Ye Olde Archives » OPINION: Melinda Ruley

Free at last

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They let Rhoda Bruington out of prison last month, 12 1/2 years after she was put there. When I talked with her on the phone, she invited me to come over to Raleigh to see the house where she's living until she can get a job, get her feet under her. When I asked what she was up to she said she'd been going around to various agencies, applying for food stamps, getting her library card. "Not today, though," she said. "Today I've been outside, getting some peace from God." I hadn't seen Rhoda in nine years, not since the winter of 1995, when I drove to the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women--"Women's Prison"--to hear her story. Four years earlier, when she was 46 years old, she and her boyfriend had driven from east Tennessee to Asheville to rob a small bridal shop. The plan was to force the shop owner to write out a check in the boyfriend's name, then quickly leave. Instead, while Rhoda stood holding her fake gun, people began walking into the store: a customer, the landlord, the owner's husband and two grown daughters. Rhoda's boyfriend tied the men up in the office and left Rhoda to guard them. Then he took the women to the back of the store, cut their clothes off and raped one of them. The pair was quickly apprehended, and Rhoda was eventually tried and convicted on nine counts of armed robbery and kidnapping. The Buncombe County judge gave her the maximum sentence: nine consecutive terms totaling 104 years.

I remember listening to Rhoda recount the details of her crime, what she made of her involvement, and how she felt about her sentence. Most of the blame she dumped squarely on herself: She'd gotten involved with the wrong man, done a stupid thing, allowed people to be hurt in ways that could never be completely fixed. On the other hand, the gun she'd held had been a harmless stage prop, and she had no idea what her boyfriend was up to in the back room. She'd made a terrible mistake, she knew, and she was willing to pay for it. She just wasn't willing to pay with her life.

This was one of the things that struck me about Rhoda that first visit--how despite everything, she'd maintained her self-respect. She was funny, generous, smart. In her three years in prison, she'd maintained a 3.8 grade-point average at Shaw University's in-prison program and had worked as chair of the university's student advisory council. She meditated, studied Buddhism, joined a Lutheran church whose congregation adored her. All of which supported her conviction that life--anyone's life, even her life--had value deeper than time or circumstance.

The circumstances of her own life were difficult at best, yet she described them matter-of-factly, and always with a current of humor running through her woolly voice. She was born in Philadelphia and raised by her grandmother, a pious, hardheaded Irishwoman with whom Rhoda constantly fought. The way Rhoda described it, she was a strong-willed child whose passions her grandmother worked hard to quell. The girl wound up in an orphanage, then moved to her mother's before getting pregnant. She put the baby up for adoption and ran away, landing first in juvenile court, then in a state mental hospital, where she was treated for depression. When she walked out of the hospital seven months later, Rhoda found the nearest freeway and hitched her way to Miami Beach. She was 15 years old.

From then on, Rhoda Bruington was on her own. She waitressed, painted houses, danced in a go-go bar. She also finished high school, enrolled in college and became a registered X-ray technician. Through it all, the demons kept nipping at her heels. She began drinking, took up with abusive men, gave up two more babies to adoption, slept on park benches. Then she met a man with a car and some cash. They moved to Knoxville together, found a house and spent all their money. Before long, they'd figured out how to get more.

Under the sentencing guidelines in place at the time of Rhoda's conviction and provided she didn't successfully fight her sentence, Rhoda wouldn't have been eligible for parole until 2029, the year she would turn 84. But Rhoda did fight it. She'd had no prior convictions and had been absolved of any knowledge of the sexual offenses committed by her boyfriend. She believed that the judge, in sentencing her to nine consecutive terms, had given her a raw deal, and she set to work appealing her sentence. The early appeals failed, but in July 1996, Rhoda petitioned for and was granted a Motion for Appropriate Relief--a chance at a reduced sentence.

Four years went by. Finally, in August 2000, Superior Court judge James Baker Jr. reduced Rhoda's armed robbery convictions to common law robbery and re-sentenced her on the remainder of her kidnapping charges. With eight years of prison time already served, Rhoda, her lawyer and Buncombe County District Attorney Ronald Moore signed a plea agreement whose intent, each party agreed, was to give Rhoda a release date of August 2004.

Rhoda left the courtroom and boarded a bus for Women's Prison, relieved to have a release date in sight. Instead, when she arrived at prison, officials told her that, according to her plea agreement, she had 52 years left on her sentence.

How, exactly, that happened is still anyone's guess. According to Rhoda's lawyer, the Department of Corrections failed to apply the appropriate sentencing guidelines to the plea agreement, thereby misinterpreting the release date. According to the DOC, plea agreements aren't subject to such guidelines; Rhoda had 52 years yet to serve, they said. If there were some mistake in the plea agreement, she'd have to take it up with the judge.

Which is exactly what she did, in a long letter outlining her understanding that everyone--including the district attorney--had agreed to an August 2004 release date. Judge Baker wrote her back explaining that, regardless of anyone's intent, the plea agreement clearly gave her 52 more years--and she had signed off on it. He also agreed, based on recent correspondence with Rhoda's lawyer, that 52 years was not what the parties had agreed to, and he offered to hear the evidence again. In order for that to happen, Rhoda would have to get back on the court calendar in Buncombe County.

What seemed like an easy enough task became, instead, a nightmare. Months passed, then years. Unable to make headway with the Buncombe County district attorney, who alone had the power to put her case on the calendar, Rhoda again got in touch with the Independent.

When I spoke with her on the phone last February her voice had lost its feisty lilt and was edged instead with desperation. She didn't want to talk about her achievements and activities in prison. She didn't want to talk about hope. Seven years after being granted a Motion for Appropriate Relief, three years after a Superior Court judge agreed to hear her case again, she had gotten nowhere. And she was inching up on her 60th birthday. "I was thinking your paper could write something," she said. "Maybe putting what's happening to me out there in the world will help."

And maybe it did. Or maybe the Buncombe County district attorney knew all along that Rhoda would be released in 2004 and was just letting her twist in the wind a little. Or maybe it was the persistence of the words Rhoda wears on a strip of cloth around her wrist: Pray Until Something Happens. Whatever the case, Rhoda got her court date, and on Aug. 6 she walked out of Women's Prison in a loud, purple T-shirt, cheered on by the other women from her unit. After 12 1/2 years she was free, ready to get on with her life.

I met with her in early August, less than a week after her release, and the two of us drove into downtown Raleigh so that she could register to vote. On the way she listed all she'd accomplished since getting out: She'd settled into a friend's house, gotten her state identification and Social Security cards; she'd established an e-mail address and signed up with the Women's Center of Wake County to get clothes and help getting a job. She was learning the bus line and looking forward to voting in November.

Listening to it all, it was hard not to smile, laugh out loud. Unlike many newly freed prisoners, Rhoda didn't seem overwhelmed or scared. Despite having no job, money, car or health insurance, she was calm and confident--sure of her place in the world. She talked about how good it felt not to have to shout to be heard, to be able to watch what she wanted on TV, to read the newspaper and know that these events, these dramas, were her world now, not just someplace far removed, beyond the cyclone fence.

It was true she still had moments of sarcasm and bitterness, talking about her years in prison. Once, when we drove up behind a car with a vanity plate, Rhoda pointed to it and said, "Hey, maybe I made that plate. Whoopee, huh? That's some great job skill to have." Mostly, though, she was happy, full of her old humor and wit. "Here's my Zen thought for the day," she said over the roar of a tractor-trailer: "I feel like I'm parking diagonally in a parallel universe." She was also wide-eyed at the ordinary sights and sounds along Glenwood Avenue: kids running on a playground or riding a school bus, a yard crew mowing someone's lawn. When we passed a police officer riding a horse down Dawson Street, Rhoda gave a wide grin. "OK," she announced, "that made my day."

As for Rhoda's plans, she hopes to get a job quickly, start paying for rent and food. She'd like to work as a counselor someday, maybe work on behalf of prisoner's rights. She says she's "too old to start at the Burger King," but she also knows that as a 59-year-old ex-convict she can't be too choosy. She's put in applications at a local drugstore and at Target. One day she wants to visit Philadelphia again, go to her grandmother's grave, maybe get some closure on that time in her life. Someday, she thinks, she might move to Florida again, get sand in her shoes, feel warm all year.

In the meantime, life in West Raleigh is pretty good. I called Rhoda again not long ago, and she told me that a friend--one of the ladies from her church--had invited her to drag bingo. She'd also gotten some new clothes, baked a cake, had her first bubble bath. In the in-between times, she said, she liked to sit out on her friend's deck, just feeling the air, watching the birds. "It's my favorite place to be," she said. "It's amazing what God's doing out there."

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