Juvenile lifer Sharon Wiggins followed court cases in hopes of freedom
April 7, 2013 8:00 AM
Sharon Wiggins died before court ruling, still pending.
By Paula Reed Ward Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Since Sharon "Peachie" Wiggins died March 24 of a heart attack at the age of 62, her friends and family members have received dozens, if not hundreds, of letters and messages from people commending the life she lived and the impact she had on those around her.
"Sharon helped me many years ago to make sure I did something with my life!" wrote one woman on a Facebook page.
"I feel truly blessed to have had the opportunity to be associated with Sharon," wrote William Beisel, with whom she worked. "The world is a better place as a result of Sharon's life."
The outpouring of support has flowed in from women whose lives she helped shape, from those women's families and from professionals with whom she worked.
All of them having met Wiggins during her 42-year-long prison stay at the State Correctional Institution at Muncy.
Wiggins, who grew up in the Hill District, was the longest-serving female juvenile lifer in Pennsylvania -- sentenced to life without parole for first-degree murder committed when she was 17.
She and two young men robbed the Dauphin Deposit Trust Co. in Harrisburg on Dec. 2, 1968. Armed with guns, they stole more than $70,000.
During the robbery, a 64-year-old customer named George Morelock grabbed Wiggins. They struggled, and she fired the gun twice, killing him.
Wiggins pleaded guilty, and initially was sentenced by a three-judge panel to the death penalty. However, that sentence was later converted to life without parole based on her age at the time of the crime, as well as testimony of psychologists.
During her five decades in prison, Wiggins was turned down for clemency 13 times.
But last summer, when the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Miller v. Alabama, which made mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles unconstitutional, she finally had a glimmer of hope.
Following that decision, the state Supreme Court held arguments in the case of Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Ian Cunningham, who was convicted of second-degree murder at the age of 17.
The decision in that case is pending, but the underlying question in the matter is whether the holding in Miller should be retroactive -- and therefore apply to inmates like Wiggins, who long ago exhausted their direct appeals.
"She was so close to getting out -- getting the vindication Miller gives her -- and she didn't make it," said Bradley Bridge, who argued the Cunningham case.
"This has a real cost," said Sara Jacobson, a law professor at Temple University, who worked on Wiggins' case. "The delay matters. She's not the only one we may lose along the way."
Throughout her stay in the Pennsylvania prison system, Wiggins set about her own form of rehabilitation.
She participated in every programming option offered to her, earning certificates in things as varied as upholstery, auto mechanics, paralegal studies, computer programming, cosmetology, construction and architecture.
She was among the first to grad- uate from an associate's degree program offered at Muncy by Penn State University -- receiving a degree in letters, arts and sciences. She later became a part-time employee of the school, working inside the prison as a student services liaison.
"She really helped us administer the program," said Mr. Beisel, who had served as the director of the Penn State Williamsport Center. "It was pretty much unprecedented in Pennsylvania and across the country."
He watched as she served as a mentor and volunteer.
"They all respected Sharon Wiggins. They trusted her," he said. "She helped to improve the lives of women within the institution.
"I think she would have made a difference in the outside world."
Ellen Melchiondo, who first started writing letters to Wiggins in 1995 when she saw a portrait of her in an art exhibit at Eastern State Penitentiary featuring women serving life, later worked closely with Wiggins as an advocate for juvenile lifers.
"Anybody that met her fell in love with her," Ms. Melchiondo said. "She was such an amazing woman."
In addition to the educational programs she completed in prison, Wiggins also participated in class-action lawsuits to improve living conditions at Muncy -- for things such as having asbestos removed and getting a law library.
Ms. Melchiondo attended the U.S. Supreme Court arguments in the Miller case as a kind of surrogate for Wiggins. She also attended the arguments at the Pennsylvania Supreme Court for Cunningham.
"She was hopeful. She was helping other juvenile lifers at Muncy to do their [petitions,]" Ms. Melchiondo said.
Angela Wiggins-Boyd said that with the Miller decision last year, her older sister saw a gleam of hope.
"She did everything she could to try to prove to them she was not the same person." Ms. Wiggins-Boyd said. "She should have been given a second chance. I thought that's what the system was all about -- rehabilitation.
"What was the purpose of having her locked up all that time if you're not going to give her a chance to get out and prove she had changed?"
Over the last two weeks, with the messages of love and support her family has received, Ms. Wiggins-Boyd has been overwhelmed.
"I am so proud of her. I feel like she made a mark for her life. She was somebody," she said.
One woman called to tell the family she had named one of her twins after Wiggins.
Emily Keller, a staff attorney with the Juvenile Law Center who worked with Wiggins, said she helped guide many women in the prison system to a better life.
"She had a really great sense of her position as an advocate for juvenile lifers," she said. "She is really a testament to a child's capacity to change."
Ms. Melchiondo called Wiggins "highly principled," and said the woman was horrified by her crime.
But, she continued, Wiggins was just 17 at the time; she had come from an impoverished household with five siblings and a single mother; had mental health problems and a drug addiction.
"She wanted to get money to feed her mother and her siblings," Ms. Melchiondo said. "She was high. She was living on the streets at the age of 13.
"It was 44 years ago. Nobody could possibly be the same person they were at 17."
In the days after Wiggins' death, Ms. Melchiondo created a donation site at gofundme.com to raise money to pay for the funeral, which was held Friday in Detroit.
In six days, the site collected $4,077 from 64 donors, meeting its goal. It has since been taken down.
Even though Wiggins sought to be released from prison, her supporters said, she always expressed remorse for killing Morelock.
"She never forgot her crime. She lived it," Ms. Melchiondo said. "She died because of her crime. That was her sentence -- life without parole.