Freed Michigan juvenile lifer gets chance at motherhood

By NICQUEL TERRY
The Detroit News
AP Member Exchange
DETROIT– Kimberly Simmons never had a chance to raise her first daughter.
Sentenced to life in prison for first-degree murder and arson in Detroit more than 30 years ago at age 17, Simmons gave birth in a prison medical unit and immediately handed her baby girl, Ky’Erica, off to her mother.
Simmons would spend 29 years missing every milestone in her child’s life, seeing her only during family prison visits.
“I had to realize that mandatory life meant that unless the governor let you go, you die in prison,” said Simmons, now 48.
But in 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down laws that allowed mandatory life sentences for juveniles convicted of murder. That meant Simmons had a chance to get out one day. Simmons, who was released from prison in May 2017, is one of 47 juvenile lifers in Michigan to be released since the Supreme Court ruling became retroactive for the state in 2016. Of that group, only two are women.
Her situation is unique, not only is she one of the few female juvenile lifers to be released, she also gave birth to a second child a year later. Now members of the community are striving to support her and her newborn as she faces long odds as a woman re-entering society.
Officials at the Michigan Department of Corrections said a parole board determined that Simmons would not be a threat to the public once released. There also were no letters on record challenging her release, according to the state.
“My words was ‘I’m going home and having me a baby,'” she told The Detroit News . “I missed raising my first child, and all I ever wanted to be was a mom.”
On July 17, Simmons gave birth to a healthy baby girl named Jai’Marie. The new baby, Simmons said, offers her a second chance at being a full-time mom. Her first daughter, Ky’Erica, now 29, lives in Kentucky, and Simmons said they have always kept in touch.
Community members are rallying around Simmons, who still needs a permanent home and a job to support herself and Jai’Marie. They are living with her mother in Center Line for the time being.
Earlier this month, the community hosted a baby shower for her at the Horatio Williams Foundation in Detroit.
Nearly 100 people attended the shower, most whom had never met Simmons but wanted to support her, said Dorothy Burston, who organized the baby shower and is helping Simmons adjust to life after prison.
Burston runs Tuff Cookiez, a nonprofit that helps mentor young women.
“I was very happy with the support that we had from people who did show up,” Burston said. “If you were there, you felt it and you knew you were part of something that was good.”
Being a new mom while transitioning to the community from prison comes with many challenges.
Simmons said there are few resources — such as help with jobs, housing and childcare — for women when they are released from long-term prison stays. Most re-entry programs cater to men, she said.
Simmons was convicted of first-degree murder and arson in July 1988 after her friends threw a Molotov cocktail at a home in Westminster, killing Amy Brown, a 90-year-old woman inside on Feb. 10, 1988. Simmons said the crime was in retaliation against another woman who allegedly slept with the father of her unborn child.
Authorities said the 17-year-old Simmons helped orchestrate the murder even though she wasn’t present. Simmons said today she regrets not speaking up and stopping the crime before it “snowballed and got out of hand.”