WASHINGTON — Wine and tears poured and tissues were borrowed as several juvenile justice reform advocates were honored for their work to end life without parole for juvenile offenders.
The first award winners at the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth’s highly emotional Hope & Healing awards ceremony Tuesday were Steve Drizin and Laura Nirider, the advocates working to earn “Making a Murderer” star Brendan Dassey his freedom.
Gary Tyler, sentenced to death at age 16 in 1974 by an all-white Louisiana jury, was honored for his work while incarcerated and his anti-death penalty advocacy. His legal team — made up of George Kendall, Mary Howell, Majeeda Snead, Corrine Irish and Emily Ratner — was also honored for the decadeslong and eventually successful struggle to free Tyler.
Sharletta Evans received an award for her work in bringing victims and offenders together to promote restorative justice after her 3-year-old son, Casson, was killed in a driveby shooting.
“[Selecting the award recipients] is always a difficult decision, because there are so many extraordinary people doing this work,” said Jody Lavy, the campaign’s executive director. “We try to demonstrate the different facets of the work in Healing & Hope, because we are a convener of people who are working to end life without parole for children.”
There is still much to do to end life without parole for juveniles, she said. Age-appropriate punishments should be developed to recognize juveniles’ ongoing mental development and ability to grow and become rehabilitated, she said.
In the past three years, the number of states that have barred such sentencing has tripled, due in part to the efforts of advocates like those honored at the event, Lavy said. The event raised $135,000, $17,700 from live donations, $2,300 from the silent auction and $115,000 from ticket sales and sponsorships. The money will go to continuing the campaign’s work, such as working to decrease the number of states that allow juvenile offenders to be sentenced to life without parole.
Lavy opened the ceremony, saying that after the presidential election, there has never been a time when healing and hope are more necessary in America.
Drizin and Nirider’s award was painted by Ken Sanford, a Pennsylvania inmate serving a life without parole sentence. After years of work, a federal judge has overturned Dassey’s conviction, but the Wisconsin attorney general has filed a motion to temporarily block his release. Drizin said there is more work to be done to get Dassey home for Thanksgiving.
“I think all of us are feeling that we need to be healed, and we need hope today,” he said. “I know that we can get through these dark times. I know that this community will continue on a path of justice for these kids.”
Throughout his career in juvenile justice law, Drizin successfully worked to end the death penalty for juveniles. He also represented Derrick Hardaway, who was termed a 14-year-old “superpredator” in 1996 and sentenced to 45 years. “We continued to work on Derrick’s case after he went away,” Drizin said. “I kept in touch with Derrick over the years and he has become an amazing young man. Someone who wants to get out and talk to kids in the juvenile detention center.”
Evans spoke of the need for healing and forgiveness in her acceptance speech. She was joined by her friend Joanne Williams, the mother of one of the teenagers involved in the death of her son, Casson. Evans has been a leader in Colorado to promote legislation like the restorative justice law passed in 2013. She credited God for inspiring her to forgive her son’s murderers and become a juvenile justice reform advocate.
“In amazement, I sit back and look at myself at a distance and watch the work that’s being done by the power of God’s spirit,” she said. “Being a victim family member, you have to heal before you have hope, and I embrace every opportunity … to heal properly and that’s what gave me the hope that these teenagers, now adults, would see the light of day. I am so grateful to be an advocate.”
Tyler was joined on stage by his legal team and more than a dozen formerly incarcerated juveniles. He was sentenced to death in 1974 after he was wrongly convicted of murder. After setbacks and years of work, he was freed April 29.
“Gary was in solitary confinement for eight years,” Kendall said. “Most people who do that kind of time never recover, and somehow Gary did. I don’t know of another prisoner, at least that I’ve had the honor to work with, that built the kind of purposeful life that Gary built.”
Tyler thanked his legal team and the older inmates who helped him survive adult prison as a juvenile. He had volunteered to take care of elderly inmates and eventually cared for the same men who helped him as a youth. He also began the Angola Drama Club, a prison theater troupe that performed throughout Louisiana.