by Necalli Ollin
(This is the first in a series of posts analyzing the prosecutor's arguments in recent court hearings regarding the case of Efrén Paredes, Jr.)
Friday, January 15, 2021, oral arguments were held in the Berrien County Trial Court in the case of Efrén Paredes, Jr.
Efrén is a 47-year-old Latino man arrested at age 15 in Berrien County, Michigan, for the 1989 homicide and robbery of a grocery store manager. He was later convicted by a jury and sentenced to life without parole. Minors serving the extreme sentence are commonly referred to as "juvenile lifers."
In 2012 the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling in the case of Miller v. Alabama banning mandatory life-without-parole sentences for children. The Court also ordered the resentencing of 2,500 people impacted by the ruling nationwide. In Michigan Picture: Keith Negley for The Washington Post 367 people had to be resentenced.
Michigan trial courts now have the option of imposing a term-of-year sentence ranging between a 25-40 year minimum or a life-without-parole sentence on juvenile offenders charged with first-degree murder. Trial courts previously could only impose a life-without-parole sentence for the charge. The U.S. Supreme Court gave trial courts the option to choose which sentence to impose.
According to the U.S. Supreme Court, however, only juvenile offenders who are "irreparably corrupt" and forever incapable of change and rehabilitation can receive a life-without-parole sentence. The high court also added that sentencing juveniles to life without parole must become a "rare" and "uncommon" practice only appropriate in "exceptional circumstances."
Of the 200+ juvenile lifers who have been resentenced statewide 93% of them have received a term-of-year sentence. The vast majority have received sentences of time served or an average 30-year minimum sentence. None of the juvenile lifers who have been released have reoffended and they have a zero percent recidivism rate.
Nearly nine years after the U.S. Court decision, however, 150 Michigan juvenile lifers still await a review of their case for consideration of a new sentence, including Efrén.
The primary reason for the sentencing delays in these cases is that prosecutors across the state insisted on ignoring the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling and pursued life-without-parole sentences against these individuals again. Doing so required counties to conduct costly mitigation hearings for each defendant.
There has been no concern for the costs of each hearing by prosecutors, however, because taxpayers are being made to pay for attorneys, expert witnesses, and related court costs in nearly each case.
THE REHABILITATION FACTOR
It is important to examine the issue of rehabilitation in Efrén's case closely because it is the singular most important factor a trial court judge must consider when determining whether a juvenile offender is a candidate to receive a life-without-parole or term-of-year sentence.
During oral arguments held in Efrén's case on January 15, 2021, retired Berrien County prosecutor Michael Sepic presented a convoluted claim about rehabilitation. Early on he stated that there was "no way to determine" if Efrén had been rehabilitated from what caused him to commit the crime he was convicted of because he asserts his constitutional right to maintain his innocence.
Sepic later stated that Efrén's accomplishments during incarceration "bode well for him." Inherent in this statement is an acknowledgement that Efrén has the capacity to learn, grow, and change.
However, blinded by his rage to punish, Sepic contradicted himself only minutes later by making the patently false statement to the judge that there is "absolutely no [evidence of] rehabilitation" during Efrén's incarceration.
In a recent published Michigan Court of Appeals (MCOA) ruling decided January 21, 2021, the Court stated that the trial court abused its discretion when upholding the life-without-parole sentence of a juvenile lifer after conducting his mitigation hearing.
According to the MCOA, the trial court "fail[ed] to consider whether the defendant 'was and would remain wholly incapable of rehabilitation for THE REMAINDER OF HIS LIFE[.]'" (emphasis added) (quoting People v. Garay, 320 Mich. App. 29, 49 (2017)). (People v. Bennett, 2021 Mich. App. LEXIS 472, *9).
The MCOA added, "'Irreparable corruption,' [i.e., forever having no capacity for change] is the ONLY ground [the U.S. Supreme Court] specifically identified for imposing a life-without-parole sentence [for a juvenile offender]. See Miller [v. Alabama], 567 U.S. at 479." (emphasis added) (People v. Bennett, at *10)
Sepic's claims about Efrén's capacity for change and rehabilitation collapse in light of the recent MCOA ruling which clearly defined rehabilitation when applied to juvenile lifer cases.
The MCOA stated, "'rehabilitation' involves the successful completion of vocational, education, or counseling programs designed to enable a prisoner to lead a useful life, free of crime, when released." (People v. Bennett, at *19).
When applied to Efrén he has fulfilled every facet of this definition. He has not only successfully completed "vocational, education, OR counseling programs," he has completed them all a multiplicity of times.
According to Bureau of Justice Statistics 95% of offenders plead guilty to crimes in exchange for reduced charges and more lenient sentences. All plea agreements are negotiated through prosecutors' offices, including violent crimes such as homicide, sex offenses, etc.
Sepic made the brazenly dishonest argument that Efrén hasn't demonstrated evidence of change and rehabilitation, but he never made that same argument in the thousands of other cases he rushed through the criminal justice system in the interest of saving time and money during his checkered time in office.
The vast majority of defendants Sepic has negotiated plea agreements with over the years never produced evidence of rehabilitation before he negotiated reduced charges with them, but he facilitated their ability to be sentenced anyway. Most defendants were adults at the time they committed their crimes.
Plea agreements are negotiated between the time of a person's arrest and when they are sentenced when most of them are in jail. In jail there are no rehabilitative programs available and generally people are sentenced within months of their arrest.
Sepic also argued that Efrén exercising his constitutional right to maintain his innocence for nearly 32 years is a reason he has not been rehabilitated. During the court hearing he attacked Efrén for invoking his constitutional right to not admit guilt by characterizing him using degrading language.
According to the Michigan Supreme Court, "[A] court cannot base its sentence EVEN IN PART on defendant's refusal to admit guilt." (emphasis added) (People v. Hatchett, 477 Mich. 1061 (2009); People v. Jackson, 474 Mich. 996 (2006).
The Michigan Supreme Court has also stated, "It is a violation of due process to punish a person for asserting a protected statutory or constitutional right." (People v. Ryan, 451 Mich. 30, 35 (1996)).
During Efrén's January 15, 2021, court hearing Sepic asked the judge to dismiss testimony Efrén previously provided in court about encountering difficulty growing up Brown in America, and having been called epithets during his childhood because of his Mexican-American heritage.
Sepic claimed that the experiences never occurred without presenting a single witness or shred of evidence to refute Efrén's testimony. In a brief he submitted to the court on December 22, 2021, Sepic stated even if Efrén did experience "the racial stuff that was going on" it didn't "interfere with his brain development and maturity."
Rather than condemn the racist acts, Sepic chose to condemn Efrén instead. Sepic's mindset and racially offensive statement is part of the reason that he and fellow prosecutors have created a culture of disparate and unfair treatment resulting in 70% of Michigan juveniles sentenced to life without parole being children of color.
INTELLECTUAL DISHONESTY & UNFOUNDED ARGUMENTS
During the January 15, 2021 hearing Sepic wildly ignored advancements in brain science, adolescent development research, reason, and common sense. He claimed that Efrén had an 18-year-old brain when he was 15, and that he also has the same "charisma, intelligence, and personality" today he had when he was 15. Both claims were untethered to reality and had no basis in fact.
He also cited examples of normal human behavior that have occurred during Efrén's incarceration (e.g., getting married, becoming a father, using the Internet, etc.) as reasons he is incapable of rehabilitation.
Another illogical argument Sepic made as evidence that Efrén has not been rehabilitated is that he invited citizens to exercise their First Amendment right to send letters to his judge -- an elected official -- expressing support that Efrén receive a term-of-year sentence rather than life-without-parole.
Sepic made this argument despite his own personal efforts to coordinate a campaign to recruit citizens in 2008 and 2009 to write letters to the Parole Board and Governor opposing Efrén's release.
Dozens of emails sent from and to Sepic during that time were obtained via the Freedom of Information Act. In one email dated Wednesday, September 10, 2008, 2:28 PM, Sepic sent to several people he wrote:
"My intention in providing [you information about the Paredes case] ... is to have a base of information. Please advise anyone that writes a letter ... to [use] their own words so we don't get letters looking alike. ... I'd rather not have it look like we're orchestrating this."
There is also evidence that Sepic proofread and provided feedback to several letters written by citizens who he asked to write to the Parole Board. One person Sepic asked to write a letter emailed him a draft copy of her letter on Wednesday, October 29, 2008, 3:31 PM, and asked him, "Let me know if you think I should change anything [i]n it?"
Sepic responded to her question via email minutes after receiving it at 3:58 PM stating, "That is exactly what I had in mind and to the point. ... Thank you very much for doing this, I truly appreciate it." In this instance he approved a letter knowing it contained false and misleading information. Sepic's actions were tantamount to colluding to provide false information to public officials.
(The names of citizens Sepic contacted or contacted him via email regarding Efrén's case are being withheld to protect their privacy.)
These baseless and unhinged arguments were merely distractions offered up by Sepic as a disinformation campaign to avoid addressing the heart of what the U.S. Supreme Court stated in Miller v. Alabama -- that only juvenile offenders who are "irreparably corrupt" and forever incapable of change and rehabilitation can receive life-without-parole sentences.
EVIDENCE OF EFREN'S REHABILITATION ROOTED IN REALITY
During his court hearing Efrén's attorney Stuart Friedman stated, "actions speak louder than words." He went on to say that Efrén is the things he has repeatedly done for the past three decades, which includes a raft of positive accomplishments to better himself.
Today Efrén is a husband, father, and humanitarian. He is also a sought after speaker who has spoken on several university campuses, radio stations, podcasts, TV news programs, and participated on panels via phone at events across the nation speaking about criminal justice reform, improving race relations, and other issues.
An examination of Efrén's institutional history, personal life, and benevolence track his maturation as he has evolved into a compassionate, responsible, thoughtful human being. He has developed a profound appreciation for the sanctity of life and inherent dignity in others. Several witnesses testified at Efrén's October 6-7, 2020 mitigation hearing about this and a number of support letters were submitted to the court as further evidence.
Efrén has also helped enrich the lives of others inside and outside of prison. He has used the knowledge and skills he has acquired to assist both incarcerated peers and citizens in society use critical thinking, emotional intelligence, and conflict resolution to empower themselves to become better human beings and sound consequential thinkers.
According to Efrén, "I have learned that every person has the innate capacity to learn, grow, and change. 'Life is ever unfolding, continually renewing and redesigning the intricate pieces of our character.' (Iyanla Vanzant). No one is defined by their worst mistake or best choice in life. We are a culmination of our decisions and lived experiences. Everyone is a work in progress, no one remains frozen in time."
A prison Warden and 30-year employee of the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) wrote a letter of commendation for placement in Efrén's institutional file stating in part, "[Y]ou have not only served as the chairman of the Warden's Forum for four terms ... you have also led the forum in a direction of positive change and helped to maximize communication between the administration and other prisoners."
He added, "[T]he attitude that you display, and the manner in which you carry yourself, is an excellent example to other prisoners as you demonstrate that it is possible to be positive and productive even within a correctional setting."
A retired 20-year corrections officer with the MDOC and former U.S. Marine also wrote a support letter on Efrén's behalf stating, "As a corrections professional for several years, and having interacted with numerous prisoners during my employment with the MDOC, it is my opinion that Efrén Paredes, Jr. poses no threat to society and deserves to be released. ... I believe he is an excellent candidate for release from prison."
These individuals are career professionals with decades of corrections experience who have had the opportunity to spend time closely monitoring Efrén's behavior and associations. They are far more credible than Sepic at evaluating Efrén's character and risk for being safely returned to society.
Additional testimonials about Efrén's character and conduct by current and former MDOC staff and volunteers who have closely monitored and interacted with Efrén during the past three decades of his incarceration will appear in an upcoming installation in this series.
During his incarceration Efrén has participated in numerous rehabilitative programs, participated in a campaign to help a middle-school attain its charter authorization in the Los Angeles Unified School District, become a Literary Braille Transcriber certified by the U.S. Library of Congress, and accomplished myriad other things.
And he has managed to do them all living under the enormous stress of struggling to survive daily and navigating a minefield of moral decay behind bars. Prison is a dysfunctional environment teeming with social toxins which devalue life, progression, and are designed to extinguish the human spirit.
According to a recent brief filed in court on Efrén's behalf, "During the past eleven years Efrén has benefited from receiving over 130 counseling sessions interfacing with psychologists and social workers through the Outpatient Mental Health Program to help him manage depression. Half of all citizens will experience a mental health issue in their lives, but only 13% will seek professional help. Efrén's willingness to seek help reflects his ability to recognize personal struggles and address them in a responsible way."
While participating in therapy Efrén has received certificates for completing several classes including Grief and Loss, Healthy Boundaries, Thinking Errors, Meditation, Stress Management, Character Development, and Anger Management. These classes have helped him cultivate greater empathy, insight development, and self-awareness.
In an August 4, 1989 psychological evaluation report prepared by Dr. Stephen C. Cook after evaluating Efrén, the psychiatrist stated, "[T]his offense is not part of a repetitive pattern of offenses which would lead to the determination that [Efrén] may be beyond rehabilitation under existing juvenile programs and statutory procedures[.]" In other words, the psychiatrist determined Efrén was not incapable of change or rehabilitation.
If Efrén were truly a violent, irredeemable person he would have exhibited a pattern of violent life-course persistent behavior while in prison. Not only does this pattern not exist in Efrén's incarceration history, his life behind bars has been the complete inversion of this. Though stabbings, robberies, and other assaultive and predatory behavior (including murder) are a recurring part of ordinary prison life, they have been glaringly absent in Efrén's behavior.
Contrary to popular belief prisons do not stop or prevent violence. They are an apparatus that fosters a culture of violence and serve as incubators to proliferate it. The only thing that prevents prisoners from exhibiting violent behavior is their conscious choice to repeatedly reject the impulse of violence and criminal thinking in all its manifestations.
Though some incarcerated people will arrive at this thinking aided by their participation in available prison rehabilitative programming, incarcerated people serving life without parole sentences can only rely on themselves when pursuing the enterprise of learning because of the paucity of programming opportunities available to them.
It would be impossible for Efrén to have read countless educational books, completed numerous rehabilitative classes, and done many other positive things with his life if he did not possess the capacity to learn, grow, and change. The fact that he has participated in every rehabilitative program available to him at every prison he has been housed alone is evidence of rehabilitation.
Efrén has perpetually sought to evolve because he made the conscious choice to do so on his own, not because he was forced to. He was originally sentenced to die in prison and had no incentive to become a better person.
During his incarceration Efrén has openly condemned crime and violence, and dedicated considerable time to fostering nonviolence through his numerous writings, interviews, and speeches at various events. He has also done so through facilitating classes in prison about conflict resolution, impulse control, and insight development.
In a letter addressed to Sepic dated July 10, 2020, Efrén wrote:
"If released one day, I will offer decades of skills and experience I have developed helping transform lives inside and outside of prison to your office, law enforcement, and to the citizens of the county to help prevent crime and promote improved race relations."
He also stated:
"My heart breaks for each person who has been a victim or survivor of crime and I pray for their healing. Not a day goes by that I don't think about the profound anguish, sorrow, and incalculable loss the Tetzlaff family has endured. No one deserves to have their life cut short or their world upended because of the pernicious actions of another human being."
At his October 7, 2020 court hearing Efrén spoke directly to the victim's family in the courtroom from the witness stand. He emotionally expressed being deeply sorry for their tragic loss and was in the process of sharing additional thoughts reflecting compassion and empathy before being interrupted by Sepic objecting to this moment of humanity in the courtroom.
Further evidence of Efrén's growth and maturity also appeared in his July 10, 2020 letter to Sepic when he wrote:
"As a 47-year-old husband and parent, someone who has had family members and friends victimized by violence, met and spoken to non-family crime victims and survivors, and a person who has engaged in decades of introspective work, I empathize with the visceral pain and suffering of people feel who have been impacted by violence."
* * *
"During my incarceration I have participated in numerous programs afforded to me and come to learn about the devastating impact that crime has on victims, first responders, and the community at large. I have also created programs that have helped people become problem solvers, sound consequential thinkers, and agents of healing."
Any parent or person who has worked with children knows that kids change. It is a natural part of life. We were all teenagers ourselves once and none of us are the same person we were as adolescents. Even as adults we perpetually change.
According to behavioral experts no evidence exists that personality ever ceases to change during a person's lifetime. (Avshalom Caspi & Brent W. Roberts, "Personality Development Across the Life Course," 12 Psychol. Inquiry 49, 51 (2001)).
Evidence also exists that personality traits change gradually and systematically throughout the life span, sometimes more after age 30 than before. (Sanjay Srivastava et al., "Development of Personality in Early and Middle Adulthood," 84 J. Personality & Soc. Psychol. 1041, 1051 (2003)).
The evidence that Efrén is not irreparably corrupt, permanently incorrigible, or forever incapable of change or rehabilitation is abundantly clear. An objective data-driven, evidence-based objective review of Efrén's life during the past 32 years makes it clear he is not deserving of a life without-parole-sentence.
According to the U.S. Supreme Court, juvenile offenders like Efrén who have decades of documented and established evidence of capacity for change and rehabilitation must receive a term-of-year sentence. A life-without-parole sentence in that instance would be unconstitutional and subject to being reversed and vacated by an appellate court.
A ruling by the Berrien County Trial Court about whether Efrén will receive a term-of-year or life-without-parole sentence is expected in March.
The next installment of this series will feature a collection of citations from U.S. Supreme Court, Michigan Supreme Court, and other relevant court opinions stating which juvenile offenders are not candidates to receive life-without-parole sentences in their own words.