Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Never Been Better

A few months ago, I spoke with a good friend of mine who is still doing time in prison. It had been more than a year since I had last spoken with him, yet I could feel his warmth and gentleness as if we were in the same room together.  It is true that the prison environment does little to engender the core attributes of friendship like trust, empathy, and compassion.
Yet, many people had shown him extraordinary kindness during his two decades in prison, and had had learned to pass that kindness on to others. 
I asked him how he’d been doing, and he said to me, “Never been better!” His familiar positivity brought a smile to my face. It was that bright optimism that drew me to him in the first place. Being close to him lightened the shadows I still carried at that time, and gave me hope for the future.

He had embraced faith while in prison, and it became a living force within him. Unlike many people I meet out here in the “free” world, he actually lived his faith. It propelled him into service to others. He had been teaching newcomers in prison about sexual assault prevention for nearly five years before I met him. When he wasn’t teaching, he worked in the chapel as a clerk, where he could assist the Chaplain and volunteers. Over time, they stopped seeing him as an inmate, and put him in charge of facilitating the Friday night chapel services. 

He told his story one Friday night. I’ll never forget it. He had experienced a traumatic childhood, with a chaotic home life and a father in prison. The turmoil led him to drugs and unhealthy acquaintances. Weeks before his 19th birthday, he accompanied two young men to buy some drugs. Unexpectedly, the two men attacked the drug dealer and killed him. My friend was horrified.

He spent an entire year in county jail claiming that he never had any intention of harming the man who lost his life. The two men responsible for the murder quickly accepted plea agreements that would assure them of release from prison in their late 30s. My friend dared to claim innocence, and asked for a trial. Under the law of parties, my friend was charged and convicted of Capital Murder. 
To punish him for refusing the plea agreement, the prosecutor demanded a sentence that would keep him in prison at least twice the length of time given to the actual murderers. 
The judge agreed with the prosecutor, so my friend won’t even be eligible for parole until 2033. His right to appeal expired long ago. Unless Texas passes a law that makes my friend eligible for a second look by the sentencing court, he will remain in prison until he is at least 58 years old. Some states allow certain individuals, like those who were children themselves at the time the crime was committed, to appeal for a sentence reduction after serving a certain percentage of the sentence. Such a law could be extended to those sentenced under the law of parties, particularly when the actual murderer(s) received more lenient sentences.  Sadly, no such law exists in Texas.

My friend had to learn to forgive others in order to cope with injustice. After having served two decades in prison, my friend learned that one of the men who had committed the murder was on the unit awaiting parole release. The Chaplain accompanied my friend to the release gate, where they met the man. 
My friend looked the man in the eye and said, “I forgive you.” They shook hands, and the man departed the unit to begin his adult life outside of prison.
Both of the men who committed the murder are now free from prison. They are living their lives, able to pursue careers and family. Out here in the “free” world, the same prosecutor who abandoned all sense of fairness, demanding that my friend serve 20 years for being a party to a murder and an additional 60 years for daring to defend himself in court, gets to sleep in a comfortable bed and perhaps enjoy a round of golf this weekend. The judge who went along with the prosecutor, forgetting his sworn duty to remain just and impartial, also gets to enjoy his life, perhaps fishing along the Texas coast. My friend will experience none of these things. 

As for my friend, he’s “never been better.” He’ll teach a class this week that will make prison safer. He’ll share his kindness with people like me, helping them to heal and grow into the men they were intended to be. People who experience his friendship will return to the “free” world with a deeper commitment to improve the lives of others. 
My friend will probably bring a message at the Friday night chapel service. He may talk about an ancient king named Solomon who knew a thing or two about justice. Perhaps my friend will teach others that, when it comes to matters of justice, where lives are at stake, one needs a double portion of wisdom. 
Because wisdom is often lacking in the Texas courts, we need a Second Look Law. It's also time to take a second look at Law of Parties.