The Sad Case of Tanya McDowell

I hope Tanya McDowell will forgive us, someday, for our hypocrisy and cruelty. I hope her son will as well. But first she will have to serve her prison term. Her son will have to learn to get along without her.

Ms. McDowell was sentenced to a five-year term behind bars. Her crimes: Larceny and drug possession. Experienced criminal defense lawyers know these charges often go hand-in-hand: An addict has to steal, often, to support their habit.

But Ms. McDowell is no ordinary drug user. She did not steal to support her habit. She stole an education from the City of Norwalk. Yeah, that’s right. We now send people to prison for theft of an education.

Ms. McDowell was living by her wits with her kindergarten-age son, spending time where she could, most often in Bridgeport at homeless shelters. She wanted a better life for her son. So she enrolled him in the Norwalk public schools. She had no real ties to the city, however. When the city found out that it was spending its money educating her boy, it demanded that Ms. McDowell be charged with a crime.

Norwalk prosecutors, known statewide for an unreasoning mean-streak, obliged. She was charged with first-degree larceny.

At this point, Ms. McDowell was something of a folk heroine. Public support rallied behind her. Then the undercover cops moved in. Just who sent them and why they targeted her is as yet unclear. She bought some narcotics, and was then charged as a drug user. Public support for her vanished.

Why, the woman self-medicates? A homeless shelter isn’t good enough for her? She struggles being a single mom? Maybe she’s got mental health issues? And what’s this about wanting a better life for her son? Let's warehouse her!

This woman needed help, not a prison bed. But Norwalk prosecutors piled on. They would not negotiate a resolution of her separate and distinct cases. No, not these ministers of justice. She faced a lengthy prison term on the drug cases. If she did not enter a plea resolving both the larceny case and the drug cases, then she’d face a far longer term in prison than the one to which she pled. 

No judge was able to step in assure that justice was done.

Norwalk Superior Court has for years been a mean and surly place. This case illustrates that. 

A woman is sent to prison for wanting a better life for her children. She is doing time for using an illegal drug. Had she drank herself to death it would be no crime. Or had she smoked four packs of cigarette a day to sooth her jangled nerves, no one would care. But the wrong people are profiting from the drugs Ms. McDowell used. 

We imprison the sick and call it justice. Now we imprison the homeless looking for something better for their kids. 

Class war? You bet. Ms. McDowell just go sacrificed on the front lines.



About Norm Pattis

Norm Pattis is a Connecticut based trial lawyer focused on high stakes criminal cases and civil right violations. He is a veteran of more than 100 jury trials, many resulting in acquittals for people charged with serious crimes, multi-million dollar civil rights and discrimination verdicts, and scores of cases favorably settled.

Personal Website

Law Firm Website

I believe that the state is a necessary fiction and that failing to combat it is the first step toward tyranny.
– Norm Pattis


Nothing in this blog should be considered legal advice about your case. You need a lawyer who understands the context of your life and situation. What are offered here are merely suggested lines of inquiry you may explore with your lawyer.

Pattis Video