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“Life” Sentencing and its Impact
By Judith A. Yates
Published: 06/24/2013

Prison wall One Tennessee family has learned, through tragedy, a “life sentence” does not mean the offender stays in prison forever. Here is how one “life sentence” has affected a family, a community, and an offender.

Myrtle Chapman had a smile “as big as the moon” as one of her children will say; her humor was infectious and her heart embraced everyone around her. “Myrt” Chapman was everyone’s favorite resident of the little town, and she was much-loved by family and friends. “The party didn’t start until Myrt arrived,” her friends will tell you.

Myrt had raised her two children on her own, working as a waitress in a Tennessee hotel. She was excellent with customers as she would always smile, tell a funny story, and make Tennessee visitors feel like they were at home. She saved her small wages and tips to ensure holidays were a joy for her children. “My all time favorite memories of being young and of my mother are always birthdays, Christmas and visits to my grand parents,” Myrt’s daughter will tell you.

After 17 years of waitressing, Myrt Chapman opened a store called “Myrt's Package Store.” It was just a little place in Powell, Tennessee. It wasn’t even a real building; it was originally a trolley car. It was a great place to say “hello” to neighbors, pop open a cold soda and pick up a loaf of bread on the way home. “Hey, Myrt!” People would greet as they strolled in. “Hey!” Myrt would call out loudly. “Good to see ya!” And she meant that.

Jerry Neal Carpenter was a young man with a history of family trouble who hung around the store. Jerry was in his twenties, and Myrt’s heart went out to him, so she would pay him to do odd jobs: lift heavy items for her, wash her car, anything she thought would help him. She offered motherly advice and hugs when needed.

Jerry and two friends went to Myrt’s. The friends distracted her while he tried to grab the store moneybag and Myrt saw him. She tried to defend herself, but the twenty two year old Jerry, wielding a roofing hammer, was too much for the fifty nine year old woman. Ten blows to her head, hard enough to crack her skull. “I think I killed her,” he told a friend. Then he went to an auction.

Jerry Carpenter received a life sentence for the felony murder and robbery in 1987. Myrt Chapman’s family received a life sentence of sorts; because of the sentencing laws in 1987, Jerry is eligible for parole every three years. Every three years Myrt’s family is forced to return to the parole board and hear, again, the gristly details of their beloved mother’s death. They must hear his excuses and then be able to argue, intelligently and without strong emotion, why Jerry Carpenter does not deserve parole. Along with having to learn about the court system the family learned the hard way that “Life in prison” does not mean a full life.

Should a “Life” sentence automatically mean “Natural life”? Should it be determined by the crime? Myrt’s family was elated when he was sentenced; their elation turned to confusion when they received their first notice for the parole hearing. They, along with their community, continue to fight to keep Jerry Carpenter incarcerated.



Corrections.com author, Judith Yates, is a criminologist who has lectured on domestic violence prevention for over 20 years. A former Correctional Officer Specialist and trainer with the Bureau of Prisons, she is now a true crime writer and a trainer available for guest speaking engagements. She can be reached at judithayates@yahoo.com

Other articles by Judith A. Yates:


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