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I Didn’t Kill Anyone, But I’m Sentenced to Die in Prison

Under “accountability laws,” people are convicted of murder just because they were present during the crime.

Under “accountability laws,” people are convicted of murder just because they were present during the crime.

I wake up each morning with the burden of having to serve another day of a life sentence in prison. This debt to society is not measured by years, but by breaths. All life sentences in Illinois are without the possibility of parole (LWOP). So, my debt will be paid, in full, upon my last breath.

Just as fractions can be converted into decimals and decimals into fractions, there must be a mathematical formula to convert breaths into years and give me a sense of what percentage of my life is leveraged against me. Perhaps I can get there by counting the number of breaths I take in a single day, multiply that number by 365 and divide the result by the life expectancy of an incarcerated Latino male. It’s important to adjust for life-diminishing factors, such as being male, a minority and incarcerated. It’s estimated that each year in prison diminishes a person’s life expectancy by two years.

I can’t help but feel upended in this equation. I learned the meaning of the word “upended” during the housing market collapse of 2008. Homeowners that owed more on their mortgage than the actual value of their home were said to be upended. Many people lost their homes.

Considering that I was sentenced to two life terms and an additional 30 years, I fear I may be upended and my life already lost. Do I really owe a bigger debt to society than the actual value of my life? Surely a human life, my life, our lives, have some value.

I recall how homeowners were criticized for getting themselves into these “bad deals” — as if it was really their fault that banks and the housing industry colluded to artificially inflate the housing market while simultaneously dropping subprime loans on the laps of people who could ill afford them.

People like myself who are serving lengthy prison sentences are thought to be reaping our “just desserts.” We got ourselves into this mess. I certainly must shoulder much of the burden. At a young age, I joined a street gang and embarked on a life of crime. I was convicted of a horrific crime; the death of two rival gang members, ages 20 and 21. I was 19 at the time. I was young, but certainly old enough to understand that the destruction of human life is permanent.

Someone once asked me, “If you took a human life, why should society give you a second chance?” Initially, I struggled to come up with a good answer. It’s not that there are no good and genuine arguments in response to this question. Every case is different and should be afforded individual consideration. But when it comes to my own case, this good question can be appropriately answered with another good question: “Okay, you tell me, if I didn’t kill anyone, why should I spend the rest of my life in prison?”

Illinois has a criminal liability law on the books which allows for people to be charged and convicted for the conduct of others. This law is known as the law of accountability. Those of us familiar with it know what it really is — guilty by association. It is routinely used by law enforcement officials as a dragnet to round-up as many people as possible into the criminal legal system and disappear them into prison.

According to the law, criminal accountability should only apply when either before or during the commission of an offense, and with the intent to promote or facilitate such commission, a person solicits, aids, abets, agrees or attempts to aid such other person in the planning or commission of the offense. In theory, if person ‘A’ hands person ‘B’ a handgun and instructs person ‘B’ to shoot person ‘C’, then persons ‘A’ and ‘B’ should be equally culpable for the offense.

In practice, however, people who were merely present at the scene of the crime, but not involved, and people who became an accessory after the fact by providing a means of escape, are routinely held accountable for conduct not their own, including murder. In an article featured in the Illinois Bar Journal, Cook County Public Defender Brendan Max articulated it this way, “[A]ccountability allows a defendant to be prosecuted for murder without having fired a shot, for robbery without having taken any property, or for narcotics possession without having touched drugs.”

The prevailing thought among law enforcement is that if this person is not the trigger-man today, he might be the-trigger man tomorrow or the next day. With this line of reasoning, police and prosecutors blur the line between individual and group conduct. An especially egregious feature of the accountability statute is that it allows a person to be held accountable for the conduct of another even if: A) the other person was acquitted of the underlying charge; B) the other person was only found guilty of a lesser included offense; or C) the other person is never even identified, charged or prosecuted.

This is not just a theoretical exercise. There are people in prison today serving life sentences for first-degree murders they did not commit, while the actual “trigger-man” was only found guilty of second-degree murder, was acquitted or was never charged and prosecuted. I, and many others like me, are serving life and de facto life sentences for conduct not our own. If we never hurt anyone, why should we spend the rest of our life in prison?

We’re not asking to be bailed out the way the government bailed out the big banks during the 2008 recession; addressing our situation won’t take a lot of money. We are simply asking for sensible and equitable reform. Particularly, we are calling for the accountability statute to be amended to prevent overzealous police and prosecutors from sending innocent people to prison.

Furthermore, we are calling for the implementation of a comprehensive and retroactive parole system in Illinois to address the serious needs of those who have been wrongfully convicted, over-charged and over-sentenced. Those of us who have been unjustly incarcerated for decades hereby declare that our lives matter! Our value as human beings should not be quantified by breaths, counting down to our deaths behind bars. Instead, we should be recognized as people worthy of hope and deserving of a second chance.

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