Category Archives: Juvenile Justice

Did Texas Just Execute An Innocent Man?

This week while I was driving my kids home from swim practice, a man lost his fight to live.  He didn’t struggle during his execution, but he chanted, trying to make his voice heard and be a part of this place till his last breath.

Most of us are wired to try to save lives, I hope.   Preserve it.  People get paid to keep us safe, heal our bodies and minds, improve the length and quality of our lives.  That makes it hard for me to come to terms with a state strapping a person down and employing people to take their life – while they are immobile – while invited guests watch.  Some people call that justice – I call it barbaric.  I call it the ultimate irony.  I call it a lot of things, but justice isn’t one of them.

Some firmly believe Robert Pruett was innocent of the crime he was put to death for.  They were fighting and calling and praying until the end.  Texas can’t argue some of the reasons they believe that.

Robert grew up knowing what struggle was.  His dad wasn’t always around and was incarcerated for some of his childhood, while his mother tried to numb herself with drugs and moved from trailer park to trailer park.  There weren’t family meals shared around a dinner table, hugs when you needed them, and displays of unconditional love.  He never knew that life.

Stock Photo

When his father wasn’t in jail, the man was running from trouble with his family in tow.  He also taught his little boy how to get high when he was seven years old.  Robert was raised rough, and it was all he knew.  And when he was fifteen years old, he got into a fight with Raymond Yarbrough, a 29-year old man who lived in the same trailer park.  Things got out of hand when Robert’s father and brother got involved.  According to the prosecution and the state and everyone – Robert’s father stabbed Yarbrough to death, while Robert held the man down.  That has never been in question.

At sixteen years of age, Robert Pruett was essentially sentenced to life in prison, receiving 99 years for his participation in Yarbrough’s death.   A boy, who never received any guidance in his life and only knew abuse of all kinds, held down his neighbor while the authority figure in his life, his father, his role model, his guardian, violently killed the man.  Robert wasn’t wired to do anything less.  He needed intervention way before that day, he needed an advocate, a hero, somebody to rescue him – but he never got that.  Instead, Texas felt justice would be served by putting him in prison until he died of old age.

So the sentence began.  The story didn’t end there though.  When Pruett was twenty he was accused of killing a corrections officer.  Daniel Nagle was found stabbed, and the cause of his death was actually reported to be a heart attack.  Two years later, a jury found Robert Pruett guilty of murder, and he was sentenced to death.

It’s not that cut and dry.  Texas doesn’t know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Robert Pruett killed that officer.  Even if the cause of his death was bleeding from the stab wounds, which it wasn’t, there is doubt that the man Texas put to death this week even committed the stabbing.

Eighteen years after the officer’s death, Robert Pruett maintained his innocence.  What’s more, some of the inmates whose testimony was used to convict Robert received rewards for the cooperation.  Often times, in the world of prison, inmates testimony is excluded as ‘untrustworthy’ if it doesn’t benefit the institution, but if it can further their cause – an inmate’s testimony can send someone to the death chamber.   The jury didn’t know that the witnesses benefited from their testimony.

Outside of the inmates, there was no physical or DNA evidence to put Robert Pruitt at the scene of the crime.  In a crime that takes place in such close quarters, it seems logical to think Robert’s DNA would be found on something – the weapon, the torn up disciplinary paper next to the body, the body itself.  There was none.  There was nothing found on Robert’s body either.  Nothing.

I wasn’t on the jury.  I don’t know what they were thinking, but I’ve seen aggressive lawyers paint pictures.  The truth gets blurry – it can actually sometimes get obscured from view.  In a world of smoke and mirrors, should there be a death sentence?  Should death be decided based on ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’?

Corruption takes place in prisons all the time. There is story after story of officers going rogue.  They lose perspective.  According to one report, the officer that was killed had some enemies at the prison because he was trying to shed light on some corruption at the facility.

Everything I read about Robert Pruett leads me to believe he was a smart man.  In addition to the many questions raised in his case, I find myself questioning a man murdering someone who wrote him up and then tossing the torn up report next to the dead body.  It defies logic to try and stay so tidy that you don’t leave any DNA behind, but you leave a torn up note with your name on it.  Again – Robert’s DNA was not found on the note or the weapon.  And the victim’s blood was not found on Robert.

It’s pointless now to argue whether Robert Pruett murdered anyone.  People will continue to question it without me.  But, there is one thing there is no question about.  The state of Texas buckled Robert Pruett down and calmly injected enough poison into his system to end his life, with witnesses watching every moment of the process.  That we know.  We also know that Texas will continue to do that as long as the laws allow.

REFERENCES

Baptiste, Nathalie. “Junk Science? Unreliable Witnesses? No Matter, Texas Plans to Execute Robert Pruett Anyway Mother Jones – 2017-10-10T10:00:11.000Z.” Junk Science? Unreliable Witnesses? No Matter, Texas Plans to Execute Robert Pruett Anyway, Mother Jones, 10 Oct. 2017, dailyreadlist.com/article/junk-science-unreliable-witnesses-no-matter-tex-71.

Randall, Kate. “Robert Pruett, First Imprisoned at Age 16, Executed in Texas despite Questions about Evidence.” Dolphnsix Intelligent News Agency, www.dolphnsix.com/news/5430477/robert-pruett-first-imprisoned-executed-texas.

Robinson, Nathan J. “Texas Should Not Execute Robert Pruett Tonight.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 12 Oct. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/10/12/opinion/texas-robert-pruett-execution.html.

“Texas Inmate Executed for Prison Guard’s Death.” Fox News, FOX News Network, www.foxnews.com/us/2017/10/12/texas-inmate-executed-for-prison-guards-death.html.

Bullying Ends In Tragedy And Sends Seventeen Year Old Boy To Prison For Life

Louis Singleton

If you talked to some folks in Mobile, Alabama, back in 90’s, they may have told you that Louis Singleton was one of the best athletes to come through their town.  Louis had a bright future in front of him, and lots of promise.  He was born in 1976, the son of a brick mason and a high school teacher.  His parents were separated, but Louis, the youngest of two children, grew up in a middle class, stable home.   He had average grades in school, held a summer job, and participated in varsity football and basketball programs.

Louis was heavy into sports from the beginning.  He wasn’t an angel, but he wasn’t trouble either.  He was typical.  He got a speeding ticket once because he was running late to summer school.  He also got in trouble for disorderly conduct when he was sixteen, due to a fight.  But, for the most part, things were looking very good for him midway into his junior year of high school.  His eye was on being the starting quarterback for his high school football team the following year.   Yes, Louis had dreams – big ones.

He never made it to that quarterback position though.  The years of dreaming came to an end the night before his eighteenth birthday.   It didn’t start that night though – the trouble started almost a year before then.  Louis had no idea it was going to end up changing his life in an instant.  He never saw it coming.

The train started going off the track for Louis in the spring of 1993.  There was a girl.  She was known as Meme.   Meme had just broken up with her boyfriend, Kendrick Martin.  Derrick Conner, Louis’ close friend, began dating Meme.  Kendrick Martin didn’t like that.   Louis was involved by association.

The first time things turned physical was during an altercation at a gas station.  Louis and Derrick were there, and Louis went inside to pay for gas and pick up a couple snacks, leaving Derrick outside.   When he came back out, Derrick and Kendrick were going at it.  It was over Meme, and Louis remembers telling Kendrick, “Man, you tripping about one female, when it’s plenty of fishes in the sea.”  Kendrick didn’t take that well.

It wasn’t long before all their paths crossed again.  Derrick Conner and Louis were leaving a local convenience store when Kendrick Martin was pulling into the parking lot.  According to Louis, Kendrick got out of his car and began shooting at Derrick and Louis with a gun as the boys were pulling away.

Louis Singleton was shot at more than once by Kendrick Martin.  Nelson Tucker, the state’s own witness, testified that he was with Kendrick Martin and had shot at Louis Singleton with a gun that he obtained from Kendrick Martin.  Tucker also stated that he was present on two separate occasions when a pistol was fired at Louis.

By Louis’ account of that time, Kendrick Martin pointed a gun in his direction and shot at him on three different occasions, two of these incidents being confirmed by the prosecution’s own witness.   He also reported an incident where Kendrick Martin pulled a gun from a book bag and pointed it at his head.  There was another day in a fast food parking lot, when Louis was in a vehicle, and Kendrick was striking the car windows with a crow bar.

There is nothing that can be said about the tragic events that took place on January 11, 1994, that will excuse what happened that day.  A life was taken, and another altered forever in the parking lot of a McDonald’s restaurant in Mobile, Alabama.  Reading the transcripts, I take away that there was confusion in that parking lot.  There were a lot of people gathered after a high school game, and Louis perceived he was in danger after seeing Kendrick and his friends and hearing some things that were said.  No one can know exactly what was going on in anyone’s minds, and different witnesses said different things, but I think  it is fair to say that if there had not been months of bullying leading up to that day, it simply never would have happened.   Louis, the seventeen year old boy with so much promise, had a gun.  He felt threatened that night, as he had on many occasions over the previous months, and shot at Kendrick, Tucker and another man they were with, Johnathan Martin.   A pattern had been set leading up to that day, leaving Louis feeling the need to defend himself around Kendrick and his friends.  So when words were said and movements were made, he felt cornered and threatened, whether he was or not.  In his mind – he was.

Kendrick Jermaine Martin died from a gunshot wound to the neck. Johnathan Allen Martin was shot once in the neck area and was paralyzed from the waist down as a result.  Nelson L. Tucker was shot three times and was hospitalized for four days and released.

It’s twenty three years later.  The court transcripts described Louis as a boy who, ‘enjoyed a favorable reputation within his community’.  He was evaluated before his trial by the Strickland Youth Center, and they determined that he ‘did not appear to be a behavioral problem’.

Louis Singleton spent his eighteenth birthday in a Mobile Detention Center and has been incarcerated ever since.  In the twenty three years since then, he has obtained his GED, studied brick masonry, anger management and self awareness.  He has also worked with nurses in the prison healthcare system.   And he’s been incarcerated for well over half of his life.   Louis was sentenced to two life sentences and twenty years, to be served consecutively.

Louis didn’t want things to end this way.  Louis Singleton sought help long before that night, from parents, the police, and the school principal.  A seventeen year old boy sought help from the people who were responsible for protecting him.  He did the things he was supposed to do, but those in a position to protect him did not do what they were supposed to.

Louis’ Mom

What stands out from my conversations with Louis is what happened after he drove home that night.  This is what he told me, “My mind was racing with thoughts that I couldn’t even grasp mentally.  I just went home and sat in the house with all the lights out, scared to move, don’t know what to do nor to say.  My mom was gone to a choir convention in Mississippi during the time of the incident.  While I sat in our house quietly and somberly in the front room, my mother pulled up with no clue of what just happened.   When she came in the door, turned to lock the door, I was sitting there in the dark room.  I scared her out of her wits.  As a mother who knew her child, she instantly asked me, ‘Boy, what’s wrong with you sitting in here with all the lights out?’  I was so discombobulated I honestly couldn’t speak, it seemed like somebody had my soul…”

Louis’ mother never had a chance to have her son home again, and has since passed.  They were close, and Louis Singleton will live with the memory of sitting in that dark room and having to tell his mom what happened etched in his memory forever.  He has spent twenty three years in an Alabama prison reliving that day and the months that led up to it, hoping to wake up every morning and have it all be a dream.  He will spend the rest of his life knowing the impact he has had on people, their families and his own.  Nothing will bring back the man who died that night or heal the man who was paralyzed, but the burden of what took place that night should not have been placed solely on the shoulders of a seventeen year old kid who had never been in any trouble.   A seventeen year old kid went into prison after shooting at the man who terrorized him for nearly a year, sentenced to spend every breath for the rest of his life in an Alabama prison, until the day he dies, never knowing what it means to live free again.  How is that tragedy going to make what happened on that night in 1994 any less tragic?

If You Believe in Second Chances, Click Below…

Travion Blount was fifteen years old when he got in trouble.  Described as a ‘shy but happy boy’ by his mother, in middle school he started skipping class and hanging out with the wrong crowd.   At the age of fifteen he went to a party with two older boys, and the three of them robbed the other people there at gunpoint, collecting drugs, cell phones and money.

The two older boys received ten and thirteen year sentences.  Travion, the youngest and the only one not to plead guilty, was sentenced to six life sentences, plus 118 years.   That sentence was later reduced to forty years.  With a forty year sentence, Travion will be fifty-five years old when he gets out, for a crime he committed at the age of fifteen years old.

Due to the length of his sentence, Travion has been kept in high security facilities.  He has continued to take classes and tells me he just ‘tries to stay out of people’s way’.  In the year we have communicated, he has never been anything but respectful.  He asks how my family is in every correspondence.   He asks how I am.

He deserves a second chance.  If you would like to read more about him, there are three articles about him right here on my blog.  But  – it is also easy to find out about him through a simple internet search.  The punishment he received was harsh.  I believe it was too harsh.  If you believe that also, please click here, and write an email to the Governor of Virginia, Terry McAuliffe.

Your message doesn’t have to be lengthy, it may take only three minutes of your time, but if you feel Travion deserves a second chance, please take those three minutes.  I wrote one that was a little more personalized, but if you need help getting started, feel free to copy and paste the words I have below.   Simply put Travion Blount’s name in the subject line, and start something like this:

Please consider a pardon for Travion Blount.  In 2006, at the age of fifteen, he committed a crime for which he has been in prison for ten years.   He is a young man now.  While incarcerated, he has taken classes to prepare for his future and he has a family that supports and loves him at home.  I respectfully request that you consider a pardon for Travion Blount.

That’s it.  Please take a moment to contact Governor Terry McAuliffe if you feel Travion Blount deserves a second chance.  You can write your own words, or copy mine.  You can copy mine and add some of your own.   But, please, if you believe in second chances speak up for Travion.

The Echoes of Solitary

When people try to tell me I can find a better ‘cause’ than criminal justice reform, it only punctuates how much need there is for education. This is just one story. This story and the countless like it are why this is my cause.

I have children, and it isn’t a stretch to envision one of them being picked up by the police for something or other. As a matter of fact, I’ve received a phone call or two regarding my children. Their brains aren’t fully developed at the age of sixteen, and it’s fair to say there will be bumps in the road. It’s life. I’m not talking about gang violence or rape or home invasions. I am talking about kid stuff. One of the more concerning calls I ever received was when one of my boys was on top of a Staples office supply store.   Who knows what he was doing up there, because the police who were holding him when I arrived didn’t climb up on the building to find out.

But – what if. What if I didn’t know the officer? I did. What if there had been something on that roof that pointed towards my son. Kalief Browder was sixteen years old when he was arrested for allegedly stealing a backpack. The charge was second degree robbery. The boy was walking home, in his own neighborhood when the arrest took place. Nothing was found on Browder at the time.

Kalief was given a choice. He could take a plea bargain. If he did, he would be released. He refused though, trusting in the fairness of the system. He was confident his innocence would speak for itself.

Browder’s family couldn’t come up with the bail money. So, a boy who was not found guilty of any crime, was sent to Rikers Island to await a trial. The trial never took place though. He was held for three years, at which time the charges were dropped.

Rikers Island has long been thought of as a dangerous and isolated place – with good reason. It is just that – dangerous and isolated. Not only are there walls and fences to keep eyes from seeing what takes place inside, but it is also on an island. That, in itself, fosters feelings of hopelessness.

During his stay at Rikers, Kalief was offered several opportunities to take a plea. He never waivered, maintaining his innocence. He also attempted to take his own life on several occasions while there. Kalief Browder’s stay at Rikers changed him. He reported abuse by inmates and officers and spent nearly two years of his stay in solitary. In an article written by Jennifer Gonnerman, she included a clip of footage that was obtained from inside Rikers. It’s haunting when you see this young man being tossed around like a rag doll, knowing that this is just the footage that we have access to. He had several more stories of abuse to tell, of which we don’t have footage.

Kalief wasn’t able to shake his experiences when the charges against him were finally dropped. He was twenty. He couldn’t fill his old shoes anymore. He’d missed his place in life. He didn’t know where he fit in while the rest of the world had kept moving without him. He was quoted in one article as saying, “…in my mind right now, I feel like I’m still in jail, because I’m still feeling the side effects from what happened in there.”

He reportedly couldn’t sleep at night until he checked all the locks throughout the home. At one point, he was fearful his TV was watching him, so he got rid of it. He wasn’t able to escape his experience. He tried to end his life on numerous occasions and finally succeeded at his parents’ home when he was twenty two years old.

This is what’s happening in the United States of America. This is my cause. The expanse of this problem – from the judges, to the corrections officers, to the prosecutors, to the public defenders – is overwhelming. Saying this is not a ‘just’ cause is so far from the truth. People like Kalief Browder deserve advocates. You can see a sick puppy, you can see an orphan – you can’t see what is happening behind the walls of a prison.

It’s difficult to open ourselves up to the possibility that this could happen to our sixteen year old son. It’s much easier to think it can’t. Kalief’s mom found him after he took his life. She heard banging in the house and couldn’t figure out what the noise was, so she went outside. When she looked up from her backyard, she saw her son dangling from a window by a cord. He’d hung himself.

It wasn’t long after that Venida Browder, Kalief’s mother, also passed away. Some say she died of a broken heart. I say the same when I try to feel what she must have felt during those years when she couldn’t free her son. When I look up and try to envision what she saw from where she stood in her yard, I am certain her heart was broken. It’s time we all cared.

REFERENCES

Gonnerman, Jennifer. “Before the Law.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, 08 June 2015. Web. 07 Jan. 2017.

Gonnerman, Jennifer. “Kalief Browder, 1993–2015.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, 17 Oct. 2016. Web. 07 Jan. 2017.

Should Not Taking a Plea Cost You Your Life?

Was Travion Blount sentenced to six life sentences plus 118 years because he killed someone? No. In my opinion, he was given six life sentences because he dared to go to trial. Travion did not accept a plea. If our justice system was meant to be ‘just’, Travion would not have received six life sentences, plus over 100 years more than the other two participants in the same crime. The other two each pled guilty and did not go to trial. One received ten years and the other received thirteen years.

Travion was involved in an armed robbery with two of his friends. He was the youngest of the three, at fifteen. The older boys were eighteen years old, and one of them struck a victim in the head. Otherwise, no one was injured in the crime.

All in a day’s work, a judge handed down six life sentences plus 118 years. People are fighting for Travion, but he still sits in prison. The robbery took place nearly ten years ago, in September, 2006. As of today, his release date is listed as November 13, 2043. I suppose that is an improvement from six life sentences plus 118 years, but it isn’t just.

From the first time I contacted Travion, he has never failed to ask me how I am doing. He asks me about my life and family. He tells me about his. He tells me about classes and programs he is trying to take or has taken. He has said more than once, he tries to stay ‘out the way’. He says he’s waiting, but it’ll work out. He doesn’t get to see his family much, not because they don’t want to see him, but because the state placed him in a prison on the other side of the state from them. Travelling that far is not only a challenge, it is also very expensive. In spite of that, Travion stays positive in the face of all that is negative.

Usually, I only read of support for Travion, but every now and then I will read an ugly comment about crime and ‘doing the time’. When I read those, I have to wonder how someone gets to a place in life where they feel there is no place for mercy in this world. Travion was only a kid when he was told there would be no second chance for him. His life was over. Yet, every letter I get from him includes, ‘how’s your family?’ or ‘how are you?’ He tells me things will work out. He doesn’t complain. He doesn’t ask for anything.   He thanks me for caring. If I could talk to the man who sentenced him to six life sentences plus 118 years, I would have to simply ask him, ‘why?’

Sentenced to Life at Fifteen

I first read about Travion Blount in a three by five inch article, including title, on page five of the Metro section of my local paper.   It was the smallest article on the page, as if it were a filler. I’m surprised I even read it. Once I did, I wanted to know more.

This is what I pieced together after I searched his name on the internet. Travion was born and raised in Virginia. His mom is Angela Blount and his father is Patrick Mills. His mom described him as ‘happy but shy,’ and from what I read, he was pretty typical up until middle school. That seems to be about the time his wheels got a little off track.

Skipping school was a problem, and Travion couldn’t seem to get past the sixth grade. He also became friendly with some slightly older boys that probably weren’t the best of influences. I would imagine Tavion looked up to them, and I am not going to try and paint him as an angel.   He wasn’t.  If he had lived next door to me, I would have probably viewed him as trouble.

From piecing together all the news accounts, in September, 2006, Travion and his friends, Morris Downing and David Nichols, went to a party and robbed the partygoers at gunpoint. They collected drugs, cell phones and money. Travion did not physically hurt anyone during the robbery.

It is clear these boys did something terribly wrong. I can’t imagine the fear they caused in the people at the party on that night. A few probably thought they were going to die. What the three boys did is inexcusable.

The two older boys pled guilty, one receiving a ten year sentence and the other receiving a thirteen year sentence. Travion, at the age of 15, decided to plead innocent and fight the charges, against legal advice. That is the first part of this that has me wondering about fairness.   What 15-year-old should be given the responsibility of deciding what his best defense would be? I have a fifteen year old, and, as smart as she is, I don’t think she should be allowed to decide how she should plead in a criminal case.

After a three day trial, and being found guilty on 49 counts, Travion was sentenced to 118 years and six life sentences.   Being a mom, and knowing just how ‘not’ grown up a boy is at the age of 17 – his age at trial – there is one thing that I read that really sums up just how young Travion was. I read that he turned to his mom and said, “What happened Mom?”

In my opinion, that sentence is criminal. In my opinion that sentence is cruel and unusual punishment. There are no words to adequately describe what I think of that sentence.

At a later date, Governor Bob McDonnell reduced Travion’s sentence to forty years. That might sound like a good thing, but in the twists and turns of our illogical legal system, it actually makes it a little more difficult for the sentence to be further reduced, as Blount had a chance to appeal the sentence as unconstitutional when it was a life sentence – he can no longer do that now that the sentence is forty years.

So what is forty years? That is 14,600 days waking up knowing that you will see the same exact things you saw the day before. To a fifteen year old, that could mean never being half of a serious relationship. That is never graduating high school.  You will probably never have the work experience in place to find successful employment, even if you were healthy at the age of 55, when you got out. You possibly may not be able to spend another day in the company of your parents.   A good deal of your relatives will not be here anymore when you get out, even if you did remember who they were. Did he ever slow dance, I wonder. Did he ever leave the state of Virginia? Forty years to a fifteen year old, is his entire life. His entire life.

Shouldn’t doing that to Travion Blount be against the law? Travion Blount made a stupid, irresponsible, shameful decision when he was fifteen years old, although he did not physically harm anyone. And for that, he will pay with forty years of his life. And, we are paying the price of that, both with our pockets and our souls.