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Freedom Denied: Alabama parole board keeps beloved community member imprisoned for crime few think she committed

Scarlette Annette Orso once dreamed of having children of her own to add to her already large family.

“I’ve always loved children. … I guess because I was the baby of 10, I’ve always wanted 10 kids,” she told the Southern Poverty Law Center in late October. “I’m fixing to be 57 and don’t have any.”

Orso’s brothers and sisters did give her “beaucoups of nieces and nephews,” she said. With no children of her own, she babysat them before she went to prison, along with any other children in her South Alabama community who needed looking after. One of her nieces describes her as “a rock and a pillar to the community … a babysitter to everyone” who has “hosted multiple benefits for people in need.”

Orso could be back home today if not for Alabama’s broken parole system that keeps her behind bars, serving a 20-year sentence for a crime few people believe she committed.

“I’ve missed out on life itself,” Orso said of the 12 years she has spent in Alabama Department of Corrections custody for manslaughter. “I’ve missed out on my nieces and nephews growing up and graduating, birthdays, getting married – I’ve just missed out on everything.”

Earlier this year, the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles set a parole hearing for her on Sept. 30. Orso, who has earned her GED diploma in prison and has had only one disciplinary infraction in 12 years, lined up an after-hours janitorial job at a day care center run by a friend. All she needed was for the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles to grant her early release from prison.

But when Sept. 30 came, her parole was denied.

Orso’s case is an example of how the board denies parole to even the best candidates. Her story is the first in a series by the SPLC that will explore the human cost of the Alabama parole board’s decisions, which have shown a predisposition to deny parole to incarcerated people who have for years – often decades – abided by prison rules, completed classes and maintained behavior that should prompt serious consideration of a release by parole.

The board’s record is particularly noteworthy in a state grappling with dangerously overcrowded prisons that have prompted Department of Justice reports detailing shocking violence by correctional officers and systemic failures. The board, which faces a backlog of about 4,000 people, according to a report by the ACLU of Alabama, could help address the overcrowding issue by clearing cases in a fair and equitable manner.

For her latest parole hearing, more than a dozen letters of support for Orso from her friends and family poured in, along with online petitions and messages on social media. Many described her as a threat to no one and a valued member of the community. Earlier this year, a correctional officer wrote in a general letter of support that she believed Orso “will do well in the free world.” She is described in another correctional officer’s report as “well adjusted” and a “hard worker – always willing to work without being instructed to.” Orso has also completed nearly a dozen prison education programs.

It isn’t clear whether or how seriously the board considered such information. What is clear is that the board viewed the offense of manslaughter as serious. One board member called Orso a “risk to public safety,” according to the board’s Sept. 30 notes.

“They just saw that I was here on a violent crime,” Orso said. “And they denied me. I don’t think they dig deep ... it’s like they just don’t have a heart for people with violent crimes, they won’t give us a chance.

“They just see murder or manslaughter, and they’re just like, ‘Denied.’”

Orso was devastated by the board’s decision. But the denial was even more bitter because she and others believe she is in prison largely because of a false confession.

A plea of ‘not guilty’ after a ‘confession’

Orso grew up in Mt. Vernon, near Citronelle in the northern outskirts of Mobile.

“I always felt safe in my hometown. We sleep with the doors open and the windows up. I’m from the country,” Orso said. Growing up, she also had the protection of her older siblings, many of whom treated her more like their daughter than their sister. “I just say yes ma’am to all of them. That’s just how I grew up,” she said.

In April 2006, Orso’s sense of safety in the country disappeared when the man she lived with off and on, Arthur “Emmitt” Snow, was killed in her home by a blast of shotgun fire by someone she had considered a friend.

Orso said she was hiding during the shooting. Afterwards, she said, the man who pulled the trigger threatened to kill her if she didn’t take responsibility. He fled as law enforcement officers headed to the scene, according to Orso. When the Washington County sheriff’s deputy arrived, she said that she had killed Snow, believing it to be the safest option for her at that moment.

Orso was indicted nearly a year later.

By then, she no longer felt threatened and pleaded not guilty. The actual shooter, according to Orso, became a state’s witness and alleged that she had killed Snow.

As the case headed to trial, Orso’s attorney struggled to locate a key witness for her defense, a woman Orso said was at her home and hiding when Snow was killed. Afraid she might lose at trial, Orso pleaded guilty to manslaughter just after a jury was selected.

She went to prison, and when she came up for parole, the victim’s sister, Virginia Reed, made sure she stayed there. Reed exercised the ability offered to victims’ family members by parole guidelines to give input to the board on its decisions.

Whether Orso had lied in 2006 to the sheriff’s deputy didn’t matter much to Reed, according to Reed’s daughter, Jamie Byrd. Reed, who died in 2019, “thought that [Orso] should be punished for lying, if that makes sense,” Byrd told the SPLC.

Though Reed’s logic helped deny Orso her freedom, she understands. “If someone killed my brother ... I would want somebody to pay for it, too,” Orso said.

Members of victim’s family support release

Today, Byrd, who is Snow’s niece, is a strong advocate for Orso’s release, stating in a letter to the parole board this fall that “Scarlette Orso has never been a threat to me nor my family.”

Before she was imprisoned, Orso’s care for children had brought them together. “She’s been an excellent friend,” Byrd said. “She raised my kids, they called her ‘aunt.’ That’s the way that is. She treated my kids like they were her nieces and nephews. She was a part of their lives and mine.”

What’s more, before Byrd’s mother died, she was ready to stop opposing Orso’s release, according to Byrd. “She wasn’t going to fight it anymore,” Byrd said. “She was done with it.”

Nevertheless, in September, all three parole board members marked “negative input from stakeholders (victim, family of victim, law enforcement)” as one of their reasons for denial. The records obtained by the SPLC, however, do not make clear who, if anyone, offered negative input.

Notes taken by Board Chair Leigh Gwathney at the September 2020 hearing show she focused on Orso’s confession, even though the board is not charged with the responsibility of determining guilt or innocence, a duty of the courts.  Orso “told [the institutional parole officer] someone else shot the victim,” Gwathney noted, “but she confessed to shooting him at the time.”

What’s more, it’s unclear whether Gwathney was aware of the belief among the victim’s remaining family that Orso is now telling the truth. That includes Byrd, whose letter was submitted to the board.

Orso wants the parole board to “dig into our cases, don’t just look at what we’re labeled as,” she said. “Dig deep and give us a chance to go home. ... I would just ask them to have a heart. Put themselves in our shoes. Put their children in our shoes, their grandchildren in our shoes.”

The parole board’s decision is hard for Orso to accept, but she has a way of coping. On her birthday, Nov. 5 – just over a month after her parole denial – her friends at the Birmingham Community Work Center presented her with a gift: a T-shirt they’d made especially for her, which reads “It’s all wrong, but it’s alright.”

The saying comes from a blues song that has become a motto for Orso in prison. “In prison, it’s all the little things that go wrong,” she said. “Every time something goes wrong, like when I didn’t make parole, I just say: ‘It’s all wrong, but it’s alright.’ The way things go sometimes is wrong. But it’s also alright, because we can’t do anything about it.

“It has to be alright.”

Read more about the Freedom Denied series here.

Illustration by Ryan Simpson