She Murdered Her Son, Served Her Time, and Is Now At N.Y.U. Earning a Ph.D.

Do those convicted of the most heinous crimes deserve a place in academia?

Michelle Jones recently headed back to school along with millions of other American students to New York University’s doctoral program in history. Unlike most other students, Jones carries far more baggage than a book bag—she served 20 years in the Indiana prison system for murdering her 4-year-old son.

(Image: iStock/Bill Oxford)


The New York Times, in collaboration with The Marshall Project—ran a fascinating profile on the formerly incarcerated African American woman’s quest to earn her Ph.D. in history from an Ivy League school and finding a school that would accept her.

During her incarceration, Jones worked in the prison law library, becoming a paralegal. She went on to obtain her bachelor’s degree and audited graduate courses from Indiana University.

She became interested in the history of the prison where she was doing her time and unearthed a treasure trove of information about women in prisons in the state of Indiana, aided by a college professor of history. The Times reports;

With no internet access and a prison library that hewed toward romance novels, she led a team of inmates that pored through reams of photocopied documents from the Indiana State Archives to produce the Indiana Historical Society’s best research project last year. As prisoner No. 970554,  Ms. Jones also wrote several dance compositions and historical plays, one of which is slated to open at an Indianapolis theater in December.

An obviously talented woman, she was given time off her sentence due to good behavior and her academic achievements. She was recruited by New York University to enter its doctoral program in history. Jones also was accepted into Harvard University’s history Ph.D. program.

Harvard rescinded its acceptance. The Times reports that several professors were disturbed by what they perceived as Jones downplaying the seriousness of her crime to get into the program. Yale University also rejected her application.

University of California, Berkeley; the University of Michigan; and the University of Kansas also offered Jones admission. She just started the semester at N.Y.U.

The Times, along with The Marshall Project—a nonprofit organization that deals with matters related to the justice system—offers a riveting profile of someone who has climbed out of the darkest, most remote corner society can place a pariah to become a celebrated academic.

Yet, the article also does not minimize the brutality of Jones’ crime and the terror she inflicted on her child. The article opens up a pathway for serious discussion about redemption and the crimes that a society is willing or unwilling to forget. It’s a must-read article and is available here.

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  • donna

    The question really is not if those convicted of heinous crimes deserve a place in academia, but whether a felony conviction is a lifetime sentence. This woman did her time, both in prison and in her head. She is living with her crime. What exactly should she do to demonstrate repentance and rehabilitation? Who is the ultimate judge, the court system or each individual she encounters?

    She was raped at 14, abandoned by her mother, who beat her when she discovered the pregnancy. She moved from foster home to group home with a baby in tow. At 18, she beat her son, left him alone for several days and when she returned, he was dead. She buried him and for four years no one missed the child, because he was a nobody and she was a nobody. Had she not confessed to a therapist, no one would know today because the body was never found. She served 20 years in prison and didn’t just take up space, she studied and she made a difference. Whether you believe she is rehabilitated or not, she grew up. Now she is a middle aged woman who wants the same things all middle aged women want.

    Is Harvard too good for her? Should she be content with a school like University of Phoenix? Ted Kaczynski graduated from Harvard and then became a mass murderer. In fact, many felons graduated from Harvard. So why exactly can’t a felon returning from prison, attend Harvard?

    • Mirta Ana Schultz

      Why should she attend Harvard? Space is limited in the top universities. I’d prefer non-murderers get those coveted spaces. Actually, I’d prefer non-felons get those coveted spaces. There are many disadvantaged, poor, raped, abused women and men of color who are smart and hard-working and never killed anyone. Give the slot to such as they. And NYU is not UofP. It’s been good enough for many a non-criminal.

  • Mirta Ana Schultz

    Her crime–the murder of a child–merits the death penalty. She did not get the death penalty. She got 50 years. And they reduced that to 20. While incarcerated, she got to exercise her mind and intelligence, which is a privilege for a convicted murderer. Now that she’s out, I see no reason why she cannot pursue whatever degree she wishes, whatever career is open to her. But ultimately, she is a child killer who got a break. Her child did not get one. I hope she does a lot of good with her freedom and education. She owes it to the child she considered as disposable as a used napkin.

    However, I don’t see why she deserves to be admitted to the highest universities in the land. I’d much rather space be given to those who haven’t slaughtered kids.