I am an inmate at Liberty Correctional in Bristol, Fla. I am going on my 12th year of a 40-year-sentence for a nonviolent, first-time offense I committed 60 days into my 17th birthday.
My life as I knew it started to change when I was 15. My parents separated, which ultimately resulted in my father going off the deep end and firing off all of his weapons (over 200 rounds) throughout the house while my brother and I were inside sleeping. The bullets missed us by inches. The effects of that night were devastating. They officially filed for divorce in December 2007 when I was 16.
Before the divorce I was a normal and happy kid with four siblings. I was doing good in school and I was the captain of my football team at Northeast High School in St. Petersburg, Fla. I was an easygoing kid who got along with everyone, but after the divorce my whole world turned upside down. I lost interest in football and eventually stopped going to school.
I felt like I was completely alone and that no one cared about me. The school didn’t offer any counseling, and I had no idea how to handle any of my problems. I started hanging out in the streets a lot, and I stopped hanging around all the friends I used to have because I was embarrassed and humiliated about what had happened to my family. I started hanging out with a rough group of older people. I was angry and depressed so I ended up turning to drugs and alcohol to try to cope with my pain.
I was easy to manipulate and take advantage of because I was so lost in life. Then they talked me into doing things I would never have done had I been in my right mind. Everything was getting away from me, and before I realized what was really going on, I was arrested and sitting in a jail cell. How did I let my life get so out of control?
I had just turned 17 on Jan. 13, 2008 and I was being charged with trafficking hydrocodone and armed robbery on March 13. I was given a court-appointed attorney who did nothing to help me. He convinced me to do an open plea for my trafficking charge. He had said that since I was a juvenile and it was my first nonviolent felony, that I wouldn’t get much time.
He was apparently unaware or apathetic towards the mandatory minimum 25-year sentencing laws that have since been changed, but are not retroactive. The judge ended up sentencing me to a minimum mandatory 25 years in prison. I also had an armed robbery charge, which I did not commit, to deal with. I didn’t want to take any more pleas because of bad advice from counsel so I decided to go to trial.
Beatings, lies and apathy
The state’s only evidence in the robbery was my coerced confession. I was beaten by the police (my booking photo substantiates this) and I was forced to confess to something I didn’t do. I had asked for my mom and an attorney several times while I was being questioned and the detective flat out lied. He told me my mom had said she wanted nothing more to do with me, and that they could do whatever they wanted to do with me.
No one had contacted my mom and she was never given the opportunity to be present. The detective testified that he never talked to my mom himself and that he didn’t remember who did. The questioning should’ve stopped once I asked for my mom, but it didn’t. I was held in the room for several hours with no food or water until I finally confessed to something I didn’t do, just so I could get out of there. I was scared to death. I was also on prescribed pain medication at the time and I had informed the detective of this but he didn’t care.
Despite all of these mitigating circumstances, I was still found guilty and sentenced to another 15 years, which made my total sentence 40 years. When the judge was made aware of how the police beat me up, she said, “Oh, that happens when you get arrested.” I’ve never been able to understand how you give a first-time juvenile offender 40 years for a nonviolent victimless crime.
I’ve been locked up now for going on 12 years. During this time, I have taken advantage of every opportunity to better myself and continue to do so on a daily basis. I’ve taken every single class available, and have also received several certificates, along with receiving my GED. Instead of allowing this place to tear me down, I have used it to build myself up and become the man I was raised to be.
After watching my mom break down and cry while her youngest son was being sent to prison for 40 years, I promised myself I would do everything in my power to make her proud of me again. I have let my family down.
I have a very good support team in place, and I have everything I need to succeed in life. The only thing I’m missing is the opportunity. Everyone deserves a second chance. Especially someone who was still a minor when they screwed up, and was never offered any kind of community service, intervention, counseling or addiction treatment. I never physically hurt or assaulted anyone. Prior to all of this, my only other charge ever was a citation when I was 12 for riding a bicycle without a helmet.
I need all the help I can get. Please everyone, help me share my story with as many people as possible in hopes that it reaches someone who can help me get a second chance at life. No kid should ever have to go through what I’ve been through. If given the chance, I want to help make sure that doesn’t happen to any other kids. I want to help mentor at-risk youth, and I will use my story to show them that there is way more to life and drugs are never the answer.
This column comes via Danny Knight’s mother, Michelle Rothwell.