It’s been two years since the U.S. Supreme Court said states across the country had to reconsider the sentences of nearly 2,000 juvenile lifers. But not much has changed in Michigan since that January 2016 ruling for most of those prisoners.
Michigan had the second-largest juvenile lifer population in the country – with more than 360. So far, only 30 percent of juvenile lifers have been resentenced. Antonio Espree is one of them.
It’s Nov. 17, 2016. Antonio Espree sits in a courtroom in Ann Arbor for resentencing. Antonio – who goes by Tony – is a 45-year-old black man with glasses and closely cropped hair and beard. Two armed police officers stand to his right. To his left sits his defense attorney, an Ann Arbor lawyer with a faint New York accent.
They all face Judge Darlene O’Brien, who will either decide to reduce Tony’s life sentence or give him life without parole again.
Twenty-nine years ago, Tony was a drug dealer in Detroit. At 16, he shot and killed an innocent bystander, Emanuel Billups, during a turf war in Ypsilanti. It was December of 1987. Tony was arrested soon after.
By August of 1988, Tony pleaded not guilty and was convicted of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to life without parole, which was mandatory for juvenile cases like his back in the 80s.
A shorter sentence
Tony’s resentencing hearing is unique because the prosecuting attorney isn’t against Tony’s release; he’s for it.
Washtenaw County Prosecutor Brian Mackie presents his case to Judge O’Brien first, recounting Tony’s crime, his institutional record and the stance of the family of the victim.
Mackie says the victim’s mother has always thought Tony’s sentence was too harsh.
“She expressed those many years ago her feelings about this,” Mackie says. “She did not necessarily favor mandatory life imprisonment, and she certainly doesn’t now.”
The U.S. Supreme Court eventually banned those mandatory sentences in 2012, saying it was cruel and unusual punishment for juveniles.
Then Mackie makes his recommendation. He tells Judge O’Brien she should reduce Tony’s sentence from life to a range of 27 to 60 years.
“I would take it one step farther,” he says. “I don’t think this will be an issue, but I do believe that he should be paroled at the first opportunity.”
Mackie takes his seat, and Tony gets up to make his statement. You can hear the clink of his chains as he walks to the podium to speak.
In his statement, Tony apologizes to the victim’s family and friends.
“I am responsible for Mr. Billups’ death and for that I am sorry,” Tony tells the court. “I am also responsible for the pain, the hurt and the damage that I’ve caused to Mr. Billups’ family and friends ... and for that I am sorry.”
He says his actions ended the hopes and dreams of Emanuel Billups and the contributions he could have made to society.
Judge O’Brien thanks Tony for his statement.
“Mr. Espree,” O’Brien says, “you have demonstrated by your behavior in custody that you are neither irreparably corrupt or permanently incorrigible.”
And then O’Brien reduces Tony’s sentence to the prosecutor’s recommendation: a range of 27 to 60 years.
“I do wish you good luck with the parole board, and I will support your efforts,” says O’Brien.
Tony was no longer sentenced to die in prison.
A few months after Tony’s sentence was reduced, Michigan’s parole board granted him parole. He’d be released that year after 29 years in prison.
Tony says he’s feeling good about getting out.
“That’s one feeling,” he says, “but beyond that, it’s all going to be new to me.”
He says it will be a new experience to be without handcuffs and belly chains and to eat with a fork and a knife instead of the plastic spork he eats with in prison.
‘I’m a free man’
It’s April 6, 2017, Tony’s release date, and he comes out of prison saying over and over again, "I’m a free man. I’m a free man."
His cousin Marlon Bailey is there to greet him, along with two of Tony’s attorneys and a paralegal. Tony has a big smile as he hugs everyone, and they end up standing in a circle with their arms linked.
“I came over here with no belly chains, no ankle chains, nothing.” Tony tells them, “It’s great not to be chained up.”
Then he says, “Let’s get out of here!”
They regroup at Zingerman’s Roadhouse in Ann Arbor for brunch, where Tony finally ditches the plastic spork, using a metal knife and fork for the first time in decades.
A fortunate man
Tony is a free man in part because a judge and prosecutor agreed he had done what he needed to do to get a second chance. But his cousin Marlon says it takes more than that.
“Tony is … fortunate, but also he has earned the right to be given a second chance at life,” Marlon says. “There are others who have also earned it, but they haven’t been given it, because they’re not fortunate.”
What Marlon is pointing out is that there are cases similar to Tony’s where prosecutors have not supported release. Jose Burgos, for example – we did a story on him in the first episode of Irredeemable – his story is similar to Tony’s, but the Wayne County Prosecutor is currently recommending life without parole for him. That’s the norm for Michigan prosecutors right now; they’re recommending life again in about 70 percent of the juvenile lifer cases.
But in Washtenaw County – where Tony’s case is – Prosecutor Mackie is recommending most of his juvenile lifers be released.
Attorney Deborah Labelle – who directs the ACLU’s Juvenile Life without Parole project – says right now a juvenile lifer's chances depend in part on the county they’re in.
“You see disparities in different counties depending on the politics of that county, depending on the prosecutor in that county, depending on issues of race and class that are part of that county,” says Labelle.
Prosecutor Mackie doesn’t see it that way.
“I don’t know what’s going on in other counties,” he says. “I talk to prosecutors from time to time. Everybody’s struggling to do the right thing. I don’t think Antonio’s lucky to be in Washtenaw County. He did do 28 years for murder.”
(Tony actually served 29 years.)
Mackie says Tony took advantage of everything offered to him in prison. Tony participated in over 30 programs, and it had been 10 years since he was written up for a misconduct in prison. A Michigan Department of Corrections staffer said in a report that corrections officers rarely say positive things about inmates, but in Tony’s case, they regarded him highly and trusted him.
Mackie looked at all these things. But, he says, one of the most important things to him is the likelihood of reoffense.
“I do believe that Mr. Espree is not going to murder anyone,” says Mackie. “I’m – in fact – pretty confident that he’s not going to commit crimes of any kind.”
Twelve percent of Michigan’s juvenile lifers have been released since the U.S. Supreme Court said states had to reconsider their sentences. Tony is one of the 44 prisoners who’ve gotten out.
He lives with his cousin Marlon Bailey – who’s an associate professor of women and gender studies at Arizona State University. They share Marlon’s apartment in Phoenix.
“I’m going to be financially supporting him in every capacity,” Marlon says.
He wants to support his cousin without an end date.
“I guess I had just made up my mind that I am going to support the household as long as possible,” he says. “I do know that Tony is the kind of person that will offer and do what he can when he can do it.”
At 47, Tony is a freshman majoring in Justice Studies at ASU. He has a job through the school and speaks publicly about criminal justice issues.