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Criminal

May 9, 2019

Reflections on a life without parole sentence

“What am I supposed to do, just die in prison?” I was seated just outside the dilapidated holding cell adjacent to the courtroom where the judge had just sentenced my juvenile client to die in prison, to life without the possibility of parole. The many layers of paint on the bars were peeling off and decades of inmates’ scrawled initials, messages, and nervous etchings covered the walls.

Mills john web

John Mills

Principal, Phillips Black, Inc.

Email: Phillips Black, Inc.

John specializes in habeas corpus representation of persons facing the death penalty or lifetime in prison. He is also an adjunct professor at UC Hastings College of the Law where he teaches courses on capital punishment and habeas corpus. The views contained herein are his own.

"What am I supposed to do, just die in prison?" I was seated just outside the dilapidated holding cell adjacent to the courtroom where the judge had just sentenced my juvenile client to die in prison, to life without the possibility of parole. The many layers of paint on the bars were peeling off and decades of inmates' scrawled initials, messages, and nervous etchings covered the walls. The room was small. The fluorescent lighting was unflattering to the green, indoor/outdoor carpet.

He was locked in a six-by-six-by-eight cage that sat next to a second, identical cage. I sat right outside of his. We were both locked into the small room in the historic art-deco courthouse. The mosaics on the tiled floors and stately paintings and dark wood paneling stood in contrast to what had just transpired in the courtroom.

The day before, my client's mother had purchased him "civilian" clothes: slacks, a button down shirt with a collar, and dark socks and shoes. Those clothes were now in a trash bag on the floor, discarded by the prison guards. He sat, head in hands, wearing the orange jumpsuit and white sneakers much like the ones he effectively had just been told he would die wearing.

He was distraught. Reeling from what had just transpired in the sentencing hearing, he raced among the minutia from the prior hours. The disciplinary infraction did not go down the way they said. The tattoo the judge had placed great weight on to find depravity simply did not exist. He wasn't able to say everything he wanted to in his apology to his victims.

I tried to reorient our conversation to bigger picture issues and to offer a modicum of hope. We had preserved what I believed to be a number of legal issues for appeal. The trend in politics and policy is away from the kind of extreme sentence he had just received. My law practice would continue to work for him. He may receive reprieve down the line.

But the truth is, I was also reeling. Had the judge really announced at the beginning of the hearing that he had a written opinion ready? Could it really be true that the judge had deemed my client's life unredeemable? Had the prosecutor actually raised a series of ad hominem attacks on me during his closing? The gravity of the moment -- my client will likely die in prison -- and the pain of that truth, made it all so unreal.

As he sat in the cage, I tried to bring my client a modicum of dignity and humanity in this awful moment. I reached through the bars and held his hand. I told him to think of all the people who had been there for him. Members of his meditation group had driven for hours and taken off work just to be present in the courtroom so the judge would see they cared. His aunt had flown in from out of state. His mother had bought him those clothes. His Bible study group all came. I told him all those people loved him.

He thanked me for our work and said that he loves me. I told him I loved him, too.

I do not know what will happen to my client. I will keep fighting for him. But the reality is that I have no way of knowing whether he will ever leave prison, whether he will die alone in a cage.

Every human deserves hope for redemption. For my client, the glimmer of that hope is fading.

After about 10 minutes of trying to help him make sense of what had just transpired, there was a knock on the thick wooden door. The guard tells us our time was up. He had to leave the holding cell and be transferred to prison. I tell him goodbye for now. We'll schedule a call. We'll visit soon. We'll do what we can.

#352504

Ilan Isaacs

Associate Legal Editor
ilan_isaacs@dailyjournal.com

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