Beyond Exonerating the Innocent: Using Storytelling to Humanize Youth Sentenced to Die in Prison

“I don’t think story by itself is going to make change,” says Joe during a phone call from a Midwestern prison. But, he concedes, “It’s another piece of the puzzle. Hopefully an accumulation of stories can be so overwhelming that change does happen.”

Joe has asked to use a pseudonym while his appeal winds its way through the court system. As a young teenager in the 1990s, he had a fight with a good friend while at school. Wanting to avoid his friend — and the possibility of their conflict escalating into a physical fight — he made a series of bad decisions. First, he stole a car. When he crashed the car, he decided to go on the run. Needing money to do so, he broke into a house. Inside, he found a gun — and the woman who lived inside. When she threatened to call the police, he shot her and fled. Unable to reach the phone to call for medical attention, she died.

“In hindsight, it illustrates how childish my thinking was,” he told Truthout. “Every decision I made was a horrible decision.”

Joe was arrested, convicted and sentenced to life without parole. It was the age of panic around juvenile “super predators” amid pushes for mandatory minimum sentencing. Joe has spent more than 20 years in prison and was looking at leaving prison in a pine box until recent Supreme Court decisions ruled that juvenile life without parole unconstitutional, In its 2012 Miller v. Alabama decision, the Court ruled juvenile life without parole unconstitutional; four years later, in Montgomery v. Louisiana, it made the decision retroactive, meaning that states were required to hold resentencing hearings for all people previously sentenced to life without parole as children. This means approximately 2,100 people sentenced to die in prison in their youth might now have a second chance.

Even before these decisions, Joe had decided to share his story to help push for legislative change. A friend inside the prison handed him an ACLU newsletter asking people sentenced to life without parole as juveniles (otherwise known as juvenile lifers) to share their stories. Even if he spent the rest of his life in prison, Joe decided to share his story in the hope that the legal system would begin treating teenagers as children, not as adults. By then, neuroscience had demonstrated that the adolescent brain is not yet fully formed, meaning that children should not be held to the same standards of culpability as adults. But the public — and the legal system — had yet to catch up.

Joe may be skeptical, but stories do have an impact. Prosecutors frequently use stories of victims’ grief and anguish to push for the harshest penalty. On the other side, advocates also understand and use storytelling to campaign for policy and legislative changes, such as limiting solitary confinement for teenagers and ending the practice of shackling during childbirth. Even Joe, who doesn’t think his individual story makes much of a difference policy-wise, believes that the crescendo of stories and voices helped the public stop viewing juveniles as super predators and begin seeing them as children who deserve a second chance. 

The Transformative Power of Story

Not every family member of a crime victim wants retribution, an angle rarely highlighted by prosecutors and the media. Bill Pelke has been trying to change that, and he is perhaps one of the best-known family members advocating for compassion and forgiveness.

In 1985, Pelke’s 77-year-old grandmother Ruth opened the door to four teenage girls asking for Bible lessons. They beat her and stabbed her 33 times before stealing $10 and her car. Indiana law allowed children as young as age 10 to be tried as adults. After being arrested, three of the girls pointed to 15-year-old Paula Cooper as the ringleader. She was sentenced to death, becoming the youngest person in the United States to be placed on death row.   

Pelke was in the courtroom when Cooper was sentenced to death. He remembered Cooper’s grandfather wailing when he heard the sentence — before being escorted out of the courtroom. Pelke, however, supported the sentence, wanting some justice for his beloved Nana’s death.

The following year, Pelke told Truthout, he had a revelation. It was a slow time at work and, sitting in a crane 50 feet above the steel mill floor, he began reflecting on Cooper and his grandmother. He realized that his grandmother, a Bible school teacher, would have wanted him to have love and compassion for Cooper, and that she would not have wanted the teenager put to death. Pelke, who shares his grandmother’s faith, recalled that he begged God to grant him that same love and compassion and, before leaving the crane that night, not only forgave Cooper, but resolved to help overturn her death sentence. (In 1989, after an international campaign in which more than 2 million petitions flooded the Indiana courts, Cooper’s sentence was commuted to 60 years in prison. Cooper was released from prison in 2013; two years later, she committed suicide.) 

“When Paula Cooper was taken off death row, I thought I was done,” said Pelke. But then he attended a march against the death penalty organized by Sister Helen Prejean, a Roman Catholic nun and famous anti-death penalty advocate. There he met others who had lost family members to senseless violence but were nonetheless against the death penalty. He realized that their voices were often missing from debates over capital punishment. “A lot of times, if you work against the death penalty, people think, ‘Oh, you only care about the bad guys. You don’t care about the murder victims.'” 

Pelke, who loved his grandmother dearly, knew that wasn’t true. He continued to speak about what happened to his grandmother, to him and to Cooper. In 1993, he and family members of others who had been murdered formed Journey of Hope to push for an end to the death penalty and the cycle of violence that it perpetuates. Each year, members go on a 17-day speaking tour across a different state promoting love, compassion and an end to the death penalty.

“People will always listen to a story,” he reflected. “You can touch their hearts through a story and get them to change their minds. Sometimes people will feel one way when you start and another way when you finish.” And, as someone who lost a loved one to senseless violence, he knows firsthand that family members can feel as if they are disregarding their loved one by forgiving the person who killed them, and that prosecutors often seize on that grief to push for the most punitive sentence. By sharing his story, he hopes to make others realize that healing doesn’t require the harshest punishment.  

More Than Their Worst Mistake

As teenagers, both Paula Cooper and Joe committed senseless and deadly acts of violence, acts that left family members grieving for decades. Their stories often elicit horror rather than sympathy. But to focus solely on sympathetic stories means ignoring the fact that more than half of people in state prisons have been convicted of violent crimes.

Several years ago, Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg, then a case analyst at the Innocence Project, an organization dedicated to exonerating the wrongfully convicted, attended the organization’s conference. There, several exonerated people performed monologues about the pain they experienced while incarcerated. The monologues moved many, including Weill-Greenberg, to tears, but they also made her wonder, “Do people only care because they’re innocent? Would this cruelty be acceptable if they were guilty?”

The question haunted her long after the conference had ended. “I wanted to show the humanity of people who had caused harm — and show that they are more than the worst mistake they ever made,” she told Truthout.

She spent three years interviewing people like Joe who had committed violent crimes as children and were then sentenced to die behind bars. She also interviewed victims of violent crimes, like Pelke, who were not seeking retribution. The result? A documentary play entitled Life, Death, Life Again: Children Sentenced to Die in Prison.

Telling the stories of people who committed brutal — and often illogical — violence “is a lot harder than telling the stories of the wrongfully convicted or the nonviolent offender,” she told Truthout. But, she added, “If we want to transform the criminal justice system, we have to humanize everyone who’s involved. The United States is the only country that sentences children to die in prison. There should be a different way to approach harm caused by young people.” She hopes that the play provokes viewers to think differently about violence and punishment. “Even if their first reaction [to reading or hearing about a violent crime] is vengeful, I hope that their second reaction is to think about the humanity of the person who caused the harm and why they did it. I hope that they can ask, ‘What is the purpose of justice?’ and understand that forgiveness is possible and that someone can change.”

Storytelling to End Sentences of Life Without Parole 

In California, advocates, including those who had been sentenced to life without parole, have created a multimedia project called A Living Chance: Storytelling to End Life Without Parole to press outgoing governor Jerry Brown to commute life-without-parole sentences.

Their efforts have had some success: On March 31, Brown commuted the sentences of 19 people in prison, including seven serving life without parole. Of the 37 commutations Brown has issued thus far, 17 were to people sentenced to life without parole.

“To put a real human face on people serving this sentence went a long way to building support and community both inside the prisons and outside prison walls,” said Pamela Fadem of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, which works with people inside the state’s two women’s prisons and is co-coordinating the Living Chance storytelling project. These stories have made a difference in pushing lawmakers to see past a person’s crime and conviction. Fadem points out that Brown “has cited in more than one commutation proclamation the accomplishments of the individual, the contributions they have made in their prison communities, and the support and recognition they have from people outside.”

This was the case for 44-year-old Barbara Chavez, who has been in prison since 1999. At age 22, Chavez, a single mother and domestic violence survivor, participated in a liquor store robbery in which a clerk was shot to death. Though Chavez was outside when her co-defendant pulled the trigger, California’s felony murder rule holds all people involved in a crime legally responsible for any resulting deaths, regardless of their role or whereabouts. Chavez was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole. Brown’s action changed her sentence to 25 years to life, enabling her to appear before the parole board and appeal for a second chance.

In his commutation, Brown quoted Chavez’s statement, “I cannot go back and change the pain and loss but I do choose to now be the best person I can be…I now consider myself an asset to society rather than the liability I once was.” He also pointed to Chavez’s participation in various self-help programs and her role as a peer educator in substance abuse and domestic violence programs. 

The commutations have given other incarcerated Californians hope that their stories illustrate that they have grown beyond the one act of grievous harm and deserve a second chance. 

Storytelling and Restorative Justice 

Storytelling also plays a central role in restorative justice approaches to those who have caused harm.

In 2011, Michael McBride learned that his 19-year-old son Conor had shot his fiancée Ann in the face. He rushed to the Tallahassee hospital where Ann’s parents, Kate and Andy Grosmaire, sat by her bedside. 

“Thank you for being here, but I might hate you by the end of the week,” McBride recalled Andy Grosmaire telling him before adding, “He never did.” Ann died five days later.

Conor, who had turned himself in immediately after shooting Ann, faced first-degree murder charges and a life sentence. But, after the Grosmaires learned about restorative justice, a process that allows all people to participate in a dialogue rather than seek the most punitive measures, the two families approached Sujatha Baliga, director of the Restorative Justice Project and a nationally recognized expert, to facilitate. Baliga was initially hesitant, but the Grosmaires insisted that both families wanted to be part of the process that would decide Conor’s fate. 

Storytelling is integral to restorative justice. It allows everyone involved to ask questions — and to talk about not only what happened, but also the impact of those actions — without fearing that their words would be used against them to seek the most retributive punishment.

Eight months later, both sets of parents, Conor, Baliga, the district attorney and Conor’s defense attorney met inside the jail. There, the Grosmaires were able to ask him about the events that led to their daughter’s death and Conor was able to answer them honestly. 

“My mind had speculated, fantasized about what had happened to my daughter because you just don’t know,” Andy Grosmaire told The Tallahassee Democrat. “When we got to the conference and we were able to ask Conor questions and ask him what happened and he told us, it was very hard to hear the details. But in a sense, it gave me peace because I no longer had to speculate.”

In court, the Grosmaires asked the prosecutor and judge not to impose a life sentence. Instead, Conor, then age 20, was sentenced to 20 years in prison plus ten additional years of probation. As part of the plea agreement, Conor also agreed to take anger management and speak to other youth about teen domestic violence. The district attorney later told The Tallahassee Democrat, “There’s no way I would have — based on these facts and circumstances — agreed to a sentence this lenient had they not asked me and sincerely expressed to me how important it was to them to allow them to heal.”

“Restorative justice is driven by storytelling — not just about the harm that’s been done, but about the paths that brought us to this moment,” Baliga reflected in an email to Truthout. “By hearing each others’ stories, we have a chance to understand the causes and conditions that gave rise to even the worst things we do to one another. Stories don’t offer excuses, but they offer a window — however cloudy — into how and even why someone did a terrible thing to us or the people we love. And our stories of how we were harmed can help people understand why they must never do it again.”