They don't make anything easy in prison, least of all contact with the outside world. So when Rhoda Bruington called this week from the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women--or "Women's Prison," it wasn't exactly a relaxed conversation. The usual prison pandemonium rang out in the background, and an automated operator kept breaking in to inform us that the call was being recorded and to warn of imminent termination. None of which helped soothe the urgency and frustration in Rhoda's voice, the need to communicate, in the span of a 10-minute phone call, what has happened to her.
I first met Rhoda nine years ago, in the winter of 1995. Four years earlier she and her boyfriend had driven from their Knoxville home across the mountains to Asheville, where they robbed a bridal shop in a strip mall. Sitting in a common room at Women's Prison, Rhoda explained that the plan had been for her to carry the gun--a stage prop with plugged barrels--while her boyfriend forced the store owner to write out a check in his name. Quick and easy, Rhoda's boyfriend assured her, nobody gets hurt.
The plan went awry. While Rhoda stood there with her fake gun, people began filing into the shop: a customer, the landlord, the owner's husband, their two daughters. Rhoda's boyfriend tied the men up in the office, then he took the three younger women to a dressing room in the back of the shop, where he cut their clothes off and raped one of them. Rhoda, meanwhile, stood guard in the office, looking tough, scared out of her wits.
Rhoda was later arrested, tried and convicted on nine counts of armed robbery and kidnapping. Although she had no prior record and had been absolved of any knowledge of the sexual offenses committed by her boyfriend, the judge threw the book at her, sentencing her to nine consecutive terms totaling 104 years. Rhoda was 46 years old at the time of her conviction; according to the state, she wouldn't be eligible for parole until she was 84.
By the time I met Rhoda, nine years ago, she was serving her third year. I remember thinking that, for someone in her situation, she was an awfully classy lady. She was funny, caring, gentle, feisty. In her three years in prison, she'd maintained a 3.8 grade-point average in her course work in Shaw University's in-prison program, worked as chair of the university's in-prison student advisory council, and was rector for Kairos, an ecumenical network of faith and healing for prison inmates. She meditated, studied Buddhism, wrote letters to the editor, hoped to work as a counselor someday.
Rhoda's inner life was equally impressive. Reporters get a lot of letters and phone calls from prisoners who hope to plead their case in the newspapers, and many of these inmates dance around the fact of their crime. Rhoda never did that. She knew she'd done a terrible thing and she recalled the story of her crime with unflinching remorse.
She also knew that she'd gotten a raw deal from the judge and she believed that, with enough hard work and perseverance and prayer, she would be out of prison long before her parole date of 2029. I remember looking at her skeptically, but on this subject Rhoda Bruington was vehement, her woolly voice rasped with enthusiasm. She'd get out, all right. She still had some living left to do.
After early appeals failed, Rhoda got her break, or so it seemed, in July 1996, when she was granted a Motion for Appropriate Relief. Rhoda had more or less crafted the motion herself, from prison, and she was jubilant when it was granted. She knew she had a good chance at a reduced sentence and waited anxiously for her court date.
Years passed. Finally, in August of 2000, Rhoda went back to court to be re-sentenced by Superior Court Judge James Baker Jr. Her four armed robbery convictions were reduced to common law robbery, to which she pleaded guilty, and she was re-sentenced on the remainder of her kidnapping charges. Rhoda had already served eight years, was infraction-free and had accrued considerable gain and merit time. With all these considerations, Rhoda's lawyer and Buncombe County District Attorney Ronald Moore--the same man who prosecuted Rhoda in 1992--signed a plea agreement the intent of which, according to Rhoda, her lawyer and, they say, the district attorney, was to give Rhoda a release date of August 2004.
Rhoda rode back to the prison with a considerably brighter future, and with the hope that she would spend the remainder of her shortened sentence in minimum custody, with opportunities for work release and reintegration programs. Instead, Rhoda says, when she arrived at Women's Prison, she was processed as a new offender, forced to go through a 45-day "Adjustment Time" and told she had 52 years left on her sentence.
What happened to Rhoda's sentence is not entirely clear. It's apparent from correspondence between the various parties that both the district attorney and Rhoda's lawyer had agreed to a target release date of August 2004. It's also clear that the plea agreement, signed by Rhoda, her lawyer and the district attorney, states clearly that Rhoda would serve another 52 years--four years for the reduced robbery charges and 48 years for the five kidnapping charges.
How did this error happen? According to David Belser, Rhoda's lawyer in Asheville, given the time Rhoda had already served, her new sentence should have translated into a release date in 2004. The error, he says, occurred when the Department of Correction interpreted the plea agreement "as was" instead of applying the appropriate structuring guidelines. "I've been around and around this with the DOC," Belser says. "But they're adamant they're correct and they have her body and they are not going to let it go until they say it's time."
Rhoda, however, was unwilling to wait. Stuck in a processing dorm and faced with a longer sentence than she'd had before her re-sentencing hearing, Rhoda considered her next move. This time, she decided, she'd tell it to the judge.
So, in Oct. 2001, Rhoda wrote Judge James Baker Jr., explaining what had happened and asking him to help. Amazingly, and against all odds, Baker wrote her back. In his letter, the judge maintained that the plea transcript, signed by all the parties, is clear in its dictate. The sentence he imposed was long, chiefly because the five kidnapping sentences were to be served consecutively, one after the other, but it was what the parties agreed to in the plea agreement. Baker admitted no wrong and made no promises; he claimed, further, that the Department of Corrections did not misinterpret the sentence. But he did acknowledge, based on correspondence with Belser, that Rhoda's sentence was not what the parties had agreed to, and he agreed to hear the evidence a second time. All Rhoda had to do was get on the calendar again.
And that, seven years after being granted a Motion for Appropriate Relief, three years after being granted a new sentence, is where Rhoda's case still stands. Waiting for the Buncombe County District Attorney to decide to schedule a new hearing. If you think that sounds like a twisted scenario--one individual, the district attorney no less, holding that much power to help or hurt a defendant--you're in good company. North Carolina is the only state in the country that gives district attorneys the power to schedule cases. They are prohibited, in the use of this power, from violating due process, but such violations can be vaguely defined, and even when one occurs, it takes the help of a good lawyer to respond. That makes for a lot of people sitting in this state's jails and prisons, some of them for months or even years, waiting for a hearing or a trial, waiting while their one and only life marches by.
And so Rhoda Bruington counts her days in prison. She knows she can't do anything until she stands in front of Baker again, and she knows she has no power over when that will happen. In the meantime she works at the prison making license plates and continues to be involved in church activities. Her friends write to her and visit, promising her a place to live when she gets out, help getting a job. She reads her Bible, holds hard to her faith.
It's different now, though, harder to fight the despair. Rhoda has fought so hard, come so close to winning her freedom, only to see it obliterated by a bureaucratic quagmire whose resolution sits in the hands of the same man who prosecuted her more than a decade ago. Rhoda's voice is different now, edged with anger. The rich notes of humor have faded, and with them the enthusiasm with which, nine years ago, she spoke of all the programs and classes and church functions she'd taken advantage of in prison. "I've run out of things to do," she said on the phone last week. "There are no more opportunities for me here.
"My hopes go up, my hopes go down," she continued. "It's taken its toll." Part of the toll is the deep-down exhaustion that comes with prison life. Part of it, Rhoda admits, is a feeling of bitterness that the system can, with utter impunity, and even in the face of obvious error, let people twist in the winds of "procedure." Whatever this is, she said, it isn't justice.
There is still, one hopes, a chance that Buncombe County District Attorney Ronald Moore will schedule Rhoda's hearing sometime in the next few months, and that Rhoda will be free, as intended, before the end of 2004. David Belser tells me on the phone he is confident this will happen--that Moore will schedule the hearing and that Rhoda will be released from prison this August. If that happens she will be, despite difficulties and setbacks, one of the lucky ones. For every inmate like Rhoda Bruington--smart, articulate, full of determination and blessed with good friends and a good lawyer--there are countless others serving unjust sentences without hope of remedy.
Nine years ago, when I was first getting to know Rhoda, one of her friends showed me a Dennis the Menace cartoon Rhoda had given her. The cartoon showed Dennis sitting in the corner being punished for some unstated infraction. "I think I'm as sorry as I'm ever gonna get," Dennis says.
That about says it for Rhoda. She is sorry. She has served her time. She has inflicted pain and she has suffered the consequences. Skirting the edges of despair and anger, she has dug in and very nearly pulled her life out of the abyss. She deserves to be out in the world, where she can let loose with all her determination and resolve. Please get your calendar out, Mr. Moore. Lord knows, this woman still has some living left to do.