In a small town outside of Chicago called Naperville, a woman named Paula Aiardo, was accused of murder when she was just 18 years old. Convicted of the murder of her disabled friend in February of 1999, she was a senior in high school at the time. Now, 36 years old, she is living out her 35-year sentence. Although not directly killing her friend, the prosecution insists that she was an accomplice because she was the one who set up her friend for a robbery that led to her death. She took a plea agreement 18 years ago.
Aiardo was reprimanded to the Illinois Department of Corrections and assumed that she would live out the rest of her sentence behind bars. Never admitting to the charges, she has always maintained her innocence in the case. At the time, she was dating Jason Wilcox, and said she had no idea that Wilcox and his cousin Tony Burton were waiting outside of the victim’s apartment and had the intention to kill her friend for the money in her safe and the drugs that she kept.
Once the murder happened, she maintains that she was threatened and scared to come forward. Her own life in jeopardy, she didn’t speak up because she was sure that she would become the next victim. In 2008, Wilcox admitted that he had threatened her from behind the prison walls during a visit that he had with Aiardo’s mother, at the Joliet Correction Center, where both he and Burton are serving out their life sentences.
A slip and fall lawyer in Philadelphia had Wilcox sign a affidavit, stating that Aiardo had no idea what Burton and Wilcox intended to do. She didn’t know that they had planned to rob and kill Jennifer Puerta. When she became aware of what they had done, he threatened her to make sure that she didn’t go to authorities.
Many challenges to her conviction have been unsuccessful, but she will soon have her day in court when, the DuPage judge who made the original sentence, will have a hearing for parole in her case, which could lead to her being released from prison.
A new law in Illinois, which went into effect January 1st of this year, may be the thing that frees her from prison. It states that being a victim of domestic violence can now be used as a mitigating factor in court sentencing. SB0209 states that if someone is the victim of domestic violence during the time that a crime is being committed, it may be used to justify or excuse the behavior of the defendant at their court trial.
The reason for the new law? Statistics show that as many as 77% of all women behind bars are there due to being victimized by domestic violent and abuse. Aiardo is not the first to use the new law to try to gain her freedom. Many who are in the same situation are hopeful at being given a second chance at life.
Aiardo’s mother is holding hope but is not very optimistic. Of three petitions that have been put before the court, two have already been denied, and the other inmate is still waiting to hear if her petition will be accepted.
At the time of the murder, Aiardo was struggling with drug addiction and depression, as well as bipolar disorder, which made her an easy target for the abuse of her boyfriend. Friends and family members knew that Wilcox was not a good influence, but they were hopeless to change the situation for her. She has turned her life around behind the prison walls and whether she is eligible for release or not, admits that it was something that changed her life. When she can get out of prison, she intends to help others in her position to have better outcomes in life.
Aiardo maintains that she never admitted being guilty in the case and only took the plea deal because the alternative was being put on trial for natural life. That was not a chance that she was willing to take. Along with her own words included in the petition, are letters from clinicians who witnessed abuse at Wilcox’s hands, strengthening her case. Whether the new law will do what it is intended to and save her from being an innocent woman behind bars, or not, will be decided this upcoming week.