By Liliana Segura, The Nation

On August 29, 1976, around 1:40 am, a fire erupted at 1138 Spruce Street in Chester, Pennsylvania. The building, in a row of two-family homes just south of the Delaware Expressway, burned for two hours, killing two boys: 13-year-old Brian Harvey and his 6-year-old brother, Derrick.

The youngest of twelve kids, Trina was known as a slow child. She had a very low IQ and couldn’t read or write. Kids made fun of her for sucking her fingers. Her mother died when Trina was 9, and her father was a violent alcoholic capable of unthinkable cruelty. (Sworn affidavits describe, in addition to horrific abuse against his wife and kids, how he once beat the family dog to death with a hammer as Trina watched, then made his children clean up its remains.) From the time Trina was young, she was mostly cared for by her siblings: among them, Edith (or Edy), the eldest, who took over her mother’s responsibilities, and twin sisters Lynn and Linda, just a year older than Trina. In and out of homelessness, Trina and the twins slept in cars and abandoned buildings, washing their clothes in police stations and foraging for food wherever they could, including from trash cans.

When she was 11, Trina was sent by her grandmother to Allentown State Hospital for mental treatment; she was discharged at 13 against the advice of her doctor and stopped taking her medication.

Following the fire, prison officials requested she be given a psychiatric evaluation, after which she was deemed unfit for trial and hospitalized. A second evaluation yielded a diagnosis of schizophrenia. But a third assessment, just a few weeks later, deemed her competent to stand trial. Her lawyer did not challenge the decision. Nor did he challenge the prosecutor’s successful push to try Trina as an adult. (He would later be jailed and disbarred.) Trina was tried in March 1977. Trial transcripts have been lost, but it’s clear that she took the stand as the sole witness for the defense. Frances Newsome was the key witness for the prosecution, telling the jury Trina had set the fire as revenge on Sylvia Harvey for forbidding her sons to play with her.

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