Not Alone in This 

Katie and Shannon Monroe spent a decade battling the judicial system to bring their mother home. Are they free at last?

Katie Monroe left her job in Washington, D.C., as a civil-rights attorney to plea her mother's case. Katie's younger sister, Shannon, moved back to Richmond from New York and then to D.C. to help.

Last month, after the daughters spent a decade with their personal lives on hold, fighting to free their mother, a judge has ruled that Monroe's trial wasn't fair. He overturned her conviction. For now, Beverly Monroe is free.

Today is no ordinary day, with the three Monroe women sitting in the afternoon sun in Katie Monroe's backyard. The emotional impact of the last decade, in some ways a lost decade, is something the women gradually let trickle in. It is as if they haven't fully relaxed. And all three contend there is much work to be done. Still, a peaceful happiness pervades when they speak about the roles they assumed in the wake of what they so freshly recall as a nightmare.

Katie Monroe, 36, wife, mother, daughter, attorney

We knew that we'd really have to roll up our sleeves and get to work, that it wasn't going to be resolved through the court. We knew the federal habeas corpus was the way we were going to go. It's a civil action you can bring against the state to challenge your imprisonment on the grounds of the fairness of your trial. We won the writ and we deserved to win. All we've been trying to do for the past 10 years is undo what people had done wrong.

In investigating the case and getting access to police files we can now really see what went on behind the scenes. But that's separate from the human picture of this journey. There have been plenty of moments when I was angry and had to just let it all out in a big crying session.

One of the ironies of this thing is that many people in the system believe Mom is innocent or that she's harmless. In 1996 when the Virginia Supreme Court had denied the appeal, she called [the prison] and they said, "Beverly you're going to have to turn yourself in." And she said, "Well of course, but can I have some time with my family?" They said, "Take as long as you need." Mom said, "What about next Monday?"

So we spent the weekend together then we packed her up and drove her out to Powhatan. They had totally forgotten that she was coming. We had braced ourselves for this emotionally. We'd been up for days. We drove her in not knowing when we'd ever have her back. They didn't have anyone to transport her to the prison so they said, "Why don't you guys go and get some lunch and come back this afternoon." It was like, Why don't we get in the car and drive to California and right on down to Central America? We didn't get lunch. What you really want to do is run or tackle everybody in your path or cry.

It's not like getting an illness where it's out of the hands of people. There is a prosecutor or two, the police officer, a jury and the judge, and you're certain, you're certain they will see through it. I think of that movie with Daniel Day Lewis, "In the Name of the Father," and remember that scene through the course of the trial: They're playing hangman, thinking this is the stupidest thing — nobody will ever buy this, it is so contrived and absurd. I remember at times during the trial, most of the time, we felt like that. Especially when we saw the case.

Working on the case has been very cathartic for me. There were really bad moments. There was the pressure that everybody warned against. The pressure that what if you make mistakes, what if you lose. You never feel right about what's being done for you until you're in there calling the shots.

One of the things that has been hard over the past couple of weeks is that with the state threatening to appeal Judge Williams' decision, we haven't had the benefit of really getting to celebrate. It's what we've been waiting for all these years, and she's here.

We're just ready for this to be final. It's unfortunate because we should be allowed to feel safe now.

Shannon Monroe, 30, daughter, sister, artist

It's not the worst that can happen. Mom's alive, even if she were still in prison.

I've learned a lot of lessons along the way. As the youngest, I hadn't figured myself out professionally. So I really let it all drop. All of a sudden it wasn't important anymore. Of course I still wanted it. I wanted to be an artist and be dramatic and find my niche. I wanted to travel. If I would try to go on a date it consumed me. Not everybody wants to get involved with someone who has this kind of skeleton in the family closet. I still did some of these things. But it was hard to find a balance. If Mom were guilty, we would have had to deal with that, and then we could have moved on with our lives. We wouldn't have abandoned her.

I didn't know what I could do for Mom specifically because I didn't feel like I really understood the legal ends of it. But I could do administrative things. I'd just go over to the Library of Congress with Katie, and she'd have me Xerox stuff on how to file habeas appeals. I thought I could be more of an emotional kind of support for my family. I moved home after college, and whether it was vacuuming or pulling weeds or doing whatever I had to do, I tried to do it. I thought I could bring some spiritual stability to the table.

Mom used to have this recurring dream she used to tell me as a child. Probably all moms have this dream. This big bear would be coming up to the house and it would be coming to get us. Mom would have to bar the door and put us up on top of the refrigerator to keep us safe. She would do anything physically possible to prevent the bear from coming to get her children. She would tell me that dream, and I could sense she was really frightened. I remembered it always. The point is in knowing that you're going to do whatever you have to do to save the people you love. And the bond that we have as women and also as mother and daughters has always been close and protective. Now we've got Mom on top of the refrigerator. We had to get her away from the bear.

Beverly Monroe, 64

In some ways it would have been easier if I had been run over by a train.

My children could have gone on with their lives. When I think of the emotional and financial loss ... so much was wiped away.

When you have children you want to protect them. To think that they have this about me, I had never realized that. Shannon's the philosopher of the family. She's been wise since she was born. She would send me these elaborate letters with drawings of the view from our old home. I miss my cedar trees. Once she sent me a letter with a model of her apartment in New York. And Katie has been my little Joan of Arc. She's fought so hard.

They called the case a legal mine field, and it's worse than that. It is a very narrow, grueling process. The whole time, what you really want to do is say to people "This is wrong, don't do this to us." It was like this huge debt. I just wanted the chance to clear my name and clear this up somehow. My children really couldn't live. It hits you from all angles. You really have to transcend everything that hurts.

I became close with so many of the women [in prison]. I felt like I was getting my postdoctorate in women's prisons. They condition people not to have expectations. I've researched a lot of cases. I am not alone. There are other cases like mine. I don't know everything and I don't have all the answers, but I have a lot of ideas. And I've made some promises.

It's been hard [to play the piano] since I've been home. I've forgotten how. It has quite a different feeling. I was worried about losing my love of music when I was out [at the Powhatan Correctional Facility]. You get so wrapped up in the struggle that everything else is secondary. I would always listen to opera on Saturdays and "Car Talk," and the [women inmates and guards] would always wonder what I was laughing at. "There's Miss Beverly listening to her car show again," they'd say.

I believe that something has blossomed through all the mistreatment. It was a strange nightmare. But we've done a lot of healing and learning. I'm now devoted to justice, to issues and to people. It would be really nice now to let down our guard emotionally. We don't feel free and safe yet. We want to be able to go on with our work and do what we need to do to recover. I have so much work to do. I am not alone in this. It could happen to anybody.



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