Tag Archives: wrongful conviction

Here’s me, learning

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.

Slam.

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.

So say it, already

I admit to being a rubbernecker.  Not where there are lights and sirens, not when the fire department goes out, but when a public figure’s political implosion is in the making, oh, yes.  It’s such a nicely predictable event.  Stupid, offensive, sexist, racist comment.  Internet KABOOM.  Shards everywhere.  Countdown to apology in five … four … three….

“Sorry.”

Which no one, least of all me, believes, but hey, he said it.  That counts, right?

We have this thing with apology.  Be a murderer, be a rapist, be whatever vile thing human beings have ever invented, but for Pete’s sake apologize, and we’ll think just a little better of you.  We might even let you have another chance.  Just SAY IT.

I’m not actually that impressed with the way we reward the manipulative, the groveling and the insincere.  But parole boards go on doing it.  Whether in terms of pardons, commutations or paroles, remorse is a factor in the offender’s case.  You have to say it.

Which, if you didn’t do it, means you can lie to God, yourself, your fellow man and the State that sentenced you–or you can go on rotting out your sentence.  There is no other alternative.  Parole boards are not allowed to consider the possibility of innocence.  Legally, you were ruled guilty and they must consider you guilty.  Therefore, you must have remorse.

The murderer who can admit what he did has a better chance at freedom than you do.

Point two: we have this thing with believing convicted people must be guilty.  Even though we know innocent men go to prison, we can’t quite believe it until years after overwhelming evidence exonerates them.  This is the other societal cramp that binds the first one into law.  Both need to change.  Because they are so socially and legally engrained, they won’t change without a great change in social understanding.  Let’s get on it, people.

Starting with, I want you to see this film.  It needs to be made, must be released and shared.  There are just over three weeks left of a fundraiser that badly needs to be rocketed off the ground.  Please reblog, tweet, Facebook, pass on.  Help.

And I thank you.

***

Natural Life: A Case Study.  “The question of parole and remorse for one juvenile lifer.”

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/natural-life-a-case-study

Update: I want to add this article from the New York Times, because it shows hope for more progressive thinking.  Time for Michigan’s parole boards to get on board.

Claims of Innocence No Longer a Roadblock  (in New York State)

 

Update: Middleton to die after stay overturned

After a federal judge granted a brief stay of execution to evaluate Middleton’s compentency to be executed, an appeals court has overturned it.  In essence, the court ruled, Middleton failed to pursue the compentency issue at state level, and it’s too late.

John Middleton will die whether he is competent or not, whether he is innocent or not.  He will lose his life to a due process that is concerned with process to the exclusion, too often, of real justice.

Evidence proving he could not have committed the crime has been thoroughly disregarded by State and courts.  In other words, by men who should be supremely interested in anything that would prevent the kind of tragedy that takes place tonight–that would not need to take place, if those who guarded the law would keep the open minds and ears they are meant to keep.  This is a fail for all of us.

Rest in peace, John.  May you go gently.

Missouri, we are not proud of you.

“Who’s Sorry Now”

One minute after midnight, Wednesday morning, July 16, 2014. That’s tomorrow.

Tomorrow, if the State of Missouri has its way, John Middleton will be wrongfully executed in the face of a clear legal doubt. While his lawyers pursue last minute appeals–to the federal courts, perhaps the Supreme Court–Missouri has washed its hands of Middleton’s blood.

In a system that routinely fails to punish bad faith in prosecution–and again, rewards witnesses who please their prosecutors–this shouldn’t surprise anyone. What should surprise us is our apathy in the face of damning evidence: the justice we depend upon can just as quickly, and wrongfully, convict any one of us. But like a flock of sparrows, we wait until the scattered feathers settle–the cat is satisfied–and return as if we are not one less than we were yesterday.

Perhaps–I say this questioningly–apathy is only the bastard child of inexperience. It’s true that most of us have never been wrongly convicted, never known someone who is or has been wrongly convicted. I was the latter, once.

I know better now. It’s a mind-opening experience that filters every waking moment. The sunsets I can only send through photographs. The birdsongs I can only (try to) describe on paper. The world wide web of information–he loves to know what’s going on outside–that I can only filter through the clunky machinery of prison email and my letters. Above all, the years of life stripped away from a man whose dream is to sit on his own porch; and maybe to go for a walk if he feels like it–just to go, with nothing to bar the road and a horizon that goes on opening its doors.

In only one respect, my friend is lucky. His state does not have a death penalty. There’s still time, still a chance for someone to right so much wrong.

I’ve said in the past that I support the death penalty when fairly applied. I no longer believe that’s possible. Until we change, until our system of law and prosecution and witnessing and evidence changes, I can no longer support executions, whatever the crime. Life in prison, without parole, is long enough.

Yes, it’s too long for an innocent man. But maybe it’s long enough for the rest of us to nod our heads in belated justice, and say to a living human being, “we’re sorry. We made a mistake.”

Because frankly, just between you and me and the cemetary, that headstone doesn’t care who’s sorry now.

“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.