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Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Efren's Letter to Michigan House Judiciary Committee About House Bills 4402-4405

"In The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets, Jane Addams, the Nobel Prize winning social worker and crusader for the juvenile court, emphasized that youth above all is about possibility and that 'we may either smother the divine fire of youth or we may feed it.' We reject life without the possibility of parole sentences because they smother the divine fire of youth. They are an expression of despair that has no place in any system that aims to take seriously youth as a mitigating factor." —David S. Tanenhaus, Steven A. Drizin, "Owing to the Extreme Youth of the Accused": The Changing Legal Response to Juvenile Homicide, 92 The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (1973-) 641 (2002)

December 25, 2007

The Honorable Paul Condino
State Representative
State Capitol
P.O. Box 30014
Lansing, MI 48909-7514

Dear Representative Condino and Other Distinguished Members of the Michigan Legislature:

I write to express that I echo the call of the proponents to end the imposition of life without parole sentences on juveniles in the State of Michigan. Their opposition to this human rights violation is commensurate with 192 other nations of conscience in the civilized world. I support their appeal to this honorable legislative body for the reasons they have raised and I include additional reasons below.

For nearly 19 years I have been imprisoned for a crime I did not commit. I was convicted in 1989 of one count of murder and one count of armed robbery. I was subsequently sentenced to two terms of life without parole for the murder charge and one parolable life sentence for the armed robbery. My guidelines for the armed robbery charge was 3 to 8 years.

I was 15-years-old at the time of my arrest. Previous to this arrest I had no criminal history of any kind in adult or juvenile court and was a high school honor student. I lived in St. Joseph, Michigan in a good community, enjoyed the strong support of family, and was involved in various extracurricular activities.

I have maintained my innocence for the crime since the day of my arrest. My innocence, however, is not the subject of this letter. I did not compose this letter to re-try my case in the court of public opinion, rather I want to bring to your attention a broader issue that is adversely affecting our youth and threatening their future.

I was the first juvenile in Berrien County to be tried and sentenced under the October 1988 law which authorized prosecutors to automatically transfer juveniles to adult court and try them as adults. My refusal to admit guilt to a crime I did not commit resulted in me receiving the aforementioned sentences amid a barrage of print, radio and television media publicity. The sentences I received have been cited in various reports as one of the most egregious cases of injustice against a juvenile.

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) is comprised of 35,000 premier psychiatrists from across the nation. In a position paper released in 2005 titled "Adjudication of Youths as Adults in the Criminal Justice System," the APA called for an end to the deplorable practice of transferring juveniles to adult court for a number of reasons, one which precluded the transfer of first-time juvenile offenders to adult court.

The APA is a highly respected body of medical specialists who establish and maintain guiding principles for the nation's field of psychiatry. (Please see for more information about the APA). Their recommendations have strongly influenced the criminal justice system and legislative bodies across the country.

In recent years a large corpus of research has emerged reflecting that the teenage brain is not fully developed. The brain is actually undergoing a pruning process during the adolescent years in the executive area of the brain that controls decision-making and planning, among other critical things.

Science has conclusively proven that teenage brains are incomplete and do not fully develop until well into a person's 20s. Thus, adolescent brains are incomplete, rendering adolescents incomplete people with limited cognitive abilities by scientific and medical standards.

If an adult functions with the mentality of a person 17-years-old or younger, that person is deemed mentally unfit to stand trial in most cases. But when a person 17-years-old or younger commits a crime, courts across the state are determining that person has been transformed into an adult. There is something gravely wrong with this faulty logic.

The APA are medical professionals who have reviewed the research which has conclusively established teenage brains are not fully formed, they are undergoing significant changes during that time, and no doctor can predict future dangerousness, or amenability to treatment, of a person with a brain not fully formed.

Adolescents are not the same people in days, weeks, months, and especially years after their crimes were committed. There is no proven nexus between extinguishing the light of hope in adolescents committed to prison and the prevention of crime. Adolescents do not even have the capacity to comprehend crime deterrence and formulate long-term planning. Their sense of time alone is not within the realm of normal functioning adults.

Courts and legislatures have respected the opinions of the APA when creating and imposing laws. Psychiatrists evaluated each juvenile sentenced to life without parole prior to sentencing. I urge this honorable legislative body to adopt the current position of the APA about the transfer of juveniles to adults court based on their years of research, and join the rest of the world as they continue to embrace evolving standards of decency in civilized societies.

Implicit in the APA's position opposing the transfer of first-time offenders to adult court is desisting the practice of imposing life sentences without the possibility of parole as well; a veritable death sentence in this state. Without the transfer of juveniles to adult courts in this state, there can be no imposition of life without parole sentences on juveniles.

Michigan was the first state to abolish the imposition of the death penalty in the western hemisphere. The United States now stands alone as the only nation in the western hemisphere to impose life sentences without parole on juveniles. Let us come together to abandon another one of the world's relics of the ancient past by desisting the draconian practice of imposing life without parole sentences on juveniles as well.

We are a nation "under God" and in God, we do indeed trust. These words are prominently displayed in our capitol building, legislative chambers, and courtrooms. The protection of our children and adoption of sound public policy which focuses on the rehabilitation of children is commensurate with our belief in God. Abandoning the concepts of redemption and rehabilitation contravene our belief in God and having God as the cornerstone of our decision-making.

We can utilize this discussion as an opportunity to restore God in His rightful place in the decision making process that affects the trajectory young people’s lives may take. To not infuse this dialogue with the spirit of righteousness is tantamount to removing God from the equation all together.

It is my fervent prayer that this honorable legislature abolish the imposition of life without parole on juveniles and restore dignity to the way juveniles are treated by the criminal justice system. In so doing we can rescue a generation of youth and help realign the moral compass that has allowed us to demonize them and treat them as pariahs.


Efren Paredes, Jr.


* A copy of Efren's actual letter and supporting attachments which were included are available at:

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Prosecuting Kids as Adults: Are Laws Too Tough?

States Rethinking, Retooling Juvenile Sentencing Laws After New Research

By Sharon Cohen
Associated Press
Saturday, December 1, 2007

A generation after America decided to get tough on kids who commit crimes — sometimes locking them up for life — the tide may be turning.

States are rethinking and, in some cases, retooling juvenile sentencing laws. They’re responding to new research on the adolescent brain, and studies that indicate teens sent to adult court end up worse off than those who are not: They get in trouble more often, they do it faster and the offenses are more serious.

It’s really the trifecta of bad criminal justice policy,” says Shay Bilchik, a former Florida prosecutor who heads the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University. “People didn’t know that at the time the changes were made. Now we do, and we have to learn from it.”

Juvenile crime is down, in contrast to the turbulent 1990s when politicians vied to pass laws to get violent kids off the streets. Now, in calmer times, some champion community programs for young offenders to replace punitive measures they say went too far.

“The net was thrown too broadly,” says Howard Snyder, director of systems research at the National Center for Juvenile Justice. “When you make these general laws ... a lot of people believe they made it too easy for kids to go into the adult system and it’s not a good place to be.”

Some states are reconsidering life without parole for teens. Some are focusing on raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction, while others are exploring ways to offer kids a second chance, once they’re locked up — or even before.

“There has been a huge sea change ... it’s across the country,” says Laurie Garduque, a program director at the MacArthur Foundation, which is heavily involved in juvenile justice reform.

Prosecutor: Laws are appropriate

Not everyone, though, believes there’s reason to roll back harsher penalties adopted in the 1990s.

“The laws that were changed were appropriate and necessary,” says Minnesota prosecutor James Backstrom. “We need to focus on the protecting the public — that’s No. 1. Then we can address the needs of the juvenile offenders.”

Each year about 200,000 defendants under 18 are sent directly or transferred to the adult system, known as criminal court, according to rough estimates.

Most end up there because of state laws that automatically define them as adults, due to their age or offense. Their ranks rose in the 1990s as juvenile crime soared and 48 states made it easier to transfer kids into criminal court, according to the juvenile justice center.

These changes gave prosecutors greater latitude (they could transfer kids without a judge’s permission), lowered the age or expanded the crimes that would make it mandatory for a case to be tried there.

Some states also adopted blended sentences in which two sanctions can be imposed simultaneously; if the teen follows the terms of the juvenile sentence, the adult sentence is revoked.

Laws toughened after wave of violence

The changes were ushered in to curb the explosion in violence — the teen murder arrest rate doubled from 1987 to 1993 — and to address mounting frustrations with the juvenile justice system.

A series of horrific crimes by kids rattled the nation: A sixth-grader shot and killed a stranger. A 12-year-old stomped and beat a younger playmate. Two grade-schoolers dropped a 5-year-old 14 stories to his death.

Some academics warned that a new generation of “superpredators” would soon be committing mayhem.

It never happened. Drug trafficking declined. An improved economy produced more jobs. And the rate of juvenile violent crime arrests plummeted 46 percent from 1994 to 2005, according to federal figures.

“When crime goes down, people have an opportunity to be more reflective than crisis-oriented and ask, ‘Was this policy a good policy?”’ Bilchik says.

The MacArthur Foundation said in a report to be released this month that about half the states are involved in juvenile justice reform.

And a national poll, commissioned by MacArthur and the Center for Children’s Law and Policy and set for release at the same time, also found widespread public support for rehabilitating teens rather than locking them up.

Changes in laws

Some states have already begun to make changes.

* In Colorado, Gov. Bill Ritter recently formed a juvenile clemency board to hear cases of kids convicted as adults. The head of the panel says it’s an acknowledgment that teens are different from adults — a point made in the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision that outlawed the death penalty for crimes committed as juveniles. In 2006, the state replaced the juvenile life-without-parole sentence with the possibility of parole after 40 years.
* In California and Michigan, juvenile life without parole also is getting another look.
* In Connecticut, lawmakers recently raised the age of juveniles to 18 for most cases; the changes will be phased in by 2010. Prosecutors can still transfer felonies to adult court.
* In Illinois, a proposal to move 17-year-olds charged with misdemeanors to juvenile court passed in the state Senate and is pending in the House.
* In Wyoming, talks are under way to shed a system that routinely charges and jails juveniles as adults even for minor offenses such as underage drinking.

Not all states are easing up.

Last summer, Rhode Island passed a law to send 17-year-old offenders to adult prisons in what was intended as a cost-cutting move. The measure, however, was quickly repealed after critics pointed out the plan probably would be more expensive.

One teen's situation

Many say the two systems are dramatically different: Juvenile justice emphasizes rehabilitation, adult courts focus on punishment.

Reginald Dwayne Betts, just 16 when he was charged with carjacking in Virginia, was locked up more than eight years, mostly in adult prisons.

“Of course it makes a difference if you’re 15, 16 or 17,” he says. “You’re not prepared to deal with it physically or emotionally. You’re trying to deal with being away from home. You’re trying to deal with the stress that comes with being in prison.”

Violence was a constant. “I got used to stuff most people I see today would never have to get used to — like somebody getting their head split open,” Betts says.

Betts had problems at first but gradually retreated into books, taught himself Spanish, wrote and published poetry.

When he was released two years ago at age 24, he won a college scholarship. Now engaged and planning to write a book, he knows he’s an exception: “People don’t come out of prison and make good,” he says.

Judge deals with kids as kids

In New York, Judge Michael Corriero is aware of those odds.

He presides over a special court in the adult system — it’s called the Manhattan Youth Part and is responsible for resolving the cases of 13- to 15-year-olds accused of serious crimes.

Corriero tries to steer as many kids as possible away from criminal court, a philosophy detailed in his book, “Judging Children as Children.”

“You take a 14-year-old and give him an adult sentence ... you’re taking him out of the community at his most vulnerable time,” he says. “If you put them in an institution, what is that kid going to look like in 10 years?”

Though juvenile crime tends to evoke images of gangs and murder, violent teens are the exception.

Studies show they account for about 5 percent of all juvenile arrests. Drugs, burglary, theft and other property crimes are among the more common reasons teens are prosecuted in adult courts.

Most of these kids, though, don’t end up in adult prison, according to the Campaign for Youth Justice.

Critic: Adult prison system damaging for kids

But crossing into the adult world is damaging in itself, argues Liz Ryan, head of the group. About 7,500 juveniles are held in adult jails on any given day, she says, and that number probably reaches tens of thousands a year because of turnover.

Being in an adult jail, Ryan says, increases a kid’s risk of sexual abuse and assault. Educational opportunities are limited. And for those convicted of serious crimes, the damage can be irreparable.

“A lot of people say, ’So what? They get a slap on the wrist,”’ Ryan says. “Well, there is a consequence. ... You have a felony record that follows you the rest of your life.”

Mom worries about son

Sheila Montgomery worries about her son, Zack. He recently was released after serving 27 months for being an accomplice in the robbery of an Oregon convenience store. He had originally received a 7½-year term after falsely confessing to being the robber; he was re-sentenced after evidence revealed he wasn’t.

Montgomery says her son, now 17, will “forever be a felon. He can’t put the past behind him. It was hard for him to find work. A lot of people didn’t want to see him.”

Montgomery says she has no problem with “a little bit of jail time” for her son but believes probation and counseling would have served him better.

But prosecutors say some kids are just too dangerous to be prosecuted as juveniles and then be released by age 21.

If a criminal is likely to be free in a few years and do more harm, “then I come down on the side of risking the damage that is done by sending someone to prison,” says Gary Walker, a Michigan prosecutor.

“When they tell me placing a younger person in an adult setting is not necessarily for the betterment of the individual,” Walker says, “my answer is: ’Who thinks it is?”’

Attorney: No regrets trying teen as adult

Minnesota prosecutor Backstrom didn’t hesitate in prosecuting Matthew Niedere and Clayton Keister, then 17, as adults in the murder of Niedere’s parents. He says he had to “make a very difficult decision whether to put these young men away for their natural lives, or give them a chance.”

He weighed several factors, including their lack of criminal record and research that shows the part of the brain that regulates impulses and aggression is still developing in the 20s.

Backstrom allowed the teens to plead guilty to murder involving an armed robbery — providing for the possibility of parole in 30 years.

More than a decade ago, Backstrom had pressed Minnesota lawmakers to make it easier for prosecutors to take serious cases into adult court.

He was frustrated when he couldn’t try as an adult a 16-year-old who killed an acquaintance in a drug dispute and served less than 1½ years in juvenile detention.

“That’s not justice,” Backstrom says. “He should have gone to prison 15 or 20 years. That’s what would have happened today.”

Using both punishment, prevention

State Attorney Harry Shorstein of Jacksonville, Fla., has his own approach.

“I think I’ve created my own juvenile justice system,” he says. “The secret is not choosing punishment vs. prevention, but using both.”

In 16 years, Shorstein’s office has transferred more than 2,600 juvenile cases to adult court. Almost all those who’ve broken the law go to jail for about a year, where they live separately from adults, attend school and receive social services.

If they stay out of trouble while locked up, and for two years of probation, they don’t get a record.

“I believe crime is like gymnastics,” he says. “It really is a young person’s sport. If you incapacitate a 15- or 16-year-old for a year, you can prevent more crime than if you imprison a 22-year-old for life.”

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Meeting a Pastor by Day, Packing Away My Life by Night

by Efren Paredes, Jr.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007 I met Pastor Bill Wylie-Kellerman. He spent three hours visiting with me and our meeting went very well. I enjoyed visiting with Bill and the time went by very quickly. I don't believe there was hardly a moment of silence during our visit.

Bill and I learned a lot about each other during the visit. As I explained to Bill, many of the things I have learned about life has been through books and listening to others' stories about their lives. Having come to prison at the age of 15 it was imperative that I learned about life and experiences quickly if I wanted to survive in an adult world.

As is always the case with people I meet who wish to learn more about me and my life, who are interested in helping me combat my wrongful conviction, I invited Bill to ask me any questions or concerns he had. I never hide anything from people and am always up front with them. I have no reason to not be open and honest about any aspect of my life.

We talked about my upbringing, my family, life in prison, how I cope with the magnitude of the injustice that has robbed me of many years of freedom, what I do in my free time, various aspects of my case, among several other things. Bill also told me insightful things about his life and what lead him to become a pastor. We talked about his family, church and the social justice work he has done throughout his life.

I invited Bill to become part of The Injustice Must End (TIME) Committee which was created to help free me, generate support for my case, and educate the public about the facts surrounding my case. Bill accepted the invitation and welcomed my request.

In many ways Bill was already a TIME Committee member. He was introduced to my case by another of our committee members and friend, Elena Herrada. Elena has known Bill for many years and they have worked together on numerous projects. Bill had also been gathering support letters for me from the religious community. To date he has been successful obtaining 14 support letters from religious leaders across the state.

Bill and I took a photograph during the visit which one of my family members has added to the slide shows which appear on my web site, blog, and MySpace page. I bought a photo ticket which allows us to take two photos in the visiting room. We took a photo and I requested two copies of the same photo so that Bill could take one with him and I could keep one to share with others.

After we spent time visiting Bill read Psalm 139 from the Holy Bible. It was a chapter I was familiar with. It is also a chapter I enjoyed reading. Afterwards we read the Parable of the Sower in the Book of Matthew, a chapter I requested because of its meaning and significance to me.

Later that afternoon I returned to my housing unit and, as luck would have it, I was ordered by the unit staff to do a "practice pack-up." A practice pack-up is when a prisoner is compelled to take all his property and pack it into a duffle bag and a footlocker (if the prisoner owns one). Prisoners are allowed to own as many footlockers as they can afford as long as one is for personal property and the others are for storage of legal work only.

It is very inconvenient to do practice pack-ups. It totally disrupts the day of the person who has to do it. The person is actually packing all his belongings like he is moving to another location. It is akin to packing your entire life and existence. And, in this instance, all just so staff can see how much property you have.

During these practice pack-ups people are ordered to pack their grocery items into their duffle bag and footlocker as well. While that may not seem like a big deal, it is. It involves smashing your food down to make it more compact, and packing it into the duffle bag or footlocker with other things like your clothes, books, radio, tape player, letters, etc.

In this case I had just received my groceries from the prisoner store the previous day and it resulted in me having to smash a considerable amount of food in my property to make sure I could fit it in my duffle bag. The alternative when a person has more property than will fit in the duffle bag and footlocker(s) is to destroy the food or give it away, or to destroy other personal items or send them home.

It took me an hour to pack all my belongings as requested. Afterwards it took me over five hours to unpack it all, organize it, and put it all back where I previously had it. I had to iron my clothes again as well after having stuffed them into the duffle bag. It is never an enjoyable experience. I had a number of writings I had planned on doing that evening related to my case. Unfortunately they would have to wait for another day.

Another reason the practice pack-up was even more unpleasant was because I had just done one two weeks prior. In most instances prisoners only do practice pack-ups every six months or less frequently depending on the facility.

Practice pack-ups are usually utilized as a tool by staff to harass a prisoner. I was told I had to do it because it "appeared" I had too much property. This, despite me proving two weeks earlier I was in compliance with allowable limits and I had not received any additional property since that time.

I complied with their orders though and repeated the process as requested. It wasn't worth challenging. While I could have filed a grievance because it was obviously harassment, I chose to just cooperate and let it go. It wasn't worth the waste of energy. I had already wasted enough time and energy as it was.

This is just another example of how even a day that starts off really well in here can turn into a disaster later on. I wasn't happy with how the second part of the day turned out but, as is usually the case, I just viewed it as another test of my faith and patience, neither of which I will allow to wane no matter how many disruptful or unpleasant experiences I encounter.

As I told Bill during our visit, this experience hasn't dictated my life or shaped who I am. I wield the power to determine how each experience affects me, not vice versa. I remain committed to this reality.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Efren Recieves Accolades About Poetry

The man that read Efren's poem "Pressure Mounts" at an August poetry event in Lansing recently sent Efren a letter with feedback about his poem. The man's name is Doak Bloss. Efren responded to Doak's correspondence with a letter of his own. We thought we would share both letters with you so you can enjoy the exchange of communications. Each of Efren's writings gives us another glimpse into his world and his perpetual evolution as a person and writer. Below is the text from both letters.


October 10, 2007

Dear Efren,

In August it was my privilege to perform your intense and evocative poem, “Pressure Mounts,” at a poetry reading in Lansing. The event was a benefit for ARRO, a local organization that helps formerly incarcerated men and women rejoin their communities and resume their lives.

The intensity with which you pour your experience into the three stanzas of this poem was appealing to me as a performer from the very start—I am an occasional actor as well as a writer and facilitator for a county health department—but when I learned of your own life story and the injustice you have endured, pressure began mounting within me as well. It was extremely important to me to do justice to your work once I learned some of the details of your experience with the police and the courts. Your parents were present at the reading and I hope that they will tell you I did capture at least some measure of the earnestness and intensity of your poem.

You do a wonderful job in this poem of marshalling verbs and adjectives in a nightmarish collage that also depicts one man’s progression from the vitality and hope of youth, which is gradually eroded and sapped by the incarceration, even as the push toward anger and retribution builds within (portrayed first as a kettle and its mist, then a volcano and its lava). It was very satisfying, as a performer, to play this parallel sense of mounting tension and diminishing will—especially as it arrives in the surprising last image: not one of rage or revenge at all, but of indominitability. In the end, your poem shows how, even as the human body undergoes such an intense assault, the spirit can survive, preserve, and maintain its dignity.

I have great faith that you will one day be free again. Although I know nothing can ever fully repair the damage done to you by the penal system, I also know in my heart that you will find great power in your ability to transform your experience in a way that illuminates life and truth for others.

Thank you again for the opportunity to read your words.

Doak Bloss



Dear Doak:

My family shared your letter with me regarding my poem "Pressure Mounts," which you read at the August poetry reading sponsored by A.R.R.O. at Gone Wired Cafe in Lansing.

Thank you for your encouraging words. I always enjoy receiving feedback about my writings and hearing how others perceive them. It is rewarding to know my words retain their meaning and that I can create a window for people to peer into my experience through my writings.

I appreciate you reading my poem at the poetry event. By participating as a reader you became a voice to the voiceless. You conveyed the spirit of my words and allowed them to transcend the walls that have kept me confined over 18 years for a crime I did not commit. However, though physically I am imprisoned, my mind and spirit can never be held captive. You proved this when you delivered my words the evening of the poetry event.

My writings are very personal to me. They are infused with my essence and are a reflection of my inner-most thoughts and feelings. Prison is designed to extinguish creativity and stifle all vestiges of hope. Its intent is to totally subdue human beings and make them complacent.

Each of my writings represents a victory. They are triumphs over a system intent on destroying my will. They are evidence that I can transform my creative thoughts into the written word even in the most oppressed conditions. My writings are a testament to the indomitable spirit I reference in "Pressure Mounts." One that endures myriad difficulties but remains resilient.

I encourage you to continue supporting A.R.R.O. and its mission. They are doing very important work which is desperately needed in our communities. Their role in the community rebuilding process can be characterized as heroic. They are doing what so many others do not have the courage to do. I support their efforts unequivocally.

I personally know the value of having support for a worthy cause. My struggle for justice has been long and arduous. It has also been replete with many disappointments. In my darkest hours, however, I have been able to draw strength from the outpouring of compassion that flows from the hearts of those dedicated to advancing my cause. Without that support my campaign, or any other, could not succeed.

Attached is a letter you are welcome to share with others about the egregious injustice surrounding my wrongful conviction. It is a tool I use to circulate so I can educate people about my case and other social injustices.

Thanks again, and I wish you continued success with all your endeavors.


Efren Paredes, Jr.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Diosa Bronzera

by Efren Paredes, Jr.

I dedicate this poem to my mother, Velia, and the Latina mothers of the world.

Diosa bronzera
anointed mother of life
First guide and protector
a multitude of delights.

Nurturer of goodness
we emulate your ways
Which sustain our existence
'til our last waking day.

Vanish the cold
with the warmth of your arms
The lessons you teach us
we wear them like charms.

Your devotion a testament
why your legacy endures
Hold the world in your hands
as if it were yours.

The calm voice of reason
that rings in our ear
Your tone is melodic
the knowledge of seers.

A heart full of treasure
a luminous star
Seemingly ever-present
you watch from afar.

Your compassion so gentle
exuberant with care
Like the beauty of mariposas
that glide through the air.

Create light in the darkness
you calm all our fears
Impart us with wisdom
wipe away all our tears.

Commune with the Cihuateteo
in the Circle of Fire
Survive through the ages
never rest or retire.

Through the annals of history
you've sat on a throne
Reigned over kingdoms
had your name carved in stone.

Your portrait adorns
sacred temple halls
On ceilings and mantles
in glyphs on the walls.

You've held your fists in the air
gripping scepters and rods
Stood at La Pirámide del Sol
where men become gods.

A courageous noble warrior
a reflection of Ollin
Your memory will be honored
as a descendant of Queens.

Diosa bronzera
keep leading the way
For the gift of our lives
We thank you each day.

Copyright © 2007 by Efren Tlecoz Paredes

This poem was read at the 1st Annual Flor y Canto Poetry Contest sponsored by LASSO in Jackson, Michigan on August 7, 2007. The poem was among two of the first place winners that won that night.

Diosa bronzera: Bronze goddess. "Diosa" is goddess in Spanish and "bronzera" is bronze in French.

Cihuateteo: Nahuatl (Aztec) for "goddesses."

La Pirámide del Sol: "The Pyramid of the Sun" located in Teotihuacán, Mexico along the Avenue of the Dead, in between the Pyramid of the Moon and the Ciudadela, and in the shadow of the massive mountain Cerro Gordo. The pyramid is part of a large complex in the heart of the city.

Ollin: Nahuatl (Aztec) for "the sacred movement in continuum, which gives impulse to our world."

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Walking the Tightrope of the 20s

Risky behavior doesn't end with teen years

By Sharon Jayson
Wednesday, August 15, 2007, 1D

Shannon Rea's job as a part-time bartender in Brooklyn gives her a close-up look at the risky behavior of people in their 20s.

Some end a night of drinking with hookups. Some take rides from the slightly inebriated. Others try to drive when they shouldn't. (She sobers them up, takes their keys and finds them rides.)

"I think the early 20s are the new teenage years," says Rea, 26, a college student studying to be a history teacher. "There are no parents telling them, 'You can't do this.' It's pretty much a free-for-all."

The 20s always have been prime time for risky behavior, from binge drinking and unprotected sex to dabbling in drugs and driving too fast. But new brain research suggests young adults may have less control over these impulses: Neurological areas that regulate impulse and emotions are not fully developed until about the mid-20s, findings show.

And recent demographic trends don't help: Young people today are delaying settling down into careers and marriage, both of which tend to reduce risky behaviors, sociologists, psychologists and historians say.

"We are so obsessed about the dangers of adolescence, we have all sorts of mechanisms to protect kids from disaster, but we don't have that for young people in their 20s," says Steven Mintz of the University of Houston, who is writing a book on the history of adulthood.

American society has taken great pains to prevent adolescents from the perils of foolhardy behavior, from zero-tolerance alcohol and drug programs to graduated drivers' licenses to city curfews for youths, Mintz says.

If teens make mistakes, they often get a second chance. But in their 20s, society is less forgiving.

"It's the 20s that are risky" he says.

Statistics tell the story

Recent statistics back this up: 56% of births among women ages 20-24 were to unwed mothers, according to preliminary 2005 data from the National Center for Health Statistics; for ages 25-29, it was 29%.

Violent crimes — from homicide to rape, robbery and assault — are highest among young adults, according to data from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics and the FBI.

The 20s also is the time of heaviest drinking. One measure, the University of Michigan's 2005 Monitoring the Future study, shows that the highest percentages of those having five or more drinks in a row at least once in a two-week period were those in their 20s. Bingeing was reported by 40.4% of ages 21 and 22, 39.2% of ages 23 and 24, and 37.7% of ages 25 and 26.

When young celebrities such as Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan abuse drugs or alcohol or drive under the influence and get caught, the big question seems to be: Why?

Scott Stanley, a research professor in psychology at the University of Denver, says many major life decisions that used to be fairly settled are now "up for grabs through their 20s" — from education and career to sexual relationships and partner choices.

This "extended adolescence" increasingly is being acknowledged by those who have focused on teens. For example, in May, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy announced an expansion of its mission to include those in their 20s and 30s.

At least 35 states have taken some steps to extend foster care services to those ages 19-23; 18 has been the point for "aging out" of the foster care system.

Most states consider 18 the time when young people are legally held responsible for their actions. But Jeffrey Arnett, a research professor in psychology at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., says many young people just don't believe they're going to suffer the consequences. He calls it an "optimistic bias."

Arnett says young celebrities in particular so often have been over-indulged as children and teens that they don't have the self-discipline to play by the rules.

Britney Spears' risky behavior hasn't just affected her. Last year, the singer, now 25, was photographed driving with her infant son sitting on her lap behind the wheel rather than in a car seat.

But real social and economic factors today do add to the pressures facing young adults:

• A study of long-term wealth trends released last week by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research found the median household net worth of people in their 20s fell by nearly 30% from 2003 to 2005. The data support the notion that it is more difficult for younger people today to establish themselves financially, says study director Frank Stafford.

• Finishing college often takes longer than four years; some also stay in school longer because in an increasingly competitive job market, they seek to get a leg up with advanced degrees.

• Some experts, including Mintz, say the military draft (created in 1940 and eliminated in 1973) forced young men to mature and at the same time helped keep them away from troublesome behavior. The military used to be a pretty standard part of growing up for men in decades past, but it's a mute for fewer young people today — "it's a risky proposition these days," he says.

Adds bartender Rea: "When you're 15 or 16, you're expected to go out and experiment and break curfew and do something ridiculous. You're immature at that point. Then at 18 or 19, something is supposed to snap on in your head, and you're supposed to grow up."

The biology of the brain

Over the past several years, brain studies by researchers around the country, including at the National Institutes of Health, University of Pittsburgh, Harvard Medical School and Temple University, have found that the area that controls impulses takes longer to mature than previously thought.

Greater demands have made the 20s a difficult period, says Frank Furstenberg, Jr., a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia whose work has focused on the transition to adulthood.

"It is not well known that this age group does have these elevated problems," he says. "Adolescence has captured so much of the attention of American policymakers."

He says it's even more of a challenge for an estimated 15% to 25% who by early adulthood are "seriously off track."

They include those who aren't in school, don't have jobs or may have little prospect of finding a job due to lack of skills. Others have serious drug or alcohol problems. Some are in jail or otherwise involved in the criminal justice system.

"It can be a risky stage for rich kids because they have the money to get in trouble and for poor kids because trouble finds them in the neighborhood," says Michael Rosenfeld, a social demographer at Stanford University. "There are plenty of ways in which kids from families with the financial means avoid the long-term repercussions of youthful indiscretion."

Partners, careers stabilize

John Laub, a University of Maryland criminology professor, and Robert Sampson, a Harvard sociologist, have studied the life course of crime for about 20 years. Sampson says the peak age for many crimes has shifted older, and although juveniles are committing offenses at younger ages, the duration of criminal activity lasts longer.

By analyzing interviews with 500 men, all of them former juvenile delinquents, and follow-up interviews with 52 men, the pair also found, on average, a 35% less chance of a crime being committed during a period of marriage.

"We find that marriage 'civilizes' men — reducing crime and antisocial behavior on average by a large amount," Sampson says.

The average age at first marriage, according to the latest Census data, is 25 for women and 27 for men. Experts say singles overall are more likely than married people to take risks because they have the freedom to do what they want without having to answer to anyone.

A few years do seem to make a difference. All sorts of research suggests that by the late 20s, risky behavior drops among young adults, largely because that's when they pair up and begin to settle down with a career and a partner.

Furstenberg says social relationships tend to constrain behavior. "People stop doing things they did when they were younger."

Beth Kerber, 26, of St. Louis, believes she has definitely matured, although she says she "can't imagine" marriage right now.

"I've seen a huge amount of growth in myself from age 22 to 25," says Kerber, who just finished graduate school and is working as a hospital speech pathologist.

"When I go out now, it's completely different than when I was 21 or 22. You are much more experienced with drinking and realize it's not that great to black out or not remember the night. When you're young, it's 'Let's have fun.'"■

Thursday, August 2, 2007

The Presence of Malice

by Richard Moran
The New York Times
Thursday, August 2, 2007

LAST week, Judge Nancy Gertner of the Federal District Court in Boston awarded more than $100 million to four men whom the F.B.I. framed for the 1965 murder of Edward Deegan, a local gangster. It was compensation for the 30 years the men spent behind bars while agents withheld evidence that would have cleared them and put the real killer — a valuable F.B.I. informant, by the name of Vincent Flemmi — in prison.

Most coverage of the story described it as a bizarre exception in the history of law enforcement. Unfortunately, this kind of behavior by those whose sworn duty it is to uphold the law is all too common. In state courts, where most death sentences are handed down, it occurs regularly.

My recently completed study of the 124 exonerations of death row inmates in America from 1973 to 2007 indicated that 80, or about two-thirds, of their so-called wrongful convictions resulted not from good-faith mistakes or errors but from intentional, willful, malicious prosecutions by criminal justice personnel. (There were four cases in which a determination could not be made one way or another.)

Yet too often this behavior is not singled out and identified for what it is. When a prosecutor puts a witness on the stand whom he knows to be lying, or fails to turn over evidence favorable to the defense, or when a police officer manufactures or destroys evidence to further the likelihood of a conviction, then it is deceptive to term these conscious violations of the law — all of which I found in my research — as merely mistakes or errors.

Mistakes are good-faith errors — like taking the wrong exit off the highway, or dialing the wrong telephone number. There is no malice behind them. However, when officers of the court conspire to convict a defendant of first-degree murder and send him to death row, they are doing much more than making an innocent mistake or error. They are breaking the law.

Perhaps this explains why, even when a manifestly innocent man is about to be executed, a prosecutor can be dead set against reopening an old case. Since so many wrongful convictions result from official malicious behavior, prosecutors, policemen, witnesses or even jurors and judges could themselves face jail time for breaking the law in obtaining an unlawful conviction.

Strangely, our misunderstanding of the real cause underlying most wrongful convictions is compounded by the very people who work to uncover them. Although the term “wrongfully convicted” is technically correct, it also has the potential to be misleading. It leads to the false impression that most inmates ended up on death row because of good-faith mistakes or errors committed by an imperfect criminal justice system — not by malicious or unlawful behavior.

For this reason, we need to re-frame the argument and shift our language. If a death sentence is overturned because of malicious behavior, we should call it for what it is: an unlawful conviction, not a wrongful one.

In the interest of fairness, it is important to note that those who are exonerated are not necessarily innocent of the crimes that sent them to death row. They have simply had their death sentences set aside because of errors that led to convictions, usually involving the intentional violation of their constitutional right to a fair and impartial trial. Very seldom does the court go the next step and actually declare them innocent.

In addition, some of these unlawful convictions resulted from criminal justice officials trying to do the right thing. (A police officer, say, plants evidence on a defendant he is convinced is guilty, fearing that the defendant will escape punishment otherwise.) In cases like these, officers or prosecutors have been known to “frame a guilty man.”

The malicious or even well-intentioned manipulation of murder cases by prosecutors and the police underscores why it’s important to discard, once and for all, the nonsense that so-called wrongful convictions can be eliminated by introducing better forensic science into the courtroom.

Even if we limit death sentences to cases in which there is “conclusive scientific evidence” of guilt, as Mitt Romney, the presidential candidate and former governor of Massachusetts has proposed, we will still not eliminate the problem of wrongful convictions. The best trained and most honest forensic scientists can only examine the evidence presented to them; they cannot be expected to determine if that evidence has been planted, switched or withheld from the defense.

The cause of malicious unlawful convictions doesn’t rest solely in the imperfect workings of our criminal justice system — if it did we might be able to remedy most of it. A crucial part of the problem rests in the hearts and souls of those whose job it is to uphold the law. That’s why even the most careful strictures on death penalty cases could fail to prevent the execution of innocent people — and why we would do well to be more vigilant and specific in articulating the causes for overturning an unlawful conviction.

Richard Moran is a professor of sociology and criminology at Mount Holyoke College.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Imagine You're On Death Row...

By Leonard Pitts, Jr.
The Detroit Free Press
Saturday, July 21, 2007

You don't know what it's like and neither do I. But we can imagine.

I've always thought it must feel like being buried alive. Lungs starving, lying in blackness, pounding on the coffin lid with dirt showering down, no one hearing your cries.

Or maybe it's like locked-in syndrome, a condition where you lose muscle control — can't move a finger, turn your head, speak. Your body entombs you. You scream within, but no one hears.

Something like that, I think. Something where you're trapped, claustrophobic, unable to believe what is happening, unable to make anyone hear you. That's how it must feel to be an innocent person on death row as execution day draws close.

Tuesday was Troy Anthony Davis' scheduled execution day, though I have no idea if he is an innocent person. I do know that he was convicted of the 1989 killing of a police officer, Mark Allen MacPhail, in Savannah, Ga. And I know that he was on the scene, a Burger King parking lot, that fateful night.

But I also know that Davis has always maintained his innocence. And that no physical evidence — no gun, no fingerprint, no DNA — ever tied him to the crime. And that he was convicted on the testimony of nine key witnesses. And that seven of them have now recanted.

They lied, they say. They were scared, they were bullied and threatened, and they said what the cops wanted to hear. Of the two witnesses who have not recanted, one is a fellow named Sylvester (Red) Coles; some Witnesses claim he's the one who actually shot MacPhail when the officer tried to break up a parking lot altercation.

Monday, one day before Davis was scheduled to die, the state parole board issued a 90-day stay of execution.

You and I have no idea how that must feel, either, but we can imagine. The buried man gets a sip of air. The paralyzed man moves his toe.

And then back down into the coffin, back down into the tomb of your own skin, back in line to die.

Surely Davis' lawyers have explained to him the 1996 federal law, signed by President Bill Clinton, that is throwing roadblocks in his way. Designed to streamline capital cases, it restricts the introduction of exculpatory evidence once the state appeals process is done. But just as surely, Davis, if he is innocent, must wonder how he could have presented evidence he didn't yet have. And he must wonder, too, how there can be a time limit on truth — especially when a human life is at stake. How can you execute a man when there remain serious questions about his guilt?

That's barbarism, not justice.

What's fascinating is that, though 67% of those polled by Gallup pollsters approve of capital punishment in murder cases (and 51% say it's not imposed often enough), 64% admit it does not deter murder, and 63% believe an innocent person has probably been executed since 2001.

In other words, the system doesn't work, we "know" it doesn't work, yet we want it to continue — and, indeed, expand. What kind of madness is that? It's an intellectual disconnect, a refusal to follow logic to its logical end.

It is, of course, easier to countenance that madness, ignore that refusal, when the issue is abstract, when death row is distant, theoretical and does not involve you.

But what must it feel like when it is not abstract, when it is "you'' sitting there in the cell watching the calendar move inexorably toward the day the state will kill you for something you absolutely did not do? Is there a suspension of belief? Do you tell yourself that surely people will come to' their senses any minute now? Does the air close on you like a coffin lid? Does darkness sit on your chest like a weight?

You and I can only imagine. Some men have no need to try.

LEONARD PITTS JR. is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Write to him at

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Keys to Success: Seven Pearls for 07/07/07

by Efren 'Tlecoz' Paredes

The following are seven keys to success I employ in my daily life. I thought I would share them in hopes that they may be useful to others as well. I have found them to be very effective.

1. Aggressively pursue knowledge and work to expand our consciousness each day. Ignorance is tantamount to mental incarceration, and choosing ignorance is synonymous with insanity. We are constantly evolving. And, in order to effectuate that process so it achieves its maximum potential, it must be properly fueled. The moment we desist the process of growth and development we commence the process of deterioration.

2. Advocate the value of expression and conveying truth to those around us. It is important to be genuine and candid with people. We perform a disservice to ourselves and others, and arrest people's growth and development, when we lie to them. People may not always be fond of your openness, but they will respect and appreciate it later on. Through our rejection of truth we create illusions and falsities that are counter-productive. We also foster the same in others and perpetuate a cycle that consumes even more people.

3. If people don't support your beliefs and creativity re-evaluate what you are doing or saying. If after careful analysis you still feel strongly about things don't allow others to deter you from pursuing what you deem to be worthy. We are the masters of our destiny and we can never be afraid to forge new paths and exercise our creativity. Attempting to avoid this is akin to escaping freedom. It's also important to know that people judge us based on our convictions. The less serious we take them and more whimsical we are, the less serious people take us as individuals. It demonstrates instability.

4. People should never disrespect themselves by trying to conform their lives to the satisfaction of others. We can never please everyone and should never seek to attempt it. If we spend our lives trying to satisfy others and make them happy we will be stifling our growth process and chasing ephemeral illusions of happiness and success. In the end people will regret having lived their lives for others. No one can tell us what will bring us happiness. It is only conjecture on their part. We each are unique and only we know what is best for us, and how we want our lives to be. No one can live our lives for us. Only we can.

5. People should exude fortitude, courage, and confidence, and never acquiesce to injustice or oppression in any form. We should also never reward people for mistreating us by allowing them to exhibit offensive behaviors towards us. It is essential to combat forces designed to destroy the human spirit and incarcerate people physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually. We succumb to defeat when we refuse to challenge it. It isn't the acts themselves that destroy us, it's our acceptance of them that does.

6. We possess within each of us the power to achieve any objective in life we set out to accomplish. We assign a degree of value to all things in life and empower them through our thoughts and feelings. Our perception of each situation determines our response and how it will affect us. It is predicated on our vision, strengths, and weaknesses. Our strongest opposition to success is our refusal to believe in ourselves and boundless potential.

7. If we don't like the results we see in our lives we simply have to change how we arrived to the thoughts that precipitated the trajectory of discontent. Dissatisfaction should always bring about change. We exhibit an addiction to abuse when we accept dissatisfaction in our lives and integrate it into our being. It reflects an acceptance of failure and rejection of success. By doing so we relinquish authority over our lives and bestow it upon others.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Efren Speaks to Lansing Community College Students

On May 16, 2007 Efren spoke to a group of college students from Lansing Community College. The students' professor, a former member of the Michigan Parole Board, three other prisoners, and the warden's administrative assistant where Efren is housed, were also present. The purpose of the discussion was to address issues pertaining to the court system, life in prison, the parole process, and prison releases.

The first letter which appears below is the text from a letter of appreciation written to Efren by the warden's administrative assistant at the prison he is housed. The second letter that follows is the text from a response letter Efren wrote to the warden's administrative assistant.

The letters reflect the positive work Efren does while incarcerated and is a reflection of his continued growth and development.


DATE: May 17, 2007

TO: Paredes 203116

FROM: Ken Ryan, Administrative Assistant
G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility

SUBJECT: Letter of Appreciation

On May 16, 2007 you participated in a question and answer session with students from Lansing Community College. The purpose of this meeting was to allow the students to gain some insight on life inside prison. You took time out of your day and shared knowledge and personal information with some young adults who were strangers to you. In doing so, you gave them knowledge of not only life inside the prison, but also how it affects the individual doing the time.

I found this interaction very productive. My thoughts were also shared by the students and their instructor (former Parole Board Member Maurice Armstrong).

You are commended for sharing your time and personal information/thoughts for the purpose of helping others. Thank you.


DATE: May 17, 2007

TO: Ken Ryan, Warden's Administrative Asst.
G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility

FROM: Efren Paredes, Jr.

RE: Letter of Appreciation

I wanted to acknowledge receipt of your letter of commendation and let you know I appreciate you sending it.

I wanted to also thank you for affording me the opportunity to speak to the students. I can provide a unique perspective on life in prison because of the juvenile waiver issue, being incarcerated in adult jails and prisons at age 15, and the wrongful conviction issue I have fought long and hard to overturn for nearly two decades.

My knowledge of this experience and ability to communicate it to others is partly the reason I have been interviewed by organizations, university human rights clinics, and by professionals from across the nation who are currently working to end the imposition of juvenile life without parole sentences in recent years. I have also appeared in national reports which discuss the issue.

It is important to present people with all facets of this experience. The more they learn they better they will comprehend all the dynamics involved. This will provide them a more holistic perspective to draw from and make decisions based upon, rather than be left ill-equipped to only draw from fragments of reality. It would be irresponsible to paint a picture to society that doesn't exist.

I believe the honest and candid discussion will serve the students useful in a number of ways. There is much to be learned from each of our unique experiences and the tribulations we have endured in life. We are each reservoirs of knowledge and experiences which can contribute to the growth and development of others.

I am sending Deputy Barrett a copy of this letter since he referred me to you as a viable candidate to participate in the discussion with the students. Thanks again for the opportunity.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

'Wrong Man' Free after 19 Yrs. - & Real 'Killer' Was Star Witness

New York Post
by Austin Fenner, Jeane Macintosh and Lukas I. Alpert
May 16, 2007

May 16, 2007 -- A man who served 19 years in prison for the rape and murder of his girlfriend's children was set free yesterday after DNA evidence proved that a next-door neighbor - the star prosecution witness - was responsible for the heinous crime.

Walking out of the same New Jersey courthouse where he had been sentenced to life in prison in 1988, Byron Halsey, 46, thanked God as he embraced his family, supporters and the team of lawyers who had worked to have his conviction overturned.

"I want to thank the lord. I want to thank my lord and savior Jesus for keeping me here," he said through tears as he stood beneath the word "Jusice" inscribed in Latin on the facade of the Union County Courthouse. "I'm just thankful."

Although he was happy to be free, Halsey said he would have a hard time getting over what had happened, especially because he had narrowly avoided a death sentence at his sensational trial two decades ago.

"I'm not happy because of what was done to me. It was criminal at best," he said. "I wasn't going to let anyone take my life from me."

His mother, Eloise, hugged her son as he walked out of the courthouse.

"I did not give up on him. I knew he was innocent," she said, overwhelmed by emotion.

Halsey's first glimpse of freedom began when his attorneys - of the New York-based Innocence Project - and Union County prosecutors submitted a joint request asking that his conviction be overturned.

In the legal filing, they explained that new DNA technology allowed them to trace semen found at the scene of the vicious rape and murder to Clifton Hall, 49, who lived next door to Halsey and his girlfriend at a Plainfield, N.J. rooming house.

Hall, who testified against Halsey, was imprisoned for three savage sexual assaults in 1993 and his DNA was on file with New Jersey authorities.

"We can say with scientific certainty that Byron Halsey is innocent. Every piece of physical evidence connects Cliff Hall, not Byron Halsey, to these murders," said Innocence Project attorney Vanessa Potkin. "It has taken more than two decades, but DNA has finally revealed the truth in this case."

Ruling that the new evidence "would probably change the verdict," Superior Court Judge Stuart Peim vacated the verdict and granted Halsey a new trial.

Halsey threw his head back as tears streamed down his face.

Peim then told prosecutors they had until a July 9 hearing to decide whether they would retry Halsey or drop the charges. A spokeswoman for the Union County prosecutor would not discuss what will happen.

Peim allowed Halsey to be released on $55,000 bail - raised by church groups in Plainfield - but ordered that he wear an electronic-monitoring ankle bracelet.

In a statement, the children's mother, Margaret Urquhart, said she had always doubted Halsey was responsible for the crimes.

"I knew Byron loved Tyrone and Tina. It didn't make sense to me that he could have done this. I always had my doubts, but I didn't know what to do about them. I'm thankful that the DNA testing has identified who really did this to my children and that Byron is being released today. I want justice done in this case," she said.

The brutal rape and murder of 8-year-old Tyrone Urquhart and his 7-year-old sister Tina shocked New Jersey.

The two children's beaten and abused bodies were found in the basement of the rooming house in November 1985.

The girl was found under a shelf with her nightgown draped over her head, her underwear stuffed in her mouth and her legs spread. She had been brutally raped on a nearby blue couch, beaten and strangled.

The boy had been sexually assaulted, his face slashed with scissors and a piece of cloth hammered to his skull with long nails. Several cigarette butts were found littered around his body.

It was later determined that the nails piercing his brain caused his death.

Investigators were able to recover evidence of semen from the girl's underwear, the covering of the couch, and from an oral swab of the boy's mouth. More DNA evidence was recovered from the cigarette butts.

At the time, however, DNA technology was not sufficient to provide a match to an individual, and investigators were only able to match Halsey to the semen because he had the same blood type as the culprit.

In the immediate aftermath, investigators aggressively questioned Halsey - who told them he had left the children alone and came home to find them missing.

After hours of questioning, Halsey allegedly confessed to the killings, admitting he "sexually assaulted [Tina] in the basement on the blue couch."

But his attorneys argue the confession was coerced after a 30-hour interrogation during which Halsey - who has a sixth-grade education and suffers from severe learning disabilities - was allowed little sleep.

But influenced by the blood-type evidence, and testimony from Hall - who earlier on the night of the murders had driven Halsey to a friend's house - the jury convicted Halsey in 1988 after five days of deliberation.

The jurors reject the prosecution's plea for the death penalty, and Halsey was sentenced to consecutive life sentences, a decision that elicited jeers in the courtroom.

The judge who handled the original case, William Wertheimer, said, "It gives pause about the death penalty, doesn't it?"

It is the 201st case for the Innocence Project - which works to exonerate the wrongly convicted using DNA technology unavailable until recently - in which a conviction was overturned.

"He's got an uphill battle trying to get his life back in order. He's got his mom, his brother which is going to be a help and he's got us," said David Shephard, president of the Council for the Wrongly Convicted.

He said his group had arranged for an apartment in Newark for Halsey and would help him find a job.

Hall has been imprisoned since 1993 for three brutal sex attacks on women in Plainfield during an 11-month period in 1991 and 1992. ■

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Juvenile Injustice

The New York Times
May 11, 2007

The United States made a disastrous miscalculation when it started automatically trying youthful offenders as adults instead of handling them through the juvenile courts. Prosecutors argued that the policy would get violent predators off the streets and deter further crime. But a new federally backed study shows that juveniles who do time as adults later commit more violent crime than those who are handled through the juvenile courts.

The study, published last month in The American Journal of Preventive Medicine, was produced by the Task Force on Community Preventive Services, an independent research group with close ties to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. After an exhaustive survey of the literature, the group determined that the practice of transferring children into adult courts was counterproductive, actually creating more crime than it cured.

A related and even more disturbing study by Campaign for Youth Justice in Washington finds that the majority of the more than 200,000 children a year who are treated as adults under the law come before the courts for nonviolent offenses that could be easily and more effectively dealt with at the juvenile court level.

Examples include a 17-year-old first-time offender charged with robbery after stealing another student’s gym clothes, and another 17-year-old who violated his probation by stealing a neighbor’s bicycle. Many of these young nonviolent offenders are held in adult prisons for months or even years.

The laws also are not equally applied. Youths of color, who typically go to court with inadequate legal counsel, account for three out of every four young people admitted to adult prison.

With 40 states allowing or requiring youthful offenders to spend at least some time in adult jails, state legislators all across the country are just waking up to the problems this practice creates. Some states now have pending bills that would stop juveniles from being automatically transferred to adult courts or that would allow them to get back into the juvenile system once the adult court was found to be inappropriate for them.

Given the damage being done to young lives all over the country, the bills can’t pass soon enough.■

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Straight Talk: Duke Case Shows Justice System's Flaws

By Radley Balko
FOX News
Monday, April 23, 2007

To their great credit, the Duke lacrosse players who were exonerated of rape charges by North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper earlier this month understood that for all the hell they've gone through the past year, what happened to them isn't uncommon.

"There seem to be some flaws in the legal system that should be addressed," Colin Finnerty said, "the fact that in North Carolina there are no recordings of the grand jury, and to establish checks and balances on district attorneys."

Reade Seligmann, who had an iron-clad alibi to counter District Attorney Mike Nifong's accusation but was nonetheless dragged through the mud, added,

"I can't imagine what they do to people who do not have the resources to defend themselves."

There's probably some truth to the accusation that the media's initial interest in this case was driven by media bias and "frat boy" stereotypes. But much of the initial interest also likely was driven by the "man bites dog" nature of this story.

Everything was happening in reverse. Here you had a lower-income black woman making accusations against affluent, white men. You had conservatives and law-and-order types rallying to support the defendants, while civil rights activists and criminal justice advocates were finding common cause with the accuser.

In fact, in some way the extensive media coverage may have helped the Duke players. It brought a new level of scrutiny and transparency to this particular criminal justice outrage and kept the media glare on Nifong's every move.

The same week the Duke players were exonerated, another man was cleared of rape charges as well. James Giles was convicted in 1982 of raping a woman in Dallas County, Texas. Giles served 10 years in prison and 14 as a registered sex offender.

He lost his marriage and contact with much of his family and couldn't travel 10 miles outside his home without first obtaining permission. He was cleared by DNA evidence, with the help of the fantastic organization, the Innocence Project.

Giles isn't alone. He's the 12th man in Dallas County to be exonerated by DNA evidence. There are more than 400 others there waiting for DNA tests, and even the district attorney there believes a large percentage of them may be innocent.

"It's a new day in Dallas," said Dallas County's district attorney, Craig Watkins, after announcing Giles' release. Dallas County has a long history of tough-on-crime prosecutors and indifference to criminal justice protections that may have put hundreds of innocents in prison — or to death.

Referring to the old mentality, Watkins added, "if you sent someone to jail who was possibly innocent, it was a badge of honor."

Watkins' quest to clear the names of the innocent is aided by the fact that Dallas County coincidentally has historically preserved blood samples from cases involving violent crime. Most other jurisdictions across the country only recently began doing that.

It's likely of no coincidence that the one jurisdiction where blood samples have been preserved is also one that's finding a shocking number of convictions of innocent people.

If there's one positive that might come out of the Duke imbroglio, it's that the unusual demographics of the parties involved and alliances it spawned may mean some much-needed new scrutiny of the criminal justice system, and win welcome new advocates for reform.

Nifong is by no means the only overly aggressive prosecutor in this country. And Durham is by no means the only jurisdiction where the wrong people have been wrongly accused. As Seligmann suggested, the only real difference may have been that the Duke players had the resources to fight back. Many others don't.

Examples abound.

A 2002 audit of the crime lab in Houston, Texas, found that experts may have given "false and scientifically unsound" testimony in thousands of criminal cases. Subsequent reports showed that crime lab employees often tailored their tests to fit police theories about how a crime was committed. The city is finishing up a $5.5 million review of 2,300 cases, including death penalty cases.

In 2003, Texas Gov. Rick Perry pardoned 35 mostly black residents of Tulia, Texas, who had been prosecuted for drug crimes based on testimony from undercover police officer Tom Coleman. Coleman, once named Texas "Police Officer of the Year," was found to have manufactured evidence from whole cloth.

Just last month in Maryland, self-styled ballistics expert Joe Kopera committed suicide after it was revealed that he lied about his expertise and training. Kopera had testified in hundreds of criminal trials over 40 years, many of which may need to be reopened.

A 2005 audit found critical errors in the sate of Virginia's crime lab, considered one of the best in the country. The audit found that senior-level experts in the lab were too often persuaded by political pressure to secure convictions. The audit was ordered after the exoneration of Earl Washington Jr., a man who served 17 years on Virginia's death row.

These are merely examples from the last several years, and they're by no means comprehensive. Here's hoping that the most vocal critics of Mike Nifong and the Durham justice system that relentlessly pursued the Duke lacrosse players — many of whom don't generally speak out on criminal justice issues — will see the case as more than just an example of media bias or reverse discrimination.

It's merely one very high-profile example of the flaws and inadequacies in our criminal justice system. And it demonstrates why we need strong protections for the accused and transparency, accountability and oversight of the system that accuses them.■

Radley Balko is a senior editor with Reason magazine. He publishes the weblog,

DNA to Clear 200th Person

By Richard Willing
Monday, April 23, 2007

A former Army cook who spent nearly 25 years in prison for a rape he did not commit is scheduled today to become the 200th person exonerated by DNA evidence, underscoring the quickening pace of overturned convictions, according to the Innocence Project.

The New York-based legal group says the 100th exoneration occurred in January 2002, 13 years after the first exoneration. It took just more than five years for the number to double.

"Five years ago, people said that the number (of exonerations) was going to dry up because there just weren't many wrongful convictions," said lawyer Barry Scheck, who co-founded the Innocence Project in 1992 to help prisoners prove their innocence through DNA evidence. "But clearly, there are plenty of innocent persons still in prison. There's no way you can look at this data without believing that."

David Lazer, a Harvard University public policy professor who specializes in DNA issues, says improved testing technology and an increase in the number of lawyers who are taking on DNA cases should result in a continued increase in the number of wrongful convictions that are set aside.

Convicting an innocent person is "every prosecutor's nightmare," said Joshua Marquis, vice president of the National District Attorneys Association.

The "tiny number" of exonerations suggests that the "epidemic of bad convictions" that Scheck suggests is "fiction," said Marquis, chief prosecutor in Clatsop County, Ore. There were 1,051,000 felony convictions in state courts in 2002, up from 829,300 in 1990, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The exoneration milestone is to be reached today in Chicago, where Cook County prosecutors and Innocence Project attorneys together will petition a Chicago court to set aside Jerry Miller's 1982 conviction, said Tandra Simonton, a spokeswoman for the prosecutor's office.

Miller, 48, was convicted of raping, robbing, assaulting and kidnapping an office worker in a Near North Side parking lot in September 1981.

It is near certain the judge will grant the joint motion, Simonton said.

DNA tests performed by the Innocence Project in March showed that his genetic profile differs from the rapist's, proving that he didn't commit the crime. Miller continued to insist he was innocent even after being paroled last year.

"I really need to hear from the judge — 'your record is clear, we know you didn't do it' — before I feel truly free," Miller said in an interview. "I'm waiting for this to be finally, truly over."

Most exonerations come from cases from the 1980s and 1990s, before DNA testing was available or widely used. DNA was first used in an American criminal court case in 1987. The Innocence Project — which now has 36 affiliates at law schools and law offices across the USA — says its records show all but two of the exonerations occurred in convictions that happened before the year 2000.

Scheck said the "typical" DNA exoneration case has not changed much over the years. It often involves a sex crime allegedly committed by a black man in which the white victim is often the only witness, he said.

Miller, who is black, was identified by two parking lot attendants, who were also black. The victim, who was white, could not identify her assailant.■

DNA Should Clear Man Who Served 25 Years

By Richard Willing

Twenty-five years in Illinois prisons for a rape he didn't commit gave Jerry Miller plenty of time to think about how the criminal justice system works.

It is, he decided, a lot like "a big assembly line."

"Lots of products come off, and most of the time it's OK," says Miller, set to be formally exonerated of rape, battery, robbery and kidnapping at a court hearing in Chicago today.

"But then there's the defects, the one's that are messed up. …You got an assembly line, you're always gonna have some defects."

The Innocence Project, a New York City-based group that uses DNA to clear persons wrongly convicted, says the 48-year-old former Army cook will be the 200th person exonerated by DNA evidence since the technology was first used to clear a convict in 1989.

DNA testing hadn't yet been used in a criminal case when Miller was convicted of the September 1981 rape, robbery, assault and kidnapping of a Chicago office worker in a parking garage north of the Loop.

The woman testified that she had been assaulted by a black man, robbed and raped in the back seat of her car before being thrown into the trunk.

The victim never got a good look at her assailant. Two lot attendants, both black, identified Miller as the man who attempted to drive the car out of the lot but fled when challenged.

A few days earlier, police had briefly detained Miller for acting suspiciously near cars parked in the area.

Miller had an alibi: He was home watching the Sugar Ray Leonard-Thomas Hearns welterweight title bout. Only family members backed up his story.

The jury didn't believe them.

"It was a high-profile case, and they basically had it in their minds to convict me from the start," he says of prosecutors.

Miller appealed his conviction, lost, then began hearing about DNA in the mid-1990s. He sought help from the public defender's office and the Innocence Project. He was paroled last year before testing could be performed on semen stains from the crime scene. Even though free, he says, he insisted on DNA testing to remove the "stigma" of the conviction and to be removed from Illinois' sex-offender registry.

In March, Miller's DNA was shown not to match the genetic profile of the rapist drawn from the crime scene. He says the number of DNA exonerations will grow because there are more innocent people in prison "than you would ever think."

"You know everybody (in prison) can't be innocent, but there's a lot of guys who say they are, and they've got pretty good cases," he says. "But so many of them get discouraged, and they give up."

The second-hardest part of living with a wrongful conviction, he says, is "sticking with your guns" by continuing to insist you're innocent.

The hardest part?

"Getting people to believe you."

Since his parole last year, Miller lives with family in a town outside Chicago, cooks part-time at a restaurant and works as an attendant on a shuttle bus that serves handicapped persons.

He has focused on having his conviction vacated, both to clear his name and to be rid of the restrictions that came with his parole. These include an order that prevents Miller from interacting with children and a Global Positioning System-based monitor that allows parole officers to monitor his whereabouts. "I know I didn't do it, but it's still important for me to hear a judge say so," Miller says. "It's like there's this weight I been carrying around for 25 years, and I'm still carrying it."■

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Small Gifts, Big Treasures

by Efren Paredes, Jr.

When I receive visits from friends and family I see them in a visiting room which is located toward the front of the prison, near the prison's control center. And, each time I make the trip, I feel as if I am entering another world.

In many ways, I am.

I am always amazed when I enter the visiting room and I see children who come to visit their imprisoned family members. It is always a refreshing experience seeing them laugh, smile, talk, play, and interact with others.

Observing children interact with other children is even more enjoyable. They are always so full of energy and seemingly oblivious to where they are. They walk around and do things not realizing they are even in the confines of a prison. Seeing these children can always brighten the day of those who observe their activities and exploration of life.

Often times children who are visiting other prisoners sit near me in the visiting room. I am never surprised to see or hear them say or do funny things that make me laugh or smile. What is even more amazing about this is that I am able to share in their fun without even having to communicate with them.

Even if I wanted to communicate with the children I see on visits I couldn't. Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) visiting policy prohibits prisoners from communicating with the visitors of other prisoners, including children. Doing so can result in termination of their visit.

On one occasion, in recent months, I was on a visit when a small child who was less than two-years-old walked up to me, smiled, and said, "Hi!" I smiled at the little boy and within seconds the visiting room officer confronted me and stated, "No cross-visiting with the kid!" I hadn't even said anything to the child. I merely smiled at him.

I know the visits are very meaningful for those who the children are visiting because they are members of their family. They are afforded the opportunity to spend time together, bond with each other, and be a part of each other's lives, which is a positive thing for all involved. It helps establish and maintain strong family ties.

While seeing children during visits is a special time, it is also a disappointing time because I am not allowed to visit my only nephew, Landon, who is now two-years-old. Landon was born on Christmas Day 2005. Since Landon's birth I have only been able to see photographs of him and speak to him on the phone. (A photo of Landon appears above.)

Due to Landon's age he doesn't understand the things I tell him, and I certainly don't understand what he tells me. He's just learning how to put words together and construct sentences. Other than the photos, talking to him on the phone, and hearing the stories about him from friends and family, I have never seen Landon in person.

MDOC policy doesn't consider Landon to be my immediate family, so I can not see him until he turns 18-years-old. I can see other visitors' children whom I don't even know each week in the visiting room, and they can even sit right next to me, or in close proximity to me in the visiting room, but my own nephew can't visit.

According to MDOC policy nephews are considered to be friends. So are aunts, uncles, and cousins according to their rules. These rules went into effect in 1995 when the MDOC made sweeping revisions to its visiting policies across the state.

From 1995 to 2000 I was precluded from visiting with my youngest brother Hans. In 1995, when the MDOC changed its visiting policies, even immediate family members under age 18 were disallowed from visiting prisoners in the MDOC. According to their policy I could not visit Hans until he turned 18-years-old.

In 2000, after Hans turned 18, and after a long court battle between prisoners and the state prison system, immediate family of any age could again visit prisoners (accompanied with their parent or guardian, of course). If not for a federal judge who truly cared about the emotional and psychological damage this ongoing separation was causing, the cruel practice of keeping siblings totally separated would have never desisted.

The judge's order and opinion came too late for Hans and me though. Hans had already turned 18 and we had been denied the opportunity to see each other on visits with the rest of the family for five long years. We can never have that restored.

The last time I held a child in my arms was in 1990 when I last saw my cousin Arielle who was born that year. Since that time I have not seen a child or held a child from my family besides seeing my youngest brother Hans from 1989 until 1995 when the visiting policy changed. Hans was between the ages of 7 and 13 during that time.

Seeing children on visits makes a prisoner really appreciate the gift of life. It is a reminder to them about some of the small things that mean so much in free society. Prisoners see other adults every day inside the prison. So, seeing other adults on visits isn't unordinary.

However, prisoners never see children inside a prison except on TV, in photos they receive in the mail, or in periodicals. The only time they will ever see a child is during a visit. Prisoners who do not receive visits will never see children at all until they are released from prison.

For now it doesn't appear I will get to share any of Landon's childhood until I am released. I just hope that day comes in the near future or I will miss sharing his childhood altogether. If I am not released within the next couple of years I could be forced to wait to see Landon until he becomes an adult according to Michigan law — in 16 more years.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Eighteen Years of Wrongful Incarceration — Day One

by Efren Paredes, Jr.

"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn't serve the world. There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others." —Nelson Mandela, 1994 Inaugural Speech

March 15, 2007 marked the beginning of my 18th year of wrongful imprisonment for a crime I did not commit. And while it is a sad day for my family, supporters, and me, it is also a good day in other ways.

One of the things I have chosen to do with my time while in prison is make the most of each moment. Rather than dwell on all the evils that have been perpetrated against me for no reason at all, I have channeled that energy into my continued growth and development, and helping others.

I have transformed the dark, deplorable milieu I have found myself in for nearly two decades into a radiant chamber of wisdom, and fostered the same in others. I have learned very valuable lessons about life and refused to succumb to the injustice that has held me captive. While I am physically captive, my mind and spirit will always be free by the grace of God.

The wisdom I have gained through this experience is enormous and expansive. It is this wisdom, my faith in God, and continued support of my family, friends, and individuals who have selflessly supported my campaign for justice, that have kept me moving forward and given me the strength to continue warding off the relentless effort to extinguish the light of hope that burns within me.

These individuals have been there for me in my darkest hours and offered their love and support throughout this very difficult experience. Without them the support that has been generated, and the progress that has been accomplished, could not have taken place. They are each my heroes and I am deeply appreciative of all that they do on my behalf.

So, rather than shine light on the unfortunate 18 years of my wrongful imprisonment, I want to take this opportunity to shine light on the people working to free me and salute them for their efforts that do not go unnoticed. Like every other situation I have transformed from darkness into light, I thought it was fitting to do it in this instance as well.

Our concerted efforts are going to produce justice. I am confident of this. And, with each passing day it becomes even more evident. But it also grows increasingly evident that the progress we witness isn't borne on its own. We reap what we sow, and the size of the harvest will be dependent on the labor that is exerted. Together we can make the harvest bountiful.

Please keep gathering signatures for the online petition for new trial available at and please continue generating much needed support. We currently have nearly 160 electronic signatures for the petition and over 300 handwritten signatures. We are nearly halfway to our goal of 1,000 signatures.

Other recent positive developments that have manifested in recent weeks I would like to share with you are as follows:

1. An article was published in Workers World, a New York-based newspaper, about Elena Herrada's support of my campaign for justice. The writing called upon people to sign my online petition for new trial/commutation and was a great source of public relations for us. The article is available online at

2. Elena Herrada, Sherry Meyer, and another committee member, attended the 14th annual Dia de la Mujer (Day of the Woman) Conference held on February 24, 2007 at the Kellogg Hotel & Convention Center at Michigan State University. While at the conference they gathered over 200 signatures for my petition for new trial and commutation request. Elena spoke on stage before a large room full of people about our campaign during one of the lunch periods and made a strong plea urging people to get involved and support our cause.

3. Since the above event transpired Elena Herrada has gathered an additional 100 petition signatures. Elena continues to work hard on this campaign and plans to visit me again on Saturday, March 24 to discuss how to proceed next with the petition-drive. We will also discuss other strategies to increase our public relations work.

4. A very prominent nun, Sister Julie Vieira, has signed my petition for new trial/commutation and published a post on her blog about our petition campaign. Sister Vieira's blog, A Nun's Life, has gained international popularity on the Internet. A member of the religious order of Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, works at Loyola Press in Chicago and blogs daily about religious life, politics, and other issues. Her blog is very popular and was recently featured in The Detroit Free Press because of all the wonderful things she has done. The post about me can be viewed on her blog at

5. A web site named Noahide Reflections has also posted an article on its site recently urging people to support my campaign for justice and sign our petition for new trial/commutation. Additionally, they have included a link to our web site. The post about me on the Noahide Reflections web site can be viewed at

My blog continues to be updated weekly at, there have been updates to my web site at, and there is now a Picasa photo album that is available for viewing that features photos of me before my arrest, during court proceedings, and recent photos taken during my incarceration. The latter can be viewed at Please also visit my MySpace page at to see all the recent changes and additions of friends that have been made there as well.

Thank you for your continued support, and thank you for your strength and dedication to justice. I am a stronger person because of it.

With Warm Regards,


Thursday, March 8, 2007

Dallas DA to Review Decades of Convictions

NPR Morning Edition
Legal Affairs
by Wade Goodwyn
February 24, 2007

February 23, 2007 — Dallas' new district attorney, Craig Watkins, says he will open his files to the Innocence Project and work with the group to examine hundreds of cases over the past 30 years. The goal is to see whether DNA tests might reveal wrongful convictions.

The move reflects the magnitude of the change that has occurred in the Dallas DA's office over the last six weeks. Watkins was elected the first black district attorney in Texas.

"It's a whole different world in the Dallas criminal justice system," says defense attorney Gary Udashen. "It is a world where if a client of ours is innocent, we feel like there's openness in the District Attorney's office to hear what we have say, to look at what we have to show them, where we don't anticipate resistance every step of the way."

Udashen's firm alone has had seven Dallas clients who were convicted, sent to prison, exhausted their appeals and then ultimately — with the pro bono help of Udashen and his colleagues — were found to be innocent.

Udashen says Dallas used to be like many other cities in Texas when it came to the DA's office. If it got a conviction, it defended that conviction to the bitter end, even if strong scientific evidence was later uncovered that the convicted was wrongly convicted.

This occurs most often in cases that are brought to trial built solely on the testimony of a single eyewitness, often the victim. But Udashen says that Watkins has decided that defending wrongful convictions is not going to be part of the job.

"Well, he has taken a completely different approach to questions of innocence... where he is going to cooperate with these innocence projects reviews of these cases, give them the information they need," he says. "And that active involvement in proving people innocent is something I've never seen a district attorney do before."

Watkins puts it this way: "I am cut from a different cloth."

At 39, he says he's seen both sides of the criminal justice system in Dallas, good and the bad. Dallas has already released 12 men convicted of sexual assault, and that was with the previous DA fighting it every step of the way. That's more than any other county in the nation, and more than all but two states.

"And when you tested 36 people and 12 of them came up to be not guilty as a result of DNA testing, then, yes, a red flag is raised," Watkins says. "So we need to look at what we've been doing in the past and try to right those wrongs."

So Watkins is opening his files to the Texas Innocence Project. North Texas law students supervised by seven veteran former prosecutors and criminal defense lawyers will begin deciding which cases merit further investigation.

"In a state that is a national hotspot, Dallas is the hottest of the hotspots in state right now," says Jeff Blackburn, the Innocence Project's Texas director. "What'd happened in Dallas is that a lot of samples, unlike other any other parts of the state, were preserved, and they're still there."

In a twist of irony, Dallas has long outsourced its lab work. And instead of destroying evidence post-conviction like many law enforcement labs, the private labs preserved all the evidence. Blackburn says as a result, Dallas has a treasure trove of potentially exonerating DNA evidence.

"It would be safe to say that right now Dallas is on the edge of opening up in a very revealing way what the system in Texas is really all about," Blackburn says.■