Joni Holbrook served 7+ years for murdering her husband. Now she wants a second chance.
By Patrick Sullivan | Jan. 13, 2018
Joni Ankerson Holbrook is back home in northern Michigan after serving half of a 15-year maximum prison term for the murder her husband, Paul Holbrook, a state police sergeant.
The 56-year-old was sentenced to six to 15 years in prison for second-degree murder. She served 7 ½ years.
Holbrook received a lighter-than-normal sentence in 2009 because her attorney, Jesse Williams, persuaded a Benzie County judge that years of domestic abuse mitigated the killing. It didn’t excuse it, but she maintained that the violence she believed she couldn’t escape needed to be taken into account. (Paul Holbrook’s family maintained at her sentencing that the abuse never happened.)
Nonetheless, Holbrook was released in April to a Benzonia motel. She’s since moved to Traverse City to live with her mother.
Returning to the world has been a struggle. Holbrook, who spent a career in professional office jobs and worked in district court before she became a felon, now works manual labor in a factory. She would like to find work to help victims of domestic violence, but so far she’s found no opportunities.
Prison was horrible, she said, and she vows never to go back, but she’s found adjusting to life as a convicted murderer released from prison also poses incredible challenges. But she said the whole experience has made her a tougher person.
“I had a friend of mine not long ago tell me, ‘Oh, people don’t change,’” she said. “Well, I want that person to know, they do change. I’ve changed tremendously. I stick up for myself. I don’t apologize. You can ask me any question you want, I’ll tell you anything you want to know.”
The Northern Express sat down with Holbrook and talked about her experiences in prison and the challenges she’s faced since she got out.
Northern Express: What do you want to say about your time in prison?
Joni Holbrook: Prison is like a subsidiary of hell. It’s awful. It’s horrid. Living with 2,300 women of all ages shapes, sizes, races, education, lack thereof, morals, manners, lack thereof. Very interesting. When I got to prison I weighed 101 pounds. I was so wrecked, so broken.
Express: I recall the mugshot of you that was in the media around the time of your trial, and I saw you MDOC mugshot from just prior to your release on parole. You looked much healthier, much better at the end of your stay in prison.
Holbrook: A lot healthier because, as my dad always said, you better bend over and pull up your bootstraps because you’re in for it. It was nothing I was ever prepared for. I mean, obviously, the point where I got to where I thought killing my husband was the only way for me to get out, that’s how damaged and broken domestic violence made me. And thinking that that was okay now shocks me, but it was the only way I knew then, how to get away. So, when you get to prison, you better decide real quick if you’re going to stick up for yourself, learn how to say no, or just be a victim all over again.
Express: And you learned how to stick up for yourself.
Holbrook: Yes. I certainly did. I’m nobody’s victim. I learned how to say no. I learned how to be a real bitch, actually. And I think at that point I was able to do that because of the decision I made to free myself by taking his life. Yeah.
Express: Did prison do anything to help you prepare for coming out of prison?
Holbrook: Yeah. I mean one thing, there’s nothing like being in a room all alone. When I first got there I was in the Reception and Guidance Center, and I was in a room all by myself for 60 days or longer. And there’s nothing like being in a room alone with nothing but four walls and your thoughts. No noise. No officers screaming over the intercom. You have to ask to go to the bathroom. A lot of alone time. A lot of thinking time. I was able to dig really deep and just take things out and look at ’em and realize a lot about myself.
Express: After six years, you were up for parole, and the first time you went before the board you were denied. Why was that?
Holbrook: I remember sitting in the interview with the parole man, and my sister was there with me, and we talked about the abuse, and my parole decision came back as denied, and I got flopped — that’s continued — for 18 months, based on the fact that the parole board thought that I blamed the victim and his family and showed little or no concern for them and that I would actually be at risk to reoffend, which shocked me. I mean I’ve never been in trouble in my life.
Express: What about the victim in your case? You’ve described yourself as a victim, and said you want to stand up and work on behalf of victims. Is that fair? How do you defend that to Paul Holbrook’s family today, who might say that since you took away their loved one, you don’t deserve that chance?
Holbrook: Well, he was a victim, obviously. He was victim of a horrific, terrible crime. Was I a victim of over 10 years of horrific abuse — mental, physical, sexual, emotional? Absolutely. I mean, and the caveat to that is the fact that he was a police officer. He held all the power, control, authority. And so I let him do all of that to me. I was weak enough to let him groom me and fall into the trap. Am I a victim? Absolutely. And I will never stop saying that. I’m not a victim any more. It will never happen again.
Express: So you were out in April. You found yourself in Benzie County in a motel. What was that first week like?
Holbrook: The first week, actually, I felt really free. I was in a room for the first time by myself. I had my own bathroom. I had my own space. I was able to see my family, my kids, which was awesome. Realizing that I was finally able to make my own decisions, I didn’t have to ask permission to do anything. I didn’t have to check in with anybody. … When I got home finally, that freedom and that realization that I was able to make my own choices was huge and very freeing.
Express: But then you found that once you were able to make your own choices, you didn’t have very many options.
Holbrook: Right. And I understand that. I am a convicted felon. I bet I’ve applied for 50 jobs, ’cause I have 28 years’ experience in the law. I worked at district court for close to 10 years, all through the ’90s. … In the other years, I worked for attorneys — clients, customer-service related, I like to work with people. But say you’re a prospective employer, and you get my resume and you think, ‘Oh, this doesn’t look bad, she might be a good fit for the office.’ So you call the first person that I’ve worked for in the past and their response to you is, ‘Oh, I didn’t even know she was out of prison yet.’ I mean, do you bring that out right away? Do you wait on that? The first thing people do, prospective employers right now, is check your record, and when they see that I’m a felon and then that I have a murder charge, most people don’t look further than that.
Express: So what are you doing right now?
Holbrook: I am working in a factory right now. I work different jobs there. I work 7 to 3:30, I’m working on the line some days. I’m working manual hard labor, clean up. I actually broke one of my ribs a couple weeks ago at work. And I can do that. I am really strong. I can do a job like that. But I’m only making $10 an hour. And I understand people’s reluctance, but I just wish people would talk to me. I wish someone would give me a chance. I believe I am a wealth of information, as far as the experience in the law, being a victim of domestic violence, being in prison … I want to work as an advocate. I want to be the voice for victims.
Express: You mentioned you’ve gone to the Women’s Resource Center, and you’ve tried to work as an advocate there.
Holbrook: Yeah, when I first got out of prison, I worked through my parole agent in Benzie County. I had an employment counselor. And he got me a job at the Women’s Resource Center thrift store, part time, 20 hours per week. I was actually working for them, but it was through the AARP foundation. I couldn’t live on that. … So I was working there, and I wanted so bad for the Women’s Resource Center to hire me, which they had the choice of doing but apparently didn’t have the capability money-wise. I felt a lot of that was political. I really felt like because of who my victim was.
Express: But, do you have any training in social work?
Holbrook: No, I don’t. I have no training in social work, and it was made clear to me — I don’t have a degree, I don’t have a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree. Which is true.
Express: Is that something that you’d like to do?
Holbrook: Yeah, it’s something I’d like to do. But I believe I have a master’s degree in domestic violence. I believe I probably know more about it than anybody who’s been schooled in it. I respect people that have degrees and learned whatever they’ve learned, but if you’ve never experienced it, you’ve never been through it, I would rather talk to someone like me rather than someone with a degree hanging on the wall, and that’s just how I feel about it. … I’m so strong. I know exactly what I went through. I know exactly what I did, why I did it. My feelings on that now are completely different. Because I’ve had all this time to reflect on it.
Express: How are your feelings different?
Holbrook: I just am shocked that I was ever in that place. Shocked that he was able to get me to where I thought killing him and taking his life was the only way out. But I know for a fact, and I’ve said this from the beginning: I took his life to save my own, because he was going to kill me, and he told me how he was going to kill me, and I believed him.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.