I mailed a letter today. And I did what I don’t usually do. I pleaded. For my friend. For his life.
I’ve blogged about juvenile life sentences before, it’s true. But now the constitutional arguments have gone through the Supreme Court. The answers have come down. The states, including Michigan, have answered with legislation; juvenile life-without-parole sentences are on the docket, and … this suddenly means something horribly personal.
Because my friend, who has served over twenty-seven years for a crime he never committed, gets to ask a court to change his sentence. From no parole, ever, to maybe parole, someday. In other words, to be resentenced to a term of years.
It’s a process where everybody is supposed to get the chance to talk. Prosecutor. Victim’s family. Defense. The convicted. The experts. And friends. So that I get to say a few words too. To write to the trial court, testifying that in my experience, Efren Paredes is a fit person to rejoin society.
There are restrictions. I’m not allowed to argue his innocence. Twenty-seven years on a wrongful conviction doesn’t get to weigh. I’m writing for a man who is guilty to the eyes of the law–trying to convince someone that he’s sane, that he’s humane, that he’s done nothing but lift up other people and look upward himself for twenty-seven years. That all he wants to do is go home to sit on his own front porch.
Then, after adding my personal testimony, I’m reduced to the head-banging, stuck-where-the-sun-don’t-shine argument that people who have actually committed these kinds of crimes have generally gone home in many fewer years. That therefore, on comparative grounds, this supposedly guilty man’s sentence has been unfair. Does anybody not see the irony of the insult?
And then…. I have nothing left to do but plead.
I wonder if anyone will listen. The prosecutor wants a life sentence without parole all over again. The guilty teenagers have served their time and been released. None are interested in coming back and telling the truth, or clearing the one they blamed for plotting their crime. The victim’s family has been adamant throughout the process that this last symbol of their loss must pay, and pay forever.
Only my friend, Efren Paredes, remains hopeful that somehow, someway, someday, somebody is going to acknowledge the truth and act with justice; even though every door to it has been slammed in his face, over and over again.
I never knew what that crashing door sounded like, until I made my first visit to Muskegon Correctional Facility–my first visit to a prison. It’s the door between the visitor lobby … and everything else. It’s electronically controlled, and it hits with such a slam that you’d expect the glass in it to shatter. Everytime an officer comes in, goes out, slam. Again and again and again.
Sitting on the hard plastic chair in that lobby, waiting to be called up, I look around me, and I realize: except for a sprinkling of somebody’s fathers, we are a company of women. Black, white and hispanic. Mostly under forty. Dressed up, as if we were going out to dinner. Eager. Anxious. Some sad. None of us looking as if the men in our lives ought to be in prison. A collection of stereotypes busted.
We are called up, we are searched, we go in. We find our seats next to the men we’ve come to see. We get to hug, just quickly. We talk in very, very low voices, trying to be private while the whole room is talking. The girl sitting behind me is crying. A black couple–inmate and companion–take the seats across from us, and I can’t help wondering at the unrealness: how tall and beautiful they both are, how perfectly she’s dressed, how we are all four sitting here, polite and polished as if we’ve met in an upper-class restaurant. We’re not allowed to talk to them, but I ask, just once, if our table is in their way. No, she says gently. Everything’s fine.
We eat vending-machine chips and candy and sandwiches off styrofoam plates on a cheap plastic table, and act like we’re out to dinner. We talk and talk until we’re both tired and can’t think of anything to say, and then we try to go on talking anyway, because otherwise, it’s over. And when it is over, we throw the plates in the garbage, and hug–quickly–and I go.
I’ve written before about the difference: between not knowing and knowing somebody who is wrongfully incarcerated. How it’s so much easier to ignore the fact that innocent men go to prison, when it’s not personal. And to that end, I need to make a confession.
There is a time, and not far gone, when I would have looked past Charles Lewis and not seen him. I am ashamed, and it is truth.
Charles Lewis is black. He is from Detroit. He is fifty-eight years old, and has spent forty-one of those years serving a juvenile life sentence without parole. The circumstances of his case overwhelmingly vindicate him; and if that were not enough, the outrageous mishandling of his files in the court system–the original file has been completely lost–should require redress. Not, however, in the eyes of his prosecutor, who wants him to give up his life without ever seeing freedom.
I’d never heard of Charles Lewis’ conviction, or that he has protested his innocence for forty-one years. That’s not what I’m ashamed of. But I am, and I think I always will be ashamed, knowing that I would have read this article, and blinked and gone on, except for Efren….
Because the first thought that hit me, on reading the article above, was this: that when a man says he’s innocent, for that long, no matter what it’s cost him, he probably is. That when the evidence is strong in his favor, it’s probably true. That innocent men do go to prison, too frequently. I know that, because I know Efren.
And I’m ashamed that it took something real and personal and connected to my experience to make me stop and listen to Charles Lewis, when the most basic course of abstract justice would have demanded just that.
It all makes me wonder, how many people are listening to Efren? At last count, seventy-nine had signed the latest petition on his behalf. The one for the trial court, regarding his resentencing. I’m linking to it here…
… thanking you. For listening.