ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. —
It was a case that drew national attention in 1999. A brother and sister in Brevard County were sent to adult prison for killing their would-be stepmom. They were just 12 and 13 years old.
That young woman was Catherine Jones, and she was one of the youngest kids in America to be sent to adult prison for murder.
“I wasn’t this calculated, cold-blooded killer like I was portrayed in the media,” Jones said. “I was a 13-year-old child.”
Now nearly 25 years later, Jones is sharing her story for the first time since leaving prison. In an exclusive three-part “Saving Our Streets” report, WESH 2’s Marlei Martinez sat down with Jones about what she calls “living a life of redemption.”
Part I: “Life of Redemption”
A scrunchie in her hair and handcuffs on her wrists — at just 13, Jones and her 12-year-old brother Curtis were arrested for killing their father’s fiancée, Sonya Nicole Speights, inside their Port St. John home on Jan. 6, 1999.
“I shot Nicole Speights,” Jones confessed to a judge during her trial.
Jones was an eighth grader at the time and gripped the podium during her sentencing.
“Sir, there was no reason to do it,” Jones said through tears to the judge. “I may have thought at the time that it was, but there was no reason to take another person’s life.”
The state initially charged the children with first-degree murder and went for life sentences. But ultimately, the pair took a plea deal: second-degree murder for 18 years in prison and life probation. Jones completed her prison sentence in 2015.
She now serves on Orange County’s Citizens Safety Task Force. She is part of the over 30-member team of police officers, prosecutors, pastors and community activists that Mayor Jerry Demings brought together after the deadly Pine Hills shooting spree in February. The task force’s mission is to come up with ways to prevent violence, particularly among young people.
At this month’s meeting, Jones brought her kids along.
“I want them to know that their voices matter in the community and that it takes all of us for one of us to be successful,” Jones said. “I want them to feel apart of it and know that they’re responsible for other people.”
Jones is now one of the county’s Credible Messengers. Credible Messengers are people who use their lived experiences to mentor the youth. It is all part of what Jones calls her “life of redemption.”
We asked her: “When you look back on what you did, why did you do it?”
“There’s no justification for taking someone else’s life,” Jones said. “In my 13-year-old mind, I could have gave you a bunch of reasons of how I felt desperate, I felt hopeless, I felt trapped and angry and bitter for everything that happened to me. But nothing justifies what I did, and I wouldn’t even try to.”
Back during the trial, Jones’ defense team said she lived a tough life.
“She’s lived a life that we don’t want children to live,” defense attorney Keith Szachacz said.
Defense attorney Kepler Funk also weighed in.
“She’s not a monster of a person. She’s a regular little girl that committed a horrible act,” Funk said.
Now nearly a quarter of a century later, Jones talked about her childhood trauma at a Peace and Justice Institute conference in Orlando in May. She told the crowd that another person close to the family sexually abused her.
“All I knew is that I was desperate,” Jones said. “And I was at wit’s end.”
That’s when Jones said she made a decision.
“I said I was going to do anything in my power to get us out of that situation. And so, at 13, I formulated a plan to take the life of everyone in that house. I held each of them responsible,” Jones said. “And so at 13, I made the decision that I made, and I went to adult prison.”
Jones said she wished she had someone back then to give her hope.
We asked Jones: “Are you sorry for what you did?”
Her response: “Absolutely. If I could go back to January 6, 1999, and trade places, I would without hesitation. But the life that I live now is my eternal apology that hopefully, that somehow, someway, the scales get balanced, and I can do more good than I did harm.”
At the turn of the century, Jones was branded as one of America’s youngest convicted killers.
But now, she is dedicating her life to cultivating new titles: mom, mentor and juvenile justice advocate.
Part II: “Children aren’t born bad”
The state originally decided to try Jones and her brother as adults and went for life sentences.
“It’s not an easy decision, except for when you really analyze all the facts, even with their age, it doesn’t discount the gravity of their offense,” said then-State Attorney Norman Wolfinger.
Defense attorneys argued the defendants were children.
“These children were literally crying buckets of tears. They’re very, very remorseful for what they did. They’re in shock,” said defense attorney Tony Hernandez.
Ultimately, the brother and sister took a plea deal: second-degree murder for 18 years in prison and life probation.
Since that day, Jones said she has been dealing with the consequences of her actions. She completed her prison sentence in 2015.
We asked her: “Did you have any understanding at that time as a 13-year-old what was going on?”
“Not really at all,” she said. “The magnitude of what had happened, of my actions, did not hit me until years later.”
She was 13 going on 30. Jones was 13 when she was arrested and 30 when she came home from prison. She grew up in prison.
“My entire childhood. And there were things that I was taught by prison aunties that should have been something a mom was teaching me or a grandmother were teaching me,” she said. “I never went to high school. I never had homecoming. I never had prom. I didn’t have the experience of my parents teaching me how to drive.”
When Jones was arrested, her middle school nickname was “Cathy.” In prison, she got a new one: “Kid.”
“I was a 13-year-old child that still needs to be loved, that still needs to be nurtured,” she said.
Back during the trial, Jones’ defense team said she lived a tough life. She talked about her childhood trauma at a Peace and Justice Institute conference in Orlando in May. She said another person close to the family sexually abused her.
“I ceased to be a child that needed protection, that needed healing, that needed nurturing, because according to the state, I was now a convicted felon. I was a murderer,” Jones told the crowd. “And they put me in a prison full of pedophiles and predators. And so the trauma cycle continued. I was 15 years old the first time I was sexually assaulted by a correctional officer.”
Since getting out of prison, Jones has dedicated her life to juvenile justice reform with The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. They fight to ban juvenile life sentences without parole.
According to the group, Florida is among the top five states that sentence young people to life without parole. And a Southern Poverty Law Center report last year said: “No state prosecutes children as adults on felony charges more than Florida.”
“Children aren’t born bad. Eighty percent of all children that are sentenced to die in prison have experienced physical or sexual trauma,” Jones said. “Children that serve extreme sentences have the lowest recidivism rate. It’s less than 1% of them will ever go back to prison.”
We asked Jones: “When you look at your case now as an adult, do you feel like you were fairly treated? Should you have been tried as an adult?”
“Absolutely not,” she said. “And I don’t say that because there was any type of justification for what happened. But we do have to look at the whole picture. I wasn’t some 13-year-old girl that woke up one day and said, ‘You know what, I want to take somebody’s life.’”
So that is what Jones tries to do now: look at the whole picture as a new member of Orange County’s violence prevention task force. She explained why she joined the Citizens Safety Task Force:
“It was my way of giving back. This was the state that I was incarcerated in. And there were collateral consequences to that, to society, to my family. And it’s my way of living a life of redemption to giving back to a society that I caused harm to,” she said.
Jones has been out of prison for nearly eight years. She is a mom now with a young son and daughter of her own.
“That’s what I feel like my life’s mission is: to make it better for the next generation,” she said.
Part III: The Power of Mentorship
Back during Jones’ 1999 murder trial, her lawyers argued that adult prison was no place for a child.
Now eight years after completing her prison sentence, Jones explains how difficult it was to get mental health support behind bars.
“You can’t do something at 13, like take someone’s life, and it not mentally take a toll on you. And so at 13, I’m in a cell, isolated, having nightmares about what I had done,” Jones said. “I actually finally got to a counselor after being placed on suicide watch for 72 hours.”
After getting out of prison, Jones started fighting for juvenile justice reform with The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.
“Once a child is adjudicated as an adult, goes to adult prison, they’re very limited in the mental health resources,” she said.
Jones said there were three counselors for about 3,000 female inmates. Growing up in prison with a lack of mental health resources stunted Jones’ growth.
“I didn’t know my value. I didn’t know my worth. And so I lived up to it. I got into a lot of trouble,” she said.
She continued on that path until pastors Betty and Charles Williams walked into Jones’ life.
“I was like, ‘OK, God. There’s a bigger plan, bigger picture here,’” said Betty Williams.
Through their nonprofit Fresh Start Ministries of Tampa, the Williamses teach classes at women’s prisons.
“I remember Pastor Charles looked at me. He said, ‘You don’t look like what you’ve been through,’” Jones said. “They spoke life into me. They were like, ‘You’re such a leader. Not in a good way, but you have the potential to be.’”
“After spending time with her, we just loved her more and more,” said Charles Williams.
Betty Williams agreed.
“We love her like we love our own,” she said. “She’s like our daughter. And that’s what she tells people very straightforward that, ‘These are my parents.’”
From pastors to parents, the Williamses took Jones in like she was one of their own. They saw her at least once a week for the last five years of her prison sentence.
“It completely transformed who I was. And before you knew it, I was now a mentor inside of the prison. I created a curriculum to help women that had experienced sexual abuse and trauma find their healing and their purpose. And I stepped into my calling fully,” Jones said. “The person that I am today, I say, without a doubt, is a result of them coming into my life and speaking life into me.”
Through decades of prison ministry, the Williamses said more mental health resources are direly needed.
“There’s hundreds of women and men that are behind bars, that are forgotten, have been written off by families and society and police officers, and written off completely,” said Charles Williams. “And Catherine is just one of the special ones. She’s my girl.”
Jones is now paying it forward as one of Orange County’s Credible Messengers. Credible Messengers are people who use their lived experiences to mentor the youth. Jones is now a mentor to Nuriyah Shabazz.
“She spoke to me as if she was speaking to her younger self. And it just resonated with me really well,” Shabazz said.
We asked Jones: “What do you wish someone like you would have told your younger self back when all of that was going on, back before it happened?”
“I wish someone would have told me that all of that pain, all of that anger, all of that hurt was temporary,” she said. “For somebody to have given me hope to say, ‘It’s going to be OK, you are worth something, you are loved.’”
Jones said the power of mentorship is invaluable.
“If somebody had told me that at 13 years old, it would have changed the trajectory of my life,” she said.
So that is what Jones is now dedicated to — helping steer young folks down the right path as a new member of Orange County’s violence prevention task force.
“I am hoping to be a part of the solution for our Orange County youth to be able to use my voice, to be able to use my story, my experience,” she said. “To be the mentor to them that Ma Betty and Papa Charles were to me and transform lives.”
To learn more about The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, visit their website. For more information on Fresh Start Ministries of Tampa Inc., check out their website too.
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