What if on the night of July 20, 1998, she hadn't driven to the north side of Indianapolis to find Raymond Jones, with whom she'd been smoking crack earlier that day? What if she hadn't used a 12-gauge shotgun to try to retrieve jewelry she suspected he'd stolen from her mother's house? What if she hadn't been drinking just before she confronted him? What if she'd never pulled the trigger?
Until earlier this year, I hadn't seen Debra for nearly five years. During that time we stayed in touch via letters and telephone calls. She wrote to tell me how Raymond Jones' mother, a deeply spiritual woman, had continued to send cards with words of encouragement. Before Margaret Jones' death in 2005, she and Debra had formed an unlikely bond that combined forgiveness and grace.
When I visited her in 2002, many of the inmates in the visitor's center looked more like "the girl next door" than the stereotypical rough-hewn female inmate. But Debra warned me not to be fooled. Some have committed offenses -- such as killing their children or stabbing elderly women to death -- so heinous they're pariahs even in the prison culture.
Months after that visit, she wrote: "Once you've been here long enough, certain things start to hit you." She said she's reconciled herself to the fact that she'll never have children. She worries that a loved one might die while she's imprisoned. She misses "real food" and the drive-through of her favorite Taco Bell. She also misses having dreams of her living outside prison.
"But the worst thing you can do, if you're a longtimer, is just sit around and marinate. You work. You go to school. You keep busy."
In 2002 Debra enrolled in the prison's university program. Oakland City University is a private liberal arts college in Indiana that gives inmates an opportunity to earn a bachelor's degree.
I was cautiously optimistic. Debra and I have had countless conversations about her returning to school. In the past, she'd start at some college or in some nursing program but drop out not long after.
Debra kept studying for two years in prison, though she put her education on hold while she fought for and won an appeal to overturn her murder conviction. Indiana's Supreme Court upheld the conviction.
"There will be no more appeals," she told me. "I need to do my time, for society, for the family, for me, for God."
And that was that.
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The correctional facility sits on 52 acres in Rockville, Ind., in the middle of a cornfield. On the morning I arrived at the prison, it was cold and rainy. Debra got to the visitor's center moments before me, having walked from her housing unit.
Debra doesn't live in the tiny, gray cliche of a prison cell that Hollywood often portrays. Her bunk is one of eight in a dormitory-style room with deep red, maroon and green walls and metal lockers.
I'm not certain exactly what I was expecting when I saw her, maybe a prisoner haggard and beaten down. Maybe the person she'd been before prison. But on that morning, she looked better than the last time I saw her. She wore her hair in a straightened, bobbed style, iridescent teal-green eye shadow emphasizing the hazel color in her eyes. At 41, her skin was still nearly flawless.
Much of our 90-minute interview was spent talking about our childhood and her years on drugs. When she first arrived in prison -- enduring a forced sobriety -- she had vestiges of immature thinking. Now she seems clear-headed, more focused.
She used to say that when she was released from prison, she'd still smoke marijuana but wouldn't return to crack. I was happy to learn that she now believes it's impossible for her to do any drugs.
Over the years, there was one question that had been gnawing at me. I hadn't broached it during any of our correspondences. I wondered if knowing she took someone's life became more bearable over time.