Filmmaker Nadine Pequeneza discusses the making of her film, 15 to Life, with POV co-executive producer Cynthia Lopez.
POV: Tell us a little bit about the film for those who have not seen it.
Nadine Pequeneza: The film is really about a 14-year-old boy who grew up in Tampa, Florida who was recruited by his mother’s older drug dealer, a 24 year-old. Over the course of 30 days, they committed four armed robberies. When Kenneth was apprehended and convicted he was given four consecutive life sentences without parole. Now, the film is really about a U.S. Supreme Court decision that came out in 2010 that said that that decision was unconstitutional, that it was basically cruel and unusual punishment to sentence a child to die in prison, essentially. So the film follows his resentencing hearing, which is his opportunity for release, really. It’s an opportunity for his lawyer to prove that Kenneth was led by an older person, that he is being rehabilitated and that he deserves a second chance. So that’s really what the film is about. It’s following his quest for that second chance.
POV: How did you find Kenneth? How were you first introduced to him?
Pequeneza: I found Kenneth’s story in a local Florida article, and it was actually printed because he had applied for clemency. So often when these stories end up in the newspapers we hear a lot about all of the gory details of the crime and the brutality of it. But you never really hear about the child, what environment they grew up in, how they ended up in the situation that they did. So I really wanted to focus on one person because I thought that amount of time was needed for the audience to really come to understand that person as a complete human being, rather than just a person who had committed a particular crime.
POV: You have unprecedented access. Tell us a little bit about being able to film inside the courtroom and what steps you had to take to do that.
Pequeneza: Well, Florida being the Sunshine State, it’s actually not that difficult to get access to the courtroom. So that was great. I did approach Judge Sleet and ask if it was okay that I was there, explained what I was doing. I talked to the state prosecutor as well. What was difficult is getting access to Kenneth in prison. That was very difficult to arrange. And he of course was very guarded about what he was going to say to me in an interview because there’s two guards sitting there during the interview and the state prosecutor sent over an investigator because they wanted to film the same interview that I was doing with him to use whatever he said against him in the sentencing hearing. We didn’t know that they were going to come to do that, but when they showed up we had to postpone the interview until after his resentencing hearing. So negotiating that access in prison was very difficult and even just maintaining a relationship with him. It’s actually the most estranged relationship that I’ve ever had with a subject. We found a way to keep in contact through letters and to write each other. We started a book club, so I would send Kenneth books, he would request certain books, we would read them, we’d write to each other about them, talk about it, but it was an odd relationship that I had to work at. Really the first time I sat down to interview him was the first time we’d met face to face and had a conversation.
POV: It’s only been since 2005, correct me if I’m wrong, that we no longer would have a young person on death row, a child if you would, on death row. That is the actual year that it was abolished, correct?
Pequeneza: That’s correct. Yeah.
POV: I think most Americans just don’t know the facts when it comes to the juvenile justice system. The statistics in the film that you quote are astounding. You quoted that more than 225,000 children are tried as adults in the U.S. What is the source of that statistic and tell us a little bit more on why you became interested in this work?
Pequeneza: Well, that statistic is recorded from states across the country. It’s actually more than 225,000 are transferred to adult court. How they get there differs from state to state. Some states have something called direct transfer, which means it’s basically the prosecuting attorney that decides whether or not they’ll be tried as an adult. In other states it actually has to go before a judge so there is some balancing of whether someone goes into that system. And the reason it’s really a decision that can’t be taken lightly is because a number of these kids, when they get transferred into adult court, they’re facing mandatory sentences. So the judge isn’t even allowed to consider the fact that they’re a child or what their level of maturity is or what the circumstances were around the crime or their home life, how they were brought up. None of that is taken into consideration, and that’s actually why there are children who have been sentenced to life in prison without parole. Because of those 2,500, more than 2,000 received a mandatory life sentence.
POV: One of the characters that I was very drawn to in your film is Bryan Stevenson. I have to say, I was so taken aback by his quote: every person is more than their worst act. Tell us a little bit about how you met Bryan and why you decided to feature him in the film.
Pequeneza: Well, Bryan is really the lawyer who, in terms of bringing this issue to the U.S. Supreme Court, got the ball rolling. In 2005 there was a decision that came out of the U.S. Supreme Court, the Roper Decision, which banned the death penalty for children, and Bryan is the person who brought that case to the U.S. Supreme Court. He was also involved in the Graham case, which is the case that affected Kenneth which said that you couldn’t sentence a child to life in prison for a non-homicide crime. And then he went back in 2012 where he got an outright ban on all mandatory life sentencing for juveniles. So that affects just over 2,000 children who have already received this sentence and then of course everybody going forward. It doesn’t mean children can’t get a life sentence, they still can, but it can’t be a mandatory life sentence. So that means that the judge does have to consider their maturity, their circumstance in the home, what got them into this situation. This Graham decision gave Kenneth an opportunity that he did not have before that decision was passed. But once a child is transferred to adult court, it’s a very interesting thing. It’s basically you deem someone to be something that they’re not. It’s like you wave a wand and say all of a sudden you’re an adult. So when that child is transferred to adult court they are treated like an adult. They are punished like an adult and their appeals are like an adult’s. So there’s no difference once they go into that adult system. And when I say in adult prisons, I mean they have them in a separate compound, they sleep in a separate compound, but when they go to eat or when they go out for yard time, they’re in mixed company. And certainly that was Kenneth’s situation when he first went into prison.
POV: In watching the film I kept thinking how public image is such a difficult thing, because when I saw Kenneth in his prison attire, it marks guilty without there being any provocation to let’s listen to what he has to say, because you’re so focused on the image. Could you tell me a little bit about those decisions? Is that something he decided? Is that how the Florida court system works? I was confused about why he didn’t attend the court sessions with traditional clothing.
Pequeneza: Not only was he wearing a prison uniform but he was cuffed, he was shackled. And that’s because this is a sentencing hearing so it’s not a trial to determine if he’s guilty or innocent. So he is guilty. There’s no presumption of innocence in that courtroom. And so that’s why he’s dressed like that. But does it impact? Yes, it does. There’s a lot of stereotypes that even though judges are supposed to come in and all of those biases be swept away, you’re a product of your own experiences, what you’ve lived and what you know and it affects the way a judge looks at someone when they’re sentencing them.
POV: Now what do you hope the impact of your film will be in the U.S. and in Florida specifically?
Pequeneza: I’m hoping that people will start to look at these children in a different light and to look at them as children, because they really are. Even though someone has transferred them to adult court they don’t suddenly become adults. It’s difficult when you’re resentencing because you’re looking at an adult but you have to remember what they were when they were 14,15, 16 when they committed the crime. But I would say the advantage is is that you can see the difference, because these children have changed and certainly in Kenneth’s case. He’s not the same person that he used to be and he’s come a long way to improving himself and to being able to fit back into society.
POV: There was a psychologist who is interviewed in the film talking about the difference in terms of the psychology of children versus adults and their entry into the prison system. Is there anything about that you would like to underscore?
Pequeneza: Well, what Randy Otto was testifying to in Kenneth’s resentencing hearing is really the foundation of the Supreme Court decisions. All three decisions in 2005, 2010, 2012, they said that children are different. And actually most parents recognize that. It’s not really a surprise to us that our kids can be impulsive, they can make bad decisions, they need guidance, that their brains aren’t really fully formed. What Randy Otto was talking about is really the foundation of the Supreme Court decisions and it’s why this reform movement is happening. So it is very important. There’s a real inconsistency in our society about the way we treat children. We recognize that they need protection and are vulnerable by the fact that we curtail the things they can do. They can’t vote, they can’t drink, they can only drive at a certain age, they can’t watch certain movies if they’re still minors. But yet at the same time we hold them fully accountable for crimes that they commit, when these children are really the most victimized people in our society. They’ve grown up in homes where they’ve seen violence, they’ve been the victims of violence, they’ve lived with mental illness and physical disabilities and really with no help. So when they start to emulate some of that bad behavior that’s been shown to them, we punish them with a life sentence. Their behavior is because of our failure to protect them. So there’s a lot of irony.
POV: What message do you hope viewers will walk away with after watching the film?
Pequeneza: I hope that when people see the film they’ll be able to look at Kenneth as a person, as opposed to someone who just committed this violent crime when he was a 14-year-old boy. I want them to see that people can change and really to start looking at the juvenile justice system in terms of outcomes. Right now the system is not producing results. Most kids who end up going into the system will end up back there at some point, and whether they end up in the deep end where Kenneth is, kids who end up with life sentences, is a question. But they are getting into the system somehow and whatever is happening to them there, it’s not changing their behaviors when they go back out. I think that if we’re investing money in a juvenile justice system and detention, there should be outcomes at the end of that. So I want people to start questioning what is the purpose of putting someone in prison and what do we expect to accomplish by having them there. Fundamentally there’s three things: you want to protect society, you want to punish the person, but you also want to rehabilitate. And so it’s finding that balance, so I want people to start thinking about how to do that, how to do that effectively.