This Side of Seven: 30 Years, and Finally

 

This spring, two former law enforcement officers met privately with Gov. Asa Hutchinson at his office inside the state Capitol. Both made the same request: Set Lowana Carroll free. They weren’t the first to make the request, and Hutchinson wasn’t the first governor to hear it. But, it appears he will be the last.

 

“The Governor has given notice of his intent to commute the sentence of Lowana D. Carroll/Cooper, who was convicted in Hot Spring County in 1992 of Aggravated Robbery, from Life in the Arkansas Department of Correction to making her immediately parole eligible.” So reads a May 4 press release from the governor’s office. 

Lowana Carroll

For justice to be just, it has to be fair. 

 

“She committed a crime, but I’ll be damned if her sentence is commensurate with her crime,” says 69-year-old Joe Paul Owens. Owens was the first officer on the scene following Carroll’s crime in 1992.  

 

“It’s just … she needed to serve time,” says 60-year-old Michael Johnson, the second officer on the scene. “But 30 years is just … I don’t see why she should have that kind of a sentence. Right is right, wrong is wrong. This is wrong.”

 

Lowana Carroll grew up in poverty in Malvern. She didn’t graduate high school, and she spent her early 20s serving as the primary caregiver for her father. His death from cancer was slow and torturous. When he died, Lowana fell into addiction. In the early ῾90s, that meant crack cocaine. 

 

On March 13, 1992, Lowana and her boyfriend were in need of a fix and low on funds. He had a criminal record, and she did not. So, 28-year-old Lowana was picked to rob the B & V Grocery Store in Malvern. They parked the car, and she walked across the street towards the store, without a weapon and without a plan. 

 

“I had been ‘high’ and without sleep for at least four days when I committed the crime,” Carroll told the Arkansas Parole Board in 2007. “I was literally out of my mind. I was a first-time offender with no history of violence before or since this horrible act.”

 

While being waited on by store owner Virginia Worthen, Carroll picked up the entire cash register and started to walk out of the store. When Worthen told her to stop, Carroll put down the register, picked up a tack hammer that was sitting on the counter and began striking Worthen. Worthen screamed and ran to the family’s living quarters at the back of the store to get her son. Carroll picked up the cash register and exited the store, heading back across the street.  

 

“When I arrived on the scene, the son (David Worthen) had Lowana Carroll facedown in the street with a rifle pointed at her head,” Owens recalls. “She was begging for her life. I worked to calm the man down, and eventually he put down his weapon. I handcuffed Ms. Carroll and put her in my squad car.”

 

Ms. Worthen was taken by ambulance to Hot Spring County Memorial Hospital where she was treated for her injuries and released two hours later.

 

Carroll was charged with aggravated robbery, and her case was assigned to Public Defender Larry Horton. Carroll had been under the influence of drugs; all the money was quickly recovered; no one was mortally injured; and she had no criminal history – not even a traffic ticket. It seemed like a good defense could be made on her behalf. But Horton encouraged his client to plead guilty in order to get a lesser sentence. So she did, expecting to spend, at most, the next 10 years of her life in prison. This was not a case where the death penalty was an option. So, the worst possible sentence Lowana Carroll could receive for her crime was life. And that is exactly what Prosecutor Dan Harmon argued for, and exactly what Judge Phillip Shirron gave her. Virginia and David Worthen testified against her at a sentencing hearing, but no one spoke up on behalf of Carroll, including her lawyer. She was alone and defenseless and on her way to prison before many of her loved ones knew what happened.

 

Over the years, Carroll has applied seven times to have her sentence reduced (an inmate can only apply once every four years). Family members, law enforcement officers, religious leaders and elected officials have all written letters of support. Even Judge Shirron, who retired in 2011 after 23 years on the bench, wrote a letter to the parole board.    

 

In 2001, Shirron wrote, “As I reflect back on 13 years handling criminal cases, compare this case to those, and to those reported in legal journals and newspapers discussed in judicial circles, the sentence Ms. Carroll is serving is maybe higher than a majority of others more recently committed and sentenced under similar circumstances.” Also in 2001, fellow Judge John Cole wrote “… her sentence was greater than that normally imposed for aggravated robbery.”

 

That was now over 20 years ago. July marks the completion of Carroll’s third decade behind bars. By all accounts, she has been a model prisoner. Since 1993, Governors Mike Huckabee, Mike Beebe, and Hutchinson have all had opportunities to set Lowana Carroll free – and they have all declined. 

 

Not surprisingly, Virginia Worthen always opposed any reduction of her attacker’s sentence. In 1997, Worthen told the board, “My injuries included four gashes to the head that had to be sewn up, as well as many knots and bruises. I know if Ms. Carroll is released, I would live in fear, daily, of her return. Ms. Carroll was sentenced to life in prison, and I pray that you will see to it that she continues to serve her sentence.”

 

Ms. Worthen died in 2015 at the age of 88. But her family has continued to oppose Carroll’s applications for mercy. So have some elected officials. Last year, Hot Spring County Sheriff Mike Cash and Judge Stephen Shirron, the son and successor of Judge Phillip Shirron, objected to any modification or reduction to Carroll’s life sentence. But the parole board voted to recommend commutation anyway, just as it did in 2008, 2013 and 2016. And for the first time, a governor has agreed to do it.

 

“I never lost hope … no, never,” says Carroll’s 79-year-old mother Mary Cooper. “The Lord is always good. He’s good all the time. He’s going to bring her home to us…finally.”

 

“Us” includes Carroll’s now 41-year-old son, Edward, and her 38-year-old son, Chris. “Us” also now includes grandchildren, 22-year-old Eryka and 12-year-old Jayden. “Us” no longer includes Carroll’s older sister, older brother, aunts, uncles, a niece and many others close to Carroll who have died during her incarceration.  

 

Here are some of Ms. Carroll’s own words, shared in a letter to the parole board that was submitted with her executive clemency application in 2007: 

 

“I am not the same person who was incarcerated on July 17th, 1992. I have grown into a mature woman who would do anything to right the wrongs she has committed. However, I cannot undo the things I have done in my sick and anguished youth. I can only go forward; I can only be what you allow me to be. My hope and prayer is that you will allow me to once again become the mother I was intended to be and the grandmother I have only dreamed of being. Please, I implore you from the very depths of my soul, grant me the opportunity to become these things. Allow me the opportunity to redeem myself to my family and community. Please, I beg of you, grant me the freedom to return home to my family.”

 

Thirty years after her crime, Lowana Carroll is finally returning home.  

 

(EDITOR’S NOTE: At the time of publication, Lowana Carroll was scheduled to appear before the parole board in person on July 12, 2022, to discuss her release plan. Her plan will be sent to Hot Spring County on July 19 for a review that will take up to 14 business days. If everything is approved, Lowana Carroll should return home to Malvern in August 2022.)  

 

Jason Pederson

For two decades, Jason Pederson served as KATV-Channel 7’s Seven On Your Side reporter. Now on the other “side” of his award-winning time on the news, he now serves as Deputy Chief of Community Engagement for the Arkansas Department of Human Services. His perspective-filled and thought-provoking column, “This Side of Seven,” publishes exclusively in AY About You magazine monthly. 

 

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