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Debate over Michelle Jones is much ado about murder

Last month, a new group of ambitious and intellectually gifted Ph.D. candidates began their studies at New York University in the American Studies program. Among them was Michelle Jones from Indiana. While Jones’ intellectual chops and scholastic talents were right in line with those of her peers, she had taken a vastly different path there.

Jones had spent the past 21 years as prisoner No. 970554 in the Indiana Women’s Prison, incarcerated for the murder of her 4-year-old son, Brandon. In 1998, the Indiana Court of Appeals upheld Jones’ convictions for Murder and Neglect of a Dependent in Michelle Jones v. State of Indiana, and an unbiased accounting of the facts is contained within the court’s opinion.

Jones gave birth to Brandon at age 15, and had lost custody of her son for a short time before regaining custody when Brandon was 3. A year or so later, Jones left the apartment she shared with her young son to attend an out-of-town weekend theater network conference with a friend. Jones told her friend that Brandon was with a sitter. After they returned, no one saw Brandon again.

Years later, Jones confessed to a friend that she had beaten Brandon, left him alone in his bedroom and returned days later to find him dead. Jones had been no stranger to abuse herself, having endured a great deal of tragedy in her life, and had apparently snapped. Jones hid the body, and it was never found. Years later, she used this fact to argue to the appellate court that the evidence had been insufficient to convict her.

Stuck in prison, Jones went to work. She wrote several dance compositions and historical plays, received a paralegal certification and a bachelor’s degree from Ball State University and audited graduate-level courses at Indiana University – all with limited prison resources.

Jones applied to top-notch Ph.D. programs as her release from prison drew near, and was by all accounts a top candidate. Her first choice was Harvard, and she was initially accepted. But when Harvard’s top-level administrators got involved in reviewing her application, the offer was suddenly rescinded without warning. Apparently, Harvard had been scared off. Jones was ultimately released two months early to begin the Ph.D. program at NYU, having served just over 20 years of a 50-year sentence.

This is a highly-abbreviated version of the story of Michelle Jones – a fascinating tale that is worth digesting. The national debate Jones’ story is beginning to reinitiate – whether it is proper for a university to decline admission to a former inmate who has served his or her time – is also one worth having. This is a nuanced debate, of course, as the severity of the offense, mitigating factors such as prior abuse and the overall profile of the candidate are all important factors.

But in Jones’ case, the question of whether it was appropriate for Harvard to reject her application into its ultra-competitive Ph.D. program is not a particularly close one. Of course, it was appropriate. Harvard and every other school in the nation should be able to accept and reject applicants as they see fit, so long as they are not discriminating against a protected class. Child murderers are not a protected class.

Beating her 4-year-old son and leaving him for dead in her apartment while she went on a weekend trip with a friend, and then disposing of his body is one element of Jones’ past – to be considered in tandem with all the others. It is part of her life’s work. An applicant who cheated on an exam, got fired from several jobs or nearly flunked out of school cannot expect to erase these shortcomings from the record by explaining, “I didn’t do well before, but I’m a different person now.” Likewise, the fact that Jones has served her time does not erase her past – it simply removes her from the purview of our criminal justice system.

Jones is to be commended for her successes and her ambitions, and she deserves fair consideration as an applicant. But Harvard also deserves the right to say “no.”

Blake Shuart is a Wichita attorney.

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