July 01, 2013

From Death Row to Rehabilitation and Redemption

The story of a man sentenced to life for a crime committed when he was under 18.

Jeffrey D. Colman

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This is about—and for—an extraordinary client, Antonio, who spent 27 years in prison (including 10 years on death row), and who is today a free man. Antonio’s life story is about a brutal childhood and violent teenage years, but his story is also about the possibility of rehabilitation and the power of redemption. Antonio is an important symbol because he is one of the 2,000 boys and girls across our country who were sentenced to mandatory life in prison with no chance of parole for murders they committed when they were under the age of 18, and who now have new chances at gaining their freedom because of the United States Supreme Court’s recent decision in Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012).

Antonio was not an innocent man. He is not one of “the exonerated.” He was convicted of two murders. There were victims, and there are victims’ families. Antonio’s story is also one about the often bizarre nature of our criminal justice system. (“Antonio” is not his real name. Because he is in the process of building a new life, we are using a pseudonym. I have his permission to write this article and use letters he wrote to me.)

Antonio’s two cases—ultimately spanning 27 years in the courts—were extraordinary from a legal perspective, and their interconnections (sometimes blatantly improper or artificially imposed ones) put Antonio on a legal merry-go-round. The two cases had everything: important legal issues and fundamental factual disputes; outstanding judges and inept ones; excellent defense counsel and gross ineffective assistance of counsel; witnesses with integrity and courage and witnesses who blatantly perjured themselves; sharply split appellate court decisions; inordinate delays in the trial and appellate processes; meanderings through the byzantine world of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act; and just about everything else you could expect to see in significant criminal cases. 

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