“The silence of our friends”

The sun sets early on Lake Michigan in March.  In Saint Joseph, a small coastal Michigan city known for tourism, early French explorers, and a classic lighthouse, a lazy wind sweeps in off the shore ice–lazy because “it doesn’t bother to go around you, it just goes straight through.”

March 8th, 1989, was colder than usual; the windchill only twenty degrees above zero-fahrenheit.  The sun went down at 6:44 pm.  By 9 pm, it was bitter dark, with the parking lot lights of Roger’s Vineland Foods reflecting yellow-gray under the clouds.

Inside the store, fifteen-year-old Efren Paredes worked with his manager, Rick Tetzlaff, to finish up the last details of a long day.  Double-coupon day meant extra work.  Others had gone home, but earlier in the evening, Rick had asked Efren to stay, and to call his mother for permission.

“Nine-thirty,” she told him.  At the latest.  Remember, it’s a school night.

Efren knew.  He was already keeping up with the honor roll, foreign language club, Key Club, soccer….  Once home, he’d still have homework to do.

At 9:22, he punched out.  Then he and Rick walked outside to Rick’s car.  The wind had calmed, and their breath froze in the air.  Home was only a mile away, more or less.  Still too far to walk on a night like this one.

Moments later, Efren was inside the house, and Rick had driven away.  Efren kissed his mother, grabbed pizza for a makeshift supper, and went to his room to do his homework.

Rick, in the meantime, drove back to the store.  He still had work to do.  It was never finished.  Within half an hour, Rick Tetzlaff, at twenty-eight years old, was dead–shot in a back room for $11,000 in cash and checks.

One week later, Efren was arrested for murder.

What followed that night is a tangled story of high-school animosities, false witnesses, zealous police and still more zealous prosecutors–a defense attorney who made little defense, a jury with members who had connections to the murdered man’s family–a boy sitting stiff and terrified, watching his life sworn away, warned by his own counsel “not to cry,” while older boys, desperate to escape their own life sentences, put their crimes on him.

For nearly twenty-five years, he can only say, “I didn’t do it.”

But Efren is not a weakling.  He knows he could have been free a long time ago.  The cost?  Five words.  “I’m sorry.  I did it.”

For parole board members and prosecutors, it’s called showing remorse.  Lack of it indicates the worst case–a sociopath who can’t be reformed.

But for Efren, it’s not just five words that stand between him and freedom.  It’s his integrity.

He won’t say those words.  “I will not take responsibility for a crime I did not commit,” he told a parole board five years ago. “I never will do that even if it meant I could leave today.”*

With his appeals long exhausted, he has few chances left.  One of them lies in a recent Supreme Court decision to end mandatory life sentences for juveniles.  The State of Michigan is considering legislation in response that could force cases like Efren’s back into review.

Speaking from long and painful experience, Efren asks for help–not for himself alone, but for other child-prisoners who have been deemed irreclaimable.

As part of his petition at change.org, he requests that the final language of the bill should include the judicial power to sentence juveniles for a term of years–where Michigan judges now have, in certain cases, only the option of life-with-parole, or life-without-parole.

The introductory text of the petition is as follows:

Members of the Michigan Senate and House of Representatives are scheduled to convene on August 27, 2013 to discuss House Bills 4806, 4807, 4808, and 4809 that would give Miller v. Alabama, 132 S.Ct 2455 (2012), retroactive application to cases that exhausted their appellate review prior to the high court ruling. In its decision the U.S. Supreme Court ended the imposition of mandatory life without parole (LWOP) sentences for juveniles nationwide.

Supporters of the bills are urging legislators to include in the final version language that provides judges with discretion to sentence juvenile offenders to a term of years rather than only the options of LWOP or parolable life sentences for each juvenile offender when considering mitigating circumstances. We oppose disallowing judges from exercising their professional discretion when sentencing juveniles and believe that sentences imposed should be rendered on a case-by-case basis.

You are invited to sign this petition which will send the message below to Rep. Joseph Haveman along with your individual state senator and representative. Your legislators will be contacted based on your zip code. You are also asked to share a link to this petition widely via e-mail, Facebook, Twitter and other available social media platforms. Along with your messages and posts you are asked to invite others to re-post and share the link as well.

We want to send a strong message to legislators about the important need to pass this legislation and reform the existing flawed sentencing scheme that condemns children to die in Michigan prisons. Draconian sentencing of juvenile offenders has no place in a civilized nation that prides itself on being a human rights leader in the world.

You can help support passage of these bills by attending the legislative hearing which will be held at the House Office Building, Room 519, on Tuesday, August 27, 2013 at 9:00 A.M. Please encourage as many people to attend as possible and to provide written and/or verbal testimony expressing support for passage of the bills.

It is important to tell stories of growth and maturation after a child makes a terrible mistake. Let legislators know that a second chance, to demonstrate how adolescence affected choices and the unique capacity for growth provides hope, sustains good behavior, and promotes family involvement in working towards rehabilitation and release.

“In the end we will not remember the words of our enemies, only the silence of our friends.” (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.)

If you’d like to sign now, go to the petition link at:

Michigan Legislature: End Mandatory Life Without Parole Sentences for Juveniles in Michigan

For more on the issues regarding juvenile life sentences and the proposed changes to the law, I’ll be posting next week.

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