Jessica Burlew, an 18 year old girl diagnosed as schizoeffective and autistic, was held in isolation in Estrella Jail from January, 2014 until November, 2015. She currently housed at Perryville Prison after having been convicted of 2nd degree murder for the accidental death of Jason Ash, a 43 year old man who was sexually exploiting her as a 16 year old.
Jessica Burlew’s childhood has been tragically cut short by a series of adult events, but it was not an easy path even before she met Jason Ash. Jessie was diagnosed as autistic at an early age and spent most of her life in special education, with an individualized education plan for behavioral issues. Jessie was living with a schizoaffective diagnosis as well, and bounced in and out of DCS group homes and special schools. Her mother, Tracey Woodside says, “Jessica has been getting psychiatric help since she was 4. Including therapy, all types of medications tried, monthly psychiatrist visits, worked with behavioral specialist in the home and in public. [She] has been in several residential treatment facilities and has made many trips to the mental/behavioral health hospital. I have taken several classes that specify in children’s behavior health. My point being is that the system has failed us, I failed Jessica by listening to and doing what mental health professionals told me to.” In the supposed sanctuary of state caretakers, Jessie was often cruelly taunted and beat up by other kids. In January 2014, Jessie was supposed to be in the protective custody of the Arizona Dept. of Child Services, but she had run away from the DCS group home she had been placed in. Her DCS case manager made a handful of trips to Jessie’s mother’s apartment, knocked on the door, and left when there was no answer. These are the only recorded attempts by DCS to locate Jessica Burlew. During this time, Jessie met 43 year old Jason Ash through social media. Ash lied to her and said he was in his 20s. The police report shows that Ash was aware that Jessie was only 16. That did not prevent him from providing her with hard drugs such as meth and heroin or from pursuing a violent, coercive relationship with her.
The media has characterized Jason Ash as Jessica Burlew’s “boyfriend,” which is inappropriate for a 43 year old man having sex with a teenage girl 27 years younger than him. The legal age of consent in Arizona is 18 years old, but beyond just age, Jessie Burlew was at an extremely vulnerable point of her life and there was an insurmountable power differential between her and Jason. Jason Ash was a sexual predator who took advantage of a mentally ill and emotionally vulnerable young girl in need of companionship and support. On January 18th, 2014, Ash allegedly requested that Jessie asphyxiate him with an electrical cord and told her he’d use a “safe word” when he needed her to stop. At some point, he lost consciousness and Jessie did not realize that he had suffocated until it was too late. Ash was a large man who could easily overpower Jessie, but his body was found laying on a bed with a cord with no signs of a struggle, which corroborates Jessie’s story that he willingly engaged in this act and did not give her any sign that he was unsafe and needed to be released. As is definitive of schizoaffective disorder, Jessie dissociated when she realized that Ash was dead, an experience she describes in textbook fashion in her police interview from that night. When she couldn’t revive him despite several attempts, allegedly including cutting him, Jessie Burlew did what many 16 yr old girls would do: she called her mother. When the police and paramedics arrived, Jessie hid in several neighbors’ apartments. It is telling that Jessie had a relationship with her neighbors and they did not perceive her as a dangerous or threatening person; rather, they wanted to protect her. When asked by the police, Jessie stated that Ash had failed to use a safe word so she would know to stop. At no point did she make any statement of intending to kill Jason Ash. Jessie was a mentally-impaired child being sexually abused and exploited by Jason Ash, right up until the moment of his death.
Jessica Burlew signed a plea for Second Degree Murder. She is facing a possible sentence of 10-12 years in an adult prison as per the agreement she signed. There has been no consideration given to her young age, mental illness, or the fact that she was supposed to be safely in state custody at the time that she entered into a sexual relationship with a much older, and abusive, man. Since entering Estrella Jail, Jessie has been kept in isolation. This means that she is in a small cell for 23 hours each day, and for one hour a day, she can enter a larger lounge room. There are five other juvenile girls being held in Estrella right now, but Jessie has been kept separate from them for the majority of her incarceration. She is not usually allowed pencils or paper, only crayons, and the artwork she creates on the back of forms is frequently confiscated during inspections and thrown away. Up until she took the plea, Jessie Burlew was in the pre-trial stage of her case for almost two years. Her diagnoses as schizoaffective and autistic have been ignored except in attempts to render her competent to stand trial as an adult. She was not found mentally competent to stand trial until November, 2014.
Jessica Burlew is a bright and artistic girl, often with vivid blue hair and a fascination with fantasy novels. She often writes poetry and songs, and found community in online social groups for other writers and fans of fantasy. Her music tastes are diverse, ranging from Toby Keith to the Rolling Stones to the Violent Femmes, but her favorite genres are industrial and metal. Much of her writing contains a rebellious teenage spark. Jessie is very lonely in isolation. She is an avid reader and enjoys receiving books and letters. She sends out artwork and hopeful messages to her mother, trying to reassure her that they will be reunited soon and that they must be going through this struggle for a reason. Jessie’s mother, Tracey, has stayed in close communication and support of her daughter, but a debilitating car accident in the fall of 2014 has made it impossible for her to visit her daughter until she goes through rehabilitative therapy. Jessie has not been allowed to use the video visitation offered in the Maricopa County Jail system, so the only time she has seen her mother since the car accident was at a pre-trial date in March, 2015.
Many, many adults failed to protect Jessie Burlew. The 18 months she has spent in isolation in Estrella Jail has further traumatized her and there has been inadequate mental health services provided for her as a juvenile survivor of sexual violence. Local media immediately sensationalized Jessie by describing her as a “goth teen” and consistently referring to Jason Ash as her “boyfriend.” Her full name, family history and photos have been shared all over the media and internet, in complete violation of rehabilitative models for teenage victims. There has been almost no acknowledgement of the power differential between Jessie and Jason Ash, except in one statement by KTVK of Phoenix that “Burlew is technically a victim because she is a minor.” The age of consent in Arizona is 18 years old; Jessie Burlew was 16 years old at the time of Ash’s death, and he was 27 years older than her. Even without the age difference, Ash’s relation to Jessie was one of coercion and abuse.
A support network has been built to draw attention to Jessie Burlew’s case, and their efforts have flooded the County Attorney’s office with requests to offer a humane plea agreement to end the cycle of abuse and trauma. For over a year, supporters have attended Jessie’s pre-trial dates and written to editors and reporters about the framing of Jessie’s story. Many responsible news organizations have changed their stories retroactively to reflect that Jason Ash was not Jessie’s “boyfriend,” he was a 43 year old man violently exploiting her. The County Attorney’s office never wavered on their decision to try Jessie as an adult for murder, in spite of the fact that so many years in an adult prison could likely be a death sentence for such a vulnerable child. The responsibility of the state in this case should be to address the extreme failures of the Dept of Child Services, not to hide Jessie away in the prison system as though she is a mistake. Jessie deserves access to the mental health care to process what she has survived, not further traumatization.