what seemed like hours, but was only a few seconds. I thought I would die in her presence. If there was hole in the floor of Woolworth’s I’d jump right in and dig my way all the way to China.

“Promise me you won’t do this again,” I heard the woman say. Her voice sounded so very far away, as if she was in another room and was speaking to me through some sort of chamber. I didn’t comprehend what she was saying at first. But, then I said, “I promise.” I said it with all the heart-filled sincerity I could muster from the very bottom of wherever truth and goodness resided in side of me at the time.

I don’t know if I cried. I might have. I don’t remember tears in my eyes, as the woman told me to turn around and leave the store. She said she wouldn’t report me this time, but if she heard from anyone that I took something again, she’d let the nuns know right away.

I left and did not break the Seventh commandment, “Thou Shalt Not Steal,” until my second daughter was born and by then the father of my children got me hooked on drugs. I’d forgotten what happened to me in Woolworth’s until just now. It never came up those times I was shoplifting the past 15 years.

* * * * * * * *

I done wrong by my kids, but they’re better off without a mother like me for now. If I can ever get into one of those long-term treatment programs with long-term follow-up in a woman’s halfway house, I might be able to control my problem, and get back to being a real mother for them. I know I can do it. I feel that I got God’s help now, and, somehow, that will make all the difference.

But under the Three Strikes and You’re Out Law, I’m facing the maximum sentence. Yeah, you read that right. The mandatory minimum of 25-year-to-life is both a minimum and a maximum for me. Twenty-five years is a maximum to anyone who must give up all those years to pay for his or her crime. Look at it this way. Twenty-five years is eight years short of the life-span of Jesus Christ. Twenty-five years is more than half the life-span of St. Francis of Assisi who died at age 45.

And, it’s more than the entire life-span of the one they call the “Little Flower,” the Catholic saint I was named for, Thérèse of Lisieux, who was acclaimed as “the greatest saint of modern times.” She did the little things in life that made her what she became, a saint who died when she was only 24-years old. All I did was “little things” in my life; never did anything really bad, like commit murder or some other  mortal sin or anything like that, you know.

Twenty-five years for a tube of toothpaste and an Arrid roll-on antiperspirant.

Jeez. What’s the world coming to?

(This is an excerpt from a forthcoming book, “Ithaca Incites Mystical Insights” by Contoveros)

13 comments on “Happy Mothers’ Day, Poor Little Thérèse

  1. Lea Strongheart says:

    Don’t we all do stupid things? I think anyone in a moment of panic or low conciousness is capable of doing just about anything, and if you think you could never commit a sin or an act of violence, it is an illusion. It does not mean you are necessarily a horrible person destined to a life of pain and failure.


    • contoveros says:

      Stupid is the right word for it.

      Think of all the stupid things I’ve done. In your presence!

      (Let’s keep that between ourselves, Lea. The Statute of Limitations has to run a couple more years before I could escape the long arm of the law for a few things I tried to cause to happen at Omega Institute. It would be a crime to bust me now!)

      Education is the best hope we have for our failings. Most sins are done out of gnorance. Not stupidity, but simply out of ignoring other possible options, many of which we’re not even aware of at the time we feel we must decide on a course of action.

      Wouldn’t it be great if we could go back in time and provide our younger selves with the wisdom it took us all those years to finally accumulate? We’d see there were so many options to choose from, had we simply had our selves as guardian angels to offer advice.


  2. Lea Strongheart says:

    Dear Michael,
    I would have loved to come but was unable. I hope your paths cross again. I am in need of prayers and blessings. By the way…you are still such a caring public servant.


    • contoveros says:

      Gosh . . . I bet you ay that to all the young veterans you meet!

      Thanks Lea, you’re a good ambassador for all that is kind and compassionate in the world, too. We really don’t seek any thing in return, do we? I guess I simply would like others to try to be kind and considerate too. That would be pay-back for any good I might do as a servant, no matter how small.

      michael j


  3. Lea Strongheart says:

    The whole thing makes me want to cry or vomit..can’t decide which.


    • contoveros says:

      Cry, Cry, Cry.

      Weeping can help cleanse and purify. The other alternative — well it does help one purge one self — but I think we all need a good cry to get us back on track.

      Good to see you, Lea. I just got back from my fourth retreat for veterans at Omega Institute, and this was a tough one. I did not have you to help get me through by breaking our vow of silence and kidding just like we were kids again.

      See you soon, i hope!


      • contoveros says:

        Post Script: I plan to support Allyson Scwartz for governor of Pennsylvania.

        I worked with her brother, Michael Schwartz, and he disliked the mandatory minimum sentence laws as much as I did when we both served as public defenders in Philadelphia.

        Michael will have his sister’s ear and can insure she understands the plight of people like Therese. We need no more new jails, just a new look at how we jail people!

        Vote for Allyson



  4. She needs help – not prison time.

    On another note… I’m happy to see you again. I’ve missed your blogs.


    • contoveros says:

      I’m happy to be here, Darlene, and i agree you. Therese needs help — not prison time.

      Here’s a thought: place Therese in a long-term in-patient program, followed by a long-term stay at a home for women receovering from their afflictions.

      Next, insure that she is appointed a mentor, someone who would be there for her for a period of long-term probation. Pay this mentor transportation costs as well as the costs for her and Therese to receive on-going instructions and structured classes. Fashion them like the professional “continuing legal education” programs that lawyers must attend in order to continue their practice.

      It would be a lot cheaper in the long run to help Therese stay on her feet rather than force her to stay in prison at a cost of, oh, I don’t know, maybe $50,000 a year, according to some estimates.

      Thanks my blogging friend. See you around!


  5. Ed says:

    I feel bad for Therese and her kids. Her story was a lot about being wronged by others. If it wasn’t for her addiction, all of this would not have happened. Being in recovery, it is important to take responsibility for my own behavior. If I don’t shoplift, I won’t get roughed. If I don’t pick up, I won’t be addicted. It sounds like the judge is way off with the attempted murder charge. I hope she gets the legal help necessary and the help she needs so she won’t want a needle in her pocket again


    • contoveros says:

      Therese has no one to blame but herself, and she’d be the first one to admit it. I believe she’s taken the first step toward a life of sobriety, by realizing that one, “I’m hooked”; and secondly, that “I’ll always fall prey to what ever the poison was that enticed me to use to begin with.”

      However, I also believe Therese will learn to live with her demons if she can find the right teacher, the right books, and as important, the right set of like-minded friends to support her through her trying times, now and the rest of her life.

      The Twelve Steps sound good to me. So does the Buddhist study of “afflicted emotions,” something I’m studying to keep my addiction in place. Yeah, PTSD is something I’ll always have and the rage will be there, just slightly below the surface ready to spring upward whenever I “fall off the wagon.”

      I’ve found a good teacher: I’m reading the “good book” as well as teachings called the “dharma”; and I meet with a group of kind and loyal friends called my “sangha” who help me get through the tough times, just as I – in my humble and meager way – try to help and alleviate their suffering with a smile, a joke, and a kind word like you just seemed to offer at this website.

      Thank you, Ed. I feel that “you’ve been there” and “”done that” and can offer all of us a great deal of your wisdom!

      michael j


  6. Beechmount says:


    Long time no hear—-

    I don’t think there should be a mandatory sentence for any crime. Each criminal case should be judged by its seriousnes and the circumstances. The jails wouldn’t be filled with people whose only crime was smoking a joint, steeling a chocolate bar, shooting up something- or perhaps just being mentally challenged.



    • contoveros says:

      I wish you were the judge. Along with the powers judges used to have before the mandatory minimum sentence laws.

      Yes, a judge could take into account the major differences in crimes. All felony convictions are not alike, but under our law, a judge has been “ordered” to treat them all alike by men who probably never stepped foot into a court of law or saw how the mercy in justice is never strained by someone who could fashion an appropriate sentence to fit the crime.

      Let judges decide whether to apply the mandatory. If a prosecutors dosn’t like it, let them appeal the sentence and force the judge to give his or her reasons from deviating from such a sentence when every one – even a fool – would know 25-years-to-life is Draconian no matter how you slice the item stolen in a store by a shoplifter.

      Jeez. I thought we were beyond the days of Les Miserable.

      I guess when it comes to getting tough on crime, politicians all want to become like Police Inspector Javert.

      We all know how he ended up.

      See: http://villains.wikia.com/wiki/Inspector_Javert



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.