Freed but Not Free: Convicted as a Teen, Woman Who Served 26 Years for Murder Fights to Clear Her Name

Faye Jacobs was arrested at 16 and later convicted in Arkansas for a killing that she and others say she did not commit

As a teenager growing up in Little Rock, Ark., Laquanda "Faye" Jacobs worked at Burger King, sang in the church choir and looked forward to college and a career beyond. But as the youngest in a blended family with 12 kids, one dream ranked above all others — to have a baby of her own one day.

It's a dream she birthed as a girl combing her Barbie doll's hair. "It's something I've always wanted," she says. "I couldn't wait to get older to have someone to love me, someone I can love and call my own. That's what motherhood is for me."

That dream was suddenly shattered when Jacobs, at 16, was arrested and later convicted for a crime that she and others insist she did not commit: the 1992 shooting murder of a former elementary school classmate, 17-year-old Kevin Gaddy.

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faye jacobs
Faye Jacobs. Courtesy Midwest Innocence Project

Her nightmare began on Feb. 9, 1992, when Jacobs was driving with her mother near 29th and Jefferson streets in Little Rock and they stopped to check out a commotion. On the spot an officer asked Jacobs her name, then handcuffed her and took her to the police station. A test for gun residue on her hands was negative. But nine days later she was charged with killing Gaddy, allegedly because she wanted his Chicago Bulls jacket.

"I couldn't believe it," Jacobs tells PEOPLE in this week's issue.

Faye Jacobs, far right, hugs her sister Dottie Robinson after Faye’s July 2018 release from prison. Courtesy Midwest Innocence Project

She was found guilty and sentenced as a juvenile to life in prison without the possibility of parole. In 2014 her appeal for help caught the attention of the Midwest Innocence Project, which took up her case and gathered new evidence that undermined the conviction. "Her innocence was so clear," says MIP's executive director, Tricia Rojo Bushnell.

Before MIP could present its findings to a judge, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that sentencing of juveniles to life without parole was unconstitutional. The state of Arkansas was forced to reconsider Jacobs' sentence — and in cutting it down to 40 years, the prosecutor offered Jacobs a deal that would release her immediately with credit for the 26 years she'd already served.

Jacobs, now 46, took the deal and was set free in 2018. But as a former inmate who officially had completed her sentence, she surrendered her legal standing to go back to court while incarcerated and prove her innocence.

For more on Faye Jacobs' case and her determination to clear her name, subscribe now to PEOPLE or pick up this week's issue, on newsstands Friday.

The weightiness of her conviction — which hampered Jacobs' ability to find work or secure rental leases — dealt her an added burden. It meant she'd likely never be approved to fulfill her goal of motherhood by adoption.

She had one clear path left: an appeal last year to Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson for a full pardon. When he turned down Jacobs' request in January without addressing her guilt or innocence, she was left in limbo, unable to ask again for at least another six years.

Although the prosecutor's office stands by its conviction, Jacobs sees a role for herself now to advocate for those who she believes were wrongly placed behind bars, and urge reform of laws that prevent people like her from proving their innocence outside of jail. And she still envisions herself as a parent.

"I don't know when or how it's going to happen, but it's going to happen," says Jacobs. "I'm a true believer."

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