Ex-Prisoners Say Life Term Is Cruel for Teens, As Case Hits High Court

Is it cruel and unusual punishment to get life in prison at 14 years old? Sandra McElwaine reports.

Edmund D. Fountain, St. Petersburg Times / Corbis

When Bryan A. Stevenson steps up to the podium in the Supreme Court on Tuesday, it will not be his first appearance before the black-robed justices. Two years ago, he stood in the exact same spot in the marble chamber arguing that juveniles under 18 who commit crimes that do not involve murder shouldn’t be sentenced to life without parole.

It was a groundbreaking case that he won, sending a signal that some states had been too harsh in their sentencing and that the high court might be amenable to limiting the incarceration of children 14 or younger. This ruling did not allow prisoners to go free, but stated that they were entitled to a parole hearing at some point to determine whether they remained a threat to society.

Now the renowned civil-rights advocate is pursuing further justice for juvenile lifers based on the same legal principle: a constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

(In the U.S, there are approximately 2,500 underage offenders serving a sentence of life without parole. Seventy-nine of these were 14 or younger when they were condemned. Seventy percent of them are people of color.)

“To say to any child of 13 that you are only fit to die in prison is cruel,” Stevenson has said. “It cannot be reconciled with what we know about the nature of children. It cannot be reconciled with our standards of decency.”

He will present the cases of two young inmates, both of whom were convicted of murder or participating in a homicide at age 14.

Evan Miller of Alabama was 10 when was removed from his home because of a violent and abusive father. He was living in a trailer park when he and a friend, 16, got into a fight with a drunken neighbor. They set his house on fire, killing him. The elder teen blamed the younger boy for the crime; Miller was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

In Arkansas, Kantrell Jackson was standing outside a video store during an attempted robbery. At some point, he entered the store; while he was inside, another youth shot and killed the clerk. Jackson was not accused of premeditated murder or of firing the gun yet he was given mandatory life without parole.

Both decisions are expected to be handed down by early summer.

“Kids are different from adults,” explains Father Greg Boyle, the founder and director of Los Angeles’s Homeboy Industries, the largest gang-intervention, -rehabilitation, and reentry program in the nation. “They are not as developed as far as brain science, controlling impulses, and maturity, and fall prey to all kinds of pressures. Young people can change and grow. Every parent knows that. Redemption is possible and it is the measure of a civilized society. Our society ought to catch up.”

There are those, however, who maintain that killers, no matter how young, cannot be rehabilitated and continue to demand revenge—the proverbial eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.

Emmy- and Tony Award-winning actor Charles Dutton understands the incorrigibility of some violent inmates. “There is a certain look, a certain deadness is some kids’ eyes,” he said. “There is no sense of guilt or remorse. They could kill you, walk away and not think about it.”

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Dutton, 61, was convicted of manslaughter at age 17. “I was in a knife fight and when the smoke cleared he was dead and I was alive,” he says. He was a cocky, street-smart dude from the Baltimore projects, where kids with guns were commonplace and going to jail was “a morbid rite of passage. A way to be a tough guy and make your bones.”

Dutton was in and out of institutions and finally found salvation when he was put in solitary confinement and decided to improve and educate himself.

“I rediscovered my own humanity in the penitentiary,” he admits. “It took a long time until I finally accepted my life was screwed up and I could feel the pain and anguish I caused others.”

He acquired a GED in prison and upon release (there was no juvenile life without parole in Maryland at that time) went on to Towson State University and ultimately won a scholarship to Yale University’s School of Drama. “It was jail to Yale. As you can see anything is possible,” he says. “If some of these kids were given a second chance, they’d be changed human beings.”

Oshea Israel is another powerful example of rehabilitation. As a teen in Minneapolis, he was involved with drugs and gangs. At 16, during a heated argument at party, he shot and killed 20-year-old Laramiun Byrd.

He was tried as an adult, and because of a “judge with a compassionate heart,” received 25 years behind bars. “He understood I had the capacity to change,” recalls Israel.” He did not want to send me to jail for the rest of my life.”

Israel worked in the bakery, got his GED, and took college courses, determined to make it outside prison walls. Toward the end of his sentence at the request of Mary Johnson, the mother of his victim. he reluctantly agreed to a meeting.

It was an epiphany for both.

Astonishingly, they forged a unique bond of forgiveness, reconciliation, and love. As they embraced, Mary Johnson told the slayer of her only son “I instantly knew that all the anger and animosity all that stuff that I had in my heart 12 years for you was over. I had totally forgiven you.”

Now 35 and free, he is studying psychology, working as corporate caterer, public speaker, and mentor in schools, colleges, and prisons. He and Johnson live next door to each other. They have established a mother-son relationship and frequently travel together to various institutions to explain the consequences of violence and crime.

“There is nothing glamorous about prison,” Israel warns his audiences. “It is not a rite of passage. It is a hostile environment where you can be raped and manipulated.”

Mary’s acceptance and devotion have given Israel new purpose. “We lose sight of how lovable, valuable, and important we all are. Mary and my coming together has been amazing and very powerful. When we speak, it does makes a difference.”

Raphael Johnson was an adolescent who has also spent his adult life making amends and advocating redemption and change.

He grew up in Detroit and was first arrested at age 12, after he stole his grandmother’s gun and took it to school. Johnson was unusual because he was extremely articulate and well-educated. At 17, he was on his way to a college scholarship when he got into a scuffle at a party and in a rage grabbed a gun and shot three times. He murdered a man not even involved in the skirmish. “Where I grew up, the answer to any conflict was typically a gun,” he says.

He was tried as an adult, sentenced to 10 to 25 years, narrowly escaping life without parole. “That was the light at the end of the tunnel. Parole gave me hope. I knew I had that chance, “ he maintains.

For reasons he cannot explain, he was labeled “a prison leader,” and placed in solitary confinement for six years. To survive, he relied on education, devouring 13,000 books, and following an intense daily exercise routine. After a lawsuit and several parole hearings, he was released at age 29.

He then attended college and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees, both summa cum laude. At 37, Johnson is married and owns a company with a staff of 17, mentors troubled teens and prisoners who are re-entering society, and speaks on conflict resolution.

Reflecting on his prison experience, he refers to his favorite book, Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” he quotes. “I’ve never been angrier or sadder,” he goes on to say. “and yet I’ve never heard such brutally honest jokes. To make it through you really have to have that sense of hope, to look at yourself, internalize everything and figure out exactly where you fit in.”