College graduate's life takes different course after conviction

Colleges and UniversitiesCrime, Law and JusticeJustice SystemFirearmsHuman InterestUniversity of Arkansas Pine Bluff Roseland

— The road leading to the women's prison in this rural town is lined with crops as far as the eye can see. And by 6 a.m., 21-year-old Olivia Moody is out with the "field squad," picking okra, squash and beans under the Southern sun, the way her grandmother picked cotton a half-century ago.

An honor student who worked her way out of Chicago's crime-ridden Roseland neighborhood to become the first in her immediate family to graduate from college, Moody's life had once been on a different course.

But in May, less than a week after she received a degree in criminal justice from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, a jury convicted her of killing a 21-year-old mother of two after a senseless altercation over a young man.

Moody claimed that she had been bullied by a group of women from the neighborhood and that the shooting was self-defense. The jury decided it was second-degree murder.

Now the young woman born to a prostitute and crack addict who abandoned her at the hospital after birth, a young woman who believed that education would be her ticket "out of the ghetto," is serving a 30-year sentence in an Arkansas prison.

"My world has been turned around," Moody said, tears trickling down her face as she sat for an interview at the McPherson Unit, a women's correctional facility about 100 miles northeast of Little Rock.

"I tried to live my life as a model that you can be successful regardless of where you came from," she said, having dreamed of becoming a lawyer and even a Supreme Court justice. "It's hard to tell my little brother and sister they can do better when I'm sitting in prison. I feel like I'm a failure to them."

When she was 8, Moody was featured in a Time magazine article that chronicled her mother's efforts to give up her life on the streets with the help of Genesis House, a drug recovery center on the North Side. Thirteen years later, Moody barely remembers the visit, during which she drew a portrait of her mother and added a caption describing her as "the best mom I've ever had."

In the years that followed, Moody set out to prove that growing up in a rough environment didn't mean she was destined to follow the path of her mother and two older siblings, who drifted in and out of trouble.

Moody and her four siblings were raised by their two aunts and grandmother, who worked as a maid after migrating to Chicago from Arkansas when she was 20. The family moved around, living in small apartments in Bronzeville and Roseland. Teachers, counselors and friends reached out to help Moody along the way.

She stood out at Percy L. Julian High School, making nearly perfect grades while playing cymbals on the drum line and oboe in the concert band.

Her family kidded her about being "odd," a loner who would rather stay home and read than go to parties. For her senior prom, she accepted a date with a young man in a wheelchair.

"Julian at the time was really a school of a lot of fighting. A few kids were killed that year," said Derrick Shelton, Moody's high school counselor, who wrote a letter to the Arkansas court lauding her ambition and stellar character. "She wanted to get away from that by going to college."

She secured scholarships, grants and student loans to pay for college and headed south, far away from her gritty life in the big city.

"I came to Arkansas trying to escape life in Chicago," said Moody, a soft-spoken woman with a girlish smile. "I wasn't happy in Chicago because my family was so dysfunctional. I figured if I got away and started over on my own accord, I could be happy."

Outwardly, Moody appeared to be on track, maintaining a B-plus average during her four years in college. But inside, she quietly struggled to find her place in the new world that was opening up to her. After moving off campus, she found herself drawn to neighborhoods in Pine Bluff that were similar to the one she had left in Chicago.

"I was in a rush to grow up," Moody said. "I lived in this little fantasy world where I felt like I would come to Arkansas, get married and have kids. I was moving too fast, me and the boy I was with."

Moody's life took a drastic turn on a Sunday afternoon in June 2011, when she shot Vanessa Bearden in front of onlookers at a Pine Bluff apartment complex. Moody did not know Bearden, but she was a friend of the young woman who was dating Moody's former boyfriend.

The dispute between Moody and the new girlfriend escalated on Facebook. An hour before the shooting, according to testimony in the three-day trial, Bearden had been among a group of women who physically attacked Moody on a street and then followed her home. They didn't know that Moody had armed herself with a 9 mm pistol given to her by a friend for protection.

Bearden, according to testimony, had a knife tucked in her waistband. When the women saw Moody's gun, they fled. Moody said she held the gun out and fired, unintentionally striking Bearden in the back shoulder as she tried to run away. Moody stood over her in shock and watched as she bled on the ground. Police arrested Moody later that evening at her apartment.

Friends in Pine Bluff rallied around her, refusing to give up hope that the young woman who had landed an internship with a local judge and worked part time at the mall could continue pursuing her career.

Moody, freed on $25,000 bond, attended classes and socialized. Friends raised nearly $10,000 for her defense, and she repaid them by graduating with a 3.6 GPA. They also donated money to Bearden's mother, who has terminal cancer and was left with her daughter's young children.

Moody's family back in Chicago rallied to bring attention to the problem of bullying. They held fish fries and car washes, and sold raffle tickets to raise money to drive to Arkansas for her graduation and help with legal bills.

By the time Moody went to trial four days after her May 12 graduation, the tragedy of the previous year seemed like a dream, she said. Sometimes it was easier just to pretend it never happened.

Hours after graduating, Moody pranced around her apartment, still wearing her sash and tassel, and explained what it meant to be a college graduate to her 19-year-old sister, Carole White.

"It is now time to change," Moody said in a cellphone video. "My undergraduate career is over. I must now live a graduate's lifestyle."

Moody and her supporters had been so confident that she would be acquitted that she turned down a plea bargain that would have kept her out of prison, according to her attorney, Eugene McKissic.

To the jury, it was another senseless killing in the predominantly African-American city of nearly 50,000 that already has had 13 homicides this year. It could have sentenced Moody to as little as six years. Instead, the jury chose the maximum 30 years.

"This was not a case of 'Southern justice.' Everyone in the courtroom was surprised by the verdict," said McKissic, who represented Moody pro bono and is preparing an appeal. "Her high academic achievement and exposure worked against her. If she had been less educated and a less accomplished person, maybe they would have given her more credit for acting out of emotion."

What shouldn't be forgotten, according to Bryan Achorn, the deputy prosecutor who tried the case, is that another young woman's future also was cut short. Bearden had received her nursing certification in May, weeks before she was killed, he said.

"To say we were surprised (by the verdict) would be inaccurate. To say we were pleased would also be inaccurate. The jury spoke for the community," Achorn said. "This is a tragic case all the way around."

Friends insist that Moody was acting in self-defense and that the 30-year sentence was excessive.

"That girl had been threatened, bullied and beat up before. When this incident happened, she was fed up with it, so she instinctively did what she had to do," said John Tate, a 73-year-old retired Army veteran and businessman who provided financial help and other support to Moody while she was in college.

Tate and his wife, Kwurly, a retired registrar at the historically black University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, welcomed Moody into their family after she became friends with one of their relatives and talked her out of committing suicide, he said.

"She took a life and saved a life," Tate said. "This young lady was worth saving. She should be out in society helping young people in Chicago and other children from dysfunctional families."

Back in Chicago, Vanessa Moody said she believes it is her fault that her daughter has ended up in prison.

Like her daughter, Vanessa Moody had once shown promise. After making good grades in high school, she attended Southern Illinois University in Carbondale for two years before dropping out. She had wanted to be a television journalist, but drugs got in the way.

At 50, she no longer walks the streets looking for men and, she said, she has given up drugs. As part of her recovery, she wrote letters to her children apologizing for her failures, and Moody wrote back forgiving her.

"I blame myself for what happened to Olivia," said Vanessa Moody, who traveled to Pine Bluff with her mother and other relatives for her daughter's graduation but left before the trial began. "I feel like I'm doing the time with her."

Though sentenced to 30 years, Moody could be released on parole in 71/2 years with good behavior. But even that seems like a lifetime to a woman who continues to cling to her dreams.

"I still plan to be a lawyer, but I feel like I'm here for a reason," said Moody, who graduated with a $38,000 student loan debt. "I'm writing a book about my life, and I feel like this is something I need to go through to make me a better person."

Her grandmother, Ernestine Moody, 76, who is blind and recovering from a recent stroke, still has hopes for Olivia too.

"All she ever talked about was criminal justice and becoming a lawyer," she said. "That's what I want for her. She shouldn't be in jail. She should be out helping people."

dglanton@tribune.com

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