Ernestine Campbell rises graciously from a bare metal chair to say hello, as if welcoming guests to her home for Sunday tea.
It is her home, but there isn’t any tea. Not for visitors to the Scott Regional Facility in Plymouth.
The 59-year-old grandmother — otherwise known as prisoner No. 117436 —is rail thin, her clutched fingers long and spindly as a marionette’s. Wispy hair is dyed red to match her mahogany complexion.
Seats are taken in the spare and spotless visiting room. As a prison administrator sits quietly in one corner, monitoring every word, Campbell offers what she can — a few pressured hours to answer pointed questions about her life as a prostitute and the decades spent serving time for a murder she and others say she did not commit.
Talking like this is not something that comes easily to Ernestine, a woman who has learned that a closed mouth and low profile are the only sure way to survive behind bars.
She leans forward, her body tense, and starts her story where it began more than 30 years ago:
"I was dressing to go out. It was in December, right after Thanksgiving. I remember that I went to kiss my grandmother goodbye and she called me back. She said, ‘Please stay home tonight, Ponytail. Please stay here with me.’"
Ernestine pauses, tears welling up unexpectedly in her eyes. After more than three decades spent either on the run or behind bars, she is amazed that she has any tears left.
"I laughed and kissed my grandmother goodbye. When I look back on it, she knew something bad was going to happen. But I couldn’t see it then."
There is silence while Ernestine replays the events of that night in her mind. Events that would eventually earn her the unenviable distinction of being one of the longest-serving women in Michigan’s penal system. Ernestine wipes her eyes, then says softly: "My grandmother died before I ever saw her again."
That is the first of her many regrets.
Headstrong, dead wrong
When detectives came knocking at Louise Campbell’s door at dawn in 1967, Ernestine’s mother knew immediately it was about her only daughter, nicknamed "Ponytail." "I only had two kids," says Louise, now 75. "My son never gave me an ounce of trouble, but Ernestine ..."
Louise smiles when she thinks back on her daughter’s headstrong ways. "She was a mess. She wouldn’t go to school. I would physically drive her to the door. She’d wave goodbye and go in the front door — and right out the back."
Louise says that Ponytail spent a year in reform school in Adrian for truancy. She and her husband tried everything, but nothing could tame Ernestine’s spirit.
"Her friends were the most important thing to her. Her friends were into a fast lifestyle, and Ernestine was right behind them."
"I didn’t understand the word ‘no,’" says Ernestine about her youth. "My family loved me too much. I took advantage of that and always wanted more."
By the time she was a teenager, Ernestine would stay out all night partying with friends. "I was fast, but back then, I was not laying down with boys. I would be at a party and if it got too late, I was afraid I’d get a whipping if I went home. So I’d stay out all night."
It wasn’t until she was in her 20s that Ernestine turned to prostitution. Part of it was due to the influence of her friends. Part of it was due to her craving for good times and fast money.
"I was attracted to life on the streets. It seemed like people who were ‘in the life’ had all the money, all the fine clothes. I saw how my mother had nice things, but how she had to work from 9 to 5 to get them. That wasn’t for me."
So Ernestine turned tricks to get her piece of the high life. Although never an addict, she smoked marijuana and abused prescription drugs while hanging with her friends. Over the years, she had three children, but each time, she abandoned them for her mother to raise. She pauses, looking down at her hands.
"I always said that when I grew up, I’d have everything I wanted," she says. "And this is what I got."
On Dec. 12, 1966, she met Harold Oldacre, a middle-aged, white john who took a fancy to her. Undeterred by the fact that she was pregnant again, Ernestine went with her latest trick to a room, then to the Ding Dong Café, a juke joint on the north side of Flint.
A bartender later testified that he saw Ernestine and Oldacre sitting at the bar talking and drinking tea. Ernestine’s boyfriend, Harold Nunn, was in the bar, too, but the bartender said he never saw the two speak that night.
"Mr. Oldacre was getting argumentative," says Ernestine. "He wanted to go back to the room. I got mad and left, and he followed me out of the café."
According to court records, Harold Nunn was hanging outside of the café when an old friend, Johnny Henegan, passed by in a car. Henegan later testified that Nunn came up to the car and asked if he wanted to help Nunn rob a trick. The two friends went after Oldacre and demanded his money. When Oldacre refused to give up his wallet, they attacked him. Henegan pulled out a knife and stabbed Oldacre in the ribs, piercing his heart. All witnesses to the crime testified that Ernestine watched the fight from a distance.
"I turned the corner and saw Oldacre fall," says Ernestine. "A car came by and Harold told me to get into the car."
The car was full of some of Harold’s friends, most of whom Ernestine says she had never met before. "Someone in the car said, ‘Did you get the money?’ I asked, ‘What money?’ They told me to get out of the car and get the man’s wallet."
Ernestine got out of the car, and in front of several witnesses, rummaged through Oldacre’s clothing while he lay dying on the street. She found his wallet, took it and ran back to the car.
Several days later, police arrested Ernestine, Nunn and Henegan. Henegan confessed, and implicated his friend Nunn, but never once implicated Ernestine in the murder. Although the prosecution tried to prove that the three set up Oldacre for a robbery that turned fatal, no witnesses corroborated that theory. In fact, testimony regarding the coincidental appearance of Henegan at the bar that night weighed heavily against the theory that the three plotted in advance.
Well into her last trimester of pregnancy, Ernestine awaited trial in the Genesee County Jail. On May 23, 1967, the three co-defendants were tried together. Ernestine went into labor during the trial and gave birth to Harold Nunn’s child, Harlotta. Shortly thereafter, the jury convicted all three of first-degree felony-murder, which carried a mandatory life sentence.
"At first I didn’t fight the sentence. I’d just had a baby and the state was trying to take her away from me. I knew I was guilty of being a prostitute and I was guilty of robbery. I felt that I deserved to go to prison for those crimes. But I didn’t deserve a life sentence for a murder I did not commit. I was told that if I was good and didn’t make any trouble, I would do 10 years and I’d be out."
But that didn’t happen. Unaware of her rights of appeal, Ernestine settled into prison life, biding her time, waiting for a miracle that would set her free. For Nunn and Henegan, a miracle did happen. In 1990, Gov. James Blanchard commuted the sentences of Nunn, Henegan and three other convicted killers. According to press reports at the time, a Blanchard spokesman said that those cases were the "most worthy of the 20 cases recommended by the state Parole Board during the governor’s eight years in office." After they had each served 22 years for the murder of Harold Oldacre, Nunn and Henegan were free.
But for the crime of riffling through a dead man’s pockets, Ernestine Campbell remained behind bars.
A mother’s love
If anyone should have given up on Ernestine, it is Louise.
"I had all three of Ernestine’s children from the day they were born: Toye, Kenny and Bridgette. Then I had to get an attorney to make sure I could get Harlotta, too. They wanted the baby to become a ward of the state."
But if Louise harbors any bitterness toward her daughter, it is hidden deep beneath her warmth and elegance. Through the years, Louise has struggled to keep Ernestine’s children together, to maintain the facade of a normal family. Her love for her wayward daughter is bottomless.
"I would take them to prison to see their mother once or twice a week," says Louise. "Ernestine would try to keep up with them, asking how they were doing in school ..."
But Toye Campbell, Ernestine’s oldest child, looks at her grandmother and scoffs. "This is the only mother I know," Toye says, embracing Louise. "We have no memories of Ernestine as a mother. Even before she was in prison, she wasn’t there for us."
The two are sitting side-by-side on Toye’s living room couch. The house is a neat, one-story wood frame in a middle-class neighborhood in Flint. Inside it is immaculate and bright. A perfectly appointed Christmas tree stands along one wall. Nowhere are there signs of the turbulence that has hounded Toye, the 40-year-old mother of three who grew up knowing that her mother was a prostitute serving a life sentence for murder.
"Although I love Ernestine, Louise wants me to care for her as a mother, and I don’t. She walked off and left us and never came back. I’ve had problems in my life, but one thing I’ve never done is left my children."
In fact, nearly all of Ernestine’s children have struggled to make lives for themselves under the shadow of their mother’s choices. Toye succumbed to drugs, but is now a married medical technician who has been clean for five years. Her brother, Kenny, is in jail on a drug charge. Bridgette died in 1995 at the age of 33. The baby, Harlotta, refuses to see her mother. She’s in the Navy and is now stationed in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
"I keep telling the kids, ‘Don’t give up on your mother,’" says Louise. "I made them visit Ernestine and remember her on holidays. This afternoon, I’m going to go get her some little gold balls (earrings) for Christmas. She’ll like that."
She turns to Toye. "You should go in with me on them. They’re for your mother."
The sentimentality makes Toye sad. "Louise, she’s not even allowed to have them," says Toye, looking away.
But Louise is undaunted. "Yes she can," she says firmly. "Yes she can."
"My life has broken my kids down," says Ernestine while a voice crows in the background over the prison loudspeaker. "They’re stronger than I am. If the situation was the other way around, I don’t know if I’d keep visiting my mother in prison. I just keep thinking that if I had been there for them, maybe my son’s life would have been better. I know I would have been able to spot that Miss Bridgette was in trouble, because she was exactly like me. Maybe now she wouldn’t be dead."
It was Bridgette who was most like Ernestine growing up. She was strong-willed, a child who "knew her own mind," says Louise.
"She reminded me of myself so much," says Ernestine. "She was like a grown lady even as a little girl. That’s why I called her ‘Miss Bridgette.’"
At 16, Bridgette married, but divorced only a few years and two children later. "She eventually got involved with this guy ... who I didn’t like," says Ernestine, frustrated at trying to parent from behind prison bars. "She would come and visit me and tell me things that she didn’t tell anyone else. I’d tell her to leave him, but she wouldn’t."
In November 1994 he viciously attacked Bridgette, stabbing her 18 times, family members recount. He was arrested for attempted murder, then released on bond. Bridgette lay in intensive care. Somehow, she survived the attack.
"But when she recovered, she went back to him," says Louise. "Every time the phone rang, we braced for word that he had killed her." It was in the last months of 1995 that "Miss Bridgette" and Ernestine got close. "I begged her to leave him, to get out," says Ernestine.
On Nov. 29, 1995, Bridgette’s boyfriend attacked her a second time. He stabbed her 17 times and sat eating lunch while he waited for her to die, family members were told.
Grief-stricken, Ernestine applied for a pass to attend the funeral. But an inmate serving mandatory life for a felony-murder could not be allowed a furlough, even for a family death.
"I can’t get past the fact that I couldn’t go to my own daughter’s funeral," says Ernestine. "That wasn’t right. How much am I supposed to pay for something I didn’t do?"
Busted out and back
Jeanice Dagher-Margosian first heard of Ernestine’s case when Louise and Toye came to her office in the early ’90s. "We sat in a big conference room and talked for hours about the case. I decided to take it. From the beginning, we’ve had a relationship of honor, and neither of us has ever wavered in our commitment to Ernestine."
By the time her mother hired Dagher-Margosian, Ernestine had already tried finding her own way out. After it became clear to her that no amount of good behavior was going to get her case reviewed, Ernestine began escaping. Her longest break was in the early 1970’s when she broke from the former Detroit House of Corrections. The security at the facility was notoriously lax; Ernestine scaled a wall topped with razor wire, and stayed at-large for eight years. During that time Ernestine stayed in constant contact with her family, and even visited her children once. To evade authorities she kept on the move, going from state to state and then out of the country. "I went to Canada. I had a job in a bar for a while, but there were too many police around. Eventually, I went back to the streets in Montreal," says Ernestine.
In the late 1970s, police rearrested Ernestine for prostitution in Detroit and sent her back to prison. She was told that she had to "pay back" the years she was a fugitive.
"Well, I’ve done that — and more," she says.
Dagher-Margosian’s mission over the last seven years has been to re-engage the legal system on Ernestine’s behalf. She has filed three appeals arguing that there were critical constitutional errors in Ernestine’s trial.
First, argued the seasoned lawyer, people in the United States can only be convicted if all the elements of a crime are proved. In the case of first-degree murder, intent is a critical element — an element that was completely missing in Ernestine’s case.
"If no state witness offered any evidence of her involvement other than going up to the deceased and taking money from his person as he lay in the street," explains Dagher-Margosian, "then, no matter how distasteful this action is, there was no evidence of involvement in, or intent to do, a killing."
Essentially, says Dagher-Margosian, the courts convicted Ernestine of being a prostitute.
"She was degraded during the entire trial. The fact that she had sex for money was expanded to the fact that she killed people for money. There were many people who testified, but no one placed her with any involvement in the murder. Nor could anyone prove that she planned a robbery. There was no evidence of felony-murder. But what was rampant was the impeaching of witnesses based on the fact that they were prostitutes."
The glaring gender bias, coupled with the racial overtones of three black co-defendants charged with killing a white man in the ’60s, all led to the conviction of a woman innocent of murder, says her lawyer.
And Ernestine, not understanding her rights to appeal, never challenged her conviction until the early ’80s — nearly 20 years after she went to prison.
"Look at the inequities in this case," says Dagher-Margosian. "There’s the glaring fact that Henegan and Nunn are both released. They were the stabbers, but because they could afford attorneys and had access to the sophisticated prison legal system in the male facilities, they knew how to conduct initial appeals and, after exhausting habeas options, ask for commutation. Ernestine had none of these things, of course, in the women’s system. Now they’re denying her appeals because she didn’t raise these issues earlier. How do we keep someone in prison for life because they didn’t say the magic words?"
A Genesee County lower court agreed with Dagher-Margosian’s arguments in 1995 and ordered that Ernestine’s sentence be reduced to second-degree murder. Such a sentence would make Ernestine eligible for parole. In an unpublished opinion, the judge ruled: "(T)wenty-eight years of continued imprisonment for a murder without malice and without any possibility of parole cries out as manifestly unjust. I don’t think possible commutation by Governor Engler or a successor should be her only hope that she will not die in prison for a crime she did not commit as the law stands today."
The Court of Appeals, which reversed on the grounds that Ernestine should have raised certain issues earlier, also noted the injustice in the case. "Like the trial court, we are troubled by this case because the two codefendants, Nunn and Henagen (sic), have had their sentences commuted and they have been released from prison. ... (D)efendant is clearly the least culpable of the three concerning the actual murder. ..."
The Court of Appeals even recommended that Ernestine request that Gov. Engler "exercise his power of commutation ... and commute defendant’s sentence."
It is an avenue Dagher-Margosian isn’t even considering. Given Engler’s conservative stance on crime, she says her best bet is to continue fighting for Ernestine in Michigan’s courts.
Front porch waiting
Meanwhile, Louise Campbell’s future remains intimately tied to her daughter’s. These days she stays close to home, even refusing to travel around the holidays to visit her son in Virginia. "I can’t leave my bird alone — it was Bridgette’s bird," she says.
And although she’s having a hard time hanging on to the large, four-bedroom house where she raised Ernestine’s children, she refuses to sell.
"I’m keeping the house for Ernestine, so that she’ll have something of her own. I just keep praying that the Lord will open those prison doors and let her come home."
Ernestine, now awaiting surgery for gallstones, says she no longer craves life on the streets.
"I don’t want anything from my past. You can’t take 30 years out of your life and then go back to what landed you in prison in the first place."
Beyond that, Ernestine is not particularly reflective upon her past. She says she committed a crime and she has paid for it. But she believes that it is unjust to have to pay for a crime she says she didn’t commit. Instead she keeps her mind on the future — a future to be spent trying to make up for the lost years with her family.
"I just want to be with my mother, the one who’s loved me all these years. I live for the day when we’ll get two rocking chairs. We’ll be two old ladies sitting under the tree in her front yard."
Rules of the game
A change in the felony murder law could mean freedom for Ernestine Campbell
While Ernestine Campbell’s appeals have been unsuccessful to date, perhaps the Michigan Legislature will soon open a window for her release.
"We’ve been working on a bill for eight years that could possibly reduce the life sentences of people like Ernestine Campbell and make them eligible to apply for a change in their conviction status," says Dorean Koenig, a professor at the Thomas Cooley School of Law in Lansing. "There are people in prison who were put there under a different standard than the one that is now used. So you have some people who are serving time under a set of facts where they wouldn’t even be charged with murder today."
The rules regarding the crime of felony-murder changed in 1980 when the Michigan Supreme Court made a ruling in People vs. Aaron. Before that decision, if someone was killed during the commission of a felony, the perpetrator also would be guilty of murder. For example, if you broke into a house with the intent to steal a television and the owner died of a heart attack during the robbery, you could be charged with larceny and first-degree murder. Using the felony-murder rule, the prosecutor in Ernestine Campbell’s case argued that the jury had to convict her of first-degree murder if they found that she had planned a felony — to rob her trick, Harold Oldacre.
But 12 years after Campbell was convicted, the state Supreme Court reconsidered the felony-murder rule in People vs. Aaron. The court held that someone who is an accomplice in a felony is not necessarily guilty of an ensuing murder. It was the job of the jury to decide if each and every person involved in the crime had the state of mind to create a high risk of death.
Unless they had the state of mind, they could not be guilty of first-degree murder.
"Last year, a bill got out of committee that would make Aaron retroactive to felony-murder cases tried before 1980. But the legislation died on the House floor," says Koenig. "We plan to keep introducing the bill until it passes. It’s critical to the estimated 160 people who are now serving time for felony-murder."
One of those people, says Koenig, is Ernestine Campbell. "A lot of people think that Ernestine was central to the murder. But I don’t see her being central. She didn’t do any of the violence. It shrieks with injustice."
"Ernestine Campbell has sort of become a poster child for the people who want this law applied retroactively," says Arthur Busch, the Genesee County prosecutor who successfully opposed attorney Jeanice Dagher-Margosian’s petitions for Campbell’s release. She’s become a more sympathetic figure now because of her age and because the other two defendants had their sentences commuted. But I feel confident that even if she was tried under the new law, there’s a good probability that she would be convicted again. The viciousness of the attack (on Oldacre) may be lost with the years. But the evidence showed that Ernestine was the kind of person who set people up to be robbed. It was Ernestine who ended up with the bounty of the robbery and murder – the victim’s wallet. Her lifestyle at the time was spending the day figuring out how to be a predator."
"Long before the Aaron decision, courts have been concerned about convicting people for first-degree, non-paroleable murder only when they had actual intent to commit the crime. Ernestine Campbell was a hooker, not a murderer. I don’t understand how people can keep turning their backs on this case. If she’s a poster child, she’s a poster child for a system that lets someone rot in prison for a crime they did not commit."
Even Busch admits that Ernestine Campbell’s case is caught in legal semantics.
"The problem is that the Prosecuting Attorney’s Association of Michigan has taken a hard line against retroactively applying the law. We’re continuing to talk to legislators to try to forge a compromise on this matter."