Of all my cases, his is far and away the most unjust, living in the fracture just out of the reach of Graham.
I met him among the ragged novels in the prison library, a small table between us. I began the conversation as I begin every first conversation, “Tell me about your life before the alleged offense and prison.” Nervousness paralyzed his words, which I attributed to the natural reaction that unsounded desperation has when presented with a modicum of hope.
His story was sadly common. Siblings defaulted to the role of parent while a mother worked three jobs. A father would show up occasionally, deliver a beating, and vanish. He knew precisely how many times he had seen the man. The last time, particularly memorable, involved a blow that left the boy disabled. The transitory family moved from government-subsidized housing to mobile home parks in the small North Georgia town. Some residences theirs, some the homes of kind neighbors who let them stay for awhile.
I had a glimpse into his world while trying to find his mother. I wove through the dirt roads that connected a series of makeshift villages deep in the woods. I asked neighbors for direction, but not a single person had heard of the street name, let alone of her. Perplexed, I pressed a man a bit further who explained that “most streets ain’t real streets back here, and people come and go.”
In and out of youth detention centers since the age of ten, he found his way to adult court at the age of fourteen. While the offense did not involve death or serious physical injury, it was certainly grave. The trial lasted not even a full day. The half-an-hour sentencing hearing was mostly comprised of the fourteen-year-old pleading with the Judge for leniency. Part of the boy’s family attended, but spoke generically and feebly on his behalf. The Judge was somewhat hamstrung by the law, but professed no regret. Life in prison plus twenty years.
Days later, the skeleton motion was filed and the appeal process commenced…and commenced…and commenced. Five years passed. Then ten. Still nothing.
A decade of fighting with a system just to be able to fight for his innocence is where I found him in our initial conversation, and why I assumed the nervousness was a product of desperation. After dozens of visits and countless letters, however, his hopeful nature was so evident that I knew my initial calculation was flawed. Curious, I simply asked why he was frozen with nervousness in that initial conversation.
He answered, “First time anyone asked me about my life.”
Steve Reba is an attorney at Emory Law School’s Barton Juvenile Defender Clinic where he directs an Equal Justice Works project called Appeal for Youth. The project, sponsored by Ford & Harrison LLP, provides holistic appellate representation to youthful offenders in Georgia’s juvenile and criminal justice systems. This blog follows the clients Appeal for Youth represents, hoping to present a genuine look into a system that is largely unknown or misunderstood by the public