Justice and mercy: a troubling imprisonment deserves attention

Today it’s difficult to reconstruct exactly what happened on that hot August night in 1982.  Some details were murky even then.  But here’s the story:

A young man named Todd who lived in an affluent suburban neighborhood went to the Central West End with a friend to celebrate his 21st birthday.  There, they met up with 20-year-old Eric and his younger brother, Stanley, who lived in the neighborhood.  Eric and Stanley are black; Todd and his friend are white.

Something…here’s where it gets murky….provoked a fight, not an unusual occurrence among impulsive, risk-taking young men who are fueled by alcohol.  Todd reportedly hit Eric over the head with a board; Eric retaliated by striking Todd with a metal pipe.  The group broke up.  The next morning, Todd was found dead.

The rest of the story is a matter of record.

When he learned that Todd had died, Eric turned himself in to the police.  He had no juvenile criminal history and no major adult arrests at the time.  He had no intention to commit murder and believed he could plead self-defense.

He was wrong.

Eric was sentenced to 50 years in prison with no possibility of parole.

Many attorneys feel that Eric was over-charged; one lawyer who has worked with him said that he was “railroaded.”  Former St. Louis circuit attorney Dee Joyce-Hayes wrote to Eric’s mother:  “I must tell you in all candor that I am somewhat surprised that Eric was charged with Capital Murder, especially since Stanley was charged with Murder 2nd and convicted of Manslaughter.”

By 1999, Eric had exhausted his appeals process without relief.  However, his circumstances continued to trouble some in the judiciary.  Judge Myron Bright of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals wrote in an opinion:  “This is an unusual case…The jury convicted (Eric) of capital murder.  Yet…the evidence indicates that (Eric) acted with some justification for his conduct, and evidence which surfaced in a different trial casts grave doubt on whether (Eric) struck the blows that killed the victim.  These facts and circumstances suggest that this case is an appropriate one for the Governor of Missouri to consider a grant of executive clemency.”

But the state of Missouri was not through with Eric.  It would railroad him one more time before he had an opportunity to seek clemency.

In August, 1985, two years into serving his sentence at a maximum security facility, Eric was wrongfully accused of the murder of a fellow inmate.  He was convicted and sentenced to death.  His execution was postponed because of pending appeals in his first case, and during that time an attorney working with the Innocence Project  discovered that the state had kept important evidence from Eric in his initial trial.  He was granted a new trial.  That jury took less than one hour to acquit him of the inmate murder.  By this time, he had spent 13 years on death row.

Eric is now 49 years old.  He has been in prison for 28 years.  He has served 18 years more than the minimum sentence for second-degree murder and 18 years more than the maximum for manslaughter.  Everyone else who was involved in the melee which resulted in Todd’s death has been out of prison for many years.

This case raises troubling questions about race, class, and the criminal justice system.

Would Eric have received a lesser punishment if his victim had not been the son of a prominent white minister?   Would he have been sentenced to a shorter prison term if his family could have afforded a high-priced defense attorney?  And what does a sentence of 50 years without the possibility of parole say about the capability of our prison system to rehabilitate inmates?

If there is anything good that can come out of this troubling case, it is the demonstration that prisoners can be rehabilitated and that people can change.  Today Eric is proof of that.  While an inmate, he obtained his GED.  He has taken every course available to him in prison and has worked at every job he could obtain.  He has worked with other inmates as a tutor, spiritual advisor, and law clerk.  His record of behavior while in prison is excellent.  He has written a remorseful letter of apology to the parents of his victim.  He has learned the values of education, cooperation and repentance.  He has made amends to the extent that the prison environment will permit.

Early in March, Eric’s pro bono attorneys filed a petition for executive clemency with the Missouri Board of Probation and Parole.  If members of this Board approve, the case will move to the desk of Gov. Jay Nixon, who can either reject, approve or simply ignore it.

The Governor, a former prosecutor and state attorney general, will not want to appear to be “soft on crime.”  Perhaps he can be persuaded by the financial realities of keeping Eric in prison.  During 2009, it cost the state $48.19 per day to house Eric in the correctional system.  By contrast, it would have cost only $14.43 to place him on electronic monitoring, or $3.71 per day to place him on active parole….and nothing to grant him clemency.

At this point during Eric’s incarceration, it should be asked:  how much is enough?  Does a thoughtless crime, even a horrible crime, committed by a young man mean that he never gets a second chance?  Do we really mean it when we say that the purpose of prison is to rehabilitate people?  And if we acknowledge that people can change, can we also accept the possibility that they might be forgiven?

If there is a place where justice and mercy intersect, it will be later this year on the desk of Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon.