innocence blog

A Web log for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Serving Life, With No Chance of Redemption

October 5, 2005


LIVINGSTON, Tex. - Minutes after the United States Supreme Court threw out the juvenile death penalty in March, word reached death row here, setting off a pandemonium of banging, yelling and whoops of joy among many of the 28 men whose lives were spared by the decision.
But the news devastated Randy Arroyo, who had faced execution for helping kidnap and kill an Air Force officer while stealing his car for parts.
Mr. Arroyo realized he had just become a lifer, and that was the last thing he wanted. Lifers, he said, exist in a world without hope. "I wish I still had that death sentence," he said. "I believe my chances have gone down the drain. No one will ever look at my case."
Mr. Arroyo has a point. People on death row are provided with free lawyers to pursue their cases in federal court long after their convictions have been affirmed; lifers are not. The pro bono lawyers who work so aggressively to exonerate or spare the lives of death row inmates are not interested in the cases of people merely serving life terms. And appeals courts scrutinize death penalty cases much more closely than others.
Mr. Arroyo will become eligible for parole in 2037, when he is 57. But he doubts he will ever get out.
"This is hopeless," he said.
Scores of lifers, in interviews at 10 prisons in six states, echoed Mr. Arroyo's despondency. They have, they said, nothing to look forward to and no way to redeem themselves.
More than one in four lifers will never even see a parole board. The boards that the remaining lifers encounter have often been refashioned to include representatives of crime victims and elected officials not receptive to pleas for lenience.
And the nation's governors, concerned about the possibility of repeated offenses by paroled criminals and the public outcry that often follows, have all but stopped commuting life sentences.
In at least 22 states, lifers have virtually no way out. Fourteen states reported that they released fewer than 10 in 2001, the latest year for which national data is available, and the other eight states said fewer than two dozen each.
The number of lifers thus continues to swell in prisons across the nation, even as the number of new life sentences has dropped in recent years along with the crime rate.
According to a New York Times survey, the number of lifers has almost doubled in the last decade, to 132,000. Historical data on juvenile offenders is incomplete. But among the 18 states that can provide data from 1993, the juvenile lifer population rose 74 percent in the next decade.
Prosecutors and representatives of crime victims applaud the trend. The prisoners, they say, are paying the minimum fit punishment for their terrible crimes.
But even supporters of the death penalty wonder about this state of affairs.
"Life without parole is a very strange sentence when you think about it," said Robert Blecker, a professor at New York Law School. "The punishment seems either too much or too little. If a sadistic or extraordinarily cold, callous killer deserves to die, then why not kill him? But if we are going to keep the killer alive when we could otherwise execute him, why strip him of all hope?"
Burl Cain, the warden of the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, which houses thousands of lifers, said older prisoners who have served many years should be able to make their cases to a parole or pardon board that has an open mind. Because all life sentences in Louisiana are without the possibility of parole, only a governor's pardon can bring about a release.
The prospect of a meaningful hearing would, Mr. Cain said, provide lifers with a taste of hope.
"Prison should be a place for predators and not dying old men," Mr. Cain said. "Some people should die in prison, but everyone should get a hearing."
Television and Boredom
In interviews, lifers said they tried to resign themselves to spending down their days entirely behind bars. But the prison programs that once kept them busy in an effort at training and rehabilitation have largely been dismantled, replaced by television and boredom.
The lot of the lifer may be said to be cruel or pampered, depending on one's perspective. "It's a bleak imprisonment," said W. Scott Thornsley, a former corrections official in Pennsylvania. "When you take away someone's hope, you take away a lot."
It was not always that way, said Steven Benjamin, a 56-year-old Michigan lifer.
"The whole perception of incarceration changed in the 1970's," said Mr. Benjamin, who is serving a sentence of life without parole for participating in a robbery in 1973 in which an accomplice killed a man. "They're dismantling all meaningful programs. We just write people off without a second thought."
As the years pass and the lifers grow old, they sometimes tend to dying prisoners and then die themselves. Some are buried in cemeteries on prison grounds by other lifers, who will then go on to repeat the cycle.
"They're never going to leave here," said Mr. Cain, the warden at Angola, of inmates he looks after. "They're going to die here."
Some defendants view the prospect of life in prison as so bleak and the possibility of exoneration for lifers as so remote that they are willing to roll the dice with death.
In Alabama, six men convicted of capital crimes have asked their juries for death rather than life sentences, said Bryan Stevenson, director of the Equal Justice Initiative of Alabama.
The idea seems to have its roots in the experience of Walter McMillian, who was convicted of capital murder by an Alabama jury in 1988. The jury recommended that he be sentenced to life without parole, but Judge Robert E. Lee Key Jr. overrode that recommendation and sentenced Mr. McMillian to death by electrocution.
Because of that death sentence, lawyers opposed to capital punishment took up Mr. McMillian's case. Through their efforts, Mr. McMillian was exonerated five years later after prosecutors conceded that they had relied on perjured testimony. "Had there not been that decision to override," said Mr. Stevenson, one of Mr. McMillian's lawyers, "he would be in prison today."
Other Alabama defendants have learned a lesson from Mr. McMillian.
"We have a lot of death penalty cases where, perversely, the client at the penalty phase asks to be sentenced to death," Mr. Stevenson said.
Judges and other legal experts say that risky decision could be a wise one for defendants who are innocent or who were convicted under flawed procedures. "Capital cases get an automatic royal treatment, whereas noncapital cases are fairly routine," said Alex Kozinski, a federal appeals court judge in California.
David R. Dow, one of Mr. Arroyo's lawyers and the director of the Texas Innocence Network, said groups like his did not have the resources to represent lifers.
"If we got Arroyo's case as a non-death-penalty case," Mr. Dow said, "we would have terminated it in the very early stages of investigation."
Mr. Arroyo, who is 25 but still has something of the pimply, squirmy adolescent about him, said he already detected a certain quiet descending on his case.
"You don't hear too many religious groups or foreign governments or nonprofit organizations fighting for lifers," he said.
Gov. Rick Perry of Texas signed a bill in June adding life without parole as an option for juries to consider in capital cases. Opponents of the death penalty have embraced and promoted this alternative, pointing to studies that show that support for the death penalty dropped drastically among jurors and the public when life without parole, or LWOP, was an alternative.
"Life without parole has been absolutely crucial to whatever progress has been made against the death penalty," said James Liebman, a law professor at Columbia. "The drop in death sentences" - from 320 in 1996 to 125 last year - "would not have happened without LWOP."
But some questioned the strategy.
"I have a problem with death penalty abolitionists," said Paul Wright, the editor of Prison Legal News and a former lifer, released in Washington State in 2003 after serving 17 years for killing a man in a robbery attempt. "They're positing life without parole as an option, but it's a death sentence by incarceration. You're trading a slow form of death for a faster one."
Mr. Arroyo shares that view.
"I'd roll the dice with death and stay on death row," he said. "Really, death has never been my fear. What do people believe? That being alive in prison is a good life? This is slavery."
Murder Follows a Kidnapping
Mr. Arroyo was convicted in 1998 for his role in the killing of Jose Cobo, 39, an Air Force captain and the chief of maintenance training at the Inter-American Air Forces Academy in Lackland, Tex. Mr. Arroyo, then 17, and an accomplice, Vincent Gutierrez, 18, wanted to steal Captain Cobo's red Mazda RX-7 for parts.
Captain Cobo tried to escape but became tangled in his seat belt. Mr. Gutierrez shot him twice in the back and shoved the dying man onto the shoulder of Interstate 410 during rush hour on a rainy Tuesday morning.
Although Mr. Arroyo did not pull the trigger, he was convicted of felony murder, or participation in a serious crime that led to a killing. He contends that he had no reason to think Mr. Gutierrez would kill Captain Cobo and therefore cannot be guilty of felony murder. "I don't mind taking responsibility for my actions, for my part in this crime," he said. "But don't act like I'm a murderer or violent or that this was premeditated."
That argument misunderstands the felony murder law, legal experts said. Mr. Arroyo's decision to participate in the carjacking is, they say, more than enough to support his murder conviction.
Captain Cobo left behind a 17-year-old daughter, Reena.
"I miss him so much it hurts when I think about it," she said of her father in a victim impact statement presented at trial. "I know he is in heaven with my grandmother and God is taking care of him. I want to see the murderers punished not necessarily by death. I feel sorry that they wasted theirs and my father's life."
Ms. Cobo declined to be interviewed.
Mr. Arroyo said he was not eager to leave death row, and not just because of dwindling interest in his case.
"All I know is death row," he said. "This is my life. This is where I grew up."
His lawyer sees reasons for him to be concerned about moving off death row.
"He's going to become someone's plaything in the general population," Mr. Dow said. "He's a small guy, and the first time someone tries to kill him they'll probably succeed."
That kind of violence is not the way most lifers die. At Angola, for instance, two prisoners were killed by fellow inmates in the five years ended in 2004. One committed suicide, and two were executed. The other 150 or so died in the usual ways.
The prison operates a hospice to tend to dying prisoners, and it has opened a second cemetery, Point Lookout Two, to accommodate the dead.
On a warm afternoon earlier this year, men in wheelchairs moved slowly around the main open area of the prison hospice. Others lounged in bed.
The private rooms, for terminal patients, are as pleasant as most hospital rooms, though the doors are sturdier. The inmates have televisions, video games, coffeepots and DVD players. One patient watched "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider."
Robert Downs, a 69-year old career bank robber serving a 198-year term as a habitual felon, died in one of those rooms the day before. In his final days, other inmates tended to him, in four-hour shifts, around the clock. They held his hand and eased his passage. "Our responsibility," said Randolph Matthieu, 53, a hospice volunteer, "is so that he doesn't die there by himself. We wash him and clean him if he messes himself. It's a real humbling experience."
Mr. Matthieu is serving a life sentence for killing a man he met at the C'est La Guerre Lounge in Lafayette, La., in 1983.
At Point Lookout Two the next day, there were six mounds of fresh dirt and one deep hole, ready to receive Mr. Downs. Under the piles of dirt were other inmates who had recently died. They were awaiting simple white crosses like the 120 or so nearby. The crosses bear two pieces of information. One is the dead man's name, of course. Instead of the end points of his life, though, his six-digit prison number is stamped below.
The sun was hot, and the gravediggers paused for a rest after their toil.
"I'm hoping I don't come this way," said Charles Vassel, 66, who is serving a life sentence for killing a clerk while robbing a liquor store in Monroe, La., in 1972. "I want to be buried around my family."
The families of prisoners who die at Angola have 30 hours to claim their bodies, and about half do. The rest are buried at Point Lookout Two.
"It's pretty much the only way you leave," said Timothy Bray, 45, also in for life. Mr. Bray, who helped beat a man to death for falling behind in his debts, tends to the horses that pull the hearse on funeral days, placing white and red rosettes in their manes.
Wary of a Transformed World
Not all older lifers are eager to leave prison. Many have grown used to the free food and medical care. They have no skills, they say, and they worry about living in a world that has been radically transformed by technology in the decades that they have been locked up.
Wardens like Mr. Cain say that lifers are docile, mature and helpful.
"Many of the lifers are not habitual felons," he added. "They committed a murder that was a crime of passion. That inmate is not necessarily hard to manage."
What is needed, he said, is hope, and that is in short supply. "I tell them, 'You never know when you might win the lottery,' " Mr. Cain said. "You never know when you might get a pardon. You never know when they might change the law.'"
Up the road from Point Lookout Two, near the main entrance, is the building that houses the state's death row. Lawyers for the 89 men there are hard at work, trying to overturn their clients' convictions or at least convert their death sentences into life terms. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, eight Louisiana death row inmates have been exonerated in the last three decades. More than 50, prison officials said, have had their sentences commuted to life.
But those hard-won life sentences, when they come, do not always please the prisoners.
"I have to put a lot of these guys on suicide watch when they get off death row," said Cathy Fontenot, an assistant warden, "because their chances have gone down to this."
She put her thumb and forefinger together, making a zero.
Janet Roberts contributed reporting for this series. Research was contributed by Jack Styczynski, Linda Amster, Donna Anderson, Jack Begg, Alain Delaquérière, Sandra Jamison, Toby Lyles and Carolyn Wilder.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

To More Inmates, Life Term Means Dying Behind Bars

October 2, 2005


HARRISBURG, Pa. - In the winter woods near Gaines, Pa., on the day before New Year's Eve in 1969, four 15-year-olds were hunting rabbits when Charlotte Goodwin told Jackie Lee Thompson a lie. They had been having sex for about a month, and she said she was pregnant.
That angered Jackie, and he shot Charlotte three times and then drowned her in the icy waters of Pine Creek.
A few months later, Judge Charles G. Webb sentenced him to life in prison. But the judge told him:
"You will always have hope in a thing of this kind. We have found that, in the past, quite frequently, if you behave yourself, there is a good chance that you will learn a trade and you will be paroled after a few years."
Mr. Thompson did behave himself, learned quite a few trades in his 35 years in prison - he is an accomplished carpenter, bricklayer, electrician, plumber, welder and mechanic - and earned a high school diploma and an associate's degree in business.
So exemplary is his prison record that when Mr. Thompson, now 50, asked the state pardons board to release him, the victim's father begged for his release, and a retired prison official offered Mr. Thompson a place to stay and a job.
"We can forgive him," said Duane Goodwin, Charlotte's father. "Why can't you?"
The board turned Mr. Thompson down.
Tom Corbett, the state attorney general, cast the decisive vote.
"He shot her with a pump-action shotgun, three times," Mr. Corbett said. "This was a cold-blooded killing."
Just a few decades ago, a life sentence was often a misnomer, a way to suggest harsh punishment but deliver only 10 to 20 years.
But now, driven by tougher laws and political pressure on governors and parole boards, thousands of lifers are going into prisons each year, and in many states only a few are ever coming out, even in cases where judges and prosecutors did not intend to put them away forever.
Indeed, in just the last 30 years, the United States has created something never before seen in its history and unheard of around the globe: a booming population of prisoners whose only way out of prison is likely to be inside a coffin.
A survey by The New York Times found that about 132,000 of the nation's prisoners, or almost 1 in 10, are serving life sentences. The number of lifers has almost doubled in the last decade, far outpacing the overall growth in the prison population. Of those lifers sentenced between 1988 and 2001, about a third are serving time for sentences other than murder, including burglary and drug crimes.
Growth has been especially sharp among lifers with the words "without parole" appended to their sentences. In 1993, the Times survey found, about 20 percent of all lifers had no chance of parole. Last year, the number rose to 28 percent.
The phenomenon is in some ways an artifact of the death penalty. Opponents of capital punishment have promoted life sentences as an alternative to execution. And as the nation's enthusiasm for the death penalty wanes amid restrictive Supreme Court rulings and a spate of death row exonerations, more states are turning to life sentences.
Defendants facing a potential death sentence often plead to life; those who go to trial and are convicted are sentenced to life about half the time by juries that are sometimes swayed by the lingering possibility of innocence.
As a result the United States is now housing a large and permanent population of prisoners who will die of old age behind bars. At the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, for instance, more than 3,000 of the 5,100 prisoners are serving life without parole, and most of the rest are serving sentences so long that they cannot be completed in a typical lifetime.
About 150 inmates have died there in the last five years, and the prison recently opened a second cemetery, where simple white crosses are adorned with only the inmate's name and prisoner ID number.
A Growing Reliance on Life Terms
American enthusiasm for life sentences reflects an uneasy societal consensus. Such sentences are undeniably tough, pleasing politicians and prosecutors, but they also satisfy opponents of capital punishment.
"If you are punishing a heinous criminal who has committed a violent murder, it is appropriate to use severe sanctions," said Julian H. Wright Jr., a lawyer in North Carolina and the author of a study on life without parole. "It has the advantage of achieving a harsh penalty and keeping a violent offender off the streets. And you don't take a human life in the process. Indeed, if you mess up and do it wrong, you haven't taken someone's life."
But the prison wardens, criminologists and groups that study sentencing say the growing reliance on life terms also raises a host of questions.
Permanent incarceration may be the fitting punishment for murder. Few shed tears for Gary L. Ridgway, the Green River killer, who was sentenced to 48 consecutive life terms in Washington State, one for each of the women he admitted to killing.
But some critics of life sentences say they are overused, pointing to people like Jerald Sanders, who is serving a life sentence in Alabama. He was a small-time burglar and had never been convicted of a violent crime. Under the state's habitual offender law, he was sent away after stealing a $60 bicycle.
Fewer than two-thirds of the 70,000 people sentenced to life from 1988 to 2001 are in for murder, the Times analysis found. Other lifers - more than 25,000 of them - were convicted of crimes like rape, kidnapping, armed robbery, assault, extortion, burglary and arson. People convicted of drug trafficking account for 16 percent of all lifers.
Life sentences certainly keep criminals off the streets. But, as decades pass and prisoners grow more mature and less violent, does the cost of keeping them locked up justify what may be a diminishing benefit in public safety? By a conservative estimate, it costs $3 billion a year to house America's lifers. And as prisoners age, their medical care can become very expensive.
At the same time, studies show, most prisoners become markedly less violent as they grow older.
"Committing crime, particularly violent crime, is an activity of the young," said Richard Kern, the director of the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission.
Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy group that issued a report on life sentences last year, said that about a fifth of released lifers were arrested again, compared with two-thirds of all released prisoners.
"Many lifers," Mr. Mauer said, "are kept in prison long after they represent a public safety threat."
In much of the rest of the world, sentences of natural life are all but unknown.
"Western Europeans regard 10 or 12 years as an extremely long term, even for offenders sentenced in theory to life," said James Q. Whitman, a law professor at Yale and the author of "Harsh Justice," which compares criminal punishment in the United States and Europe.
Michael H. Tonry, a professor of law and public policy at the University of Minnesota and an expert on comparative punishment, said life without parole was a legal impossibility in much of the world.
Mexico will not extradite defendants who face sentences of life without parole. And when Mehmet Ali Agca, the Turkish gunman who tried to kill Pope John Paul II in 1981, was pardoned in 2000, an Italian judge remarked, "No one stays 20 years in prison."
Some developing and Islamic nations mete out brutal sanctions, including corporal punishment and mutilation. But if the discussion is limited to very long prison sentences, Professor Tonry said, "we are vastly more punitive than anybody else."
The reasons for this gap are hard to pinpoint. Professor Whitman detects an American appetite for harsh retribution. Professor Tonry locates that appetite in a Calvinist tradition.
"It's the same reason we're not a socialist welfare state," he said. "You deserve what you get, both good and bad."
That sort of talk struck M. L. Ebert Jr., a former president of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association and the district attorney of Cumberland County, Pa., as a little fancy.
"Is it too much to ask that people don't kill people?" he said. "I can't tell you the devastation it causes families, who never forget. If you kill somebody, life means life without parole."
The Crime and the Victim
"My anger broke loose, and I shot her," Mr. Thompson said recently, recalling for the millionth time the day he killed Charlotte Goodwin. He was afraid, he said, that her pregnancy would get him kicked out of his foster home, his fourth in five years and the first one that he liked.
Mr. Thompson is a slight, almost elfin man, with receding, wispy, unkempt salt-and-pepper hair, a casual mustache, breath that smells of cigarettes and moody brown eyes in a heavily creased face.
He is serving his time at the Rockview Correctional Institution near Bellefonte, just up the road from Pennsylvania State University. It is a soaring and forbidding mass of granite, a piece of Gotham City plunked down in the rolling hills of rural Pennsylvania.
He used his friend Dennis Ellis's pump-action shotgun, Mr. Thompson said, and he shot Charlotte at close range three times. He tried to explain the repeated shots.
"You have to pump each time," he said. "It is true. Dennis and I, we always had a habit of going out in the woods with a gun and see how fast we could empty a gun. That's where the second and third shots come from."
Charlotte's wounds were not immediately fatal. The youths had the idea, Mr. Thompson said, of putting her in a nearby creek. But she bobbed to the surface. So the three teenagers slid her body under the ice that covered a part of the creek, drowning her.
"You should have seen how stupid we was," Mr. Thompson said. "I wish I could change that."
Mr. Thompson grew up as a slow and confused child, with a slight speech impediment. He had 13 brothers and sisters, "and that's not counting the half ones," he said.
"Three or four of them have died so far," he said. His mother died when he was 10, he added, "I'm told of cancer."
Mr. Thompson recalled his younger self.
"That 15-year-old kid was so scared. He was a special-ed kid. Special-ed kids get teased a lot. I was small. I kept running away. Here was a kid who was always scared to death, picked on, possibly beat up."
"Looking back," he said, "I wish someone would have grabbed hold of me and kicked my butt. I wasn't a bad kid."
He met Charlotte Goodwin at the foster home.
"I didn't get to know her that well," Mr. Thompson said. "At that age, boys are after one thing. A girl can talk all she wants and you ain't listening to her. You're thinking of only one thing."
Duane Goodwin, Charlotte's father, remembered a cheerful child.
"She was just happy-go-lucky," Mr. Goodwin said of her. "If there was any kind of music on, she'd move to it."
Jackie confessed to killing Charlotte, and Judge Webb sentenced him to life. At that time, 1970, in Pennsylvania, a life sentence usually meant fewer than 20 years.
Dorothy D. Quimby was the clerk of the Orphans Court of Tioga County at the time and she knew him as "a gentle, good boy who had suffered a lot of hurt."
"I also knew Judge Webb very well," she wrote to the pardons board, "and know that his intentions were not to have Jackie incarcerated for any great length of time."
A few months ago, Mr. Goodwin, 78, traveled 100 miles to speak up for his daughter's killer before the pardons board, which meets in an ornate courtroom of the State Supreme Court here, under a stained-glass cupola and a dozen frescoes attesting to the majesty of the law.
Mr. Goodwin, a retired glass factory worker with a gray goatee and a hearing aid, is a small man with erect posture, alert eyes and quick laugh, but he gets a little overwhelmed by public speaking. He spoke softly and haltingly.
"He was just a scared little kid," Mr. Goodwin said of Jackie. "If he ever gets out, he's got a good education, and I think he'll use it."
Kenneth Chubb, a retired facilities manager at the prison in Camp Hill, told the board that he had a proposal.
"My wife and I would both like to offer, if needed, a place for him to stay," Mr. Chubb said, his voice choking with emotion. "Plus, my son, who has a plumbing business, will offer him a job."
That drew a low whistle of surprise from a former prison official in the audience.
"For a corrections person to embrace an inmate is just incredible," the official, W. Scott Thornsley, said.
A few days before the hearing, Mr. Corbett, the state attorney general, met with Mr. Thompson.
"I walked out of the room thinking and feeling that he was going to say yes," Mr. Thompson later said. "He was not coldhearted. He wasn't drilling me. He gets to the point. He's a decent man."
But in the end, that visit, Mr. Goodwin's pleas and Mr. Chubb's offer were not enough to sway Mr. Corbett, the one dissenting vote on the five-member parole board.
"I am not prepared," Mr. Corbett said, "at this time to vote in the affirmative."
John F. Cowley, the district attorney in Tioga County, where the killing took place, agreed that Mr. Thompson should never be free.
"At the end of the day, in Pennsylvania life means life," Mr. Cowley said. "I come down on the side - not firmly - but I come down on the side that there should be no pardon. It's a tough case. The only reason is the age at the time of the crime. Everything else is way beyond ugly."
In lawsuits around the country, lifers are complaining that the rules were changed after sentencing. In some cases, they have the support of the judges who sentenced them.
A survey of 95 current and retired judges by the Michigan state bar released in 2002 found that, on average, the judges had expected prisoners sentenced to life with the possibility of parole to become eligible for parole in 12 years and to be released in 16 years. In July, a Michigan appeals court echoed that, saying that many lawyers there used to assume that a life sentence meant 12 to 20 years.
"This belief seems to have been somewhat supported by parole data," the court said in rejecting a claim from a prisoner who claimed that recent changes in the parole system had worked to his disadvantage. "For example, between 1941 and 1974, 416 parole-eligible lifers were paroled, averaging 12 per year."
In the last 24 years, by contrast, a New York Times analysis found that while the number of lifers shot up, the number of lifers who were paroled declined to about seven per year - even using the most liberal of definitions.
In 2002, for instance, a Michigan judge tried to reopen the case of John Alexander, whom he had sentenced to life with the possibility of parole for a seemingly unprovoked street shooting in 1981.
The judge, Michael F. Sapala, said he had not anticipated the extent to which the parole board "wouldn't simply change policies but, in fact, would ignore the law" in denying parole to Mr. Alexander. "If I wanted to make sure he stayed in prison for the rest of his life, I would have imposed" a sentence "like 80 to 150 years," the judge said.
An appeals court ruled that the judge no longer had jurisdiction over the case.
Executive Clemency Wanes
In Louisiana, which, like Michigan and Pennsylvania, has a large number of lifers, "it was common knowledge that life imprisonment generally means 10 years and 6 months" in the 1970's, the state's Supreme Court said in 1982.
Since 1979, all life sentences there have come without the possibility of parole, and the governor rarely intervenes.
"The use of executive clemency has withered, as it has all over the country, especially with lifers," said Burk Foster, a recently retired professor of criminal justice at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
The federal appeals court in California is considering whether the parole board there may deny parole to lifers based on the nature of the original crime, which, prisoners say, is a form of double jeopardy. The plaintiff in the case, Carl Merton Irons II, shot and stabbed a housemate, John Nicholson, in 1984 after hearing that Mr. Nicholson was stealing from their landlord. Mr. Irons was sentenced to 17 years to life for second-degree murder.
The parole board refused for a fifth time to release him in 2001, saying that the killing was "especially cruel and callous."
The prosecutor who sent Mr. Irons away spoke up for him at a hearing the next year, to no avail. "If life would have it that Carl Irons was my next-door neighbor or I heard he was going to move next door to me," the prosecutor, Stephen M. Wagstaffe said, "my view to you would be that I'm going to have a good neighbor."
Mr. Irons filed a lawsuit challenging the board's decision. A federal district judge agreed, ordering him paroled. The federal appeals court is expected to rule soon.
The state has 30,000 lifers, of whom 27,000 will eventually become eligible for parole. As a practical matter, parole for lifers is a two-step process: the parole board must recommend it, and the governor must approve it. Neither step is easy. In a 28-month period ending in 2001, according to the California Supreme Court, the board considered 4,800 cases and granted parole in 48. Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, reversed 47 of the decisions.
Governor Davis had run on a tough-on-crime platform. In five years as governor, he paroled five lifers, all murderers.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican who succeeded Mr. Davis in late 2003, has been more receptive to parole. He has paroled 103 lifers, 89 of them murderers.
"Even though he is letting out more than Davis, it is still just a trickle," said Don Spector, executive director of the Prison Law Office, a legal group concerned with inmate rights and prison reform. "The victims' rights groups are used to seeing nothing, so to them, it seems like there's been a flood of releases."
Reginald McFadden is the reason lifers no longer get pardons in Pennsylvania.
Mr. McFadden had served 24 years of a life sentence for suffocating Sonia Rosenbaum, 60, during a burglary of her home when a divided Board of Pardons voted to release him in 1992. After Gov. Robert P. Casey signed the commutation papers two years later, Mr. McFadden moved to New York, where he promptly killed two people and kidnapped and raped a third. He is now serving another life sentence there.
Lt. Gov. Mark Singel had voted to release Mr. McFadden. When news of the New York murders broke, Mr. Singel was running for governor and was well ahead in the polls. The commutation became a campaign issue, and Mr. Singel was defeated by Tom Ridge, who did not commute a single lifer's sentence in his six years in office.
Ernest D. Preate Jr., the state attorney general at the time, was the sole dissenting vote in Mr. McFadden's case.
Then, it took only a majority vote of the board to recommend clemency. Mr. Preate worked to change that, and in 1997 Pennsylvania voters passed a constitutional amendment requiring a unanimous vote in cases involving the death penalty and life sentences. The amendment also changed the composition of the board, substituting, for instance, a crime victim for a lawyer.
Mr. Thornsley, a former corrections official who now teaches at Mansfield University, said the amendment made a sensible change. "It took a unanimous vote to convict somebody," he said. "It should take a unanimous vote to send a case to the governor. If you're going to have a sentence, it should be served out in its entirety."
The McFadden experience in Pennsylvania is a representative one, said Michael Heise, a law professor at Cornell.
"Around World War II, governors were giving away clemency like candy," Dr. Heise said. "Ever since Governor Dukakis and Willie Horton and President Clinton and Marc Rich, executive officers have been far, far more reticent to exercise their power. The politics are pretty clear: they don't want to get burned."
As recently as 30 years ago, pardons for lifers were common in Pennsylvania. In eight years in the 1970's, for instance, Gov. Milton Shapp granted clemency to 251 lifers. Since 1995, even as the number of lifers has more than doubled, three governors combined have commuted a single life sentence.
These days, Mr. Preate is on the other side of the issue, working to overturn the amendment that he himself set in motion. He said his change of heart came after he spent a year in prison on a mail fraud conviction in the mid-90's. Meeting older lifers convinced him that the current system could be unduly punitive, he said.
"That got me involved in the fight against the amendment I helped create and supported," he said.
Mr. Preate now supports legislation that would allow a parole board to consider the cases of lifers who have served 25 years and are at least 50. "I never foresaw the politicization of this process," he said, "and the fear that has crept into the process."
Mr. Thompson entered prison in an era when its goal was rehabilitation, even for people serving nominal life terms. These days, he works as a prison carpenter, earning 42 cents an hour building cabinets and fixing things up around the prison, which houses about 1,800 inmates, more than 180 of whom are lifers.
"It helps pay the cable and gets you a little bit of commissary," he said. "It might be strange to say, but coming to jail helped me. I got an education. Would I have got that out there? I probably would have quit like my brothers and most of my sisters. Would I have an associate's degree? Would I have job training?"
He has a cell to himself, with a television and a guitar. He plays "the old rock, the classics" and said he was partial to Bob Dylan. He has started playing sports.
"Softball season started up again and the young boys talked me in to playing again, and I'm pretty good," he said several months ago. He plays second base.
A lifer entering the system today would have few of Mr. Thompson's advantages. Programs have been cut back, and those that still exist are often reserved for prisoners serving short sentences.
Mr. Thompson sounded resigned when he talked about being turned down by the pardons board.
"A lot of guys in here really thought I was going to make it, staff and inmates, to give a little hope to the lifers," he said wearily. "I didn't cry this time. I committed a crime. Even though I think I've been punished enough, I'm to the point where I'm worried about my people, my supporters, because it really does take a toll on them."

Years of Regret Follow a Hasty Guilty Plea Made at 16

October 3, 2005


WALLA WALLA, Wash. - The prosecutor was in the middle of his opening statement, describing in vivid and disturbing detail the murders of Homer and Vada Smithson, who had just celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary.
The defendant, Donald Lambert, 16, doodled as he listened. Then, court records show, he passed a note to his lawyer. It said he wanted to plead guilty.
Mr. Lambert entered his plea 13 minutes later, after a brief conversation with his lawyer, Guillermo Romero. The plea required Mr. Lambert to spend the rest of his life in prison. Mr. Lambert said Mr. Romero, who has since been disbarred, offered him no guidance.
"He didn't go into, like I know now, that it was my whole life," Mr. Lambert said in an interview at the Washington State Penitentiary here. "None of my family was in the courtroom. I was on my own."
There is little question of Mr. Lambert's guilt. But there are substantial ones about whether he and other juveniles facing life sentences are competent to make decisions with permanent consequences. Had Mr. Lambert rolled the dice and allowed the trial to proceed, he could have done no worse than what he agreed to in his plea.
In Washington as in other states, minors who sign a contract to buy a stereo or a bicycle are allowed to change their minds. They are, in the words of the State Supreme Court, "incompetent to contract away their rights."
But minors are allowed to enter binding plea agreements that call for life without the possibility of parole.
"He's got a right to plead guilty," said John Knodell, who prosecuted Mr. Lambert. "We trust kids that age to get an abortion."
Mr. Lambert, now 23, is an imposing young man, six feet of blocky muscle under a white T-shirt and blue jeans. He is covered in ugly prison tattoos, created with the motors from cassette decks. The tattoos climb up his neck, onto the back of his big square head and over an eyebrow. They compete for attention with a scar on his forehead. The combined effect is menacing.
At the prison interview here, Mr. Lambert's new lawyers instructed him not to answer questions about the killings.
But according to court records, early in the morning on May 21, 1997, Mr. Lambert, then 15, and Adam Betancourt, 16, burst into the bedroom of Mr. and Mrs. Smithson, both in their late 80's, in Quincy, Wash.
The youths shot Mr. Smithson many times, in the head, chest, legs and abdomen, and then went outside to reload. Mrs. Smithson made a desperate phone call to her son: "They're killing me!"
"The phone was right by a big kitchen window," recalled Al Smithson, the couple's son. The youths then shot her through the window. "They peppered her big time," Mr. Smithson said.
In 2003, a federal judge in Spokane threw out Mr. Lambert's guilty plea, calling his lawyer's conduct "unprofessional," "egregious" and "a dereliction of duty."
"Mr. Lambert had everything to lose by entering the guilty plea," wrote Judge W. Fremming Nielsen, who was appointed by the first President Bush. The decision to plead guilty to aggravated first-degree murder "was the most important decision of his life, and he was forced to make it without essential information."
There was evidence, Judge Nielsen wrote, suggesting that Mr. Lambert incorrectly thought he was facing the death penalty and that the sentence he pleaded to would allow him to be paroled after 20 years.
Mr. Romero, the defense lawyer, was disbarred last year for conduct unrelated to Mr. Lambert's plea. In an interview, Mr. Romero said his former client pleaded guilty with full knowledge of the consequences. Mr. Romero said he was unsurprised that Mr. Lambert now claims to have been confused.
"I would lie on my mother's grave," Mr. Romero said, "if I thought it would save me from life in prison."
Judge Nielsen, in his 2003 decision, ordered prosecutors to try Mr. Lambert or release him. But the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco, reversed that ruling last year, saying Mr. Lambert had known what he was doing when he pleaded guilty.

Jailed for Life After Crimes as Teenagers


OCALA, Fla. - About 9,700 American prisoners are serving life sentences for crimes they committed before they could vote, serve on a jury or gamble in a casino - in short, before they turned 18. More than a fifth have no chance for parole.
Juvenile criminals are serving life terms in at least 48 states, according to a survey by The New York Times, and their numbers have increased sharply over the past decade.
Rebecca Falcon is one of them.
Ms. Falcon, now 23, is living out her days at the Lowell Correctional Institution here. But eight years ago, she was a reckless teenager and running with a thuggish crowd when one night she got drunk on bourbon and ruined her life.
Ms. Falcon faults her choice of friends. "I tried cheerleaders, heavy metal people, a little bit of country and, you know, it never felt right," Ms. Falcon said. "I started listening to rap music and wearing my pants baggy. I was like a magnet for the wrong crowd."
In November 1997 she hailed a cab with an 18-year-old friend named Clifton Gilchrist. He had a gun, and within minutes, the cab driver was shot in the head. The driver, Richard Todd Phillips, 25, took several days to die. Each of the teenagers later said the other had done the shooting.
Ms. Falcon's jury found her guilty of murder, though it never did sort out precisely what happened that night, its foreman said. It was enough that she was there.
"It broke my heart," said Steven Sharp, the foreman. "As tough as it is, based on the crime, I think it's appropriate. It's terrible to put a 15-year-old behind bars forever."
The United States is one of only a handful of countries that does that. Life without parole, the most severe form of life sentence, is theoretically available for juvenile criminals in about a dozen countries. But a report to be issued on Oct. 12 by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International found juveniles serving such sentences in only three others. Israel has seven, South Africa has four and Tanzania has one.
By contrast, the report counted some 2,200 people in the United States serving life without parole for crimes they committed before turning 18. More than 350 of them were 15 or younger, according to the report.
The Supreme Court's decision earlier this year to ban the juvenile death penalty, which took into account international attitudes about crime and punishment, has convinced prosecutors and activists that the next legal battleground in the United States will be over life in prison for juveniles.
Society has long maintained age distinctions for things like drinking alcohol and signing contracts, and the highest court has ruled that youths under 18 who commit terrible crimes are less blameworthy than adults. Defense lawyers and human rights advocates say that logic should extend to sentences of life without parole.
Prosecutors and representatives of crime victims say that a sentence of natural life is the minimum fit punishment for a heinous crime, adding that some people are too dangerous ever to walk the streets.
In the Supreme Court's decision, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said teenagers were different, at least for purposes of the ultimate punishment. They are immature and irresponsible. They are more susceptible to negative influences, including peer pressure. And teenagers' personalities are unformed. "Even a heinous crime committed by a juvenile," Justice Kennedy concluded, is not "evidence of irretrievably depraved character."
Most of those qualities were evident in Ms. Falcon, who had trouble fitting in at her Kansas high school and had been sent by her mother to live with her grandmother in Florida, where she received little supervision. She liked to smoke marijuana, and ran with a series of cliques. "I was looking for identity," she said.
Like many other lifers, Ms. Falcon is in prison for felony murder, meaning she participated in a serious crime that led to a killing but was not proved to have killed anyone.
In their report, the human rights groups estimate that 26 percent of juvenile offenders sentenced to life without parole for murder were found guilty of felony murder. A separate Human Rights Watch report on Colorado found that a third of juveniles serving sentences of life without parole there had been convicted of felony murder.
The larger question, advocates for juveniles say, is whether any youths should be locked away forever.
At the argument in the juvenile death penalty case, Justice Antonin Scalia said the reasons offered against execution apply just as forcefully to life without parole. Justice Scalia voted, in dissent, to retain the juvenile death penalty.
"I don't see where there's a logical line," he said at the argument last October.
When it comes to Ms. Falcon, the prosecutor in her case said she does not ever deserve to be free. Indeed, she is lucky to be alive.
The prosecutor, Jim Appleman, is convinced that she shot Mr. Phillips. "If she were a 29-year-old or a 22-year-old," he said, "I have no doubt she would have gotten the death penalty."
Ms. Falcon dressed up, as best one can in prison, to meet two journalists not long ago. There was nothing to be done about the plain blue prison dress, with buttons down the front. But she wore gold earrings, a crucifix on a gold chain and red lipstick. Her dark hair was shoulder length, and her eyes were big and brown.
She said her eight years in prison had changed her.
"A certain amount of time being incarcerated was what I needed," she said. "But the law I fell under is for people who have no hope of being rehabilitated, that are just career criminals and habitually break the law, and there's just no hope for them in society. I'm a completely different case."
"My sentence is unfair," she added. "They put you in, and they forget."
Tagging Along on a Horrific Night
The case of another Florida teenager, Timothy Kane, demonstrates how youths can be sent away for life, even when the evidence shows they were not central figures in a crime.
Then 14, Timothy was at a friend's house, playing video games on Jan. 26, 1992, Super Bowl Sunday, when some older youths hatched a plan to burglarize a neighbor's home. He did not want to stay behind alone, he said, so he tagged along.
There were five of them, and they rode their bikes over, stashing them in the bushes. On the way, they stopped to feed some ducks.
Two of the boys took off at the last moment, but Timothy followed Alvin Morton, 19, and Bobby Garner, 17, into the house. He did not want to be called a scaredy-cat, he said.
"This is," he said in a prison interview, "the decision that shaped my life since."
The youths had expected the house to be empty, but they were wrong. Madeline Weisser, 75, and her son, John Bowers, 55, were home.
While Timothy hid behind a dining room table, according to court records, the other two youths went berserk.
Mr. Morton, whom prosecutors described as a sociopath, shot Mr. Bowers in the back of the neck while he pleaded for his life, killing him. Mr. Morton then tried to shoot Ms. Weisser, but his gun jammed. Using a blunt knife, Mr. Morton stabbed her in the neck, and Mr. Garner stepped on the knife to push it in, almost decapitating her.
"I firmly believe what they were trying to do was take the head as a kind of souvenir," said Robert W. Attridge, who prosecuted the case.
Mr. Morton and Mr. Garner did succeed in cutting off Mr. Bowers's pinkie. They later showed it to friends.
Mr. Morton was sentenced to death. Mr. Garner, a juvenile offender like Mr. Kane, was given a life sentence with no possibility of parole for 50 years.
Mr. Kane was also sentenced to life, but he will become eligible for parole after 25 years, when he will be 39. However, he is not optimistic that the parole board will ever let him out. Had he committed his crime after 1995, when Florida changed its law to eliminate the possibility of parole for people sentenced to life, he would not have even that hope.
Florida is now one of the states with the most juveniles serving life. It has 600 juvenile offenders serving life sentences; about 270 of them, including Ms. Falcon, who committed her crime in 1997, are serving life without parole.
Data supplied by the states on juveniles serving life is incomplete. But a detailed analysis of data from another state with a particularly large number of juvenile lifers, Michigan, shows that the mix of the life sentences - those with the possibility of parole and those without - is changing fast.
In Michigan, the percentage of all lifers who are serving sentences without parole rose to 64 percent from 51 percent in the 24 years ended in 2004. But the percentage of juvenile lifers serving such sentences rose to 68 percent from 41 percent in the period. Now two out of three juvenile lifers there have no shot at parole.
The Times's survey and analysis considered juvenile lifers generally, while the human rights report examined juveniles serving life sentences without parole. Both studies defined a juvenile as anyone younger than 18 at the time of the offense or arrest. For some states that could not provide a count based on such ages, the studies counted as a juvenile anyone under the age of 20 at sentencing or admission to prison.
Juvenile lifers are overwhelmingly male and mostly black. Ninety-five percent of those admitted in 2001 were male and 55 percent were black.
Forty-two states and the federal government allow offenders under 18 to be put away forever. Ten states set no minimum age, and 13 set a minimum of 10 to 13. Seven states, including Florida and Michigan, have more than 100 juvenile offenders serving such sentences, the report found. Those sending the largest percentages of their youths to prison for life without parole are Virginia and Louisiana.
Some Dismay Over Sentences
Juvenile lifers are much more likely to be in for murder than are their adult counterparts, suggesting that prosecutors and juries embrace the punishment only for the most serious crime.
While 40 percent of adults sent away for life between 1988 and 2001 committed crimes other than murder, like drug offenses, rape and armed robbery, the Times analysis found, only 16 percent of juvenile lifers were sentenced for anything other than murder.
In those same years, the number of juveniles sentenced to life peaked in 1994, at about 790, or 15 percent of all adults and youths admitted as lifers that year. The number dropped to about 390, or 9 percent, in 2001, the most recent year for which national data is available.
Similarly, the number of juveniles sentenced to life without parole peaked in 1996, at 152. It has dropped sharply since then, to 54 last year. That may reflect a growing discomfort with the punishment and the drop in the crime rate.
It is unclear how many juveniles or adults are serving life sentences under three-strikes and similar habitual-offender laws.
Human rights advocates say that the use of juvenile life without parole, or LWOP, is by one measure rising. "Even with murder rates going down," said Alison Parker, the author of the new report, "the proportion of juvenile murder offenders entering prison with LWOP sentences is going up."
The courts that consider the cases of juvenile offenders look at individuals, not trends. But sometimes, as in Mr. Kane's case, they express dismay over the sentences that are required.
"Tim Kane was 14 years and 3 months old, a junior high student with an I.Q. of 137 and no prior association with the criminal justice system," Judge John R. Blue wrote for the three-judge panel that upheld Mr. Kane's sentence. "Tim did not participate in the killing of the two victims."
These days, Mr. Kane, 27, looks and talks like a marine. He is fit, serious and polite. He held a questioner's gaze and called him sir, and he grew emotional when he talked about what he saw that January night.
"I witnessed two people die," he said. "I regret that every day of my life, being any part of that and seeing that."
He does not dispute that he deserved punishment.
"Did I know right from wrong?" he asked. "I can say, yes, I did know right from wrong."
Still, his sentence is harsh, Mr. Kane said, spent in the prison print shop making 55 cents an hour and playing sports in the evenings.
"You have no hope of getting out," he said. "You have no family. You have no moral support here. This can be hard."
Mr. Attridge, the prosecutor, who is now in private practice, said he felt sorry for Mr. Kane. "But he had options," Mr. Attridge said. "He had a way out. The other boys decided to leave."
In the end, the prosecutor said, "I do think he was more curious than an evil perpetrator."
"Could Tim Kane be your kid, being in the wrong place at the wrong time?" he asked. "I think he could. It takes one night of bad judgment and, man, your life can be ruined."
Different Accounts of a Crime
Visitors to the women's prison here are issued a little transmitter with an alarm button on it when they enter, in case of emergency. But Ms. Falcon is small and slim and not particularly threatening.
She sat and talked, in a flat Midwest tone married to an urban rhythm, on a concrete bench in an outdoor visiting area. It was pleasant in the shade.
Her mother, Karen Kaneer, said in a telephone interview that her daughter's troubles began in Kansas when she started to hang around with black youths.
"It wasn't the good black boys," Ms. Kaneer said. "It was the ones who get in trouble. She started trying marijuana."
Not pleased with where things were heading, Ms. Kaneer agreed to send Rebecca away, to Panama City, Fla., to Rebecca's grandmother. "It was my husband's idea," Ms. Kaneer said ruefully, referring to Ms. Falcon's stepfather. "Her and my husband didn't have the best of relations."
Ms. Falcon received a piece of unwelcome news about an old boyfriend on the evening of Nov. 18, 1997, and she hit her grandparents' liquor cabinet, hard, drinking a big tumbler of whiskey. Later on, when she joined up with her 18-year-old friend, Mr. Gilchrist, she said, she did not suspect that anything unusual was going to happen. She thought they were taking the cab to a party.
"I didn't know there was going to be a robbery at that time," she said. "I mean, Cliff said things like he was going to try out his gun eventually, but as far as right then that night in that situation I didn't know."
Asked if she played any role in the killing, Ms. Falcon said, "No, sir, I did not."
In a letter from prison, where he is serving a life term, Mr. Gilchrist declined to comment. At his trial, both his lawyer and the prosecutor told the jury that Ms. Falcon was the killer.
The medical evidence suggested that the passenger who sat behind Mr. Phillips killed him. But eyewitnesses differed about whether that was Ms. Falcon or Mr. Gilchrist.
Several witnesses did say that Ms. Falcon had talked about violence before the shooting and bragged about it afterward.
"On numerous occasions she said she wanted to see someone die," Mr. Appleman, the prosecutor, said. Ms. Falcon said the evidence against her was "basically, that I was always talking crazy."
The testimony grew so confused that at one point Mr. Appleman asked for a mistrial, though he later withdrew the request.
Though their verdict form suggested that they concluded that Mr. Gilchrist was the gunman, the jurors remain split about what was proved. "There was no evidence presented to confirm who was the actual shooter," said Mr. Sharp, the jury's foreman.
But Barney Jones, another juror, said he believed Ms. Falcon shot the gun. "She was confused," he said. "She was probably a typical teenager. She was trying to fit in by being a violent person. The people she hung out with listened to gangster rap, and this was a sort of initiation."
Whoever was to blame, Mr. Phillips's death left a terrible void. "Each day we see a cab, the memories of our son and the tragic way he died surfaces," his father and stepmother, Roger and Karen Phillips, wrote at the time of the trial in a letter to Mr. Gilchrist, according to an article in The News-Herald, a newspaper in Panama City.
At the prison here, as Ms. Falcon talked, a photographer started shooting, and she seemed to enjoy the attention, flashing a big smile at odds with the grim surroundings.
It was a break, she explained, from the grinding monotony that is the only life she may ever know. She reads to kill time and to prepare herself in case a Florida governor one day decides to pardon her.
She had just finished a book on parenting.
"If God lets me go and have a kid," she said, "I want to know these things so I can be a good mother."
Janet Roberts contributed reporting for this series. She was assisted by Linda Amster, Jack Styczynski, Donna Anderson, Jack Begg, Alain Delaquérière, Sandra Jamison, Toby Lyles and Carolyn Wilder.