(Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of articles where Hannah Garcia will explore the cases of 48 juveniles whose life-in-prison sentences violate a U.S. Supreme Court opinion.)
By Hannah Garcia, LAW WEEK COLORADO
Colorado hasn’t sentenced any offenders younger than 18 to mandatory life terms since 2007, but laws are not time machines.
While scores of juvenile-life-with-out-parole inmates in the state tame a herd of unsolved legal questions left by court rulings, others are joining the call of their defense counsel for second chances.
And the chorus of voices is diverse, from a mother who forgave the gunman years after her toddler was killed in a drive-by and a former inmate who admitted to pulling the trigger without the notion of the profound consequences that followed.
‘VIDEO GAME MENTALITY’
Sean Taylor is 42 today. Without gubernatorial intervention, he could have been almost 60 before he was released from prison for a crime he committed when he was 17. Then-Gov. Bill Ritter commuted Taylor’s sentence, granting him an opportunity for parole on July 1, 2011 after the inmate had spent 22 years behind bars. Under his original sentence, Taylor wasn’t eligible for parole until 2029.
“Juveniles are not capable of making the clearest of decisions,” Taylor said, “and I was one of them.”
Taylor was sentenced to 40 years to life, the state’s mandatory minimum at the time, in 1990 for first-degree murder “under circumstances evidencing an attitude of universal malice manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life generally,” as defined by state law. He was arrested in 1989, three days after his 17th birthday.
He called himself a gang-banger, a Blood. He was trying to impress older gang members when he leveled a gun at a house occupied by rival Crips and pulled the trigger.
“And, thinking that I would just cause property damage or structural damage by sending a bullet at the house, that bullet ended up killing someone,” Taylor said. Dean Rahim, the victim, was also 17-years-old.
“I wasn’t thinking about the outcome,” Taylor said, describing his 17-year-old worldview as “a video-game mentality.”
“Who in their right mind shoots a gun at someone’s house not thinking that the bullet might hurt someone or kill someone? To me, that’s a 17-year-old decision,” Taylor said.
After turning himself in the next morning to Denver police, and although he had no prior offenses, Taylor was tried as an adult. During the trial, Taylor said the prosecutor encouraged him, even telling him “good job” when he stepped off the stand, and the judge was understanding.
“If you get convicted of first-degree murder, you get life,” Taylor said. “There’s no discretion there.”
Taylor turned down possible plea bargains because, at 17-years-old, 24 years instead of 40 “didn’t sound like much of a deal.”
“I would have done myself a favor if I told the truth,” Taylor said. “I was scared. I didn’t want to go to jail.”
Although Taylor was arrested before the window opened for mandatory life sentences in Colorado, he was there when those inmates began trickling into the state’s prison system. He was there when Raymond Johnson was convicted, the 16-year-old who shot and killed a 3-year-old boy, Casson Evans, in a drive-by shooting.
Casson’s mother, Sharletta Evans, met Johnson during the first meeting in a pilot “restorative justice” program in 2012. Now, she submerges her own life in activism, calling for fairness for juvenile offenders.
Evans’ youngest son, nicknamed “Biscuit,” would have turned 22 at some point this year. He might have been finishing college, playing university football, talking about his future — any number of things.
“The night my son was killed, forgiveness was not the first thing on my mind,” Evans said to a small crowd in the gymnasium of New Hope Baptist Church on Nov. 7 after a screening of “Lost for Life,” a documentary on youthful offenders serving life in prison.
Casson Evans died on Dec. 21, 1995 after a stray bullet hit his temple while he slept in a car with his then-6-year-old brother Calvin and two older cousins. Sharletta Evans was at her niece’s duplex to pick up her grandniece in a northeast Denver neighborhood. There had been shootings the night before.
Evans was inside for a few minutes when she heard the spray of gunfire; Casson was gone in just a few minutes more.
Three teenagers were arrested for the crime, including Johnson and Paul Littlejohn, both 16 and sentenced to life without parole. Another was charged as the driver.
“I remember when you lost your son,” Hasan Latif, Taylor’s former cellmate, said at the screening. “Being light-years away from it, I couldn’t even begin to relate to that loss. Your grasp of the concept of forgiveness — that felt light-years from me as well. In the work we do, I’m still marveling at people like yourself.”
Evans was part of an amicus brief on behalf of the petitioner in Miller v. Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court case where the court declared that life sentences for juveniles violated the Constitution. She started to compare the incarcerated men, Johnson and Littlejohn, to her own surviving son 11 years after Casson’s death and began corresponding with them, according to brief.
At his arrest, Johnson could not read at a third-grade level. He had raised himself with the help of grandparents, and now, he is also Muslim, earned a GED and kept an exemplary record in prison, the brief said. Evans has written to the state’s Juvenile Clemency Board requesting leniency for Johnson, founded the nonprofit Red Cross Blue Shield Gang Prevention and has led efforts to support a bill that would reduce juvenile life sentences.
“When I do what I do, when I sit up here, I do this for Raymond Johnson, for the main shooter that took my son’s life,” said Evans, a born-again Christian who described her decision to forgive as something like a divine epiphany “that catapulted me into the criminal justice system.”
“I know that it was not a heinous crime. It was a foolish act. True, I found myself crying and having compassion (for Johnson), and wondering what can I do to make this change?” she said.
‘DON’T EXPECT ANY SYMPATHY HERE’
While he recognizes that some offenders — regardless of age — should remain in prison, Taylor said the majority he’s encountered that were convicted as teenagers “deserve a second chance,” especially as children in an adult system.
“That’s the first thing they’ll tell you when you get to prison: ‘Don’t expect any sympathy here. Get in line with everyone else,’” Taylor said.
While incarcerated, Latif, his cell- mate, mentored him and eventually hired him as a case manager at the fledgling Second Chance Center. Taylor wanted to be kinder; he taught other inmates how to read and converted to Islam.
When he got out, Latif was working at Turnabout, a transitional organization for former inmates. He helped Taylor find a job and gave him clothes and a wallet.
“I had never even had a wallet before,” Taylor said. “I felt like an alien. After being in a structured environment for 22 years, I didn’t feel like a human being. I didn’t feel like everyone else.”
Everywhere he went, Taylor said he felt that the people around him somehow knew he was a long-term prisoner until someone at Turnabout said, “Sean, you know it’s not written on your forehead.”
For the inmates he left behind, particularly those who shed their adolescence within the cinderblock walls, “most of us want to better ourselves. Most are already better men,” he said. “They could do some good work out here.”
“If we continue to go along with the security-security-security mentality, we’re not doing much to solve the problem,” he said.
Taylor referenced Jacob Ind — who was arrested at 15 in 1992 and convicted two years later for killing his parents after what he and his brother described as years of physical and sexual abuse — and Erik Jensen and Nathan Ybanez, who were convicted for killing Ybanez’s mother in 1998. Most he met were first-time offenders.
Mary Ellen Johnson, a Woodland Park author and executive director of the Pendulum Foundation, became a fair sentencing advocate after getting involved in Ind’s case. She said the convicted teen killer is currently “sitting in prison without anything moving forward.” There is some hope for legislative action in the coming years, she said at the screening.
“I believe Jacob, and a lot of the others, will eventually come out, but it may not be tomorrow,” Mary Ellen Johnson said.
“These guys are brilliant people, they could be doing some great things,” Taylor said. “But they’re locked up. I really wish they could come home. I really do.”
‘STILL A KID’
By the time Raymond Johnson was brought into the Limon prison, Taylor already began putting distance between himself and the gang-ruled past that led him there.
“When he got there, he was still a kid,” Taylor said. “He wasn’t as articulate as he is now. He wasn’t seasoned, as we say. We took it upon ourselves to raise him. We gave him books to read, made sure he stayed out of trouble.”
Johnson eventually achieved his GED while in prison. He met with Evans in 2012 as part of a new state program. He expressed regrets and answered questions 17 years after the mother lost her youngest son.
Taylor also interacted with Christopher Selectman, who was arrested for felony murder in 1994 at age 16 and sentenced to life two years later. Like Taylor, Selectman had grown up around gangs, but in prison, he became another member of a growing group of men trying to better themselves and each other.
“That’s where he is,” Taylor said. “He’s in a good place in his heart and in his mind. He’s not the same kid that he was. If it were now, he would have never done what he did.”
When he thinks of them now, it’s a mix of pride and sorrow for Taylor.
“I would just pray that — not only Chris Selectman and Raymond Johnson, but I pray that most of those guys who are convicted as juveniles — I pray that they have a second chance at life,” Taylor said. “I pray they come home, get a job, pay bills and have a family. I pray they live in the free world one day.”
After working as a personal trainer, Taylor now works for the Second Chance Center in northeast Denver, an organization founded by Latif that helps newly released prisoners with “just living,” according to Taylor, and spends his time advocating for individualized sentences for youthful offenders. He married his childhood friend, Tiffany, who works as the director of radiology at Concord Career College. His 19-year- old stepdaughter is a freshman at the University of Kansas.
“One thing we always stress to ev- eryone is we are not an exception to the rule,” Taylor said. “Everyone says that we’re doing amazing things, but there’s so many of us still left in there.”
—Hannah Garcia, HGarcia@circuitmedia.com