Just the Same as the Rest of the Felons
At 25, Teressa Turner-Schaefer finds herself at the same juncture as some 2,000 felons released each day in America: reclaiming life from ruin.
Life Skills and High School
The court heard how Teressa had made good use of her 11 months in Prince William County jail. She had completed every life-skills class offered and aced her GED. She attended religious services and Bible study.
Overcoming Years of Abuse
She cooperated with counselors trying to help her overcome years of abuse, neglect and despair.
A Very Decent Person
"I have come to find out that you are apparently a very decent person," Circuit Court Judge Rossie D. Alston Jr. said at her sentencing that blustery November day last year. He accepted the plea bargain that suspended a 10-year prison sentence and placed Teressa on probation for five years. "I am giving you the benefit of the doubt," he admonished.
Officially, society has forgiven her for taking a life. Teressa is unsure if she can do the same: "I'm working on it."
Tough Living in Murder Scene
Bearing jail commissary gifts for her three small children -- cheap radios, little toothbrushes, plastic combs -- she forces herself to return to the Dale City split-level where she killed her husband, Erin, making the place where his life ended the one where hers is beginning again.
"It's all I have left of him," she rationalizes.
The Sofa Still Reeks
Erin's family cleared out his belongings, save for the huge sectional sofa reeking of stale smoke, and the wide-screen TV that drones in the background. Teressa sorts through the paperwork underscoring Erin's absence, the insurance forms she must fill out, the lease she cannot pay, applications for jobs she won't get. He was always the decision-maker. Methodically she lists what she must do to build a stable life: Find work, regain custody of the kids, seek counseling, join a church, enroll in college, learn to drive, buy a house.
Within a week of her release, she is flying over every hurdle.
She lands a seasonal job at the Ann Taylor store where her sister already works, and takes delight in folding sweaters just so. The employee discount seduces her into spending too much of her part-time paycheck on pretty outfits, she realizes, "but I need clothes for work." It's the first real job she's ever had. Her mother and two grown sisters have moved into the split-level to offer financial and emotional support. A neighbor is teaching Teressa to drive, and friends from her new church have promised to help her get a car from a good Samaritan who repairs beaters for donation. She peruses Christian universities online.
Her Biggest Challenge
But she worries about her biggest challenge, the only one, she says, that matters: Teressa's children are living with Erin's mother, who moved to Northern Virginia to care for them after her arrest, living in the house where her son died until Teressa's own mother and two sisters arrived to reclaim it for Teressa just before her release. Now Teressa must convince the court's guardian ad litem that her sons, now 9 and 6, and her daughter, 5, should be returned to her.
They Come to Celebrate
Her first weekend home from jail, they came over to celebrate an early Thanksgiving with the relatives and friends who had shown up in court to support her. Etta and Earl Hardy walked over from next door with a huge casserole of macaroni and cheese, while Teressa's mother, Maria, fussed over a turkey in the small kitchen that Teressa couldn't yet bear to enter.
It Was an Accident
Teressa says she has told her children "that I loved their daddy very much, that it was an accident, and that I'm very, extremely sorry." She says they slept through everything that drunken midnight when she whirled around during an argument with a kitchen knife in her hand.
The six-inch blade sliced through Erin's lung, pericardium and pulmonary artery. Teressa at first told police she didn't know what had happened, that Erin was drunk and she came upstairs and found him clutching his chest. But she quickly confessed, and when told at the police station that Erin was dead, Teressa begged an officer to take his service revolver and shoot her, to please, please, just let her die, too. She was booked on charges of first-degree murder. It was Dec. 11, 2005. She was 24 years old and had rarely known love without violence.
Involuntary Manslaughter Causing Death
"I filled out over 30 job applications online," Teressa reports, "and on all of them, they ask if you've ever been convicted of a felony and ask you to explain. I put 'involuntary manslaughter causing death.' I tried Silver Diner, a stock job at Toys R Us, clothing stores, Valvoline. . . . I only got one response, from Chuck E. Cheez, saying sorry, you're disqualified." A friend from church thinks she may be able to get Teressa part-time administrative work in her Alexandria office, but it's a defense subcontractor, and when that contract's up, there's no guarantee they'd keep her on.
His Favorite Dress
It's January, but 13 months after Erin's death, Teressa herself hasn't visited his grave yet, though she spends hours arguing with the military to correct his erroneous marker to reflect Erin's promotion to corporal, and to find out what happened to the flag she was supposed to be presented with. She would have had to go to Arlington National Cemetery in shackles for his funeral, and pay three prison guards to accompany her. She promises herself she'll make the pilgrimage now when she's ready, when she can afford to have his favorite dress of hers dry-cleaned. How handsome he looked in his uniform. She used to write love poems to him in spiral notebooks, about how he smelled like the color yellow, soapy and fresh, full of sunlight.
Just a Spontaneous Act
The night she killed him, Teressa says, Erin was falsely accusing her of an affair with one of his friends. "He pushed my head against the wall and I pushed him away and went to the kitchen to get a bottle of medicine. I had a migraine," she says. "I was putting water in the glass when I heard him yell, 'I'm going to kill you, you [expletive].' It just scared me. He'd choked me before until I blacked out. It was just a spontaneous act. I grabbed a knife that was drying on a towel on the counter. I turned around just as he lunged."
Out of the Mouth of Babes
Her 6-year-old, bouncing on the sofa, flashes his mother a gaptoothed smile. "I thought you didn't love him," he says, still bouncing, the accusation tumbling out in a disarmingly chirpy rush. "You killed him. You killed him on purpose!"
The color drains from Teressa's face. She rearranges the roses again, but says nothing. The 9-year-old pounces on his little brother, tapping him on the mouth over and over, as if to push the words back inside. "Stop it, stop it, stop it!" the older boy cries.
Landscaping and Orange Convertible
Learning how to manage her own finances is proving to be a tough and sometimes humiliating lesson for Teressa. A drive-by landscaper scams her out of $750 for what amounts to a couple of sorry little impatiens and a sack of mulch, and Teressa berates herself for paying him upfront. Fixing her poor credit rating is proving to be an expensive chore, too. When a financial adviser suggests that opening new lines of credit and making faithful payments will boost her low scores so she might eventually qualify for a mortgage, Teressa buys a cellphone and signs a service contract that requires a $700 deposit. Thinking regular car payments will also enhance her rating, she buys an orange convertible. She isn't sure how long the car loan is for, "but it doesn't matter, because I'm going to pay more each month."
The Dating Scene
Sometimes she is electrified by the will to move on, by the possibilities that still might exist for a 25-year-old woman. She ventures into online dating sites, and goes out a couple of times with men who can't help but ask why she's a widow so young. At first, Teressa would merely say she didn't want to talk about it so early on. But a new fierceness has taken hold lately, and she throws the truth down like a dare.
"I tell them I'm trying to change my life. I'm going to church. I help the homeless. I have a big heart. I'm doing everything the best I know how, and if you're going to judge me, then you're not the kind of person I want to be with."
Paralyzed by the Past
After a three-week trip to North Carolina to visit family over the summer, Teressa's schoolwork falters and she withdraws from college. At work, there are hints of a promotion and full-time hours, but she has to pass a security clearance, and worries that she could just as easily end up unemployed again. She buys new furniture, cuts her long hair, invites friends over for dinner.
She finds herself standing every day on the spot where he fell. She knows she should move away, go far from this place, but somehow she can't bring herself, yet, to leave.as the Washington Post put it in their subtitle to Tamara Jones' piece, from which the above is pulled: 'She Killed Her Husband, and Though Out of Jail, She's Still Not Free.'