Michelle Christensen, a Salt Lake County woman who as a teenager was sentenced to 25 years in a Georgia prison for her role in a drug-trafficking case, was paroled Friday after serving only one year.
"I guess they realized it was a mistake," said Sue Christensen, who has been campaigning for the release of her daughter. "We can't believe it's happened."Michelle plans to visit her sister in Memphis, Tenn., for a few days before returning to Utah on Tuesday, her mother said.
"Then she intends to finish school and put her life back together. She's on cloud nine."
At age 17, Michelle tagged along with a group of heavily armed cocaine dealers on a cross-country drug run that began in Florida. They were arrested in Cordele, Ga., while en route back to Utah.
Before getting mixed up in the crime, Michelle was what friends and relatives describe as a "good kid" who made the most of a troubled childhood.
When she was in her early teens, she held down a full-time job, maintained good grades at school and devoted her spare time to nursing her critically injured father. But the stress eventually caught up with her, she said, explaining, "I was at the end of my rope."
In 1986, she either knowingly or naively - depending upon whom you ask - agreed to fly to Florida with a man named Milton Singleton. She said Singleton offered to help her get a job as an illustrator.
Prosecutors said she knew what she was doing, but Michelle insists she recalls practically nothing about the trip. "I was strung out for two weeks before we left," she said in an interview in August.
During a three-year interval between her arrest and conviction, Michelle returned to Utah. She went back to school, got a job, had a baby, and was, by all accounts, living a drug-free and hard-working existence.
The 25-year sentence shocked her and her family and provoked an outcry in Georgia. Even the prosecutor conceded that Michelle was less culpable than the other traffickers, some of whom received lighter sentences. Family and friends launched a successful publicity campaign to gain her an early parole hearing.
"She was just a kid," her mother argued. "She made a terrible mistake, but I can't believe she has to pay for it with 25 years of her life. Even murderers get lighter sentences than that."
The parole board listened to the evidence and granted the early release. Michelle will be allowed to serve probation in Utah.
"If you don't have a lot of money, you have to fight the best you can for justice," Sue Christensen said. "We did, and it worked."