NEWPORT, Ark.—— 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.