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Thursday, December 25, 2008

Holiday Message Calling for Healing and Reconciliation from Efren Paredes, Jr.

I want to wish each of you a Happy Holiday Season. I hope you are able to spend time with family and friends and reflect on the gifts you have been blessed to receive and enjoy in your lives throughout the year.

We each have much to be grateful for. Despite the struggles we endure in the vicissitudes of life we continue to persevere and make the best of each moment. We do not allow life to consume us with the weight of its difficulties.

This is a time to think about the birth of Jesus and the lessons he shared with the world. It is a time for healing and growth, and an opportunity to foster understanding and find common ground within the community. In so doing we can eradicate the energies that can erode the human spirit.

The question, "What would Jesus do?" is one question we should frequently ask ourselves as we make decisions in life. If we profess to be followers of Jesus we have a responsibility to pattern our lives after righteous principles.

Adhering to the wisdom of Jesus is not a matter of convenience or personal preference; it is an obligation we must fulfill if we have chosen to be faithful to God.

We are reminded throughout the scripture that withholding forgiveness and promoting divisiveness contravenes the will of God and the lessons taught by Jesus. We only hurt ourselves and deprive ourselves of blessings when we choose to rival the laws designed to keep us perpetually evolving.

We cannot succumb to destructive thoughts or immerse ourselves in a cesspool of negativity. There is no place in our lives for hatred and evil. They are the antithesis of life and can only serve to accelerate the demise of humanity.

It is my belief that healing can occur in the community I departed from 20 years ago and in the lives of those who have been deeply affected by the tragic death and loss of one of the community's finest members, Rick Tetzlaff.

I ask that everyone keep Rick's family and my family in your prayers. Ask God to bless us all with healing and ask Him to help our families seek reconciliation. Our families have suffered far too long and I am calling on rational minds to help us all begin the healing process.

As long as we remain polarized others will continue to inject their personal agendas into our lives and seek to keep us divided. Prosecutors and police involved in my case seeking to promote and protect their careers and reputations have no role in how our families move forward with our lives.

They have not suffered the anguish we have and they espouse callous views, reject the notion of redemption, and condemn forgiveness. These are not principles that any civilized and God-fearing society should celebrate.

My continued imprisonment will not erase anyone's pain, nor will it allow our families to heal. It will only exacerbate the pain and serve as a constant reminder that I am imprisoned while people all over the globe are working vigorously to restore my freedom. I no more wish for my family and supporters to endure this process as I do for Rick's family to be constantly reminded about our efforts.

At my public hearing Rick's widow, Tina, expressed anger that she had to be at the hearing. I was saddened she and other members of their family had to be there as well. I was disappointed their family had to endure nine hours of reliving the painful experience of 20 years all over again because the Asst. Attorney General sought to drag the process out.

It is my hope we do not have to endure another such experience. If I am not blessed with my release, however, the campaign to restore my freedom will only intensify exponentially and compel us all to continue subjecting ourselves to this ongoing process.

I may never convince Rick's family about all the actual facts in my case, but I will never admit to doing something I did not do. I have paid dearly with my life for my refusal to admit guilt to the crime I was falsely accused of. I have spent year after year in prison since the age of 15. I am now 35-years-old and will soon become age 36 in just a few months.

If I were guilty I would have sought to negotiate a guilty plea or reduced sentence long ago like the guilty parties did. I would have also never protected the criminals who have admitted their roles in the crime.

Michael Sepic, the Berrien County Chief Asst. Prosecutor, attempted to diminish their guilt and characterize their actions as "minimal roles." He also continues to offer them cover. Sepic's views on this insult our sensibilities.

If the stories of the youths who pleaded guilty to charges related to this crime were true my silence about their involvement would have shielded them from life imprisonment. Any 15-year-old who is arrested and facing their entire life in prison would have implicated everyone involved.

This would have certainly occurred if the other individuals were placing all the blame on a 15-year-old so they could go free or receive reduced sentences. I had absolutely no reason to protect my criminal accusers from blame then, and I have no reason to protect them now.

My family and I want the healing to begin and for representatives of the religious community to help us facilitate the process. I extend this invitation on behalf of my family and self and pray that this overture is received in the spirit it is offered.

I ask everyone, "What would Jesus do?" Would he want our families to go on enduring a painful life year or after, or would he want healing and reconciliation? I do not believe he would want our families to continue enduring the pain or divisiveness that abounds. He would want better.

And, together, we can do better by ushering in a new year and the dawn of a new era of healing.



Sunday, December 21, 2008

Commutation Hearing for Efren Paredes, Jr.

by Terry Kelly
The Michigan Citizen

Justice has seldom found a welcome in Berrien County. No more so than with the case of Efren Paredes.

Arrested at age 15, sentenced to three life sentences at 16 and still in prison at 35, Paredes has declared his innocence from the beginning, struggled to clear his name in a case with no direct evidence and no eyewitnesses.

With the help of countless supporters he is seeking clemency from the governor, a process that began before the parole board at a hearing Dec. 4 in Jackson. It was an historic hearing, drawing the largest number of supporters ever, over 200, and ran an unprecedented nine hours.

“This case screams wrongful conviction,” Paul Ciolino said in his testimony before the parole board. “The system is broken when it comes to this case.”

Ciolino, a private investigator hired by the Paredes family and supporters, is a co-founder of the Northwestern Innocence Project in Chicago and part of a legal and investigative team that has helped release over 200 innocent prisoners across the country, with direct involvement in five cases of proving wrongful conviction.

In Paredes’ case, Richard Tetzlaff, manager of Roger’s Vineland Grocery, was found shot to death execution-style in the store’s back room in 1989. On the night he was murdered and the store was robbed, Tetzlaff had earlier driven employee Paredes home from work.

Police and prosecutors who showed up in force for last week’s hearing had accused Paredes almost immediately of the crime despite the youth’s stellar record in school and out.

While three other Lakeshore High School youth admitted involvement in the store robbery, ranging from owning the gun used, to the car that was driven, only Paredes maintained innocence and denied participation. The others testified against him in exchange for reduced sentences.

Ciolino said that as in most cases of wrongful conviction the police and prosecutor focused on a single suspect early on and ignored other evidence and leads.

Paredes was the main suspect eight hours after the thing happened, Ciolino told the parole board, when there were five or six suspects.

Ciolino listed for the board the contradictory evidence, tainted evidence, missing evidence and bungling by the police.

At the hearing, police and prosecutors, attempting to rekindle much of the sensationalism of the 1989 trial, testified why in their mind Paredes was guilty and should not be returned to society.

Berrien County Chief Assistant Prosecutor Mike Sepic, who tried Paredes’ case, told the parole board that lyrics from the NWA rap song “Eight Ball Posse,” served as motivation for the police focus. Finding every word of the rap written out in Paredes’ high school locker led law enforcement to believe they knew Paredes “state of mind”— for the police, Paredes was a gang leader.

Prosecuting Attorney Arthur J. Cotter read into the record every word of the song, expletives and “n”-words.

Ciolino reminded the board that Paredes had never been involved with a gang, as a student, or even as a young prisoner. He also took issue with the police effort to say the rap song was a “window into his mind.”

A person’s conduct and personal history is the best indicator of behavior, Ciolino told the board.

Scott Elliott, a longtime prison reform activist, who has spent over a decade trying to clear Paredes and who testified at the historic hearing, told the Michigan Citizen later that the show of force by county law enforcement was an indication of the weakness of their case.

“If reciting that rap lyric was the best that Cotter could come up with, it seems pretty pathetic. From the beginning they fabricated their case against Efren almost totally out of whole cloth. That was apparent at the hearing.”

Parole Board members questioned Paredes about his trial and prison record. His answers were straightforward and persuasive.

Assistant Attorney General Charles Schettler was openly belligerent with Paredes, who kept his composure throughout the grilling as he detailed the flaws in the case against him.

Chair of the Parole Board, Barbara Sampson, warned Paredes at the beginning that in the view of the board he “was legally guilty” that he had been found so by a jury and a number of appeals had sustained the jury verdict.

Supporter after supporter testified to Paredes accomplishments. He has become a Braille translator and if released will establish his own business doing that work. Both the president of the Michigan Braille Association and his immediate supervisor testified to his superior work record, vision, knowledge and contributions.

Paredes would live in Battle Creek and not return to Berrien County, if released.

The members of the parole board who heard testimony Thursday will make a recommendation to the entire board which will then make a recommendation to Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who has the ultimate decision.

Sampson repeatedly emphasized that the parole board would make its recommendation on Paredes commutation to the governor based solely on his preparedness for release.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Juveniles Incarcerated for Natural Life Within Adult Prisons: Public Opinion in Michigan

Michigan is one of 19 states that allow children of any age to be tried and punished as adults. Trying youth as adults opened the door to imposing sentences of life without the possibility of parole, particularly in Michigan and 26 other states that have mandatory sentencing.

More than 300 youths have been sentenced to life without parole (LWOP) in Michigan and are serving these sentences in adult facilities. Michigan ranks third in the number of youth sentenced to LWOP and is second only to Louisiana in the rate of juveniles age 14-18 serving sentences of LWOP.

To determine public opinion on the issue, questions related to the topic were included in an annual statewide survey of those 18 years or older. The survey, administered by a public university, was conducted during the spring and summer of 2005.

We found that only 5 percent of residents supported Michigan’s current law regarding juveniles serving life without parole in adult facilities. The majority believed “blended” sentences that included both juvenile and adult sanctions were more acceptable. Moreover, Michigan citizens were strongly opposed to juveniles 16 and younger being housed with adults in correctional facilities and believed that juveniles were strong candidates for rehabilitation.

Michigan residents are unequivocal in their belief that youths should be held accountable for their violent crimes, but that it should be in a manner that recognizes the physiologic, psychological and emotional capabilities of the youths, understanding that these capabilities differ from that of adults. These findings support alternative sentencing arrangements and changes to Michigan’s current policies and legislation.

The above abstract is from the study conducted by Wayne State University School of Social Work. Click here to view the entire study and press release.