In the 1990s, sociologist Jill McCorkel began interviewing women in prison just as their numbers began to explode — not because women were committing more crimes, but because of mandatory minimums that extended harsh sentences even to those with peripheral involvement in a case.

What she found, over and over, was "women not fully understanding the criminal-justice process, and being leveraged by police and by prosecutors against the men in their lives. Often, they won’t give information because they’re scared of the guy or in love, and then they end up getting hit with charges in a retaliatory fashion.”

Now a professor of sociology and criminology at Villanova University, McCorkel is waging an uphill fight to reverse that trend, working with students to correct what she sees as disproportionate sentencing for many women. They’re examining female lifers’ cases, one by one, helping some of them file applications for commutation — just a dozen women in Pennsylvania have received that relief in the last half-century — and others by reinvestigating in order to unearth grounds for future appeals.

On one of the last March days before the courts closed and students scattered under threat of the coronavirus, they finally got a break in their first case: Cynthia Alvarado, who had served more than 11 years of a life sentence, was ordered released, a win that resulted from tireless legal work, the Villanova team’s advocacy, and one wild coincidence.

In 2008, addicted to Xanax, Alvarado had driven her cousin Oscar to Fairhill Square Park to buy drugs. But while she waited in the car, Oscar pulled out a gun — and in the melee that followed he fired into a crowd. He jumped into the car, and Alvarado sped away. She did not learn until later that a bystander, a woman named Marta Martinez, was killed.

A witness, a woman who had been in the car with them, testified at the trial that Alvarado had urged her cousin to use the gun. With that evidence, she was charged with second-degree murder, or participating in a felony — Oscar’s gunpoint robbery of a drug dealer — that resulted in a death.

The jurors hesitated, skeptical of the witness. They repeatedly asked about the definition of “accomplice liability,” and whether helping after the fact could count. The judge assured them it could, and both cousins were sentenced to life without parole.

That verdict was overturned in federal court last year, based on that flawed jury instruction. And the District Attorney’s Office offered a deal: Alvarado could plead guilty to third-degree murder, and get 11 to 22 years in prison.

Then, McCorkel wrote a letter — as did her husband, Brad Mellinger, who was, it turns out, the inquisitive juror who kept sending the judge questions about the nature of accomplice liability. He was shocked when, years later, McCorkel showed him the docket and he learned Alvarado had been sentenced to life.

“I was convinced that she was not guilty of conspiracy,” Mellinger wrote, calling the sentence an “unjust” outcome.

“The only way I was willing to consider her guilty via accomplice liability was if her assistance to her co-defendant after the shooting, in and of itself, would qualify.”

McCorkel’s letter focused on the research she and the teams of students in her classes conducted. That included walking through the decade-old crime scene to assess whether witnesses’ accounts were plausible given the terrain (they were skeptical). They also raised questions about witnesses interviewed by a detective who was later fired after he was found to have tampered with evidence. And, they challenged the credibility of the key witness against Alvarado, a woman who had received a deal for probation on her own criminal charges after testifying in the case.

From left, Villanova professor Jill McCorkel, speaks with Ryan Keller, and Hannah Webb, in Fairhill Square, where the crime occurred. They discuss their research in the case of Cynthia Alvarado for their criminology senior seminar course.
HEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer
From left, Villanova professor Jill McCorkel, speaks with Ryan Keller, and Hannah Webb, in Fairhill Square, where the crime occurred. They discuss their research in the case of Cynthia Alvarado for their criminology senior seminar course.

On March 11, Alvarado, 39, pleaded guilty to murder and robbery — in exchange for a new deal that would result in her immediate release from prison.

The next day, just as the city was beginning a slow, coronavirus shutdown, Alvarado was home after 11 years in prison. She was now a grandmother, her daughters grown up.

She joined McCorkel for lunch at a restaurant with sweeping city views, then made her way toward the probation office to check in. Alvarado admitted she’d thrown out the first letter McCorkel sent her in prison. “I thought it was someone just trying to ride the wave of mass incarceration,” she said.

But when McCorkel wrote again, explaining more about the project and her family’s own odd connection to the case, Alvarado said, “I was crying, it was surreal. After that, it just seemed like amazing things started happening, with everything her and her students were able to obtain.”

“I feel like when Dr. McCorkel speaks, people listen," she said.

At her sentencing, dozens of students were in the courtroom, alongside Alvarado’s siblings, her friends, and her two daughters.

Anna DalCortivo, 24, flew back on spring break from graduate school at the University of Minnesota to witness it. “I think there was a lot of injustice,” said DalCortivo, who had worked on the case as an undergraduate at Villanova, “so it was important for me to show my support for her and her family, and to help bring her home.”

Hannah Webb, a recent Villanova graduate, holds out a map of the crime scene she and her classmates created based on transcripts from Cynthia Alvarado's trial.
HEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer
Hannah Webb, a recent Villanova graduate, holds out a map of the crime scene she and her classmates created based on transcripts from Cynthia Alvarado's trial.

Susan Lin, Alvarado’s lawyer, said it’s hard to say exactly what role the students’ advocacy played in the case. But the emotional support — including reentry planning and identifying mental-health and other service providers — was crucial. “It made a difference that she had a community of people to come back to,” she said.

Seeing the outcome for Alvarado gave a measure of hope to Yvonne Newkirk, an activist whose own daughter, Stacey Newkirk-Smalls, is serving a life sentence. Newkirk teared up watching the court proceedings in Alvarado’s case. “It means someone cares to take the time to look into a process that’s flawed."