Should This Woman Be Sent Back to Prison?

She was a fugitive, yes. But for almost two thirds of her life, she’d also been a law-abiding soccer mom. What should the authorities do? You be the judge.

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When U.S. marshals knocked on Marie Walsh’s door last April and asked if her name was really Susan LeFevre, she said no.

She was lying—sort of.

Marie Walsh hadn’t been Susan LeFevre since 1976, the year she escaped from a Michigan prison. At age 19, she’d been arrested after selling three grams of heroin to an undercover cop. She’d served just over a year of a 10- to 20-year sentence when, one morning, she climbed over a barbed wire fence, ran to a nearby street where her grandfather waited in a car, and drove away. Weeks later, she bummed a ride to California.

That’s where she’d been ever since, going by her middle name, Marie, and using a Social Security number she says she made up. She married waste industry executive Alan Walsh and raised three children, lived in an $800,000 house in San Diego, drove a Lexus SUV, and volunteered with several charities. She was a fugitive, yes. But for almost two thirds of her life, she’d also been a law-abiding soccer mom. That is, until an anonymous tipster led federal agents to her door.

When the marshal showed LeFevre, 53, fingerprint evidence (and reminded her she could get into even more trouble for lying), she came clean about her true identity. Then she asked him, “Are you sure you have to take me?”

He was. Not only was she required to serve the remainder of her sentence (she wouldn’t be eligible for parole until 2013), she also faced five more years in prison for the escape. She was held in a San Diego jail for three weeks, then transferred back to Michigan, 2,000 miles from her husband and children, who, she says, didn’t know about her past until she was arrested.

But Susan LeFevre did not go quietly. After her rearrest, she told her version of the story to the press—a different version from the one that emerged in 1975. Back then, authorities described LeFevre as a dealer who made $2,000 a week. Now she claimed she was a recreational user who sold drugs only a few times. She said that since the offense was her first, her attorney had advised her to plead guilty, betting that the judge would be lenient. The plan backfired, and the judge sentenced her to 10 to 20 years.

More than three decades later, in July 2008, LeFevre’s new lawyer, William Swor, asked a Saginaw County circuit judge to throw out the 1975 sentence. He argued that Michigan law (and federal law) required that most sentences be tailored specifically to the offender and the crime. “It appears to us that there was a policy in Saginaw County that anyone involved in a heroin transaction got 10 to 20 years, regardless of their background,” Swor says. The county prosecutor, Mike Thomas, opposed the request: “If she were to be let out now,” he wrote in a court filing, “what does that say to the 51,000 people serving a sentence in the state? You don’t have to serve your sentence if you escape?”

Meanwhile, friends, relatives, and strangers from around the country sent hundreds of letters to Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm’s office pleading for clemency for LeFevre. Their argument: Why should taxpayers spend $33,000 a year to lock up a woman who seems to have rehabilitated herself? Others insisted she had to pay her debt to society. “Her case tapped into some fundamental questions,” says Lawrence Hinman, a University of San Diego philosophy professor and ethicist. “What does it take to set things right?”

Next: The verdict »

Woman in handcuffs
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The Verdict:

Five months after Susan LeFevre’s rearrest, a judge showed mercy, giving her two years’ probation for the escape charge. That still left the issue of the original sentence. Should LeFevre remain in prison for the drug offense? The judge punted the decision to the ten-member Michigan parole board.

On January 28, the board voted unanimously to set her free, though she has to stay behind bars on good behavior until May 19. “She effectively did what we want our offenders to do—live a crime-free life once they leave us,” says John Cordell of the Michigan Department of Corrections. “Of course, she did commit a crime in order to live that crime-free life.”

You be the judge!

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest