February 2007. In a cramped courtroom in Milton, Florida, a small town just east of Pensacola, I sat handcuffed and shackled in a jury box, shoulder to shoulder with twenty other crackheads, meth cooks, and burglars. Like most of them, I was awaiting my fate. Unlike most of them, I wasn’t sweating it. My fate had already been sealed. Or so I thought…
One year earlier, a federal judge had sentenced me to 379 months in prison under something called The Hobbs Act. Right around the same time I signed a plea agreement for a concurrent state sentence that amounted to twenty years for armed robbery. Once the dust settled, my release date was close to three decades away.
And I was overjoyed.
Okay, maybe not overjoyed, but definitely grateful. With my record they could’ve buried me. But they left me a sliver of daylight. That’s all I needed. One more shot.
Yet here I was back in court. Considering the lengthy sentence I was already serving, it seemed odd that they would waste money and manpower transporting me back from prison on a violation of probation. Especially since the charges were from 1991, when I was 17 years old. In my mind, the worst was over. A concurrent sentence felt like a foregone conclusion. So inconsequential that the public defender who was assigned to represent me never even bothered to visit the county jail to discuss legal strategy. Since the gain time laws from the early 90s would apply to whatever sentence the judge imposed, even a fifty-year term would not change my release date. I was pretty much locked in for 2035.
So you can imagine my reaction when the clerk called my name and I hobbled over to the lectern where the prosecutor announced that the state was seeking a life sentence. (Excuse me? Did he just say life?)
“Does the defendant wish to speak?” asked the judge.
I scanned the audience for Mom and located her sweet bifocaled face on the second row. The same face that had been attending my court appearances since I was 13 years old. She stood. I turned back to the judge. “Yes sir.”
Different families have different skill sets. The Trumps are proficient at real estate, the Mannings excel at throwing footballs, the Partridges played musical instruments. If there’s one area where me and Mom kick ass, it’s begging judges for mercy. We’ve had a lot of practice.
I told his honor that I was already serving concurrent sentences of 31 and 20 years. Told him that I had pleaded with both the federal magistrate and the toughest circuit court judge in Escambia County for these sentences. That as things stood, I would be in my early 60s when I got out. Mom would be in her mid-80s. I had this one last chance to be a good son, to be there when she got older and needed me, to repay her for believing in me. And even this was a long shot. Lots of things had to fall our way. But a life sentence would extinguish even that hope.
Then Mom spoke. She told him she was a widow, that I was her only child, that we moved to Miami when I was ten where she had to work 14-hour days to support the family and that’s when things started to unravel in my life. She told him that despite my lengthy record, I was a good boy (I was 33 at the time). That whenever I did return home, I would be returning to a strong support system. She told him that she still believed in me. Then she tearfully begged him to have mercy on our family.
By the time she returned to her seat, even the prosecutor was misty-eyed. The judge not only sentenced me to a minimal concurrent sentence, but expressed regret over not being able to legally reduce the sentences that the other judges had imposed.
A lot of miracles have happened since then: the books, new people in my life, new nieces and nephews, soul-stretching experiences, a Supreme Court ruling that resulted in years being slashed from my sentence. I’ll be coming home sooner than expected and, God willing, I’ll have the opportunity to be a better son, better man, better human being…
But I think about that day in court often. More so lately as the national conversation seems to be gravitating toward criminal justice reform. What if my mom was not so meek and soft spoken? What if life made her bombastic? What if my words came stammering from a meth-ravaged mouth? What if we were less articulate, less fluent, less groomed?
What if we were black?
I’m not a fan of the term “white privilege.” It’s thrown around as if it’s some Universal truth that can be applied across the board. There are poor people of Scots-Irish descent scattered from the Bible Belt to the Rust Belt and all throughout rural America who have been scraping out a living for generations. People who have never experienced any privileges, white or otherwise, since their ancestors came west. To lump them in with the wealthy or even the lower-middle class in this country, to call them privileged, is as erroneous and out of touch as declaring racism dead.
But there are also people of color within a five-bunk radius of where I live who share my exact charges, have fewer priors, and are serving life in prison. Were they slammed because of their race? Or did it have more to do with their socioeconomic class? Maybe it was bad luck. Maybe they just had the wrong judge. Or the right judge on the wrong day. Maybe their mothers couldn’t show up to court because they were working, or deceased, or enslaved by addiction, or in prison themselves. Or maybe it’s all of the above — some intricate algorithm in the judge’s mind that distills all of these variables into a term of years.
Whatever the reason, I’m grateful to live in this body, at this time, with this release date, and Ms Doris as my mom. I’m grateful to have another shot… And when I reach the other side, I’m going to fight like hell for the humanity and hope of those I leave behind. This is my mission.
Talk about a privilege.