Transcript

Second Chance Kids

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Massachusetts Parole Board

STEVEN WARD: On the evening of September 18th, 1988, in the city of Lowell, Massachusetts, I murdered Mr. Louis Pozcyk. I did so by savagely beating, kicking, and on two separate occasions, repeatedly stabbing him.

JOSE TEVENAL: It was an unconscionable act of violence towards an innocent man. I shot Mr. Morel, a cab driver, six times, killing him.

JAMES COSTELLO: I struck the first blows to Mrs. Paciulo and inflicted pain and suffering on her. And I take responsibility for the terror she must have felt in her final moments on this earth.

HERBY CAILLOT: My greatest, my greatest apologies are to Mr. Carlo Clermy’s sons and their mother.

MARSHA LEVICK, Chief Counsel, Juvenile Law Center: When they committed these crimes, these people were teenagers. They were children.

CHRISTOPHER BROUSQUET: I am not the same person I was some 32 years ago when I commit this offense.

MARSHA LEVICK: They were going to die in prison.

MALIK ABDUL AZIZ: I shot Mr. Lanigan in the back.

MARSHA LEVICK: But in 2012, the Supreme Court said that kids change. They grow up.

KEYMA MACK: I stand here today not the person that I was when I was 17.

MARSHA LEVICK: The whole reason why these individuals are now finally coming before the parole board is because of this recognition that kids should have the opportunity at some point to demonstrate growth and maturity. But there’s fear that if you release a violent person into my neighborhood, something bad will happen.

HOWIE CARR, Radio Talk Show Host: So now you have people who were sentenced to life without parole going before, you guessed it, the parole board.

TIMOTHY CRUZ, D.A., Plymouth County, MA: There are some people who should never be released. He has not fully served his debt for this heinous crime, this brutal massacre of an elderly man.

We’re prosecutors. We’re lawyers.   I’m not a social worker. And there are some crimes, in my opinion, that are so deleterious to our community that individuals deserve to go to jail for life.

ASST. DISTRICT ATTORNEY: Mr. Costello was the individual who hit her in the head with a hammer and who slit her wrists.

TIMOTHY CRUZ: When you pick up a weapon and you take the life out of somebody, you have chosen that path.

ASST. DISTRICT ATTORNEY: He was beaten with rocks and other objects.

TIMOTHY CRUZ: Notwithstanding the fact that you are young and that your brain is young.

STEPHEN LANIGAN’S BROTHER: This shouldn’t be happening. We were told life without parole years ago, and now he wants another chance? My brother had no chance. He got out to help this kid, and he shot him in the back! What more do you need to know?

ROBERT KINSCHERFF, Ph.D., J.D., Ctr. for Law, Brain & Behavior, MGH/Harvard: States have really struggled with how to understand these cases. This is new and it’s certainly unusual.

Mrs. DIATCHEKNO: Please forgive my son, as only you can And in the healing─

ROBERT KINSCHERFF: What I think the Supreme Court was trying to do was create a mechanism for those who really have matured and rehabilitated themselves, that for children, at least, a catastrophic choice, even if it’s involvement in a heinous crime, does not mark you forever.

CONVICT: I’m here facing my demons and recognizing the man that I am today as opposed to that broken one I was 33 years ago.

ROBERT KINSCHERFF: And if you accept that logic, then the question then becomes, How much punishment is enough?

CARLOS PIRES: Keyma? Keyma? Please look at me, man.

ROBERT KINSCHERFF: And are human beings capable of change?

CARLOS PIRES: I forgive you, but I can’t forget.

NARRATOR: Currently across the country, there are more than 2,000 people who were convicted of murder as juveniles and sentenced to mandatory life without the possibility of parole. This is the story of what’s happened to a few of them in the roughly five years since a landmark Supreme Court decision found their sentences unconstitutional.

Anthony Rolon began serving his sentence in 1997.

ANTHONY ROLON, Anthony Rolon, Sentenced to Life Without Parole in 1997: I came to prison when I was 17, no hair on my face, young kid, scrawny. When I got convicted, they said, “OK, sentenced to your natural life in prison, Cedar Junction, Walpole, Massachusetts.” At that time, that was the only maximum prison in Massachusetts.

I was scared. I mean, I was─ I was very scared. Then I just got in a cell, and they closed it behind me. And I’m looking at the bars, and that’s when I was just, like, “Wow. How did I get here?”

I would wake up in the morning and I would be, like, “They want me to die in prison.” I would go to bed at night, “They want me to die in prison.” I mean, I was a bad kid. I was an angry kid. But I don’t think I was so to the point where, “OK, now you’re going to be a kid that dies in prison.”

HOWIE CARR: No one made him go out and kill this guy. Why am I supposed to feel sorry for him?

NARRATOR: Anthony Rolon was 17 and living here in New Bedford, Massachusetts, when he committed the murder that got him locked up for life.

HOWIE CARR: ─a pack of juvenile delinquents and they stabbed to death─

NARRATOR: At the time Rolon was sentenced, Massachusetts, like the rest of the country, was cracking down on a new breed of teen criminals called “super-predators.”

NEWSCASTER: A local man is brutally murdered, and the killer sentenced to life without parole─

NARRATOR: That same year, 1996, Rolon was living near this New Bedford public housing project, where he dealt drugs with his father.

NEWSCASTER: ─stabbing death of Robert Botelho─

NARRATOR: Then one night, a fight with some two dozen kids got out of control.

NEWSCASTER: Anthony Rolon stabbed Robert Botelho, Jr., to death in New Bedford.

EMANUEL HOWARD, Anthony Rolon’s Attorney: One night in January, there was a party going on within the housing complex. A loud party is going to bring police, and that’s going to harm Anthony’s drug-dealing business. So Anthony told them to quiet down. Words were exchanged. And somebody’s got a baseball bat and somebody’s got another weapon. No guns.

INTERVIEWER: There’s a shovel.

EMANUEL HOWARD: Shovels, and whatever was available. They’re hitting each other, and Rolon thinks that the victim’s getting the better of him. So he takes out a knife out of his pocket and stabs him several times. Everything was emotion. It was macho at the spur of the moment.

NARRATOR: In the end, 20-year-old Bobby Botelho suffered three deep stab wounds in the chest. The fatal one was in the heart, a loss that would mark the Botelho family for decades.

ROBERT BOTELHO, Sr.: I can remember the call as if it was last night, that he had been killed and stabbed. And I’ll never forget that call until the day they bury me.

NARRATOR: Bobby’s parents and the prosecutors insist that Anthony Rolon planned to kill Botelho after going back to the party 20 minutes later armed with a knife.

KATHY BOTELHO: He was the leader. He forced those other kids to go back there, and that’s why he deserved life without parole.

NARRATOR: The family told FRONTLINE that it was too difficult to discuss the murder. At the same time, juvenile justice advocates now view the case through the lens of the evolving science of juvenile crime.

JOSHUA DOHAN, Dir., Juvenile Division, MA Pub. Defenders: Anthony’s case was a classic example of what we call “hot cognition,” right? There’s an altercation at a party. Some poor guy gets stabbed. We never want to minimize that. But this was not somebody who had some plan, “I’m going to go and kill this guy for some good reason.” This was a teenager who was just incensed and out of control and does a really stupid, tragic, terrible thing.

ANTHONY ROLON: I killed Bobby Botelho. I took someone’s life. I do not back down from that and take full responsibility for my actions, at all. I know what I did.

NEWSCASTER: What is rising dramatically is violent crime committed by teenagers─

ANTHONY ROLON: But once I was convicted, I was just thrown in that basket of predators.

NEWSCASTER: Experts call them super-predators.

NEWSCASTER: ─super-predators─

JOHN DIIULIO, Political Scientist: A super-predator is a young juvenile criminal who is so impulsive, so remorseless that he can kill, rape, maim without giving it a second thought.

NARRATOR: The conviction of Anthony Rolon came during an extraordinary period of national concern over juvenile crime.

NEWSCASTER: What is rising dramatically is violent crime committed by teenagers.

NEWSCASTER: Watch closely as gang violence erupts in East Los Angeles.

Prof. JAMES FOX, Criminologist, Northeastern Univ.: Back in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, we started to see the surge in homicide among kids. The primary reason had a lot to do with the crack cocaine epidemic.

The rate of killing among teenagers has nearly tripled in the past 10 years.

NEWSCASTER: James Fox is raising an alarm─

Prof. JAMES FOX: I was tracking the statistics. Crime among adults was going down. The crime among kids was going up.

NEWSCASTER: The effects of this new juvenile callousness is there for all to see in the national crime statistics.

BETH SCHWARTZAPFEL, Reporter, The Marshall Project: It was an era when there was legitimately a spike in crime the likes of which we have still never seen.

NEWSCASTER: ─teenagers are robbing and killing─

BETH SCHWARTZAPFEL: Even now, where people are talking about a murder rate that’s through the roof in Chicago, it’s still not close to what it was during that time. And so there were legitimate concerns about the spike in violence, and legislatures just started scrambling to sort of prove their tough on crime credentials.

NEWSCASTER: In Atlanta, the defendant known as “Little B” just became the youngest boy sentenced to life in prison for murder.

BRYAN STEVENSON, Exec. Dir., Equal Justice Initiative: I think we have to put these crimes in a broader context. I mean, I think something really horrific happened in the 1980s when these criminologists emerged.

Prof. JAMES FOX: This generation is de-sensitized to violence─

BRYAN STEVENSON: And they were going around saying that we have a new species of child in America.

Prof. JAMES FOX: When kids kill, it’s scary─

BRYAN STEVENSON: “And these kids may look like kids, they may act like kids, they may sound like kids,:’ they said, “but don’t be deceived. These are not children.” They said, “These are super-predators.” And it didn’t matter whether you were a Democrat or a Republican. Everybody wanted to be tough on the super-predators.

JOSHUA DOHAN, Dir., Juvenile Division, Mass. Pub. Defenders: In Massachusetts, once Anthony is found guilty of first-degree murder, then the sentence is mandatory, and his life circumstances don’t matter─ crack-addicted mother, drug-dealing father, an environment Anthony himself had little control over. The court at the time said, basically, “No, those are personal circumstances. We don’t consider that.”

ANTHONY ROLON: They’re just looking at the crime, so they don’t take into account how you grew up. They don’t take into account whether you had your parents in your life. They don’t take none of that circumstances into account. You’re sentenced to life without parole. You’re a predator, and that’s it.

NARRATOR: Anthony Rolon was one of three dozen teens in Massachusetts given a life without parole sentence during the late 1980s and 1990s.

Joe Donovan was another. Like Rolon, Donovan was 17 at the time of his crime, but unlike Rolon, Joe Donovan hadn’t actually killed anyone himself. Joe Donovan was first sent to maximum security prison in the early 1990s before landing here at this facility in Shirley, Massachusetts.

A filmmaker who knew Donovan in high school shot this interview in 2013, trying to bring attention to the story.

JOE DONOVAN: My name is Joseph Donovan. My commitment number is W55313. I’m at Shirley medium prison doing a natural life sentence.

NARRATOR: Joe Donovan’s road to life without parole began with some drunken words and a violent assault on two college kids walking near the MIT campus. The night ended with the stabbing of a 19-year old MIT student from Norway.

NEWSCASTER: Random violence has left an MIT student dead after a scuffle with three teenagers. He died last night from a stab wound to the heart.

DAN JARLE RAUSTEIN: I was told that my brother had been in a fight and he’s been killed. It was quite a shock. It takes some time before it sinks in. My brother never fought any fights in his life because he wasn’t very physical.

NEWSCASTER: We have more information on one of our top stories tonight, the stabbing death of an MIT student near the Hayden Library in Cambridge.

JOE DONOVAN, Sr.: I got a call at home. State Police called and said that they had my son. Of course, I went that night. It was, like, 1:00 or 2:00 o’clock in the morning.

NEWSCASTER: Police say Raustein was knocked to the ground, stabbed in the heart─

JOE DONOVAN, Sr. I talked to Joey and he told me the whole story. But he said that all he did was throw a punch. So he didn’t figure that he was in that much of a trouble, you know, for throwing a punch.

NEWSCASTER: Joseph Donovan and Alfredo Velez were arraigned first─

JOE DONOVAN: My family was sitting right in the front row when I was being arraigned. And they were, like, you know, mouthing, “Are you OK?” Meanwhile, I was scared to death and I didn’t know what the hell was going on.

NEWSCASTER: Prosecutors say 15-year-old Shon McHugh is the one who killed MIT student Yngve Raustein.

NARRATOR: It turns out that a 15-year-old did the stabbing. But he was charged as a juvenile because it would still be a number of years before kids this young could be tried as adults in Massachusetts. A 19-year-old participated in the attack, as well. He would cut a plea deal and be out in 12 years. That left Joe Donovan alone to face first degree murder charges.

PROSECUTOR: Without any provocation whatsoever, Mr. Donovan then punched Yngve Raustein, knocking him to the ground.

NARRATOR: To convict Donovan, the prosecution put forth evidence at trial showing Donovan knowingly planned and participated in an armed robbery, which started with his punch. In the course of a robbery, the murder took place, according to the prosecution. It’s a theory of criminal responsibility called “felony murder,” which many advocates now say should not be applied to juveniles.

MARSHA LEVICK, , Chief Counsel, Juvenile Law Center: In the felony murder scenario, where this individual is not directly involved in the killing, the assumption that they know they are walking into a situation where someone could die─ it’s actually not scientifically sound to ascribe that same level of foreseeability to a teenager.

NEWSCASTER: The devastating punch broke Donovan’s hand as he and Velez─

JOE DONOVAN: That one punch, I don’t know why I did it, right?

I also didn’t never─ never realized the consequences of what the hell was going to happen after I hit him, too. You know, and ever since then, you know, life’s been different.

NARRATOR: Joe Donovan’s case stands at one end of a broad spectrum of teen crimes leading to life without possibility of parole. Many teens actually committed the brutal murders that led to their sentences. But it’s not the facts of thousands of these crimes that are now in question, it’s the legacy of the punishments handed out during the super-predator era.

JOHN DIIULIO: A super-predator is a young juvenile criminal who is so impulsive─

NARRATOR: Academics like John DiIulio and James Fox were the super-predator theory’s most public proponents.

Prof. JAMES FOX: This generation is de-sensitized to violence─

NARRATOR: But the theory has now largely been discredited and disavowed.

Prof. JAMES FOX: I, like John DiIulio, was very concerned about the rising rate of juvenile crime. And I, too, used some strong language back then. I didn’t like the term “super-predator,” but I did talk about a coming crime storm. And the idea was to get people’s attention, and it did.

I’m predicting that by the year 2005, we may very well have a bloodbath of teenage violence.

NEWSCASTER: James Fox is raising an alarm─

NARRATOR: James Fox says it’s not clear why the much-feared teen crime wave of the 1990s never materialized. What is clear, however, is that the super-predator laws he and others helped inspire led to a spike of their own─ extreme sentences for teens, handed out disproportionately to young black and Latino offenders.

Prof. JAMES FOX: The really bad news is that the worst is yet to come─

I feel bad many times that─ that the work that I did, along with John DiIulio, indeed encouraged the wrong reaction.

NEWSCASTER: This 11 year-old boy is facing life in prison for shooting an 18-year-old─

Prof. JAMES FOX: The response was punitive, not preventative.

NEWSCASTER: He was arrested in his classroom wearing his Halloween costume─

Prof. JAMES FOX: But I don’t blame myself. I don’t regret what I did. I don’t apologize for it. The ones that who are to blame are those who said, “OK, crime rates are rising, let’s throw them all behind─ behind bars for life.” So I don’t─ I don’t accept any blame for the punishment response.

JOHN DIIULIO: We’re talking about a group of kids who are growing up essentially fatherless─

BRYAN STEVENSON, Exec. Dir., Equal Justice Initiative: Now, it’s interesting that a lot of those people who argued this super-predator phenomenon recognized that all these projections they made were inaccurate, and a decade later, said, “You know what? That thing we said about super-predators? Not true.”

But once you’ve decided to be tough, it’s hard to go back and say, “We were wrong.”

NARRATOR: In Anthony Rolon’s case, the end of the super-predator scare didn’t change his sentence. In 2003, the original judge in the case reduced Rolon’s crime to second degree murder and made him eligible for parole, but the Massachusetts Supreme Court reversed the ruling, leaving Rolon without any further options.

ANTHONY ROLON: I just was tired. I was spiritually, mentally tired. I was tired of going in the hole. I was tired of being an individual that didn’t care. Many years within my sentence, I just asked God, “Make me different. If I’m going to die in prison, if this is what it’s going to be, allow me to become a better person than I came in.”

NARRATOR: Meanwhile, Joe Donovan got caught up in a lot of prison violence, at one point assaulting two prison guards, and faced years of disciplinary detention.

JOSEPH DONOVAN: I was in numerous fights at the beginning. I ended up going to DDU, which is solitary confinement, isolation. I’m not sure how they describe it, but it’s the hole. Everybody knows what the hole is, right? So I did about five years in solitary, straight one time. And I was getting a little crazy at the end of that one. I got to tell the truth on that.

NARRATOR: Donovan spent years trying to get his sentence commuted by the governor, but that attempt ultimately failed in 2010.

INTERVIEWER: Do you ever think about getting out?

JOE DONOVAN: I think about it. I think about it. But I try not to think about it too much because if it doesn’t happen, I don’t want it to destroy me.

NARRATOR: This is where things stood for Joe Donovan, Anthony Rolon and the roughly 2,000 other juvenile lifers across the country until a ground-breaking series of Supreme Court decisions began to change things in the mid-2000s.

It began with a decision on the death penalty for juveniles.

NEWSCASTER: The court has ruled today that executing people who were under 18 when they committed their crime is unconstitutional.

ROBERT KINSCHERFF, Ph.D., J.D., Ctr. for Law, Brain & Behavior, MGH/Harvard: So in 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the execution of juveniles. What was fascinating about this was that the Supreme Court, in coming to this decision, relied very heavily on developmental science.

NEWSCASTER: Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy said juvenile offenders are different because their character is not as well formed as that of an adult.

ROBERT KINSCHERFF: The research was telling us that youth are different and they cannot be as culpable as adults simply because of their developmental immaturity.

NEWSCASTER: The Supreme Court heard arguments today about the propriety of imposing life sentences─

NARRATOR: In 2010, the Court, drawing again on the evolving science of the adolescent brain, ruled on the case of a 16-year-old who wasn’t charged with murder but was given life without parole for an armed home robbery. In Graham versus Florida, the court did not guarantee freedom for this type of juvenile offender, but it did require a meaningful opportunity for release based on their growth in prison.

BRYAN STEVENSON: I’m Bryan Stevenson, Director of the Equal Justice Initiative─

NARRATOR: Attorney Bryan Stevenson argued the case before the Supreme Court.

BRYAN STEVENSON: ─to say to any child of 13 that you’re only fit to die in prison is cruel─

We were really encouraged when the court said, “You know what? Even though it’s not a death penalty case, death in prison is a terminal sentence, too, and there ought to be the same protections for these children convicted of non-homicides than we’ve now given to kids facing execution.” That was a very big step forward. But it was still not as big a step as we needed to make.

NARRATOR: After two victories on juveniles, Stevenson decided to take on an even harder case, one of the 2,000 or so teens sentenced to life without parole for first degree murder.

NEWSCASTER: It was a brutal crime. Fourteen years old at the time, Evan Miller beat and robbed his neighbor─

BETH SCHWARTZAPFEL, Reporter, The Marshall Project:

Evan Miller, who’s the named plaintiff in that suit, Miller versus Alabama─ he beat a man to death with a baseball bat, then set his trailer on fire over nothing. They had some argument over drugs, I think.

And so, you know, you hear the details of that case, and you think, you know, if that’s not depravity, I don’t know what is. But if you scratch beneath the surface, you know, you find out about the details of his dysfunctional childhood. You know, this man that he beat was actually his mother’s drug dealer. His mother was doing drugs in his home. There was just a depth of dysfunction in that family. So I think it’s interesting that he ended up being the face of this issue.

NEWSCASTER: The court ruled today that juveniles can’t be given life mandatory sentences without parole. They say that’s cruel and unusual punishment─

NARRATOR: The 2012 decision in the Evan Miller case did not abolish life without parole for juveniles.

NEWSCASTER: Children under 18 can be sentenced to life─

NARRATOR: But in a narrow 5-to-4 decision, the court severely limited the sentence, ruling that even in a crime as brutal as Evan Miller’s, the child’s background and diminished culpability as a juvenile first needed to be considered.

NEWSCASTER: ─automatic mandatory life sentences amount to cruel and unusual punishment.

BRYAN STEVENSON: Miller was a very big breakthrough. The population of children that were sentenced to die in prison in this country are largely some of the most victimized children in America. Now we have the opportunity, remarkably, because of what the court has done, to do something. And that’s just give them a second chance. But the states, not surprisingly, dug in and looked to resist.

HEARING WITNESS: If you all look at the history of Colorado, some of the most hideous crimes were committed by juveniles.

DAN MAY, District Attorney, El Paso County, CO: Let’s call this the way it is. This is unconscionable. It’s outrageous.

NEWSCASTER: Some states have already been applying the law retroactively. Others, like Louisiana, have not.

BETH SCHWARTZAPFEL: So there are some states that interpreted Miller in as narrow a way as possible and refused to grant retroactivity to the cases that came before.

NEWSCASTER: Judges in Florida are circumventing a Supreme Court ruling─

BETH SCHWARTZAPFEL: Other states explicitly said they were eligible for parole after some crazy amount of time, like 50 years.

NEWSCASTER: ─prison terms that are virtual life sentences─

BETH SCHWARTZAPFEL: They said, “We have to do this because the Supreme Court said we have to, but we’re going to be as stringent as we possibly can about it.”

There were other states like Massachusetts that were really out front. In Massachusetts, the court ruled that life without parole is unconstitutional, period, for juveniles. And then it made them eligible for parole after 15 years.

The way that Massachusetts interpreted the rights that the Supreme Court granted to juvenile lifers was as generous as you’ll see anywhere else. The question of how it plays out in real life is a different question.

NEWSCASTER: More than 60 already convicted murderers in Massachusetts now suddenly have a shot at freedom.

NARRATOR: As the states with the greatest numbers of juvenile lifers resisted the Supreme Court’s Miller decision, Massachusetts courts and legislators went in the other direction, becoming the first state in the country to begin holding hearings for its more than 60 convicted teen murderers.

JONATHAN BLODGETT, D.A., Essex County, MA: Almost all the victims’ families were stunned about the decision. And the questions were, “How could this have happened? Do we have to see these murderers again? Why be in the same room with them? My parents won’t be able to handle this. I thought he was away forever.” And those─ and those are─ how do you answer those questions?

TIMOTHY CRUZ, D.A., Plymouth County, MA: We do have an open line of communication with the family members. They want to know, “Well, why─ at what point are people going to be held accountable for their actions because they have changed my life forever because of what they chose to do.” No, they─ they really don’t want to hear all the science and everything else.

JONATHAN BLODGETT, District Attorney, Essex County, MA: This is a converted conference room. It’s now the war room─

REPORTER: The war room?

JONATHAN BLODGETT: ─to handle the appeals.

NARRATOR: By spring 2014, district attorneys around the state had dug in in opposition.

JONATHAN BLODGETT: We had to go down, pull out boxes and boxes of files. There are 11 cases in this county in which the murderers planned their entire scheme. It wasn’t impulse. It wasn’t an inability to understand the consequences of their actions. These are cases in which people were brutally murdered.

NEWSCASTER: The families of victims of teenage killers are trying to convince lawmakers to keep juvenile murderers behind bars─

NEWSCASTER: Today, they delivered a petition with 15,000 signatures to the governor in their fight to keep the murderers behind bars.

TIMOTHY CRUZ: The families were told 15 years ago it’s over, it’s done. And now every five years, there’s going to be an opportunity for somebody to have a hearing, and you’re going to relive it again. You’re going to relive the pain and the suffering and really the destruction of your family.

NEWSCASTER: The family of a teen murdered 35 years ago is getting ready for a parole hearing they never thought would happen.

NARRATOR: Despite protests and concern, the first hearings for the state’s juvenile lifers began at the parole board in the spring of 2014.

BARBARA KABAN, Fmr. Dir., Juvenile Appeals, MA Pub. Defenders: Once we knew it was going to be parole hearings, there was a tremendous amount of energy and a tremendous amount of fear. You know, “Who’s going to go first? What does that mean?” “Am I”─ you know, guys were saying to their attorneys, you know, “Am I ready?

NEWSCASTER: ─a plea for mercy from a convicted killer sent to prison for life as a teenager. Joe Donovan is the first to go before the parole board and ask for freedom since─

BARBARA KABAN: Joey Donovan went first. He was the first to step up and say, “I’m ready. Let’s go for that parole hearing.”

PAROLE BOARD CHAIRMAN: Good morning, Mr. Donovan. I’m Josh Wall, chairman of the parole board.

BARBARA KABAN: But what does that mean in the context of these children who went into prison and are now young men, and how do we demonstrate that they are, in fact, ready to be released?

INGRID MARTIN, Joe Donovan’s Attorney: Today is a momentous day. It’s the very first time since my client, Joseph Donovan, was convicted more than 20 years ago that someone is going to look at his case and make an individualized judgment about how much punishment is enough. No one has ever done this before, and─

NARRATOR: Joe Donovan was one of the first juvenile lifers in the country to get the kind of second chance the Supreme Court had ordered. He began by reaching out to the family of the MIT student he’d assaulted decades earlier.

JOE DONOVAN: ─my sincerest apologies to the Raustein family. I will forever feel ashamed of the actions that night which resulted in the death of such a promising young man.

BETH SCHWARTZAPFEL, Reporter, The Marshall Project: Joe Donovan, I remember─ I can hear his voice in my head saying at his hearing, “I was a dumb kid.”

JOE DONOVAN: I think─ listen, I realize how stupid, right, I was. I realize─

BETH SCHWARTZAPFEL: You know, sociologists talk about this age/crime curve, where almost all of the crime in this country happens early in life. And then, you know, by the─ one’s 30s or certainly 40s, it just sort of levels off. You just grow up.

JOE DONOVAN: I used to not think about other people, right, not really considering them as, like, thinking, breathing human beings who had their own lives and their on problems and their own families. And I started─ really start empathizing with other people. I decided, a conscious decision, to change my actions and myself as a person.

PAROLE BOARD CHAIRMAN: So we’ve read all your letters of support─

NARRATOR: Over the years, the victim’s family had actually come to support Donovan’s release.

DAN JARLE RAUSTEIN, Yngve Raustein’s Brother: I felt it was really unfair that he was sentenced for such a long time for just hitting someone. Of course, it was my brother he hit, but it’s still not worth spending your life in jail for.

JOE DONOVAN: I punched him in the face with my right hand.

PAROLE BOARD MEMBER: And how hard did you punch him?

JOE DONOVAN: Real hard. I believe I broke my hand when I punched him.

DAN JARLE RAUSTEIN: I have hopes for Joe Donovan. I hoped that he will have a normal life and that his family will be able [sp?] to get him back.

JOE DONOVAN: Worst moments of my life, or worst moment of my life right there.

DAN JARLE RAUSTEIN: I think life in jail is─ well, it’s kind of wasting people’s lives.

NEWSCASTER: Anthony Rolon was convicted of murder and sentenced to life without the chance of parole─

NARRATOR: Around the same time that Joe Donovan got his parole hearing, Anthony Rolon would also come before the board.

ANTHONY ROLON: I believe I was the third one to have the parole hearing. So it was still fresh. So I knew that, you know, the news and everyone would have their eyes on it.

NEWSCASTER: Twenty-year-old Bobby Botelho was stabbed to death nearly two decades ago. Tonight, his family speaks to Eyewitness News as they wait to hear if his killer will stay behind bars.

KINSEY ROGERS, Sister: It’s unfair. It shouldn’t even be happening. And we’ll fight until we have to and we’ll do whatever it takes.

ANTHONY ROLON: I knew that the victim’s family believed I shouldn’t even be having this hearing.

KATHY BOTELHO, Mother: I miss my son. He was my first born.

ANTHONY ROLON: Shouldn’t be having this opportunity to give this individual a second chance.

PAROLE BOARD CHAIRMAN: Good morning, Mr. Rolon. I’m chairman of the Parole Board. We are here today to consider your petition for parole from a first degree murder sentence for stabbing and killing Robert Botelho on January 21st─

ANTHONY ROLON: I wanted to have respect for the family, so I didn’t want to look over there. But I went there with a purpose of having that opportunity of to say, “I’m sorry.” It’s time to speak the truth. It’s time to say what happened. It’s time to own up.

After being convicted of taking Mr. Botelho’s life, I told his mother that I didn’t kill her son. For the past 18 years and 6 months, Mr. Botelho’s mother has deserved from me to speak the truth by saying that it was me who killed her son and that I’m sorry for creating the pain that is in her heart.

It was like an out-of-body experience for me. It was an unbelievable feeling.

I take full responsibility for the death of Mr. Botelho.

It was very emotional to my family, my supporters, and for me to go back to that place and talk about it and have them hear, OK, “He killed someone.”

ANTHONY’S MOTHER: I ask forgiveness for Anthony and for myself because if I had been the mother that I should have been to my son, none of us would be here today. My son never saw me actually do drugs, but─

ANTHONY ROLON: At the time, my mother was getting high, so I didn’t have no relationship with her.

ANTHONY’S MOTHER: He would get in fights because his friends would call me names like “crackhead.”

ANTHONY ROLON: My father sold drugs. I learned negativity from him. I had anger, man. It was just all anger. All anger. That’s it. I didn’t think about nothing else that was going on. I didn’t think about the victim’s family. I didn’t care.

Mrs. BOTELHO: He was my only son! And I’ll never forgive him ever, ever, ever! I will never forgive him!

ANTHONY ROLON: I heard his mother’s anger. I felt their pain.

Mr. BOTELHO: Bobby was my only son, my only child.

ANTHONY ROLON: When they were speaking, I was on the other side, and I just put my head down. I was ashamed that I was the one who created their pain. I mean, I’ve changed and I’m not the same individual. But again, I feel ashamed of what I did. Father just walked away that night. Father just went, like, OK. If I didn’t felt I had to prove anything to anybody, Bobby Botelho would be alive today.

DISTRICT ATTORNEY: This was a murder that was clearly first degree.

NARRATOR: For the victim’s family and the prosecutors, Rolon’s story of prison transformation wasn’t enough.

DISTRICT ATTORNEY: This was a crime that merits punishment beyond 18 years. He has not served a sufficient amount of time.

INTERVIEWER: There are people who show up at every hearing and oppose─

BARBARA KABAN, Fmr. Dir., Juvenile Appeals, MA Pub. Defenders: Absolutely.

INTERVIEWER: ─and they say 18 years, 25 years─that’s not enough.

BARBARA KABAN: Yeah. That’s really a tough one. I guess─ you know, I guess I would turn it around, in a sense, and say, “What would be accomplished if Anthony spent another 20 years in prison?”

ANTHONY ROLON: I understand what I did. I know what I did. In spite of me serving this sentence, I’ve still made the efforts to grow and fix myself, fix myself from the individual that killed Mr. Botelho.

BARBARA KABAN: If you look carefully at the Supreme Court decisions, what they said is, you know, “What is the purpose of locking somebody up?”

ANTHONY ROLON: I understand his mother will never forgive me.

BARBARA KABAN: How much time does it take for that kid who was dangerous at that moment in time to grow up? And so the focus has to be on change, and that’s hard for people to wrap their minds around.

DISTRICT ATTORNEY: This is a very challenging case for our office, and it raises serious concerns about the suitability of Joseph Donovan to be back─

NARRATOR: Resistance from the prosecutors also emerged at Joe Donovan’s parole hearing.

DISTRICT ATTORNEY: ─credible evidence goes against everything Mr. Donovan has said.

NARRATOR: Donovan’s original prosecutor declined to be interviewed, but he did come before the parole board to make his case.

DISTRICT ATTORNEY: It’s not only a punch. He was an active member in an armed robbery that resulted in a murder.

TIMOTHY CRUZ, D.A., Plymouth County, MA: In Massachusetts, the DAs, you know, we all work together. Our job is to look at the entire picture.

When you go to a parole hearing and you hear somebody talk about themselves and how they’ve bettered themselves─ that’s great. I hope they all do that. I really do. But that doesn’t mean that I’m willing to say, “You know what? Let’s open the doors and I’m willing to take another chance that you’re not going to do it again.”

JOE DONOVAN: I realize that I have a bad disciplinary track record─

TIMOTHY CRUZ: I mean, what has this person done? What has this person done when they’ve been on custody? You know, the disciplinary reports─ I think the parole board looks at that.

PAROLE BOARD MEMBER: I’m still trying to wrap my head around that, that you’ve spent almost seven-and-a-half years in disciplinary detention.

JOSEPH DONOVAN: And I’m embarrassed about this, but I was despondent. I had just been told I’m going to do the rest of my life in prison. It seemed like all was lost, sort of.

INGRID MARTIN, Joe Donovan’s Attorney: So we’d sort of expected there’d be some questioning about the disciplinary issues in prison.

PAROLE BOARD MEMBER: Most people don’t spend one third of their incarceration in disciplinary detention.

INGRID MARTIN: The reality is he was a young man who thought he was never going to get out. And he was in Walpole and he was terrified and felt he was really fending for his life at that point.

PAROLE BOARD MEMBER: So now we’re at the point where you’re 20-plus years in. You’re institutionalized. And you came in at a really critical age. You know, everybody in this room─ we all have one thing in common. We were all 17 once. But nobody was raised in prison.

JOSEPH DONOVAN: Yeah.

PAROLE BOARD MEMBER: So now we have to rely on, what’s Mr. Donovan going to really do out there?

JOE DONOVAN: Right.

INGRID MARTIN: The parole board was concerned that he was so broken that he could not be released.

JOE DONOVAN, Sr.: Joe, I love you.

INGRID MARTIN: That’s a horrible idea, that we sent somebody away without the possibility of parole, which we now know is unconstitutional, and now that we go back to fix the mistake, that there would be a thought that, “Oh, well, maybe we’ve damaged him beyond repair.”

REPORTER: Mr. Donovan, based on their questions, what do you think your chances are.

JOE DONOVAN, Sr.: I’m just hoping. I just─ we’ll have a big time for him when he gets out, if he does. He’s got a lot of support. He’s a good kid. I taught him to be that way. He made a bad mistake, and he’s really paid for it. I think he’s more than paid for it, to be honest with you.

NEWS ANCHOR: So Deb, when are we likely to get a decision from the state Parole Board?

REPORTER: Well, there’s no timeframe at all to issue a decision. But what they’ll do is take the information from today’s hearing and they will vote at a separate location─

BETH SCHWARTZAPFEL, Reporter, The Marshall Project: Everybody was holding their breath. I mean, nobody knew what the parole board would do. They have almost unlimited discretion. Parole board members can make decisions for almost any reason. Here you have people who have almost nothing to gain by taking a risk on somebody. If they release you and you do something terrible, then they know their heads are going to roll.

So it’s always safer to deny than to than to grant somebody parole. And everybody thought that they would take the same tack with juveniles. But that’s actually turned out to not be true.

NEWSCASTER: And we begin at 5:00 with breaking news involving a man convicted of murder as a teenager and sentenced to life in prison.

NARRATOR: One week after the juvenile lifer hearings began, the parole board issued its first decision.

NEWSCASTER: This lays the foundation not just for Frederick Christian but for up to 65 inmates─

NARRATOR: First to be released wasn’t Joe Donovan or Anthony Rolon, but a man named Frederick Christian.

FREDERICK CHRISTIAN: I didn’t want to die in prison.

NEWSCASTER: Frederick Christian has been in jail since 1994.

NARRATOR: Like Rolon and Donovan, Christian was also 17 at the time of his crime, and the district attorney in the case didn’t think Christian was fit for release, either.

TIMOTHY CRUZ: ─convicted cold-blooded killer. Christian shows only remorse now that he has his freedom.

I testified against his release. I was incredibly disappointed with that decision.

─a senseless crime. I’m asking you to deny his petition.

I’m all for second chances. I’m all for helping the kids that we can help. But I’m also understanding that there are some kids that we really can’t help, not to the detriment of the rest of society.

JOSHUA DOHAN, Dir., Juvenile Division, MA Pub. Defenders: It’s kind of a specious argument that these people might commit another crime. We have decades of data on people getting out of prison having committed murder, and their recidivism rates are very low.

It’s unfortunate that we don’t look at it more from the other direction of how much human capital are we wasting in prison. The whole system should stand together and say, “We’ve looked at the research. We’ve looked at the history. It doesn’t make sense to keep all these people in prison forever.”

ANTHONY ROLON: After the parole hearing, I went back to prison. Every day, I thought about the decision. My experience with decisions when I was incarcerated was always deny─ Always.

So the parole lady came to my cell. She said, “Are you Anthony Rolon?” I said, “Yes, it’s me.” She sat down and she said that, “You got parole.” I just─ I just─ I just cried, man, you know, all─ all that─ all the pain and stuff, you know? I just thought about my family, my mother. Finally, she have an opportunity to not think that her son─ she can wake up and not be, like, “Oh, is my son going to die in prison today?” I thought about Bobby. A lot─ a lot of things just started coming in at that time.

NARRATOR: And then there was Joe Donovan.

NEWSCASTER: For the third time in recent weeks, a man sentenced as a teenager to mandatory life in prison for murder has been approved for parole. Thirty-eight year old Joe Donovan will be released after 18 months of─

NARRATOR: In August 2014, Joe Donovan became the third juvenile lifer in Massachusetts to get paroled. After more than a year in step-down programs, Donovan was trying to pick up a life he left behind when he was 17.

This was Donovan’s first trip home in 23 years, a return to the house where he grew up and where his mother still lives.

JOE DONOVAN: Hi, Ma.

Mrs. DONOVAN: I can’t believe you’re here! Twenty-three years of praying! [weeps]

JOE DONOVAN: Oh, man.

Mrs. DONOVAN: Praise God. [weeping] Oh, I love you so much!

JOE DONOVAN: I love you, too, Ma.

BARBARA KABAN: One of the things that is interesting to me─ we all talk about being institutionalized and we think about that a lot. I see less of that than I expected. Right now, we have 11 individuals who are out. They’ve had different experiences getting out, but no one has been pulled back in for a violation of their parole. They are adjusting to being out rather rapidly on many levels, and that’s impressive.

INTERVIEWER: How long have you been here?

ANTHONY ROLON: Been here for about a year.

NARRATOR: We caught up with Anthony Rolon about a year into his re-entry from prison.

ANTHONY ROLON: I have a lot of pictures. Let’s see─

NARRATOR: He was now looking back at his life and trying to make sense of it all.

INTERVIEWER: This is an interesting photo.

ANTHONY ROLON: Yeah, my father.

INTERVIEWER: Wow.

ANTHONY ROLON: Everything was innocent at that time.

NARRATOR: Rolon’s father died while he was in prison. Drug dealing and alcohol had ended his life at 43. And Anthony vowed to do it differently himself if he got the chance.

ANTHONY ROLON: This is the first picture I took at─ that was the first day I was out. Yeah, man. That right there, that just says it all. It was a nice day. And it was just, like─ you can just see it in my face, man. It was unbelievable. It was an unbelievable feeling.

INTERVIEWER: And did you feel like you had that moment of, like, “Oh, I’m free” or “I’m on parole,” and that’s the difference?

ANTHONY ROLON: I mean, I knew I had restrictions. I understood that. But I mean, the restrictions that I had before and restrictions I have now, I’m free. I mean, I’m free.

When I walked out the gates and I seen my mother, I was able to hug her, I felt free.

Two weeks after I was out, I was working. That was very, like, new to me. I always sold drugs, so I never had a job. So I’ve been having a lot of moments since I’ve been home. But the birth of my daughter was just like─ trumps all those moments.

I seen my daughter born. I was in the delivery room. Everything came back because at one moment, I took a life. Now I’m seeing a life come into the world that I gave to, that I helped bring in.

And to know that I’m responsible for this little girl─ I have to make sure she doesn’t go through what I went through. It’s my duty as a father to be there for her.

EMANUEL HOWARD: Anthony called himself at the Parole Board hearing a 17-year-old thug. And he’s not that 17-year-old thug anymore. He’s a father of a child. He’s a productive employee of a national company. He’s a taxpayer. He’s a law-abiding citizen.

TIMOTHY CRUZ: You know, there are certain times when kids are going to make mistakes. And when you’re young and irresponsible, you’re young and irresponsible. But when you’re talking about capital cases, when you’re talking about people who have taken the life of somebody else, we need to make sure that we look at those and make sure that the people who have hurt someone or killed someone in our county─ we make sure they’re accountable for their actions.

I think you have to look at what the facts are for each individual case, and then maybe there is some redeeming factor that you can talk about and perhaps have a conversation. Parole has their job. The defense attorneys have their job. I understand that. But if you killed a man in cold blood, and now 20 years later, we let you back out but you say you’re not going to do it again, do I have a guarantee on that? I don’t think I do.

NARRATOR: During the year in which Anthony Rolon, Joe Donovan, and nine others were released, roughly half of those who came before the Board were granted parole. But since that time, no other juvenile lifers in the state have been released.

Donovan himself is still living in a half-way house while working full-time, and he’s dealing with the reality that he will now be on parole for the rest of his life, only one violation away from going back to prison.

NEWSCASTER: It was the Supreme Court ruling in January that banned mandatory life sentences for juveniles retroactively─

NARRATOR: Meanwhile, in January 2016, the Supreme Court issued another ruling on juvenile lifers, this time forcing those states that had resisted the Miller decision to finally act.

In Montgomery versus Louisiana, the court reaffirmed that even those who commit heinous crimes are capable of change and must be afforded an opportunity for release.

BRIAN STEVENSON: We obviously would have preferred the court articulate a categorical ban on all life without parole sentences for children. So I think we’re still in conversation with not just the Supreme Court on this topic, but with the country. And I think if we’re successful, we can begin to imagine how our criminal justice systems can start to change and not just be a place where we impose the harshest, most extreme punishments that the law will allow us to get away with, but instead a place where we try to help people recover.

NARRATOR: In the wake of this latest Supreme Court decision, hearings are now starting to go forward for cases around the country. But just how many juvenile lifers are released will be up to judges, juries and parole boards.

And Evan Miller himself? Five years after the landmark Supreme Court decision in his case, Miller finally got a chance for his own resentencing hearing in March 2017. His legal team presented several days worth of witnesses, and the victim’s family showed up to remind everyone of the decades of grief that follow a violent act.

CANDY CANNON, Daughter of Evan Miller’s Victim: It is upsetting that we’re having to go through this again, having to relive horrific details of what happened to my father. He deserves life without parole, doesn’t need to ever get out so that he can’t do this to somebody else.

MARSHA LEVICK, Exec. Dir., Juvenile Law Center: You know, it feels like a giant step to actually release any of these individuals back into their communities. I mean, this experiment is unfolding. These hearings will go forward because we must do them. The Supreme Court has required that they be done. But what we can say about this 5 or 10 years from now I think is a very fluid question.

[As of this airing, there has been no decision from the Alabama circuit court on Evan Miller’s parole.]

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