Should This Woman Be Sent Back to Prison?

She was a fugitive, yes. But for almost two thirds of her life, she’d also been a law-abiding soccer mom. What should the authorities do? You be the judge.

By Vicki Glembokci
Also published in Reader's Digest Magazine April 2009

Woman in handcuffsWaveBreak Media/Thinkstock

When U.S. marshals knocked on Marie Walsh’s door last April and asked if her name was really Susan LeFevre, she said no.

She was lying—sort of.

Marie Walsh hadn’t been Susan LeFevre since 1976, the year she escaped from a Michigan prison. At age 19, she’d been arrested after selling three grams of heroin to an undercover cop. She’d served just over a year of a 10- to 20-year sentence when, one morning, she climbed over a barbed wire fence, ran to a nearby street where her grandfather waited in a car, and drove away. Weeks later, she bummed a ride to California.

That’s where she’d been ever since, going by her middle name, Marie, and using a Social Security number she says she made up. She married waste industry executive Alan Walsh and raised three children, lived in an $800,000 house in San Diego, drove a Lexus SUV, and volunteered with several charities. She was a fugitive, yes. But for almost two thirds of her life, she’d also been a law-abiding soccer mom. That is, until an anonymous tipster led federal agents to her door.

When the marshal showed LeFevre, 53, fingerprint evidence (and reminded her she could get into even more trouble for lying), she came clean about her true identity. Then she asked him, “Are you sure you have to take me?”

He was. Not only was she required to serve the remainder of her sentence (she wouldn’t be eligible for parole until 2013), she also faced five more years in prison for the escape. She was held in a San Diego jail for three weeks, then transferred back to Michigan, 2,000 miles from her husband and children, who, she says, didn’t know about her past until she was arrested.

But Susan LeFevre did not go quietly. After her rearrest, she told her version of the story to the press—a different version from the one that emerged in 1975. Back then, authorities described LeFevre as a dealer who made $2,000 a week. Now she claimed she was a recreational user who sold drugs only a few times. She said that since the offense was her first, her attorney had advised her to plead guilty, betting that the judge would be lenient. The plan backfired, and the judge sentenced her to 10 to 20 years.

More than three decades later, in July 2008, LeFevre’s new lawyer, William Swor, asked a Saginaw County circuit judge to throw out the 1975 sentence. He argued that Michigan law (and federal law) required that most sentences be tailored specifically to the offender and the crime. “It appears to us that there was a policy in Saginaw County that anyone involved in a heroin transaction got 10 to 20 years, regardless of their background,” Swor says. The county prosecutor, Mike Thomas, opposed the request: “If she were to be let out now,” he wrote in a court filing, “what does that say to the 51,000 people serving a sentence in the state? You don’t have to serve your sentence if you escape?”

Meanwhile, friends, relatives, and strangers from around the country sent hundreds of letters to Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm’s office pleading for clemency for LeFevre. Their argument: Why should taxpayers spend $33,000 a year to lock up a woman who seems to have rehabilitated herself? Others insisted she had to pay her debt to society. “Her case tapped into some fundamental questions,” says Lawrence Hinman, a University of San Diego philosophy professor and ethicist. “What does it take to set things right?”

Next: The verdict »

  • Your Comments

    • Anonymous

      The question becomes: why shouldn’t she be forced to serve her sentence? Just because she escaped and got a new identity?

    • jhg6

      First of all, I think all drugs should be legal, and no one should go to prison for drugs. But, since they are illegal, and she was sentenced to prison according to the law, she should serve her full sentence.
      I don’t think any criminals should be let out of prison early for any reason, ever. In California, it seems that they are letting tons of criminals out of prison willy nilly, just because they say the prisons are crowded. Who cares? Keep them there until their sentence is up. And hurry up and execute the ones on death row. That should be done within days or weeks of them being on death row, not years.

    • A. Rogers

      This case should be less about the women who commit the crime but the 10 – 20 years prison sentence for a non-violent, drug charge. Our country has limited resources and they would be better used in areas like education that has been proven to reduce the risk that a teenager will turn to drugs if engaged in high school with a goal towards to college. At the most, the sentence should have been 36 months with 35 months suspended and court-ordered rehab. After spending a month in prison (not a local jail), a first time offender who has a family and gets clean in rehab is less to be a repeat offender. If this person broke the law during the time of the suspended sentence. s/he would serve that time plus the time for the second offend. In my opinion, that is reasonable system. Using my tax dollars to incarcerate a non-violent first drug offend for 10 – 20 years, it a waste of my money. I want to stop.

    • bsladybug

      Agree with Shanna. Excessive sentences don’t help rehabilitate people. This woman had served a year already. The escape needed to be addressed. The woman should have found a legal way to get her sentence reduced. So probation for the escape offense seems mild, yet appropriate when her behavior during those intervening years is taken into consideration.
      And sorry, Adman, I don’t think she is a closet dealer.

    • Shanna

      10-20 years for a first time drug offense does seem excessive. Maybe we should be looking at who else is in jail for completely unreasonable sentences instead of arguing that we are being too lenient for letting this woman off for time served and parole.

    • AdMan

      Sets a bad precedent. Like it says in the article itself, what does this say? You escape and you don’t have to serve your sentence? And agree with Chris; doesn’t look to me like she has led a ‘crime-free’ life. She has done what(ever) it takes to survive. And for what it’s worth, who can say she hasn’t gone back to dealing? She just hasn’t got caught (again) yet.

    • GG

      If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime. She pled guilty, so even though she hadn’t been in trouble since her escape, she should have been made to finish her prison term, and do whatever the punishment is for escape.

    • dannicalliope

      I say “let her go.” She’s done a better job at living a quiet life than most people who serve their full term. She’s no danger to society.

    • Chris

      She should have served the sentence.
      1. She plead guilty on a gamble, it didn’t work out, too bad. You knew the chances going in.

      2. You committed a felony by escaping
      3. You committed social security fraud and identity theft by using someone else’s SSN

      4. You committed a misdemeanor by lying to a police officer
      5. You lied to your husband, family, and friends about who you were and where you came from

      This doesn’t sound like a rehabilitated person but one who is willing to do anything to survive. If that means running from the cops, multiple accounts of fraud, lying to practically everyone around you, then they will (and did). This is not someone I want on the streets.

      • Sultry_Clue

        Yes. Let’s lock her up, and while we’re at it, we can let out, oh, a sex offender and pedophile so he can lure another innocent kid to her death hours after his release. It has happened before.
        I know it’s never black and white. But this lady does not need to join others that clog up prisons and don’t really need to be there. She sold that little bit of heroin to a cop at the age of 19? Puh-leese. This is ridiculous. She did nothing to harm you or anyone else. She does not belong in prison, simple as that.