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Irredeemable update: Jose Burgos resentenced

Rafael Alicea and Jose Burgos
A portrait of Jose Burgos taken at Thumb Correctional Facility during a photography class with University of Michigan.

Update 7/30/18: Jose Burgos has been granted parole. He says his projected release date is the end of October.

"The joy I live with today cannot be described in words," says Jose. "To know that within the next few months I'll get to spend the holidays with my family, [that's] an amazing feeling." 

Jose Burgos says he always felt like dying in prison was probably one of the loneliest ways to die. And  – for nearly 27 years  – that's what he was told would happen to him.

Even after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled all juvenile lifer sentences  –  including Jose’s  – had to be reviewed, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy still recommended life without parole. That's where things stood when we initially did a story about Jose last October.

But then this year, Worthy changed her mind. She reviewed Jose’s case again and decided his sentence should be reduced to a range of 30 to 60 years. 

"To be told that, ‘hey, you know what, we recognize the fact that you have made some changes and that despite the crime that you committed, you still deserve a chance at freedom,’ is very big," says Jose. 

Now instead of dying in prison, Jose could get out this year.



After Worthy changed her mind, Jose's resentencing hearing was scheduled. It happened May 3.

Jose’s friends and family showed up to support him. And as he walked into the courtroom, Jose says his eyes went straight to the woman who raised him: his 83-year-old grandmother.

"I remember my grandmother being there initially when I first received my sentence – my life sentence," says Jose. "Just to know that she was still alive to be able to see this sentence be undone was a very touching moment for me."

Judge Ulysses Boykin told the court on May 3, Jose is a "changed man," according to The Detroit News.

“There is a possibility that people can be redeemed or reprogrammed," Boykin said. 

He said he thought Jose was “headed in the right direction.”

A victim of the crime changes his mind

Jose has been incarcerated since he was 16, when he shot and killed another teenager – Omar Kaji. It happened in a botched drug deal in Detroit. He also shot Omar’s twin brother Ayman. Ayman Kaji survived, but he has been paralyzed ever since.

"There is a possibility that people can be redeemed or reprogrammed." - Judge Ulysses Boykin

Up until the hearing, Ayman Kaji had said he wanted Jose to stay in prison for life. But when he spoke to the court over the phone at the hearing, Kaji said something different.

"At some point, ... as he got towards the end of his statement, he had told the judge he was not there to tell the judge to give me 10, 20, 30 more years," Jose says. "That if the judge decided that he wanted to release me, that he was not in opposition to that. And I think that was a very defining moment."

Jose says it was very courageous of Kaji to make that statement, considering "all the damage that I have caused him."

Now, it is up to Jose to live up to this second chance he's been given.

"For me being released and not doing nothing is not OK with me," Jose says. "I fully understand that I took a man’s life. I fully understand that I critically injured another man, that his injuries can never be healed, and I have to do something to make something good come out of this."

Jose says mentoring young people and advocating for other juvenile lifers are two ways to do good. But he also realizes it may take time to get there. He says he’ll do whatever work he can to help pay the bills when he first gets out.

Credit Rafael Alicea and Jose Burgos
During a photography workshop with University of Michigan at Thumb Correctional Facility, Jose Burgos imposed his court filing over his portrait.

Getting out

Jose has been incarcerated for nearly 27 years, but he's earned credit for good behavior in prison. He says his disciplinary credit is worth approximately 5 years, which would have put his earliest release date at February 2016.

"So, as of right now, I’m about two years over my earliest release date," says Jose. 

But it’s up to the parole board to decide when Jose will actually get out, which he says he has to remind his family.

"I have explained to them that the parole board doesn’t have to necessarily release me," he says. "After they review, they can feel that maybe I need to do some more time."

He says he is ready to accept that decision.

Jose meets a parole board member June 25. If the board decides he is no longer a threat to society and is ready for a second chance, he could be released within the year. He says he's not afraid of reoffending, but he says he hopes and prays he can live up to the expectations he's placed on himself.

"The reality is that I haven’t been out there in society, and I don’t know how society will respond to the things that I want to do, because I am still a convicted murderer," he says.

Morgan Springer is a contributing editor and producer at Interlochen Public Radio. She previously worked for the New England News Collaborative as the host/producer of NEXT, the weekly show which aired on six public radio station in the region.