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A life without parole


Cheryl Armstrong . Photo - Shutterstock

Cheryl Armstrong is serving a 96-year sentence for being the "mastermind" in a double homicide in 1995 when she was 16 years old

For the rest of the morning she attends business development classes and in the afternoon studies for a post graduate sociology degree — she already has an arts degree. In the evenings she sews and paints water-colours which have been shown in several art exhibitions. Cheryl Armstrong is polite, articulate and proud of her achievements. She knows that all of her activities are little more than occupational therapy to pass the time and ward off the despair into which she regularly sinks.

Cheryl Armstrong has been in America's Colorado Women's Correctional Facility high-security wing since she was 16 and expects to stay there until she dies.  

Just 18 years into a 96-year sentence, with little chance of parole until she is nearly 70, Cheryl Armstrong is one of 45 Colorado juveniles, some as young as 14, who have been given life sentences and expect to spend the rest of their lives behind bars. Cheryl accepts that she must pay the price for what she did as a 16-year-old wild child when she was involved in the murder of her ex-boyfriend Terrance Mayo and his pregnant girlfriend.

Cheryl didn't pull the trigger. She was the getaway car driver and she insists that she didn't know her friends were going to kill the couple when she dropped them off at Terrance's home.

She later told a court that her problems began when she got in with a bad crowd after her family moved to Denver, Colorado when she was 14. "I started skipping school, running away from home and arguing with my mother. I got into shoplifting and other minor crime."
Then she fell in love with 18-year-old Terrance who had an on-off girlfriend named Rachelle Peterson but they parted and he and Cheryl started dating.

"The first four months were great," Cheryl would tell detectives.

"But then I heard that Terrance was still in contact with Rachelle and I caught them together on several occasions.

"We would have a big row — and then get back together again. It became a cycle. But finally after ten long months I'd had enough and told Terrance the relationship was over for good."

But when Cheryl started seeing another boy, Terrance's friends began leaving threatening messages on her answer-phone. It was these messages which were claimed to trigger the events of April 17, 1995 — the night that began with Cheryl and two friends driving aimlessly into down-town Denver.

Cheryl said in a statement read at her trial: "One of my friends, Gregory Romero, hated Terrance and agreed when we decided to go and teach Terrance a lesson.

"I drove to Terrance's house at around 10pm. I dropped Gregory and his friend Donnell Carter off at the house and then drove round a couple of blocks. When I picked them up a few minutes later they told me they had killed Terrance and Rachelle. "I thought they were making it up — I didn't even know Rachelle was in the house. I thought they were just going to beat up Terrance and teach him a lesson. I certainly didn't want anyone to kill him." Four days later when Cheryl was arrested she learned that Terrance had been shot four times and Rachelle's body contained ten revolver bullets.

By the time she appeared in court in Denver in 1996, Romero and Carter, both 32, had been found guilty of first degree murder and jailed for life without the possibility of parole. Pressing for a conviction for second degree murder, prosecutor Gene Gennet told the court that Cheryl was a "scorned teenager" who had masterminded the revenge killing of her ex-boyfriend and his new girlfriend.

Witnesses told the jury that they had heard her say "Let's go kill Terrance" — something Cheryl denied in the witness box, saying: "Why would I want to kill him? I was the one who ended the relationship and I was going out with someone else."

Cheryl had expected to get a maximum of 20 years with parole after ten. Instead she was jailed for 96 years, to gasps of disbelief from friends and family. She remembered: "I was so stunned I couldn't react. I was just 16 and my life was effectively over. When I went back to the cells I started sobbing and I just couldn't stop."

Her parents moved from Denver to Canon City to be near their daughter's prison. They have campaigned for a lighter sentence ever since but without success. Cheryl has said that for the first nine years "I just sank into despair" but eventually became more positive. "Now I keep myself busy so that my mind has no room for negative thoughts.

Writing on her website she claims that "a huge part of my conviction was based on fabricated evidence from the prosecutor who was politically motivated to get a conviction to further his own career.

"Denver was cracking down on gang and teen violence at that time and the authorities were determined to make an example of me. I did not kill anyone and wasn't there when it happened.

"I know what I did was wrong but I am a completely different person now. I think about Terrance and Rachelle all the time and I deeply regret what happened to them. I have learned from my mistakes — they changed my life and helped me become the person I am today.

"Not a day goes by when I don't think about my victims and the pain I've caused their families. Looking back, I can't believe it was me who took part in something so atrocious. I have always said that I deserve to be in prison for what I did but I will never again be a threat to society — there's not a violent bone in my body now.

"I think a sentence of nearly a hundred years was harsh considering it was my first offence and I actually didn't commit a violent act."
Cheryl Armstrong's lawyers appealed against the sentence on the grounds that Terrance Mayo had threatened to kill Cheryl and her mother and had sent members of his gang to intimidate them.

It was claimed that Cheryl did not order her friends to kill Mayo, as the prosecution alleged, but told them to persuade Mayo to stop threatening her family — by peaceful means if possible.

But three appeals have failed and Cheryl Armstrong remains in Colorado Women's Correctional Facility, still hoping that yet another campaign will eventually secure her release.

The authorities acknowledge that Cheryl is a model prisoner. Recently she received her second degree at a ceremony in the prison attended by her parents and a few friends.

"If I leave prison I want to become a counsellor for troubled teenagers. I really want to use my experiences to help others from making the mistakes I made.

"I just want one chance to prove I am a changed person and want to become a productive member of society.

"Every day I pray that I, along with so many others who were sent to prison as children, will one day get this chance."

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