‘Thrown back in jail – it’s cruel’: why was actor Amy Locane imprisoned twice for the same crime? | Culture
Amy Locane is struggling to make sense of it all. The actor and mother of two children knows she committed a crime with devastating consequences, so she accepted it when she pretty much lost everything as a result – doing her time in jail uncomplainingly. The one thing she can’t accept is that, after being released and living in the community for five years as a model citizen, she is back in prison for the same crime. It is a situation that one legal expert described as “unheard of”.
In September 2020, Locane was re-sentenced to eight years in jail. “I’m not really sure what’s going on,” she tells me from the Edna Mahan correctional facility for women. “I walk around in a daze. It’s really messing with my mind. I never violated any rules. I never reoffended, and then to get thrown back in here … it’s cruel. I feel like I’m being made an example of.”
The night of 27 June 2010 will be etched into her mind for ever. Locane had just finished her run in a play at the local community theatre in Hopewell, New Jersey. Afterwards, there was a wrap party for the cast and crew. Locane had a few drinks and moved on to a barbecue at the home of friends, where she met up with her then-husband – and drank some more. She says she was expecting him to drive her home, but he left earlier, taking the children. She decided to drive home in her SUV. She knew she shouldn’t, but she told herself it was only a 15-minute drive.
At a red light, she crashed into the back of a Honda. The driver approached Locane for her insurance details. She observed Locane’s slurred speech and glassy eyes, and tried to remove her car keys from the ignition, telling her that she was drunk and the police were on their way. Instead, Locane sped off, and the Honda driver followed. Locane was driving at 53mph in a 35mph zone when she smashed into the car of Fred Seeman as he was turning left into his home. His 60-year-old wife, Helene, an art historian with two children, was killed almost instantly. Fred Seeman, a real-estate lawyer who runs his own firm, was seriously injured. Locane ended up in a drainage ditch, but was not badly hurt. She was almost three times over the drink-drive limit.
Locane was not a household name, but, having worked as an actor, she was famous enough for her disgrace to become headline news. She had featured in the first series of Melrose Place, and co-starred in the cult film Cry-Baby, a rock’n’roll romcom directed by John Waters, which was an unqualified success when it was released in 1990. Locane, 18 at the time, was cast opposite Johnny Depp – he played the leader of the rebellious Drapes, she played a member of the prissy Squares, and their characters fell in love. For Depp, it was his first leading role in a movie; for Locane it was to be her only one. She was in more films, but the roles got smaller as her star waned.
In the mid-00s, she quit Los Angeles and returned to the New Jersey of her childhood. She gave up the movies for marriage and motherhood. Her first daughter, Paige, was born in 2007; her second, Avery, in 2009.
The fatal accident happened 17 months after the birth of Avery. The case did not come to court for two years. At the trial, police testified that Locane was “giggling” at the scene, and when they took a blood test she asked: “Am I pregnant or am I just drunk?” She said she had drunk four glasses of wine, and beer.
In November 2012, she was convicted of second-degree vehicular homicide and assault by automobile. The minimum sentence was five years, but Locane was given three thanks to mitigating factors – she had a clean criminal record, and it was thought that her children’s welfare would suffer if she was jailed for longer. (One of her children has a serious health condition.) Locane’s defence also said that Fred Seeman had crossed her lane when she had right of way.
The Seeman family were horrified by the leniency of the sentence. Helene Zucker Seeman was a much-admired curator, author and adjunct professor at New York University’s school of continuing education. Fred Seeman shouted at Locane that “having a sick child doesn’t give you a pass to kill my wife!” and told the judge it was a “travesty” before storming out of court in tears. The state said it reserved the right to increase the sentence. But Locane was released on parole in June 2015.
Shortly after being released in 2015, Locane walked into the Hopewell Presbyterian church. She had been brought up a Catholic, and rediscovered her faith while incarcerated. “I knew there was an actress who had had the drunk-driving accident, but I didn’t know her name,” Barbara Pauley says. Pauley, a church member and licensed therapist, mentored local women who needed support. She and Locane became close friends. “She was open about her story. There was no secret about it; it had been all over the newspapers. Amy and I met up every week for about two years.”
Pauley says Locane had to start all over again. Soon after her release, her husband filed for divorce and gained custody of Paige and Avery. Locane, Pauley says, was left with nothing – no home, no car, because she had lost her licence, no job, no money. She was also ostracised by some of her old friends. “She felt judged. Some people thought she got off easy because she was an actress.”
Pauley thought it was remarkable the way Locane made a new life for herself. She describes the area where Locane was living in Hopewell, a borough of Mercer county in the state of New Jersey. “There is no public transport. Nothing. And there is no way to get around if you don’t drive. And, of course, because of her accident she did not have a driver’s licence. But somehow she made it work.”
Pauley describes how Locane walked everywhere – to her Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, to see the kids, to apply for jobs. She returned to college to do basic English and business courses with the hope of going on to university. She was committed to stopping others repeating her mistakes too – she visited schools to talk to students about the dangers of drinking and driving. She became a substance abuse recovery coach and talked to recovering female opioid addicts and women recently released from jail. She also volunteered in her children’s school, despite their initial reluctance to have somebody with such a serious conviction supporting the pupils, and she got herself two paid jobs, one in an antiques shop.
“Humans have an inherent resilience,” Pauley says. “Amy’s resilience – to think she was coming back to a family and husband only to find out that wasn’t true, to have no financial resources, and to have two daughters who, quite frankly, were fairly traumatised by the situation, and to be solely focused on rebuilding the relationships with her children – was phenomenal.”
Did Locane struggle with what she had done? “Yes. There were daily reminders of what had happened and what it had cost – to the Seeman family and to her. She was living in a two-bedroom apartment, it was not a home with her husband and her children. When your life has changed so drastically, waking up every day in the apartment she lived in was a reminder of how she got there.”
Pauley is still grappling with the logic of why her friend is now back in jail. As well as ruling that she had been wrongly sentenced, the judge said she showed no remorse. “How can you tell when someone has shown no remorse?” Pauley asks. “Do you walk in their shoes, do you live their life, have you talked to her? That to me is shocking. I think there was a huge amount of remorse, and we saw it in how she tried to use her story to prevent further tragedies.”
James Wronko, Amy’s new partner, is an attorney, and ended up defending her when she could not afford to pay for one during the appeals procedure. A year after her release, the appeals court ruled that her sentence was too lenient, and referred the case back to the original judge. The judge did not agree, and gave her the same sentence again.
In February 2019, a new judge re-sentenced Locane to five years, but she remained free on bail pending a further appeal. In July 2020, the appeals court ruled that the second judge had also sentenced her incorrectly and rejected Wronko’s argument that re-sentencing her violated double jeopardy protections, which state that people cannot be tried twice for the same crime. At her fourth and final sentencing, a third judge was brought in from another county.
In court, Fred Seeman said Locane had never accepted responsibility for his wife’s death, and asked the final judge, Angela Borkowski, to “send a message” with her sentence. Borkowski gave Locane eight years for second-degree vehicular homicide and 18 months for fourth-degree assault by auto to be served concurrently (in practice, this would be five extra years because she had already served three). Under New Jersey state law she is required to serve six years before she becomes eligible for parole. Having already served three years, Locane will be eligible for parole in another three years.
“The judge ignored everything Amy had done in the past five years,” Wronko says. “She ignored [the fact] that this was going to be a second separation of mother and children. The judge basically sentenced her as if it were 10 years ago.”
Wronko says the pandemic has made the whole thing more painful. “The first time Amy was in jail she was in a job sewing uniforms for male prisoners, she supported fellow inmates on a peer-to-peer programme and she also worked on the puppy programme training dogs for law enforcement. All this gave her a purpose. Now there are no jobs, no education classes, no programmes. There has recently been an outbreak of Covid, and two of her bunkmates have just tested positive.”
When invited to comment about Locane being returned to jail, Fred Seeman said: “The judge’s September 2020 decision on sentencing provides a well-reasoned repudiation of the defendant’s arguments. At the hearing, our family spoke in open court. We have nothing further to add to that.”
The attorney and legal commentator John Furlong believes the case is unprecedented. “I have practised criminal law for nearly 45 years, and I have never seen an outcome or circumstance quite like Amy Locane’s,” he says. “When I was a young lawyer, we punished the guilty. We did not torture them. Times have changed. Amy Locane’s resentencing undermines public confidence in our entire criminal justice system. Lawyers and citizens alike lose confidence in the finality of judgment.” Lawyers such as Furlong fear this case could set a precedent. The justice system is founded on the principle that people sent to jail serve their time and are then rehabilitated and free to rebuild their life. Furlong believes that when a sentence is extended willy-nilly, and after time has been served, the very concept of justice is undermined. “If courts can extend sentences after they have been served, our system will break down.”
“Every night I go to sleep and think: ‘God, please don’t let Amy get Covid,’” says Locane’s mother, Helen Locane. Her voice is just like Amy’s, and she laughs like her, too. You sound so youthful, I say. “For an old woman, is that what you’re saying? Hahaha!”
Despite Helen’s brightness, it’s clear she is in shock. “It’s so unfair. She paid her debt to society. I feel so bad for my granddaughters. Their birthdays are next week – they’re going to be 12 and 14.”
They have only been able to visit her once since she was jailed again. “The youngest one asked me: ‘Can I touch her hand?’ I said: ‘No, you can’t,’ and she just looked at me. It’s heartbreaking, just heartbreaking.”
I ask what Amy was like as a little girl and the bounce returns to her voice. “She was very bubbly. Her father and I separated when she was 18 months old. She was so energetic, so full of pep, I’d be exhausted by her. ”
Was she a talented kid? “Yes. One day she said to me: ‘Mom, I think I’m going to be in a talent show.’ And I said: ‘Well, what are you going to do?’ And she said: ‘I’m going to sing, and I need a piano player.’” Helen giggles. “Well, my ex’s cousin was a piano player … she was 10.” How did she do in the talent show? “She won it. I thought the voice I was hearing was a recording, but it was her. Then she won another talent show and another. I was told: ‘You really should get her an agent.’ And I thought: well, this could be a way for her to get some money to put away for college.” So she got an agent and went to her first audition and got a commercial.” At the age of 17, she was cast in her first film, Lost Angel, made by the Chariots of Fire director, Hugh Hudson. Helen, who worked as a legal secretary, says they were forever heading off for auditions. “I would work my lunch hour, leave work early, go pick her up, and we’d go on the train, be in there for five minutes. It was exhausting, but I felt an obligation to do it for her.”
Was she ambitious? “Absolutely. It’s funny, now she says she didn’t like it. I don’t understand it. I let it go in one ear and out the other because I know you can’t make a child do those things – you can’t make a child win a contest.”
In Cry-Baby, Locane’s character, Allison, starts out as a goody-goody. Was Amy like that? “Absolutely. Absolutely!” Did she also have a rebellious streak? “As far as I was concerned she was just that good girl. That was a crazy film. Oh my God, when they were doing all that french kissing … I was sitting there with the director, John Waters, and Johnny Depp looked at me, and asked: ‘Was that all right?’ Just after all the french kissing. I was like: ‘Oh, my God. Why did he say that to me?’”
Waters, known affectionately to his fans as the king of camp, baron of bad taste and pope of trash, is at home in Baltimore when we speak. I ask him what Locane was like when he made Cry-Baby. “She was the most innocent 17-year-old girl. I felt bad for her because she couldn’t hang out with us. She was a senior in high school, thrown in with us, and her mom was here. She said to her co-star Patty Hearst: ‘You’re the only normal one here’ – she didn’t even know that Patty had been kidnapped [by members of a radical group with whom she was later convicted of committing crimes]. The first day of rehearsal she had to kiss Johnny Depp, and she fainted, which was lovely.” He pauses. “Well, I would have fainted, too, if I’d kissed him.”
Waters has taught in prisons, and he says Locane’s initial sentencing, and the way she emerged from it, could have been a model for prison as a rehabilitative system. “Amy left her babies and went to prison. She served her time and did it well. She came out, started again and tried to make herself a better person. She has been sober ever since, and has spread the word about being sober to anybody she can.”
What did he think when he heard she had been re-sentenced? “I was in complete shock. I have never heard such a thing as this, where you do your time, then another judge says you didn’t have enough. To me, that is a cruel punishment.” The judge said she showed no remorse, I say. “Well, I’ve talked to her. I know how remorseful she is. Let’s be honest, if any actress shows remorse, they will claim she is an actress.”
Waters says he regards what happens as a tragedy for both families. “It was a terrible accident. Almost everybody thinks what they have handed her now is unfair. I never thought I would ever be campaigning to free Amy Locane. She is the most unlikely of any of the stars I’ve worked with to go to jail.”
Two years after Cry-Baby, Locane was cast as the waitress Sandy Louise Harling in Melrose Place, a spin-off from the teen drama Beverly Hills 90210. Helen says she had a bad feeling about it from the start. “Back then, TV was like dumbing down. If you did TV and then you did film, that was a good thing, but if you did film, and then you did TV … that was like a no-no. Amy wanted to continue working, so she did Melrose Place. Her agent wasn’t too crazy about it, but it wasn’t our decision, it was Amy’s. And now the funny thing is that this is the thing she is remembered for.”
In a 2017 Entertainment Weekly article, her Melrose Place co-star Doug Savant said: “She was a sweet young girl, but she overestimated her position in the business.” When I speak to Locane today, she says looking back Savant’s assessment is fair and her reputation took a battering both because she was written out of the show and because of how she behaved on it. “Unfortunately, I was a product of being a child actor. I had always been set aside from my peers. I had no social skills and didn’t behave appropriately on Melrose Place.” She says she did not mix with other actors because she was so shy, and appeared aloof and diva-ish. She calls it a “debacle”, and says things got much tougher for her when she was fired. “I never did a TV show after that.”
Locane went back to the movies, and had a decent run in the early 1990s. In Blue Sky, the story of a nuclear testing cover-up, she played the daughter of Tommy Lee Jones and Jessica Lange (who won a best actress Oscar for her performance). In School Ties, a sports drama about antisemitism in an elite Massachusetts prep school, Locane was cast as the on-off girlfriend of Brendan Fraser.
But good parts in quality films became rare. By the time she quit she tended to be cast in cameos at best – one of her final films, in 2002, was a blink-and-you-miss-it role in the sadomasochism drama Secretary. She had become sick of the movie industry and disappointed with her career. In 2006, she left Los Angeles and returned to New Jersey. She soon settled down to marriage and motherhood. Acting was now a hobby.
Did Helen sense Locane was in trouble around the time of the accident? “No. She seemed happy, she had two beautiful little girls.” I tell her that I had a sense her life was spiralling out of control; that she was unhappy, and drinking heavily. Helen disagrees. “She wanted a different life, she came home, she met her husband, she had two beautiful little girls, and she was busy with them. That’s the way I see it. They were a very happy family.”
Then came the accident, prison and divorce. Helen talks about how Locane re-built her relationship with her daughters, and says she is proud of her. “It was hard, and she was patient.” Did they feel their mother had let them down the first time she was in jail? “Absolutely. The older one has abandonment issues. When she went to see her mom, she just sat there and tears were coming down her face.” And now Helen herself is getting tearful. She apologises. “I’m fine, I’m just a little bit upset.”
Back at the Edna Mahan correctional facility for women, Locane says it was tough when the girls visited her, and asked why she had been returned to jail. “They kept saying you learned your lesson, we don’t understand, and I just keep telling them to hang in there. We had to keep 6ft apart; we weren’t able to hug or touch. I can’t tell you how horrible it is being incarcerated during Covid.” How did the girls react to not being able to touch her? “Frankly, one of the girls doesn’t want to come here because she doesn’t want to see me like this.”
If the state had wanted to extend her sentence, why wait this long, she asks. “If they’d added more time when I was already in here, it would have saved the brutality of being taken away from the girls again.”
Locane says the decision to send her back makes no sense from any perspective – economic, rehabilitative, or wellbeing. “The state spends millions on rehabilitation programmes, and I am rehabilitated. Then they throw me back in here.”
She says it feels as if she’s been punished for rebuilding her life; that people would only believe her remorse if she was permanently in sackcloth and ashes. “What kind of service are you giving to the world, yourself or your children if you’re just going to stay in a rut? If people are going to read into this that I have no remorse it’s incredibly cynical.”
The most cynical thing, she says, is when Borkowski questioned her motive for talking to students about the dangers of drink-driving. “She said I only did it for the press. Going to a high school to tell students that you killed somebody, how can that be good press?”
What did she say to the students? “I would tell them rather than avoiding painful situations or things that are making you sad, deal with them because if you don’t you will have to find other ways to numb your feelings, and it will catch up with you – and that could lead to tragedies. I obviously tell them not to drink and drive and not to repeat my mistake – look at me as the person who made the mistake, and this is what you open up yourself and innocent people to. All this devastation can be avoided.”
I ask what specific problems she was having in her life that led to her drinking. She says she doesn’t want to talk about that at the moment. “Believe me, that is a story, but for another time …”
For now, Locane is trying to remain positive. “I wake up every morning at 5am and read positive affirmations, I work out and try to meditate,” she says. “No one’s up here at that hour, so I have a certain amount of peace. I go outside and breathe in the fresh air, and walk around.” She doesn’t mention that the area she is allowed to walk in is tiny and fenced in with barbed wire. “Where we are is a beautiful countryside, so I try to soak it all in. And I try to keep my mind occupied. I bought a deck of cards, so I’m playing rummy 5,000 with some girls I’ve met in here.”
Has she had support from old friends in the film industry? “Yes,” she says enthusiastically. “I got a lot of support from John Waters particularly. The whole Cry-Baby cast is a very tight-knit little family, we are very supportive of one another. I have heard from Ricki [Lake], Traci [Lords] and Patty [Hearst].”
On her Twitter profile, she describes herself as an ex-actress. I ask whether she hopes to return to acting one day when she gets out of jail. “I don’t know,” she says. “I have to focus on the task at hand. It’s intense right now.”
Back in New Jersey, James Wronko says he is preparing to take Locane’s case to the United States federal court. Pauley has started a GoFundMe page to help finance this – at the time of going to press it has only raised $2,795 (£2,000) of its target of $20,000. As for Locane’s mother, Helen, she has also gone on the campaign trail, asking people to sign a petition to have her daughter released. “To put a petition online is just not me,” she says. “But I have to do everything I can to bring her home.”