Juvenile lifers hope for a second chance

Oct 13, 2015

Juveniles serving life in prison with no chance for parole have a reason to hope. They might get a shot at resentencing.

Up until 2012, juveniles convicted of murder were given a life sentence without the possibility of parole. It was mandatory. Then the U.S. Supreme Court ruled this requirement was cruel and unusual. They said it should only happen in very rare circumstances.

But the court didn’t say whether the ruling should apply retroactively. Some states chose to resentence their juvenile lifers while others - like Michigan- did not.

 


The debate

Attorney General Bill Schuette says resentencing isn’t fair to victims. 

"The victims need to be remembered," he says, "and having to go through  [resentencing] one more time is really heart-wrenching on the victims."

Michigan and 15 other states do not want to reopen these cases. Schuette says even if they did reopen them, in most instances the result would likely be the same: a life sentence.

But Deborah Labelle, director of the ACLU’s Juvenile Life Without Parole Project, says it's important to remember, we’re talking about children. 

"Many of the children who are serving long sentences including long sentences of life without parole are children who have been failed by us as a society, who have had very difficult choices to make and have made often the wrong ones," Labelle says. 

She says we’ve agreed as a society that children are not fit to vote, drive, or fight for the country up to a certain age because children are not yet fully developed. This thinking should apply to the mistakes children make as well she says, including mistakes made by the 360-plus juveniles sentenced to die in Michigan’s prisons.

Serving life

James Fuson flips through a thick stack of poems, organized meticulously with color coding and tables of contents. Then he reads.

The Contemplation of a Fallen Leaf

Separated from what it once was, 

Form distorted, structure bent,

Lost amidst the dying,

Identity re-purposed. 

Naked against the cold winds,

Alone in a vast field of decay,

Anticipating the inevitable,

Covered in dirt, 

Trampled beneath foot, 

Forever silenced.

Fusion is reading to a group of other incarcerated poets in a weekly writing workshop at Macomb Correctional Facility outside Detroit. He’s one of four juvenile lifers in the writing group. He was convicted of murder at seventeen and got a mandatory life sentence. 

 

James Fuson shows the members of his poetry workshop how he organizes his work.
Credit Morgan Springer

Because his sentence was mandatory, his upbringing didn’t matter to the judge who sentenced him. It couldn't be considered.

Fuson says his mom was a heroin addict. His dad was too. They’d leave him in a room while they went to get their fix. His dad beat his mom, and he beat Fuson.

"His favorite mantra was you’ll eat it or you’ll wear it," Fuson says. "He would push my face into the food, and then I’m crying even more, and then he’s pushing my face into the food even more because I won’t eat it. Then comes the belt or the switch or the hands or whatever it is he’s feeling like hitting somebody with."

When Fuson was seven, his mom overdosed and died. His maternal grandparents took over custody, and his dad disappeared.

 

"Many of the children who are serving long sentences, including long sentences of life without parole, are children who have been failed by us as a society." - Deborah Labelle

When he was seventeen, Fuson murdered his grandparents. He and two friends had decided to leave Michigan. They went to pick up Fuson’s stuff from his grandparents house. When they left, his grandparents were dead. Their throats had been slit. Two of them got life without parole.

Fuson says there’s no making sense of his crime. He says he can see how the circumstances of his childhood brought him to that point, but he also recognizes that children who grow up in similar circumstances don’t commit murder. He feels ashamed. Horrified. Still angry that it happened.

Discovering new ways

Fuson says when he went to prison, he wasn’t productive with his time. Since he was going to die there anyway, he didn’t see the point. 

"It actually made me realize that there was a whole new world opened up to me and that prison was not a barrier. It was just something to work around. Prison doesn't stop anything." - James Fuson

Later he was coaxed into joining a theater program. Then he joined a writing program. He got his GED, took college courses and tutored other inmates. Fuson says the exposure to new ideas and ways of thinking changed him. 

"I was hungry for that knowledge. I was hungry for that direction,” he says. “It actually made me realize that there was a whole new world opened up to me and that prison was not a barrier. It was just something to work around. Prison doesn’t stop anything." 

Fuson credits his college professor, Lora Lempert, for helping him realize his own worth. Lempert taught Sociology at University of Michigan, Dearborn.

 "There is no question about it," she says. "Jay is brilliant. He is one of the finest minds I’ve had the opportunity to work with in education. And it’s a waste to have him locked in prison. I want Jay to get a PhD."

 

Four of eight poetry writing workshop members are juveniles serving life without parole.
Credit Morgan Springer

Can't we just take a look?

Deborah Labelle with the ACLU says adults convicted of similar crimes to these juveniles are not serving life. She can’t understand why the same judicial system sentences children to die in prison.

"At thirty, what’s the problem with looking and saying, hey, who are you now?" asks Labelle.

Jody Robinson says there’s a huge problem with just taking a look. She’s the president of the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Murderers. Their website is teenkillers.org. Her organization stands with victim’s families and is against retroactivity.

 

"The issue of retroactivity only means...reliving and reopening a nightmare that we were promised years ago we would never have to." - Jody Robinson

Robinson has a personal stake in this. She was in high school when her brother was murdered.

"It took me almost 15 years," says Robinson. "It took me in-patient therapy. It took me many, many years till I got to a place where my life could be ok."

Robinson says the woman convicted of murdering her brother is getting what she deserves: life in prison, not a second chance.

At the very least, James Fuson would like to sit before a parole board and tell them how he’s changed. He may get a chance if the Supreme Court rules in his favor. If not, he says he’ll file his second commutation hearing and keep hoping.