When I was 17, I accepted a plea agreement and 25-year prison sentence to avoid the likelihood of spending the rest of my life in prison.
I had been involved in the death of another person. Prosecutors initially charged me with first-degree murder and aggravated robbery and planned to seek a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. When they offered instead to allow me to plead guilty to the robbery charge plus facilitating first-degree murder, I quickly agreed. My co-defendant wasn’t so fortunate. He was sentenced to life with parole eligibility after 51 years, plus 25 years.
My home state of Tennessee has yet to ban life without parole for children or penalties that are their functional equivalent. Instead, children who are not yet able to vote, buy cigarettes or join the military are told they are worth nothing more than to die in prison. The U.S. Supreme Court has scaled back the use of the most extreme penalties and mandated review opportunities for everyone who, as a child, received a mandatory life without parole order. Yet, as the Associated Press highlighted in a series, where a child committed a crime plays a disproportionately large role in whether their review will truly be meaningful or if they will even have one in a timely manner.
A few days before my arrest, I had been making plans for college, where I hoped to study child development and become a social worker. But I first needed to earn another credit to get out of high school and had asked the younger brother of a fellow gang member to consider enrolling with me.
Once he agreed, we sat around smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol. He suggested we act out a scene from a movie. Our plan was go to a convenience store, taking along two guns — one of which was nonfunctioning and the other supposedly had no bullets — to frighten the store employee and anyone who walked up. We’d grab more beer and run.
I agreed to stand watch as he went inside for what seemed like forever. Then I heard gunfire and he ran out. I went into the store and found Mr. Cantrell lying on the floor unresponsive. I ran, and we were arrested a few hours later.
I am deeply remorseful that I had a role in taking the life of another person. I can never repay what I took, and have been inspired to spend my life working to help children avoid the mistakes that I made. I also want to help create a justice system that holds children accountable in age-appropriate ways, accounts for their exposure to trauma and prepares them for reintegration into society.
My story is similar to that of many other youth who have gotten into serious trouble. Throughout my early childhood, I saw my alcoholic father physically abuse my mother. She, my siblings and I were sometimes so afraid that we hid in my bedroom, barricaded the door with furniture and prayed he would never return. I remember one particularly harrowing evening when my mother attempted to escape with the children. He appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, knocked my mother to the ground then grabbed her hair and dragged her through the mud. When she finally broke free, we drove to the police station, where she filed a restraining order against him. I was shaken to my core.
Even after my mother moved us to a new neighborhood, with a new house and a new school, my father showed up drunk late at night, creating lots of noise. The neighbors sometimes came out of their homes just to watch, and neighborhood kids mocked me at school.
By the time I was in sixth grade, though, I began to use academics as an escape from my world. That all changed when we moved again. At the new school, other kids said I spoke up too often in class and studied too much. In an effort to be more like the people around me, I stopped studying and even failed ninth grade. I also became an active gang member. I saw it as a way to end the loneliness.
I developed a practice of ending each school day at lunchtime. Before long, I began transporting and selling marijuana. My mother learned I wasn’t going to class when my high school sent a letter during my senior year, informing her that I had missed so many days of school that I would need to attend summer school in order to graduate.
That led us to that day in 1994, when marijuana, alcohol and the impulsivity of a child with a still-developing brain led me to take part in an unthinkable crime.
While in prison, I grew up. I denounced my gang membership, earned my GED, became a licensed barber and studied psychology and child development. These classes helped me understand the impact of the trauma that I and others had experienced and enabled me to counsel others in denouncing their gang memberships.
In addition, I completed anger management counseling and joined the Parents in Prison group, which helped men focus on the needs of their children. I was not a parent, so I spent the next year thinking about my needs as a child and how those needs could be addressed for children in situations similar to what I had experienced.
On my third visit to the parole board — and after I had served 10 years — the board granted my release. I stayed in Nashville and worked for a barbershop for a while. Then I began volunteering in a local school, working with children who were disruptive in the classroom, teaching them conflict resolution skills and helping them access other services they needed. I was then asked to do this work as an AmeriCorps volunteer with the Community Health Corps in Nashville, then as a full-time employee of the agency.
I was later was hired to direct a YMCA of Middle Tennessee outreach program that provided services to 25 to 30 students each year who faced issues similar to what I had experienced as a middle school student. Along the way, I also helped found the Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network (ICAN), a national network comprised of and led by individuals who went to prison as children for serious crimes and are now out living productive lives. All our members were charged with homicide-related crimes and/or faced life without parole as a child.
My original 25-year sentence expired March 3, 2016. I had no infractions during my 12 years of parole. A year later, I joined the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, where we work to replace life without parole and other extreme penalties for children with age-appropriate accountability that accounts for children’s experiences and unique capacity for change.
I’ve dedicated every day of my free life to demonstrating that I am worthy of this second chance. I’ve tried to make sure fewer families suffer the same losses as the Cantrell family. I’ve poured myself into the lives of many.
And I am not unique. The members of ICAN, which I now help to coordinate, do the same, as do many other formerly incarcerated youth I have never met. We are all more than the worst thing we have ever done. We just need an opportunity to prove it.