Cheryl Armstrong is serving a 96-year sentence for two counts of second degree murder. She did not kill anyone, but drove the getaway car and was accused of being the “mastermind” in a double homicide in 1995 when she was 16 years old.
I spoke with Cheryl’s mother, Carol Johann yesterday about Cheryl and about her case. Cheryl’s parents moved from the Denver area to Canon City in order to be near the prison so they can visit their daughter. Carol told me that Cheryl will be 63 years old before she is eligible for parole.
The following are Cheryl’s words, originally posted on the Pendulum Foundation website. At her mother’s request, I’ve updated the length of time of Cheryl’s incarceration and I’ve noted that she completed her associates degree in November. She is currently pursuing a bachelors degree.
My name is Cheryl Armstrong, and I am serving a 96-year sentence for two counts of second degree murder. I did not kill anyone, but drove the getaway car and was accused of being the “mastermind” in a double homicide in 1995 when I was 16 years old. I have now been incarcerated for almost 13 years. Today, I am an entirely different person from the girl who was involved in a horrible tragedy that destroyed so many people’s lives. I know for a fact that I learned from my mistakes – they changed my life and helped turn me into the person I’ve become today. Every day for the rest of my life, I will feel horrible about what I was involved in when I was 16. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about my victims and the pain I’ve caused their families – and my own. The words “I’m sorry” do no justice to how remorseful I am now, although I am so very sorry for the pain their families suffer.
Since I have been incarcerated, I have completely changed in numerous ways and am achieving things for myself. I completed my GED in 1995 and have continued my education by completing the Business School program offered at my facility. I have also been taking college classes for the last five years, and I received an Associate of Arts Degree in November of 2007.
Upon my release, I would like to be some sort of counselor for troubled teens. I really want to use my bad experience to try to help others from making the same mistakes that I made. It’s heartbreaking to see so many children that made one horrible mistake get thrown into prison for the rest of their lives, when a huge number of them could be rehabilitated and, more than likely, never re-offend after release from prison.
Looking back, I can’t even believe that it was me who participated in something so atrocious I didn’t even care about my own life then and never took anything seriously. I have always said that I deserve to be in prison for what I did. I do not, however, feel that I should be here for another 80+ years. I have grown up and would NEVER be a threat to society. I have no violence on my record in prison, and that’s because there’s not a violent bone in my body now. I think a 96-year sentence was harsh considering it was my first offense and I actually didn’t commit a violent act.
I have accepted responsibility for my mistakes and learned from them. I would do ANYTHING to get just ONE chance to prove that I’m a changed person and would love to become a productive member of society who could make a difference in our youth’s lives. I pray that I, along with so many others who came to prison as children, will one day get this chance.
ABOUT THE CRIME
In being asked to rehash the terribly tragic event that brought me to prison when I was 16 with a 96-year sentence, the first emotion that comes to mind is sorrow…sorrow for every person affected by our careless actions. I am ashamed of the person I was when I was 15-16 years old. I feel embarrassed and humiliated to talk about my crime, because I am a COMPLETELY different person today. Those emotions, though, are part of the reason why I feel it so important to talk about it now. What my co-defendants and I did was indisputably wrong, but I know from personal experience that what this system is doing to its children is also very wrong. Therefore, I want my story to be heard in hopes that it will help society to see that children don’t belong in prison for the rest of their lives.
As a child, I was very close to my family and had a great childhood. I was an honor roll student until 9th grade and wasvery outgoing in sports and other activities (tennis, swimming, ice skating, girl scouts, etc.). My dad was a violent man, and my mom left him for good when I was two years old. I grew up visiting him less and less as I got older. I never got into any trouble until I was 14 years old. I grew up in real small towns, but when I was 14 we moved to Littleton, Colorado, and I was exposed to city life for the first time. To this day, I can’t say what was so alluring about the negative things I got drawn into. I think, at first, I just wanted to make new friends in a new place, and I obviously picked the wrong people to associate with. I started doing drugs, and for the next two years it all went downhill from there.
All this anger appeared from God knows where. I became a very bitter child who had no respect for anyone or anything. I wasn’t real violent, but had a horrible energy within me that the simplest thing would trigger. I have only been in two fights in my life, but had a horrible mouth that would say anything without thinking. Since my childhood, one of the most important lessons I’ve learned is how much power the words we speak really have in our lives. So many of my words came back to haunt me at my trial and what is so sad about it is that I really did not mean any of them. I would say horrible things (not just where my crime was concerned, but in general) and not even feel the same way five minutes later. Like every other kid I knew, I made idle threats that never carried any real intention. We all spoke that way so frequently that it really did seem completely normal, although now I realize the way we talked was anything but that.
Here’s the truth. There are two victims in my case. One of them had been my boyfriend for about ten months before I got arrested. The second victim was his other girlfriend. I was accused of basically ordering my friends to kill them both on the night of April 17, 1995, as a result of a supposed “jealous rage” due to his leaving me.
Still to this day, it is inconceivable to me how the plot of the story got so absurdly twisted and blown out of proportion. I will never get over the fact that a huge part of my conviction is based on fabricated misconceptions that were created by a prosecutor who was politically motivated to get a conviction to further his own career. Denver was “cracking down” on gang and teen violence that year, and I was the example used to show that if you make one huge mistake, you’re going to rot in prison for the rest of your life. The prosecutor was running for DA soon after my trial and was hell-bent beyond reason on making me out to be the worst child ever born. His prosecutorial tactics were cut-throat…some of his prior convictions had even been thrown out due to prosecutorial misconduct. The case was HUGE in the media also, and I was convicted there before I ever went to trial.
Before the crime happened, I had told the victim that I was messing around with someone else besides him. He told me to pick between them, and I picked the other guy. I left HIM – the first of many, many details to get twisted at my trial so I could become what they needed me to be and fall for first-degree murder. Our conversation got ugly, and he threatened to kill me and my mom. Then, I threatened him. He also had his friends call my house and leave threatening messages. These were people in his gang (he was a Blood). I then told one of my friends about it, and he called him on the phone and told him, “You’re dead.” He was a Crip and for this reason alone he never got along with the victim, and vice versa. Every person we know talked like this frequently…no one ever ended up dead.
he next day I was driving around in my car and we were bored with nothing to do. I said, “Let’s go get him (the victim).” Everyone in the car agreed, so we started to drive to his house. The bottom line is this… I didn’t care what happened that night. It has taken me years to be honest enough to say that. It’s such a horrible thing to say, but it is true. There is a huge difference, though, between being angry and not thinking or caring about the results…and forcing someone to commit murder. I did not have any respect for myself, let along anyone else in the world. My mind had fallen into some dark place and was lost there from the time I was about 15 until at least a year after I was arrested.
Cheryl doesn’t make any excuses for her actions. She made bad decisions and two people are dead. But does her culpability warrant a sentence of 96 years? I’m not proud of the things I was doing when I was sixteen either. I was drinking underage and doing a lot of other things I shouldn’t have been doing too. When I think of the tragedies that could have happened, I shudder. I was lucky.
If Cheryl’s parents were wealthy, they could probably afford the kind of legal representation necessary to pursue lengthy, expensive appeals, but they’re not.
If the purpose of the criminal justice system is to protect the public and punish and rehabilitate the offender, hasn’t justice been served?
Please share your thoughts on Cheryl’s case.