For eight years, from 2007 to 2015, I worked as a case analyst at the Innocence Project, an organization dedicated to freeing people who have been wrongfully convicted. My job was to review requests for help from those seeking representation. For cases that I determined warranted an in-depth investigation, I read trial transcripts, police reports and lab reports, and I corresponded extensively with the person seeking help.
It was then up to me to create a new narrative of the case that had not been written — about how a person may be innocent, and how we can, how we must, prove it with DNA testing. I would lay out a roadmap to exoneration — what could be tested, what result was needed — and advocate for these people to become clients. Several of them have been exonerated and are now free. Many more remain in prison.
An exoneration is monumental for the person incarcerated, her family and the victim and his family. It is remarkable in what it teaches us about the fallibility of the criminal justice system. However, an exoneration does not make us question our reliance on imprisonment to achieve justice. Instead, it reinforces this framework. Convicting the innocent is viewed as a miscarriage of justice, but the assumptions embedded in this premise — the intersectionality of incarceration and justice — are never examined.
At one Innocence Network conference in April 2014, attendees, including myself, listened to exonerees perform monologues they had crafted. Most of their performances focused on the inhumanity, isolation and cruelty of prison. Every person in the room was crying. A thought nagged at me as I looked around the room: Were they only crying because these people were innocent and tormented? Would this torment be acceptable if they were guilty of the horrific crimes they were wrongfully convicted of?
After that, I set out to create a documentary play about this very issue: the humanity of the guilty and the power of forgiveness.
From 2014 to 2017, I interviewed by phone, mail or email people who were convicted of crimes they committed as children and sentenced to life. I also interviewed family members of murder victims who have chosen to forgive and reconcile with the youth who killed their loved one, like Bill Pelke and Jeanne Bishop. I have taken these stories of violence, restorative justice and radical forgiveness and woven them into a play.
During the time of these interactions, in January 2016, the Supreme Court made a historic decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana. In 2012 the court had banned mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles. Now, in Montgomery v. Louisiana they ruled that the 2012 decision would apply retroactively, meaning that about 2,000 incarcerated people would be eligible for resentencing.
Among these thousands were two of the people featured in my play: Joe and Anne. (These are pseudonyms as their cases are still active. Identifying details have been changed as well.)
At the time of this writing, they remain in prison and are awaiting resentencing.
The U.S. is the only country in the world that sentences children to die in prison, according to the Sentencing Project. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have no one serving a life without parole sentence for a crime committed as a juvenile (JLWOP), either due to a ban or because no one is serving the sentence. About half of JLWOP sentences are from Pennsylvania, Michigan, Louisiana and California.
Systemic racism permeates who is sentenced to life and who is not: Human Rights Watch found that 60 percent of youth offenders serving life without parole are black and 29 percent percent are white.
Like so many others living in our prison cells, Joe, now in his 30s, had been a victim before he was labelled a perpetrator. According to a Sentencing Project survey of people serving life without parole for an offense committed as a juvenile, almost 80 percent witnessed violence in their homes regularly and just under half were physically abused.
Abuse permeated Joe’s childhood home.
“My mother was loving but she had a temper,” Joe told me. “When I was 9 years old, I woke up at 2 in the morning. I was in my bed and I could hear my 16-year-old sister, screaming and pleading with my mother. My mother was in the bathroom beating her. I hated myself because I wasn't able to stop it. I felt like a coward. I lay there crying, not knowing what to do.”
At 15, he broke into a home, and then realized the homeowner was home.
“I shot him,” Joe told me. “I was crying. I told him, I told him, I was sorry.”
Joe was quickly arrested and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
“Being away from my loved ones, it's like losing a limb, eventually you get used to it,” Joe told me of his time in prison. “You get to walking and moving around like you were born that way.”
I asked Joe if he had forgiven himself.
“I don't think it's really my place to forgive myself,” he told me. “I wronged Daniel [the victim]. I wronged his family. You know, I killed Daniel. I wronged his family. I wronged my family. I wasn't the one that was most harmed by what I did.”
Forgiveness, Sean Taylor, told me, is essential to his survival.
“I don't think I would be here if I hadn't forgiven myself,” Sean said. “I have forgiven myself. I don't allow myself to suffer any more for the things that I've done.”
At 14 years old, Sean joined a gang. Growing up, his parents both struggled with drug addiction, and his father cycled in and out of prison.
“I started to sell crack to help supplement the income of my household,” he explained. “Also, to just to have that camaraderie and to have someone to look to as father figures, just any type of leadership.”
Sean also felt that what he called the “façade of being a gangster” protected him.
“You don't have to fight as much because people are afraid of you because you're a gangster,” he told me. “They know that you'll shoot or they know that you'll do something crazy so they'll leave you alone.”
At 17, he shot at a house from a rival gang, and killed one of the occupants. Before he fired the shot, he yelled out: “I’m about to shoot!”
“I said that as like a warning to them because I really wasn't trying to hurt anyone,” Sean said. “What's crazy is I actually made sure there was no one standing there. I looked and in my mind, I said, ‘OK, no one's there, now it's safe to shoot.’ And, so I pulled that trigger, and we drove away.”
Later that night a friend told him to turn on the news. It was then that he learned that his bullet had killed a fellow 17-year-old who was inside the house.
“I didn't know what to do,” Sean told me. “I was panicking. My mother was there. My brother was crying.”
He turned himself in.
“The charges were first-degree homicide, but the counts were, count one extreme indifference and count two, universal malice, which basically means that they were saying I was the kind of guy that would shoot anywhere, shoot anything, and just not care who the bullet hit.”
In 1990, he was convicted and sentenced to life. He wouldn’t be eligible for parole until he served 40 years.
While in prison he was inspired by Assata Shakur’s autobiography to leave the gang — she had to escape prison, he had to escape his “negative lifestyle,” he explained. He converted to Islam while incarcerated and devoted his life to mentoring young men, a calling he still pursues on the outside. Sean is the deputy director of the Second Chance Center, Inc., which helps formerly incarcerated people “transition to lives of success and fulfillment.”
In 2011, Sean’s sentence was commuted to five years of parole.
“Every day I wake up and I look at trees, things that are not in prison,” Sean told me. “I look at the fact that I'm able to walk down the street. I'm able to walk on a sidewalk. I’m able to hear the ice cream truck go by. You know things like that. I still get overwhelmed because freedom is such a precious gift.”
It is a gift that Joe dreams of receiving as he awaits resentencing.
I asked Joe what could be learned from his story.
“You're responsible for your life, for your own actions,” Joe answered. “You can always look for a better way and don't give up on yourself. Don't be afraid to ask for help.”
He’s right. But there is more.
What is done with the thousands of Joes reflects on our character as a nation, a character that is in dire question as the inhumane and illogical policies from Washington trickle down: Do we believe that children are different — as volumes of research on brain development shows, as the Supreme Court has declared, as we all know to be true? Do we believe that an act a child commits should condemn him or her to die in prison — a sentence singular to our country?
I asked Joe if he had dreams of his life on the outside prior to the Supreme Court decision in Montgomery.
“Yeah, everybody has to have a dream, right?” he answered, laughing, as he often did when we spoke. “Yeah, but it changes as the years pass. It changes. When I was younger I figured I would retire by this, by 30, I thought I'd be able to retire. And I'm 34 now, so I can't make up for lost time, but I can take advantage of all the time I have, when I do have a chance to be free.”
Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg is the communications director for the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice and the author of the documentary play, Life, Death, Life Again: Children Sentenced to Die in Prison, which is in development with coLAB Arts. She teaches a course on wrongful convictions at Rutgers University and was a case analyst at the Innocence Project from 2007-15. The views expressed here are her own.