by | May 4, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

She was arrested at 19, when she tried to sell drugs to an undercover cop.

She pleaded guilty, hoping for probation. Instead she was given the maximum – 10 to 20 years.

One year later, she said, she jumped a fence in prison and met her waiting grandfather in a car.

And for the next 32 years, she led a secret life. She changed her name. She married a man, raised three children. She lived a comfortable if quiet existence in southern California.

And she did no more wrong.

Two weeks ago, at age 53, she was approached outside her home

It was the police.

Today, Susan Lefevre sits in a California jail, awaiting extradition to Michigan for the prison sentence she walked away from more than three decades ago. She had served one year of her stiff sentence for drug-trafficking. She told an interviewer her behavior back then was “inexcusable,” but it was the behavior of a foolish kid, despondent over the death of a Vietnam War boyfriend.

Since then, she told the Associated Press, “I’ve tried to be exceptionally good.”

The question is: What is justice? Throw her back in jail to teach her a lesson, or say it is obvious she has already learned it?

Escaped to new life

First, a few facts. Her crime was selling heroin. She took $600 from the cop. She said in her interview that she pleaded guilty because her family was ashamed and didn’t want a trial. Michigan authorities, however, have claimed she was a drug dealer earning large profits.

After a year in the Detroit House of Corrections, she said, she felt she couldn’t take it anymore and arranged an escape with the help of her grandfather and another relative. After eluding authorities for several weeks, she fled to California and began a new life.

She said she never told her husband of 23 years. She never told her children. She was, by most accounts, a good member of the community, did some charitable things, trained as a hospice nurse.

She was also, all that time, a fugitive.

So what to do? What is justice? Her attorney plans to petition the governor to commute the rest of her sentence. Corrections officials say the rules demand she serve at least 5 1/2 more years behind bars.

Supporters say, “It was a nonviolent crime. She’s not a threat to the community.”

Critics say, “If we let her off, we might as well let everyone escape from prison.”

Some add that a middle-aged, suburban white woman is receiving far more sympathy than, say, a 30-year-old black male.

Others say that has nothing to do with it.

All sentences not equal

I say justice should be blind, but it isn’t. The same crime does not always draw the same sentence – not from one state to another, or from one court to another, sometimes not even from one minute to another.

Sentences are meant to be served out, but we hear constantly of people freed due to overcrowding or technicalities. We hear about 15-year-old murderers who are let free at 21, whether they’ve learned a lesson or not. We hear about drunk drivers back behind the wheel despite 30 or 40 arrests.

Which is worse: someone who escapes but does no more wrong – or someone who is released under the rules, then goes right out and does wrong again?

Lefevre is not likely to repeat her crime. I would think the exposure of her past is already a certain punishment to her (especially in the world she now lives in). If probation, limited travel and community service were also imposed, perhaps that would be enough. Besides, putting her behind bars at this point costs taxpayers a good deal of money.

Then again, if I were behind bars, I might look at it differently. Which only proves that you can change your name, you can change your past, but you will always see things from your side of the wall.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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