response: November/December 2019 issue

A Mother’s Pain

Cynthia Morrison Holland knows the burden of an inequitable justice system as she fights for the life of her incarcerated daughter—and her own.

A Mother’s Pain
Cynthia Morrison Holland holds a photo of her daughter, Michelle, at her home in Atlanta, Georgia.

Cynthia Morrison Holland is not unlike you or me. She is a doting and loving mother who wants the best for her children, who cherishes opportunities to hug her girls, travel with them, live life together. But these hopes and dreams are waylaid as her youngest daughter sits in jail, away from her family, her community and her own hopes for her life. Morrison’s daughter is the product of an overzealous criminal justice system and structural racism left unchecked.

“For a long time, I prayed I would just wake up and none of this had ever happened,” Holland, 62, said. “Then I finally had to accept the truth: This is how it is, and I have to trust God that things will work out the way they’re supposed to.”

The journey has been heartbreaking, exhausting, expensive and lonely. She often felt abandoned by those she trusted most, including her church, which didn’t always give her the support she needed. She was consistently frustrated by a criminal justice system that doesn’t always play fair, especially when interacting with marginalized groups, poor people and people of color.

But giving up was never an option. A mother doesn’t give up on a child.

“You can be bitter, or you can make this a better world by helping others caught in the same cycle that seems so hopeless,” Holland said. “So I’ve turned all this frustration into a passion. Now I’m fighting for social justice, not just for my daughter but for others going through the same pain.”

A daughter’s choices

Up until middle school, Michelle Morrison was a good student with good grades. She was active in clubs, church and sports. She was adventurous and fun to be around.

“She was beautiful and she was fearless,” Holland said. “She wanted to try everything—cheerleading, Girl Scouts, you name it. Michelle was the one who had to be in the middle of the action.”

Morrison responded to life’s challenges by hanging out with children who were headed in a direction that her mother didn’t approve of. Her grades began slipping, and she started skipping school. Desperate to get her daughter back on the right track, Holland enrolled her in diversionary classes and a wilderness program. Nothing worked. The once-promising student dropped out of high school. She did get her GED, passing on her first attempt, but didn’t pursue advanced education. 

“You do a lot of blaming,” Holland admits, a single mother who divorced Morrison’s father when Morrison was 5. He now lives in Memphis and visits when he can. “Did this happen because I was a terrible mother? It’s easy to be full of self-doubt.”

She relied on her prayer partners in her Bible study at Ben Hill United Methodist Church in Atlanta, where she had been a member since 1988. Her daughters were baptized there and grew up in the church. To Holland, it was improbable that her youngest child could veer away from the strong faith foundation she had received growing up. 

“My pastor told me I needed to let it go,” she says. “It took a lot of praying for me to finally accept that Michelle was making her own choices.”

The choice that would alter her daughter’s life forever came on June 9, 2007, in nearby Milton.

According to a local newspaper report and police records, Morrison and three companions went to the apartment of Keith Brown, who was known to have a lot of cash on hand. Morrison later told authorities that she was led to believe the intent was to collect a debt.

Morrison and Kisha “Key” Rutledge, a prostitution madame who ran an alleged adult escort service and the accused mastermind behind the crime, stayed in the car, while Jeff Dulcio and Stephen Woods went up to the apartment. Dulcio was carrying a gun provided by Rutledge.

What the two men didn’t expect was that Brown was also armed. After confronting the victim, Dulcio got into a shootout with him, and Brown died after calling 911 from his cell phone. His murder was the first ever recorded in Milton.

During the confusion, Morrison sped off in her car with Rutledge and Woods, leaving Dulcio behind.

The police came to Morrison’s home a few days later because her cell phone had been used to call the victim. The police impounded the car but could not find incriminating DNA evidence to link her to the shooting. She provided information to the police about the three people who were involved in the botched robbery-turned-murder.

Nine days later, Woods was arrested, and Dulcio was apprehended the next month. Morrison turned herself in that October for her role as the driver and was given a $1,000 cash bond. Rutledge, who became the subject of a segment on television’s America’s Most Wanted, was not apprehended for nearly two years.

When the case finally went to trial in early April 2009, Morrison was offered a five-year deal for her involvement in the crime. A judge on the case strongly urged her to take it, stating he would be forced to give her a life sentence due to mandatory sentencing laws. Morrison steadfastly refused, determined to defend her innocence. The choice didn’t pay off in her favor. 

The jury took three days to come to a verdict. On April 14, she and Dulcio were convicted of felony murder, aggravated assault, criminal attempt to commit armed robbery and conspiracy, and sentenced to life imprisonment plus five years. Woods pled guilty to criminal attempt to commit armed robbery and a weapons charge and got a lesser sentence in exchange. After Rutledge was caught, she, too, got a life sentence.

On the day Morrison’s verdict was announced, Holland says she “literally lost it.”

“I had to be carried out of the courtroom,” she says. “It was as if the world had just exploded. You can’t believe that it’s really happening.”

Whatever hope Holland had for her daughter to make amends and get a second chance were dashed that day. Holland didn’t know what was around the corner and all the disappointments that would keep coming.

Undue punishment

Morrison has been incarcerated for 11 years at Lee Arrendale State Prison in Alto, Georgia. Sometimes Holland feels like she’s serving her own life sentence: of lost freedom, never-ending expenses and broken dreams.

She believes she wouldn’t be in this nightmare, and nor would her daughter, if they weren’t African-American women of limited financial means. Holland says if she could have afforded a high-priced and experienced attorney in the first place, they might have understood the direness of the situation and gone for the plea deal.

“Michelle is guilty of poor judgment, not murder,” she said. “In the end, these mandatory sentencing laws mainly affect black and brown people, who end up serving much longer lengths of time.” According to the Sentencing Project, federal prosecutors are twice as likely to charge African Americans with offenses that carry a mandatory minimum sentence than whites. State prosecutors as well are more likely to more severely charge black defendants. This type of biased use of discretion coupled with policies that disadvantage people of color, such as drug-free school zones, “broken-window” policing, racial profiling and other means of criminalizing communities of color, lead to imprisonment rates for African-American and Hispanic adults that are 5.9 and 3.1 times the rate for white adults. In 2017, the imprisonment rate for African-American women was twice the rate of imprisonment for white women.

Holland has spent close to $60,000 in lawyers’ fees for the original case and three failed appeals. One of those attorneys took Holland’s money, missed a filing deadline and never returned her payment.

She makes the 180-mile round trip regularly to visit her daughter and funds Morrison’s account for phone calls, toiletries and other expenses. It costs 49 cents just to send an e-mail, and the prison vending machines charge at least twice what the goods would cost elsewhere. Commissary and medical costs quickly add up, as does wear and tear on vehicles and monthly expenses to store Morrison’s belongings at a storage facility. Holland estimates she spends about $100 a week, often more. 

As a self-employed independent contractor in beauty supplies sales, work comes and goes. Lately she’s been working as an Uber driver to keep up with the bills. Her husband, 18 years her senior, is retired, and now recovered from a life-threatening illness. 

Faith and support

But perhaps the most deflating reality of dealing with this new normal has been the church’s response. Holland says, with the exception of one pastor who stepped up and her prayer partners, she’s had little support from the faith community.

“Having incarcerated family members is pretty much a taboo subject in the church as a whole,” she says. “No one wants to talk about it. And in the beginning, I was just as guilty. I only shared it with a small circle of friends. It took me about five or six years to open up publicly about this.”

She says the church should be more proactive in reaching out to family members and giving them a safe space to talk about their concerns and pressing needs. While some congregations sponsor prison ministries that focus on inmate outreach, little is offered to support the family members, who face their own demons. There is stigma, shame and blame associated with incarceration, and it’s not just prisoners who experience these emotions.

“In our case, it’s not just Michelle serving a life sentence. It’s our whole family,” Holland said. “Something like this impacts the whole household, even extended family.”

The Rev. Brian Tillman, an associate pastor at Ben Hill, is the clergy member who came through for Holland. Not only did he offer her spiritual comfort, he also made the trip to the state prison to meet with Morrison. 

“A lot of these family members have had little, if any, experience with the criminal justice system,” Tillman says. “They feel ashamed and at a loss. So what do you do? You show up and you listen. That’s always a good start.”

While in seminary, Tillman had pastoral training in a prison, which gives him a comfort level in this setting. He recommends that theology schools include student visits to correctional facilities to incorporate this much-needed experience in their ministerial studies. And once exposed to this population, Tillman is convinced that pastors in training will be pleasantly surprised by the people they encounter.

“A lot of the folks I met in prison have been kind, honest and forthcoming with their experience. They’ve owned their role in the crime that got them there,” he says. “They appreciate any kindness given to them.”

Tillman says outreach efforts to families are vital as well. A church or United Methodist Women’s group could arrange monthly bus trips to a local prison for visitation, easing the burden for those who don’t have transportation to travel far distances. Educational workshops on free legal aid or on coping with guilt and loss are other options. And United Methodist Women’s focus on ending the school-to-prison pipeline helps communities understand how people of color are disproportionately targeted for incarceration—Morrison, whose punishment does not fit her crime, would very likely not be where she is if she were white.

No family should have to bear the burden of mass incarceration or imprisonment alone.

“The church has to be encouraging and supportive,” Tillman said. “We’ve fallen short in this area. We can do better. They shouldn’t have to hide their pain and frustration in the dark, for fear of being judged.”

Emily Jones, executive for racial justice for United Methodist Women, agrees that the church could be doing so much more in terms of advocacy and companionship. Too often it stigmatizes and shames people who are incarcerated and their families, perpetuating a culture of silence and secrecy. Instead of taking the “out of sight, out of mind” approach, it should be giving its full-hearted love and support.

“We remain astonishingly attached to mass incarceration as a society, even though we know that it’s not working,” she said. “Mass incarceration and the criminalization of communities of color is a form of deep structural sin, and it has devastating effects on families, including Cynthia’s.”

Jones and Holland first met a year ago at the National Prison Summit on Mass Incarceration, hosted by the SBC21 (Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century) initiative. That summit, now in its fourth year, highlights grassroots efforts from structural change to service efforts across the country to build consensus and generate commitment to bring about overdue change. 

With more than 2 million people locked up in this country, that makes the United States a “global leader” in incarceration, Jones said.

“That’s a shameful statistic, and it is, at its heart, a violation of the Gospel message of Jesus,” she said. “The church should be on the frontlines of justice and compassion, supporting families in their times of struggle and working tirelessly to shift the systems that cause so much suffering in the first place. There is every reason to believe that if Cynthia’s daughter had been white, she would not be locked up right now.”

Jones admits that it can be tempting to look away and not get engaged. But that’s not acceptable, especially for United Methodist Women members, who are called to “walk humbly with God, love mercy and do justice.”

“Mass incarceration is a crisis that we’ve normalized,” she said. “We have to reclaim our stronger voice and fix this deep brokenness.”

Finding hope

Holland has found her stronger voice. 

The mother who once wouldn’t speak about her daughter’s mistake and disproportionate punishment is no longer silent. She’s accepted speaking engagements in public forums, and she’s spoken privately with strangers, helping people understand the system that unjustly harms communities of color and the true burden it costs not only society but families. It gives her great comfort to help others on a journey she knows too well.

And though she’s had so many letdowns regarding her daughter’s case, Holland is not ready to give up hope. Last spring, while she attended Justice Day at the capitol, she met a lawyer who specializes in post-convictions. That attorney is now looking into Morrison’s case.

Morrison, too, has made a drastic transformation in prison. She lives in the honor dorm, earned a theology degree and is now working on her bachelor of arts degree in psychology. She volunteers with a children’s group on Saturday visitations and recently gave the opening prayer and welcome at a Friends and Family Day event at the prison.

Tillman calls Morrison “a bright light” who deserves a second chance, sooner than later.

“There’s no question she got a raw deal,” the pastor says. “She poses no harm or threat to anyone. She’s taken the worst of circumstances and made herself a better person. One day, she will be a phenomenal contributing member of society. She should be doing that now.”

The prospect of her daughter remaining in prison for at least two more decades is too overwhelming for Holland. So, she says she will remain vigilant in her faith that they will get a break one day. Miracles happen all the time, she says.

“Delay does not mean denial,” Holland says. “Every time I think maybe God has abandoned me, something encouraging happens to let me know that God’s still there, right with me. And I know God’s right there with Michelle, too.”

Michelle Bearden is former religion reporter for The Tampa Tribune and WFLA-TV and is now a freelance writer specializing in faith and values. She’s a two-time winner of the national Supple Religion Writer of the Year award from the Religion Newswriters Association.

Posted or updated: 11/5/2019 12:00:00 AM

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