There are more than 2,000 people in prisons around the country who were convicted of murder as juveniles and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. But recent Supreme Court decisions have found these sentences unconstitutional and set in motion a process for re-evaluating these “juvenile lifers.”
To close out the first season of The FRONTLINE Dispatch, we have three stories about juvenile lifers. This first is the story of a violent crime committed by a juvenile lifer whose second chance went horribly wrong. It is an intensely personal documentary, but it carries far-reaching implications that extend into public life and into the heart of our political and correctional systems.
This piece was produced by Samantha Broun and Jay Allison. It was originally made in 2016 for the public radio website, Transom.org. Listen to that version of the story here. We are presenting an update to a version that aired later that year on This American Life.
At 15, after committing a brutal murder, Kempis Songster was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. But now he has a chance to be free, thanks to a series of recent Supreme Court rulings that found the sentences of thousands of inmates who, like Songster, committed their crimes as juveniles, to be unconstitutional. Listen Here
We <3 you Ghani, and hope to celebrate your freedom this September! There are so many behind bars who deserve a second chance at parole and commutation. Even after decades of incarceration, people are dreaming of contributing back to society and helping make things right. Support House Bill 135 in the Judiciary Committee so we can see more folks like Ghani get a second chance at parole! Read more here
Below are pictures from Ghani’s Community Resentencing which happened on Sunday July 23 in Philadelphia organized by Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration (CADBI) and pictures of us the next day, Monday July 24th outside the JV court house during Ghani’s actual appeal hearing.
Mama Patricia Vickers talking about Hope is as Weapon!
Outside JV Courthouse
Wispy on the mic and Theresa in the back
Inside the community resentencing
outside JV court night before hearing reading the community’s ideas for resentencing ghani
Outside JV Courthouse
Sharon Shoatz and Russell Shoatz
Russell Shoats III and Theresa Shoats
Hanging outside Juvinile Court during Ghani’s hearing
Outside JV Courthouse
Flyer we handed out about ghani
The Community guidelines for resentencing
Old comrades pose for a pic – Andy, etta and Theresa.
Ellen Melchiondo writes: The hearing lasted about half an hour.
Before the hearing began, the assistant to lawyer Susan Ricci of the Philadelphia Defenders Association, took the names of the people who came in support of Paulette: four members of Paulette’s family, two women from The First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia, Pastor Collins and Richard “Tut” Carter of the Church of The Overcomers, Paul Mack, Ellen Melchiondo,Mike Lyons, Yvonne Newkirk and 3 others from CADBI, FFL, PA Prison Society and The Redemption Project, Susan Beard-Nole, wife of Freddie Nole a juvenile lifer, Cecilia Velasquez, sister of Ben who is a lifer and who spent some time at Muncy. (All of the names were submitted to the court for the record and some names were read by Ricci during her presentation.) A card was signed by everyone to be given to Paulette.
Paulette’s family provided her with new clothes to wear. Paulette looked at everyone as she was seated upon entering. Susan Ricci frequently had her arm on Paulette’s back and arm.
The ADA said little, except to verify the plea deal and supported it. 35 to life. Paulette served 38 years. There was no opposition.
Susan Ricci explained Paulette’s life before the incident and the training, work and programs that Paulette completed while in prison. Paulette spoke as she struggled with tears as she expressed her remorse and wishes to help young people avoid her situation.
The judge, Katheryn Streeter Lewis, read about the crime, the GED and HS Diploma that Paulette achieved. The judge said she was aware that Paulette is the first female juvenile lifer in PA to get this far. The judge expressed her confidence in Paulette’s ability to be successful after prison.She also expressed her desire to see that children like Paulette get the support they need to avoid tragedy and that the system had failed them.
Paulette agreed with all of legal limitations that she pled to. The supporters applauded at the end and Paulette was escorted out by the sheriff, who sat by her the entire time. No hugs allowed.
Paulette will return to SCI Cambridge Springs to work out parole arrangements and within three months she will return to Philadelphia to live in a transitional home for six months before joining family.
From Cecilia Velasquez whose brother Ben is serving LWOP for decades: As Paulette begin to talk about her crime, she choked back tears as she expressed her remorse for the life she had taken. The audience felt her pain as tears rolled down many in the audience. I, Cecilia, met Paulette many years ago, over 36 years ago. At that time, she was a young teen even young for her age, yet, there was already a sense of a heavy laden burden from the sentenced she had been given.
Yesterday I met the woman she had become despite all she had experience in those 38 years, the people she had lost, the oblivious suffering and pain written on her face. Paulette had overcome her situation and circumstances to develop, grow, improve herself and help those around her.
As I sat in the audience I couldn’t help feel Peachies’ presence and the ground work with her life!Paulette is truly a testament to all of us on how to live in spite of our Circumstances. I felt honored to be part of this history making event to change the destiny of juvenile women lifers. Paulette, Thank you.
From Susan Beard-Nole whose husband Freddie has been serving JLWOP for 47 years:
It brought great sorrow to hear that Paulette lost her only child to violence. Just a reminder of the harm done to children who are separated from their mothers/fathers due to prison. Despite that sadness, Paulette continued on to help the young women who crossed her path.
From Susan Ricci, Paulette’s attorney at the Defender’s Association of Philadelphia:
I agree that Paulette’s story is a very powerful one and I too thought the court staff and the judge were moved by it. Of course it is terrible what happened to the deceased in this case, but Paulette was truly a victim in all this as well. A life sentence was so incredibly unjust. Judge Lewis has now handled a number of resentencing hearings in juvenile lifer cases but this was the first time I have heard her question out loud who is responsible for all the trauma inflicted on the children who then went on to act out in a way that ended so tragically. Paulette is such a strong woman. I am grateful to have been assigned her case so that I got the opportunity to know her. And I am very thankful you and the others were there to support her. It meant so much to her.