article

06.26.12

A Former Teenage Carjacker Reflects on Supreme Court Ruling in Miller v. Alabama

Dwayne Betts entered prison at 16, haunted by a crime for which he received an 8-year sentence. Inside, he writes, he encountered young men who were staring at what was essentially a death sentence.

For months I have been waiting for the Supreme Court’s ruling in Miller v. Alabama, wondering if the court would strike down mandatory life-without-parole sentences for people under 18 years old. My interest has always been a selfish one. In 1997 I stood before a judge in Fairfax, Va.—I was 16 at the time, and I didn’t know if those 16 years would be all I’d have of freedom. In Virginia, carjacking—the crime I had pled guilty to—carried a maximum penalty of life in prison, and Virginia had done away with parole.

This was before a series of Supreme Court cases dealing with the sentencing of juveniles—from Roper v. Simmons, which said you can’t execute someone who committed his crime before he turned 18, to Graham v. Florida, which said you can’t sentence someone to life without parole if he committed a nonhomicide crime as a juvenile.

Standing before that judge, I honestly thought I was one of only a few juveniles in cuffs, facing a prison sentence that meant forever living inside a cell that might as well be a coffin.

Today I cannot think of Evan Miller in prison without thinking about three of my former cellmates: Damon, Mike, and Roger. Damon and Mike were both 16 when they were sentenced to life in prison. Roger was 16 when he was sentenced to 63 years. Only Damon had been found guilty of homicide.

When I met Roger we were both 16-year-old kids. I had the top bunk and would roll from its height early mornings, head out to breakfast, and notice the picture of his child on the dresser. You don’t sleep well knowing your child will never know you as a free man. To this day I have no real understanding of how Roger stayed upright during the years I knew him—sentenced to so much time without a shot being fired, without being accused of rape.

Mike was from the streets of Detroit. At his sentencing for a string of robberies, the judge essentially told him he’d die without ever seeing those streets again. By the time I met him, Mike had already done close to a decade in prison. He became something of a mentor to me, taught me how to survive. The thing about him that struck me most was that to pass the time, he would read Gray’s Anatomy, a book I had never heard of.

Damon, too, was a man by the time we met. He took me under his wing in a prison where the shotguns were almost always aimed at us. He spent hours cutting hair in the block, building a trade that would become a vocation. I find it almost insane that anyone could imagine these men are no different than they were a decade or more ago.

All that remains for them, and for Miller too, is the crime that will haunt them forever. I knew at least a half a dozen or so more young men who had gone tragically wrong somewhere and found themselves staring at what was essentially a death sentence. But back then, we had no language to talk about this. How could we, when all the authority figures around us talked like we were nothing more than those moments where we’d gone wrong?

I had the top bunk and would roll down on early mornings and notice the picture of his child on the dresser. You don’t sleep well knowing your child will never know you as a free man.

I hear the people who ask: What about your victim? The family members and friends, for whom the only important question is: why do I deserve a second chance? Even the possibility of a second chance. Part of me wants to quote statistics, to point out the rampant discrimination that exists at nearly every point of the justice system. To point out the disproportionate number of young black males who have been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole—but no matter how true those statistics are, people have died. Families are mourning still, even as I write this. Yet mourning, no matter how painful, does not change the fact that juveniles are different from adults. Their potential for change, for growth, for understanding, is greater. If our system is not, ultimately, to be based on vengeance, we need to recognize that potential of change, and give it the opportunity to take place.

At 16 I made a terrible decision. Am I still that impulsive, misguided young person with no sense of what to expect from the world or myself?

I shouldn’t group myself in with Evan Miller, with Damon and Mike and Roger. Not only was I not convicted of homicide, I was also not sentenced to life. These young people have learned to live with the knowledge that they will only leave prison in a casket. I was luckier: my judge sentenced me to nine years. Though no prison sentence for a juvenile is a good thing, at least I knew I would be released one day. This gave me hope that no matter how bad it got, it would get better. A life sentence cancels out that hope; life without the possibility of parole utterly destroys hope.

I wonder what my friends were doing when Miller v. Alabama came down; I wonder what Evan Miller was doing. I think about all those years we circled the rec yard, imagining a second chance by way of some legislative miracle, and I wonder if they heard the news and had a glimmer of hope.

Maybe today’s ruling will lead to someone inside believing that even though he’s older than thirty now, he’s a far cry from the 16-year-old found guilty in a court of law. The Supreme Court is slowly warming to the idea that there is a difference between juveniles and adults, and that’s one more reason for Miller, and for my friends, to imagine one day not having to stand for count.