Guilty Plea in Baby-Snatching: What’s the Point of Prison Time?

A little more than a year ago a story broke about a woman (Ann Pettway) who abducted a newborn baby from a  hospital and then raised the child (Carlina White) for twenty-some years.   I wrote about it at the time.

Yesterday Ann Pettway pled guilty to kidnapping.   While she could face a life sentence, prosecutors agreed to a deal where they will ask for 10-12 1/2 years in prison.  For Joy White and Carl Tyson, the biological parents of Carlina White, this agreement is unacceptable.  According to the press accounts, Joy White thinks a sentence of 23 years (the length of time she was separated from Carlina White) would be more appropriate.

At the same time, the expectation reported here (which may not be real, but I will take it as such for the moment) is that Carlina White will weigh in on behalf of Pettway.  I don’t know what has happened since the whole story came to light, but I gather that they (Pettway and Carlina White) have remained in touch.

Of course it isn’t my job to figure out what the right sentence is (and I’m glad of that) but I do think it’s worth thinking about.  What’s the point of a prison sentence here?    I’ll try to be systematic and run through some possiblities.

It isn’t to keep Pettway from doing the same thing again.   I don’t think anyone asserts that there’s any chance that she’ll reoffend.    It’s hard for me to say that she needs to be rehabilitated.

There’s vengeance, of course.   An eye for an eye.   And I think that is the spirit in which Joy White suggests 23 years.   I’m not a fan of vengeance, personally, but it’s clear that vengeance is one of the basic purposes of punishment in our criminal system.

There’s also deterrence.  What Pettway did is a terrible thing that caused terrible harm to the people involved.   It’s not remotely acceptable.   That’s why it is a crime and a serious crime at that.   To vindicate the greater interests of the justice system, the law must be enforced.   There must be punishment for a breach lest others think this isn’t such a serious thing.   If deterrence is your purpose, though, the 23 years figure loses its obvious justification.    Considering how long a sentence is required for deterrence mandates a completely different analysis.

These sorts of factors are present in many if not most criminal cases.  But there’s an additional factor floating around here.   What about the interests of Carlina White?   I’m inclined to think that it is her interests that ought to be controlling here.

It’s a sad truth that no one can make up the lost time to Joy White and Carl Tyson.   You could lock Ann Pettway up for the rest of her life and it wouldn’t give them back the years they missed.  Perhaps their impulse for vengeance would be gratified and thus, they’d be marginally happier.

But would this happiness come at a cost to Carlina White?   Ann Pettway raised Carlina White and thus, for better or worse, they ended up with some sort of relationship.   I’m in no position to say what that relationship is, but there aren’t any allegations that Ann Pettway was cruel to Carlina White during the years she raised her.   It seems to me possible that Ann Pettway is an important figure in Carlina White’s life.   And if she is, and if Carlina values her relationship with Ann Pettway, then there is a potential cost to Carlina White in locking Ann Pettway up for the rest of her life or even for 23 years.   If that is the case (and there are a lot of “ifs” strung out here), then I think that cost outweighs whatever gratification the lengthy sentence might bring to the biological parents.

No one can fix this situation.   The best we can do is move forward in the way that is best for those who have been harmed.   I think we ought to take our cues from Carlina White and I’ll be very interested to hear what she has to say.


11 responses to “Guilty Plea in Baby-Snatching: What’s the Point of Prison Time?

  1. I can empathize with Joy’s anger & her desire for a longer prison sentence. If it were me, I might be asking for something even worse. But, if it appears that Carlina would be harmed by a harsher sentence then I’d have to let my love as a parent override my desire for vengeance & not ask for something harsher than the plea deal. Otherwise, I fear doing so would further complicate attempts at building a relationship with Carlina. And shouldn’t the goal be to build a bond with Carlina? Hence, I’d leave it to the justice system & let the chips fall where they may.

    • This, in my view, is where we have to strike the balance. You also raise a point I hadn’t thought about–if the system acts on Joy White’s urging and therefore overrides Carlina White’s interests, that’s not going to do much to build their relationship, is it?

  2. Julie have you seen Tangled? Do you know what Stockholm syndrome is? How about abused women syndrome?

    “White told relatives she was taken to Connecticut and raised under the name Nejdra Nance in an abusive home by a woman identified by police sources as Mary Pettway”

    I certainly protected the guy that use to beat the hell out of me from going to jail. It did not matter how close I’d come to death once during the abuse, afterward I would try to cover it up and keep him out of trouble. If he had not shot himself (called me on the phone while I was at work b/c I left him) he would have killed me at some point.

    So if Ms White is now trying to protect Pettway it is not surprising and it can be maddening for family members to see someone they love cling to an abusive relationship. It just makes no logical sense. I’m sure her parent’s are frustrated. And they are her parents whether or not they raised her. She only thought of Ms Pettway as a mother because she was tricked into thinking she was.

    It was never real it was always contrived. Sometimes it sounds like you believe if people act out their lies long enough and get enough people to believe them that they actually become true. Its that whole perception is reality line of thinking. Reality is reality.

    I don’t know what good jail time will do either but taking away people’s freedom is how we punish people in this country. She disregarded the freedom of another human being for 23 years. It does not matter if she did it to be a nice and loving mother or a cruel and horrific task master – she held this young woman captive and kept her from knowing her family all her life.

    Elizabeth Smart or JC Duggard? Was that worse in your mind because they were sexually abused or because they had been raised by their parents for some time first?

    • I have not seen Tangled, but I do know what the Stockholm Syndrome is and I have worked with battered women and am familiar with a lot of the literature around that. (I have to say, I more readily see the possible application of the Stockholm Syndrome here than the battered women’s literature, but I think we should let that go.) The judge probably ought to consider what possible role this might have in shaping White’s opinion, but I am not willing to completely discount whatever Ms. White has to say because of these possible concerns.

      Some of our disagreement here is a bit familiar. You say “she only thought of Ms. Pettway as a mother because she was tricked into thinking she was.” I don’t think this is an accurate description. First off, and Pettway was upfront about not being the biological mother–she didn’t lie to White on this point. And from all I know (and again I’ll emphasize that I have very limited knowledge) Pettway acted fully as a mother in the sense that she cared for the child, providing all the physical and emotional care we might expect generally. Thus, (and here’s where we get to that difference) I think White might have thought of Pettway as a mother because she played that role in White’s life. I find it quite plausible that under these circumstances, while White could be plenty angry with Pettway, she might not wish to see her locked away for twenty years.

      I actually think it does matter a great deal whether Pettway was a nice and loving mother or a cruel and horrific task master. I cannot imagine that doesn’t matter to White and because of that it matters to me, too. This does not excuse her conduct, but it is something I would take into consideration. I guess I think that really you would, too. Would you really put Pettway in the exact same category as someone who stole a child and then kept her locked in a closet with minimal food, no education, no affection for 23 years? Surely this does matter.

      I don’t want to agree with the way you say things, but there is a way in which I probably should. If you take the wrong baby home from the hospital and you act the role of parent for that child for twenty years, you have created a reality. I don’t mean you become the biological parent. That’s a reality to. But you surely create the reality that you are the social parent of that child. This really is back to where we disagree. I think the lived reality that people experience is important to consider.

      None of this is to excuse Pettway’s conduct. She should be punished to uphold our interest in the law and she will be. But some need for vengeance should not lead us to inflict additional harm and White. Perhaps we can agree on that, at least? And to me, this means we have to listen to what White has to say.

      • Ok but you did see the part in the article that says pettway abused her and that ms white became suspicious that she was not her real mother due to the lack of resemblance. If those issues are what your opinion turns on because you said she was not abusive and had not lied to her about being her biological mother, then maybe you’d think differently of her since apparently there was abuse and biological lying as well.

        My comparison with battered women syndrome is that you don’t want any harm to come to the person who is abusing your rights, you just want them to get better and treat you right so you can be happy together. Your bonded to them the way people get to their kidnappers. Although granted women are free to leave and this woman was not and neither was jc duggard or elizabeth smart, although at times they were free to go and I think that might be my point. If I have one.

        • My bad about the timing of when she told her she was adopted. You’re right that she didn’t tell her.

          I actually do not see anything about abuse. Is there abuse apart from taking her and then not telling her? This would matter to me.

          The not being honest does matter, too, but it still doesn’t want to make me invalidate whatever Carlina White wants to say. Remember, I’m not arguing that Pettway should not be punished, I’m only suggesting that the guideline shouldn’t only be the vegeance sought by White’s parents and that White’s views need to be taken into account.

          • this isn’t a civil case; why do the whites have any input in either directions/
            there are designated penalties for kidnapping, that’s what law is for

            • True enough, but the press is often interested in hearing from the victims of crimes and how they feel about sentencing. There’s a modern trend which is to actually have victim impact statements as part of the record of a sentencing. A criminal sentence serves a variety of purposes–it channels a societal need for vengeance/justice, it deters other, it protects us from a dangerous person, it allows a person to be rehabilitated and return to society. Some people may feel a greater need for vengeance here (and in many cases) than others do. In negotiating a plea agreement the prosecutor is trying to balance lots of these things.

  3. Carlina White is an adult not a child. The parental relationship shouldn’t weigh in here.

  4. “a girl named Nenjdra Nance questioned her family and whether she truly belonged. She found no physical resemblance and was suspicious of the lack of paperwork regarding her birth and social security.”

    “Carlina was taken to Bridgeport, Conn., and, later, Atlanta, where she was given a new name, Nejdra Nance, and was raised by a new family, unaware for 23 years that her biological family was actually in New York City.

    “Nejdra Nance was very suspicious of who she was and what family raised her,” Lt. Christopher Zimmerman of the New York Police Department said. “There was no paperwork to follow her such as a birth certificate or social security card. In her late teens she became suspicious of who she was.”

    When Carlina White was unable to get a driver’s license and saw no biological resemblance to the people she was living with, she grew suspicious.

    “She said she just had a feeling, she felt different from the people raising her,” Carlina White’s maternal grandmother, Elizabeth White, told The Associated Press.”

    “As we’ve learned of her involvement in this abduction, we’ve been working to locate her, and we haven’t been able to reach her,” said Keith Acree of the Department of Correction in North Carolina. Pettway is currently on parole in the state after having been convicted of embezzlement.”

    Look Julie this broad has convictions for all kinds of crimes, she’s currently on parole for embezzlement. She clearly has no sense of what is or is not her own to take. She abused this woman while she was a child and and she lied to her and said that she was her biological child.

    Where did you want to stand on this one again?

    “Pettway also has other convictions, including petty larceny, criminal impersonation, felony larceny and drug possession. Carlina told the New York Post that Pettway’s arrest record “doesn’t surprise me. She got arrested a couple of times when I was around.”

  5. “Carlina told the New York Post she was brought in a troubling and abusive home. The kidnapped 23 year old tells the story that “she was once stamped so hard in the face that it left a footprint.”

    She continues to claim: ‘I was exposed to a lot of stuff at a young age, ‘I never really talked about it. There were always drugs lying around. I used to see weapons.’”

    Carlina White stated her phony mother, Ann Pettway was always under the influence of drugs. She states: ‘They have this moment when they get off [the drugs] — it seems to turn them into a monster. ‘When she woke up, I used to get out of the house.’

    I’m sure she did think of her as her mother her abusive mother.

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