In support of Jessica Burlew, 17 year old survivor of sexual violence and state violence, Phoenix ABC would like to share the following statement:
Jessie Burlew has been in custody for more than a year in the adult jail system in Maricopa County. Over four hundred days of her incarceration have been spent in solitary confinement. She is being charged with second degree murder, as an adult, for the accidental death of Jason Ash. This is a man who was nearly twice her size and more than twice her age, who had substantially more power in this relationship than Jessie did, and who died after asking sixteen-year-old Jessie to wrap a cord around his neck.
Jessie was diagnosed at a young age as autistic and schizoaffective. At the time of Ash’s death, she was a young teenager who had run away from a DCS group home.Despite the fact that all evidence on the scene supported Jessie’s story that Jason Ash passed out without struggling or indicating that he needed help, Phoenix PD arrested Jessie and the Maricopa County Attorney’s office decided to charge her with second degree murder for Ash’s death.
Jessie Burlew has been held in solitary confinement since January 2014, a continuation of her abuse while merely shifting the abuser. The environment she’s been thrust into is one of the worst case scenarios for anyone, and particularly for an individual with special needs and acute trauma. There are, in fact, cases which set a precedent for disallowing people with mental and developmental disorders to be in solitary (for instance the 1995 federal case of Madrid v. Gomez where the judge compared putting mentally ill prisoners in solitary as “the mental equivalent of putting an asthmatic in a place with little air…”). Psychological studies have come to a similar conclusion (Solitary Confinement and Mental Illness in U.S. Prisons: A Challenge for Medical Ethics a paper authored by Jeffrey L. Metzner, MD, and Jamie Fellner, Esq). The National Prison Project of the ACLU stated that, “Although solitary confinement is well known to harm even previously healthy adults, for children, who have special developmental needs, the damage is even greater. Young people’s brains are still developing, placing them at a higher risk of psychological harm when subjected to isolation and sensory deprivation. Indeed, the vast majority of youth suicides in detention occur in isolation.” MCSO, as well as the county prosecutor, have refused to acknowledge Jessie’s prior diagnoses, going as far as denying her medication that she has been prescribed for years.
The story of Jessie’s arrest and trial is tragic, but it is not surprising. From an early age, children are taught that women and girls are dangerously sexual, and that men and boys are powerless to control themselves around them. School dress codes are written to prevent female students from “distracting” male students. From Lolita to American Beauty, precociously sexual girls seducing and exploiting older men capture the male imagination by relocating the blame in relationships with extreme power imbalance. Right now, media reports are asking questions about how male celebrity Josh Duggar should have been treated and “helped” after he molested his young sisters and other young girls. The question of how the girls who were molested should have been treated and helped after their experience is an afterthought.
Jessie Burlew was immediately exploited by the media upon her arrest. Headline after headline labelled her a “troubled goth teen” who had killed her “boyfriend.” Nationwide media presented nearly identical versions of the story: Jessie Burlew was a dangerous teenager with blue hair and piercings. Not one article presented Jason Ash as an exploitative adult who gave meth and heroin to a teenage girl with mental illness who was 27 years younger than him. In the internet era of clickbait and reality TV, tragedies and lives are sensationalized immediately for a tabloid audience.
Miriam Wasser of the Phoenix New Times was aware of the damage that had already been caused by previous media reports depicting Jessie as “death-obsessed,” “beyond her years,” promiscuous, mentally ill, and therefore threatening and disposable. Wasser was also aware of the fact that so many other journalists have downplayed the age difference and power imbalance between a 16 year old girl and a 43 year old abusive man. After the first article that Miriam Wasser wrote about Jessica Burlew, there was an immediate outcry about her references to Jessie as a “troubled teen” based on her social media presence. Miriam Wasser reached out to supporters of Jessie Burlew and apologized, saying,
“I really want to apologize for the line in the story that refers to her as a troubled teen. I take full responsibility for it, but in the shuffle of late night editing, and then receiving your email early in the morning, the line got overlooked. I never in any way meant to imply that having piercings and dying your hair is a clear sign of a troubled teen. The line was in quotes because my intention was to explain that people jumped all over her and called her troubled for those things. Again, I should have caught it, and I take full responsibility. But I’m really sorry.”
Based on that conversation, supporters were given the impression that Miriam was working on improving her coverage and sensitivity around sexual violence, and especially around this case of a very young survivor already dealing with other mental health issues and state-sanctioned torture in the form of imprisonment and solitary confinement. When Miriam Wasser reached out to supporters again, she was very persistent in requesting access to Jessie Burlew’s mother, stating,
“My plan is to take a deeper look at how the larger social system in general failed this young girl–from CPS to our inadequate mental health system to what she’s going through in jail–and trying to tell this story without her mother seems unfair to Jessie. (I will also be reaching out to Jessie through the jail, and I’ll attempt to do so through her lawyer, but we all know how those things tend to go.) Just to reiterate, I’m not trying to vilify anyone, but rather use her story to tell a larger story. Thank you and please emphasize that I’m not writing a story to vilify her daughter!”
Supporters gave Tracey Woodside (Jessie’s mother) the contact information for the New Times reporter, but also reassured her that she had no obligation to talk to the media, and that she could request an interview via email so that she had time to think about her responses and to ensure she was quoted accurately. Tracey did request an email interview, but was heavily pressured by Miriam Wasser to meet in person and eventually she gave in.
At the same time, Miriam Wasser also contacted Jessie Burlew’s supporters requesting artwork, poetry, etc. with the assumed goal of humanizing Jessie for people who had previously only seen her mugshot. A recent drawing of Jessie’s was provided in which she depicted herself in jail, wearing stripes and in shackles, with scars on her arms and tears in her eyes. Around the drawing of herself, Jessie had written the word “extinct” five times, and also, “if they only knew the stories behind those scars, now she cries.” It also read, “She screams, they pinch her. Officers say, how can you complain? Look at your arms.” A social media bio that Jessie had written before she was arrested was also emailed to the reporter. It read,
“I love to work with anything that involves music, writing, photography, designing, art, science, animals. I have been writing for years. I love animals. And I love daily inspirements.
honestly I can be the most loving person you could ever meet and I can be the most disrespectful, rude, crude, unblissfull person you ever meet to, it is all on perception, I am non judgementful and will always be looking to get to know someone new. I am not that social at first, but I come around. I love to try stuff new, and I enjoy helping others that know what its like to be the hated out crowd. all I want to do with my life is live in an environment of happiness, while I connect to many viewers of my art and music. my idea on the best way to help someone, rather teen,child, or adult, is my inspiring something of either artwork or music or well anything that has meaning, can open up someones heart, and endure the love they seem to seek out… I just want to create a message that speaks volumes with no words, but with sight and sound. that is basically me and what I want to do.”
Miriam Wasser and the Phoenix New Times completely exploited Jessica Burlew and the access they were given to her family, supporters, and artwork. The cover of the New Times this week defiled Jessica’s artwork to make it look as though it was painted in dark red blood, with her scars depicted as open gashes. All of the writing and context of her drawing was removed, and the headline blared, “Jessica Burlew was only 16 when she strangled her boyfriend and mutilated his body.” In her article, Miriam Wasser chose to use the entire transcript of the 911 call as an introduction to the story. She included autopsy drawings and graphic descriptions of every single cut to Jason Ash’s dead body. Her voyeuristic coverage of the scene of Jason’s death completely failed to mention that there were no signs of a struggle, or that Jason was twice Jessie’s size and could have easily overpowered her given all of these power dynamics, including the presence of emotional abuse. The article offered no insight or education to the reader regarding typical responses to disassociation and panic, which may have given some context to Jessie’s immediate reactions to Ash’s death. All relevant details that supported Jessie’s innocence — even the ones in the police report — were left out of Miriam Wasser’s story.
Miriam Wasser’s article also went into extensive detail of Jessica’s past history of mental health, consistently painting her illnesses as a challenge to her ability to function in society. The article describes Jessica Burlew “losing control of herself” as a child, and notes that she was viewed as a “bad influence on her cousins.” Miriam Wasser also included unnecessary quotes from Jason Ash’s mother calling 16 year old Jessica a “skank” and describing her by saying that “her pants had holes from the hips to her ankles, she wore platform boots, her hair was different colors. She looked like someone who used drugs.” Jessica Burlew, who had been in special education from the time she started talking, was reduced to a caricature of a “goth teen.“ She was painted as a woman who is precociously sexual and dangerous to unsuspecting middle aged men (a description that could be inscribed on too many tombstones).
Jason Ash, on the other hand, clearly incited Miriam Wasser’s pity. The contrast in coverage of Jason’s mental and developmental challenges and Jessie’s is very obvious throughout the article. Every attempt was made to encourage compassion and understanding for a violently abusive adult man. He was someone who “didn’t have any street smarts. He never thrived. He tried to get jobs and couldn’t. He worked at grocery stores, CVS, [and often] got taken advantaged [sic] of.” In Miriam Wasser’s article, Jessie was to blame for the accidental death of Jason Ash, yet 43 year old Jason couldn’t be blamed for his sexual pursuit of a 16 year old girl or for the choices he made when he gave her heroin. Amidst speculation about whether Jason was somewhere on the autistic spectrum, Wasser again quoted Ash’s mother: “He could be difficult, but he wasn’t a monster. He just wanted somebody to love him, that’s all.” Jason Ash, the 43 year old man who was sexually and emotionally abusing a 16 year old, who gave her heroin and meth, and who carved a heart into her chest with a knife, was allowed his humanity, while Jessica Burlew was not.
Miriam Wasser wrote, “Burlew’s mental illness cannot explain away what happened to Jason Ash, nor can her insufficient care necessarily exonerate her” even while she speculated on what undiagnosed mental illness or developmental differences might have led poor Jason Ash astray. Jessica Burlew’s developmental differences and struggles with mental illness are documented as early as she could speak, and her entire life has been spent shuffled from special school to mental health hospital to DCS custody.The writer of this article used documented mental illness and neurodivergence to condemn Jessie, and used speculations about the same issues to implicitly exonerate Jason.
The implications of the article are also infantilizing to autistic adults, such as inferring that if a grown man does have autism, he is incapable of making decisions such as “should I or should I not get a young girl hooked on hard drugs?” or any of the other choices Ash made over and over in the process of constructing this abusive relationship with Jessie. So why, in the author’s mind, was Jason Ash cleared of wrongdoing because he may have been autistic and “wanted to be loved,” whereas Jessie’s own developmental differences were used to label her as unsafe for society? Again, women and/or feminine people are usually blamed for their experiences of sexual abuse. In this case, it was partly through Miriam Wasser’s framing a potentially shared neurodivergence in a different way depending on who was being discussed. Men are consistently portrayed as incapable of controlling themselves, while people who do not fit the white, patriarchal media narrative of the perfect victim are punished. Jessie has been cast aside as dangerous, whereas Jason must be coddled; he didn’t know any better, he “just wanted to be loved.“
Miriam Wasser is obviously not the first to allow her discomfort with mental illness and developmental differences to override her compassion. She is simply one more tabloid journalist capitalizing on the tragedies of others and summing up complex stories into clickbait. Many people were fooled by Miriam Wasser’s stated intentions of advocating for Jessie Burlew, and believed she was interested in helping shine a light on the conditions of Jessie’s prosecution and imprisonment. Instead, Miriam Wasser’s article ends up on the garbage pile with the other voyeuristic tabloid trash that cared more about sensationalizing death and tragedy than understanding and defending survivors of sexual violence.
Fierce love to Jessie, to her mother, to the young people who know how much darkness is in this world, to the women struggling in abusive relationships while being told from every angle that it’s their fault, to the people of color whose sexuality is considered a threat to be neutralized and sterilized, to the trans women whose murders are reported inaccurately if at all, to the people with disabilities facing judgment from an ableist system, and to all those who are forced to contend with all of this in isolation, behind bars or otherwise. While journalists ignore ethics to capture the short attention span of their audience, a seventeen year old girl sits in a cell in an adult jail, expecting to have her second birthday behind bars this summer. Jessica Burlew deserves better from so many adults with the power to help. Miriam Wasser is just one more name on the list of those who have let her down.
Please go to freejessieb.org and add the facebook page for the support group to get involved and support Jessica Burlew in her fight for freedom.
If you choose to read the article, please use the following link so that it doesn’t boost the New Times search results: http://www.donotlink.com/fc21