Living With Murder: Part OneListen
Raney Aronson I’m Raney Aronson, executive producer of the PBS series, FRONTLINE, and you’re listening to The FRONTLINE Dispatch. This time, “Living With Murder," in collaboration with the public radio website Transom.org, and a continuation of our series on juvenile lifers. On the last episode of The FRONTLINE Dispatch you heard, “A Life Sentence: Victims, Offenders, Justice and My Mother” from producers Samantha Broun and Jay Allison. If you haven’t heard it, it’s worth going back and listening to that first. It’s about a violent crime Samantha’s mother survived and how testimony Samantha gave in the aftermath made it increasingly hard for lifers to be released from prison in Pennsylvania. But a series of recent Supreme Court rulings may change that.
Audie Cornish NPR The U.S. Supreme Court has offered a chance of release to about 2,000 prisoners.
Nina Totenberg NPR Today, Justice Anthony Kennedy said that, “A life without parole sentence is always unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment..."
Raney Aronson These new rulings focus on a special kind of prisoner – those convicted as juveniles and given mandatory life sentences. These sentences are now being reexamined, and juvenile lifers who thought they’d never get out are now having the chance to be free. One of them is Kempis Songster. A caution, the program contains descriptions of violence and may not be suitable for some listeners. Here is Samantha Broun.
Samantha Broun There’s a conversation happening in this country about second chances. If you’re not involved with the criminal justice system because of work or family, interest or circumstance, you may not know about it. I do. Because my mother is the victim of a violent crime.
Samantha Broun Hey!
Kempis Songster Hey! Good morning, Sam. You’re recording right now?
Samantha Broun I am recording right now.
Samantha Broun The first thing I just need to just say to you is that I'm recording this for FRONTLINE for their podcast, The Dispatch…. I just want to make sure you're okay with that?
Kempis Songster I'm-I'm fine with it. This is very, very important you know for everybody. I think this is really timely for real.
Samantha Broun That’s Kempis Songster. He knows about the second chances conversation too. In 1987, he murdered a young man named Anjo Pryce. Despite the fact that Kempis was only 15, he he was convicted of first-degree murder and received a mandatory life sentence without parole. He’s what’s called a juvenile lifer. Sentenced to life in prison when he was a child. He’s 45 now and has spent the last 30 years locked up. There are hundreds more juvenile lifers like him in Pennsylvania. And thousands more across the country.
Samantha Broun Do you have a window in your cell?
Kempis Songster If you want to call it that.
Samantha Broun Can you see trees or the sky?
Kempis Songster Noooo.
Samantha Broun I know about the second chances conversation because my mother is the only surviving victim of Reginald McFadden. A juvenile lifer from Pennsylvania who was given a second chance back in the mid-90’s. Within months of being released, he brutally attacked my mother and murdered others. It was a second chance that went horribly wrong. After it happened, I was angry and scared. I even testified in front of a senate judiciary hearing in Harrisburg to make it more difficult for people like McFadden to get a second chance. People, it turns out, like Kempis.
Kempis Songster To bring up the name of Reginald McFadden…it’s a third rail and it’s a trigger. And, you know, not just for people on the outside, not just for victim’s advocates, you know, but for people on the inside as well. People sentenced to death by incarceration, quote and unquote lifers.
Samantha Broun Yeah.
Samantha Broun Simply put, Kempis and I are an unlikely pair. I met him because of a radio piece I produced called “A Life Sentence” which was the previous episode of this podcast. It’s the story of what happened to my mom. A few months after the piece came out, I found myself in front of an auditorium full of men at Graterford Maximum Security Prison in Pennsylvania. I was in Pennsylvania a lot in the months after that story came out. Wanting to talk with people about what happened as a result of Reginald McFadden’s release. How it permanently changed my mother’s life. How it changed things for lifers in Pennsylvania. Kempis was in the audience at Graterford that night. He had heard the piece on the radio and knew I was coming to listen to the story with the men there and have a discussion with them afterwards. What I learned on those visits to Pennsylvania is that after Reginald McFadden happened, instead of getting better at deciding who to give second chances to, Pennsylvania had basically stopped offering them at all. What little hope juvenile lifers like Kempis had for a second chance were gone once McFadden went on his spree. But a recent series of Supreme Court rulings may change that-- rulings that use science to show that adolescent brains are still developing and which call mandatory life sentences for juveniles cruel and unusual punishment; rulings that require that juvenile life sentences without parole be reconsidered. Rulings which may give them a second chance.
Kempis Songster There was one time I didn’t even have this light at the end of the tunnel.
Samantha Broun With these Supreme Court rulings thousands of inmates across the country who – at least from a distance – seem similar to the man who attacked my mother might eventually be let out. Hundreds of them in Pennsylvania, where my testimony helped to keep them in. I wanted to see what the process was like close up. And so I asked Kempis if I could follow him as his case was being reviewed.
Samantha Broun Here you are being offered a second chance. And so I want to know what that looks like. I want to know what that’s like for you. All of that.
Kempis Songster Okay.
Samantha Broun I think in this country, people who aren't in prison and who don't have family members in prison are so separate from it. I think it's really easy to not think about it.
Kempis Songster Yeah
Samantha Broun I’m a journalist. But there’s no way to separate myself from what happened to my mom. So, while this story will be about second chances for inmates like Kempis, it will inevitably be about what it means to for victim’s families too. Can someone like me trust that someone like Kempis will do well out in the world? Or at least not do more harm?
Kempis Songster And so i imagine that you-you plan on attending the resentencing hearing, whenever they schedule it?
Samantha Broun I would like to, yeah.
Kempis Songster Okay. I'd like to see you be there. You know, so you can see with your own eyes at least what it's like.
Samantha Broun Yeah.
Kempis Songster You know what i'm saying, what the process is like. What's-what-what's happening. I'd like for you to be there.
Samantha Broun Yeah. So, we'll talk on Tuesday?
Kempis Songster Cool. And I remember you said that you — so you were gonna talk about your mom. So I didn't know when was that gonna... do you know when... you have an idea when you want it to...talk about that?
Samantha Broun I-I don't. I, uh, I-that probably feels, I mean, I know that feels as big to me as it does to you.
Kempis Songster Right, yeah. You know that's not-I just, I just wanna be there. I'll-I'll-I'll-I'll accompany-accompany you on that stretch of the conversation. You know, you have to, you have to take me on that part of the conversation, you know what I mean?
Samantha Broun Yeah. But-but I'll also say this Kempis, that if you ever have questions for me about that—
Kempis Songster Yeah, I do—
Samantha Broun You know, I-I-I-I feel like, I do feel like this could and should be a two-way conversation. And-and I—
Kempis Songster Okay.
Samantha Broun Feel comfortable with that. And so, so if you ever feel like there's a moment where you have a question about it, I think it's totally fine for you to turn the tables and ask me.
Kempis Songster Okay.
Samantha Broun Yeah.
Kempis Songster I do. I do, by the way, I do.
Samantha Broun Kempis and I began talking in December of 2016. With him sitting at a bank of phones on his cellblock in Graterford and me nearly stuffed in a closet in my house in Massachusetts. One microphone taped to my cell phone and another pointed at my mouth - the only work around I could find after the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections told me I couldn’t record him in person. We talk once or twice a week over the next seven months. Each call lasts 15 minutes before we’re cut off. And every 5 minutes we’re reminded by an automated voice that the call originated from a Pennsylvania Prison. That it’s subject to recording and monitoring. When we are cut off, Kempis calls back again. Four, five, sometimes six times. At this time in our conversation, Kempis was waiting to have his sentence reconsidered by a judge.
Samantha Broun Where are you at right now? Is it-how is it-how does it feel right now for you?
Kempis Songster Sam, I mean sure there’s a biological imperative to be free. All creatures, you know, have a biological imperative to be free. So naturally, there’s that-that-that-that yearning. However, I have no right. You know, I’m not entitled to anything… you know I’m not innocent.
Samantha Broun We’ll get to Kempis’ crime. What you need to know for now is that in 1987 Kempis Songster and his friend Dameon Brome were found guilty of the murder of Anjo Pryce. It was a brutal murder that involved a survival knife. When it was all over, Kempis and Dameon hid Anjo’s body in the truck of Anjo’s car. They were arrested 10 days later.
Kempis Songster I would have loved if my narrative was, you know, there was a bump in the night in my home and I went downstairs to see what it was. And I defended my family and that’s why I’m here, right?
Samantha Broun Yeah.
Kempis Songster I would feel better if that was my narrative, or self-defense or something like that. But that's-that’s not my narrative, you know?
Samantha Broun As a person on the other side of this, I know what it’s like to live with something every day.
Kempis Songster Yeah.
Samantha Broun That it just – whether it’s in your brain or not – it courses through your system. There is some low-grade, something that’s just in your system every day.
Kempis Songster Yeah, yeah. You’re so right because it’s not that you’re trying to forget it. At least for me, it’s not like you’re trying to put it behind you. I think that would add insult to the injury that the act has caused. Because if the families who have lost someone to a senseless act of violence, to my act of violence – cause it’s permanent for them. Someone that used to be here is not here anymore. And is always not here anymore. You know, and that’s how I look at it now. You know that it’s even more than just what I’ve done to an individual, it’s what I’ve done on a cosmic level. I have to convict myself to try to set right.
Samantha Broun In telling you about Kempis Songster, and about how he and Dameon came to murder Anjo Pryce, I do it with the Pryce family in mind. I’m aware they may be listening. I know that this may not be easy for them. I’ve spoken to them too. You’ll hear from them later. I’m also thinking of other victims and their families. I’m mindful of my mother. Always. And, I know there will be those who say that it’s a waste of time for me – or anyone - to listen to the story of someone like Kempis Songster. They’ll say he’s a murderer and his story doesn’t deserve to be heard. I get it.
Samantha Broun Kempis says he was 7 when he came to Brooklyn from Trinidad. He lived with his mom who worked several jobs to support them as a single parent. Records show that Kempis was a smart kid and was placed in gifted classes right away. By all accounts he had a good relationship with his mom and kept out of trouble. Around 12, things began to change.
Kempis Songster I started seeing education as a long, tedious, unnecessary, and life consuming route to the American dream.
Samantha Broun It was the late 80s and crack cocaine came to his neighborhood.
Kempis Songster Crack cocaine affected you whether you did crack cocaine or not. It changed everything. I’m looking at these things. I’m seeing people that — you know, they're losing weight. I’m seeing more people looking ashen. Almost like the undead scurrying about. And I started seeing people my age, you know, shining with mysterious accomplishments.
Samantha Broun What do mean?
Kempis Songster Gold chains. Driving BMWs and Benz’s. I just knew that things had changed and maybe I would have to change with it, you know?
Samantha Broun Kempis told me that by the time he was 14 he was depressed, that he downed a bottle of aspirin hoping he might die. When he was 15, he said his friend Dameon began talking about running away.
Kempis Songster I got a call from him. He said listen. I’m getting ready to leave. I’m going to Philadelphia. So, I’m standing there, holding the receiver to my head. And I’m like right now? And he said, yeah. I’m getting ready to leave. He said, you coming? So I’m looking at my little brother Trey, he’s playing on the ground with his toys. Looking around the house. Dameon is still on the phone. He said, Yo! Are you still there? So I said, yeah, yeah. I’m thinking. He said, speak now or forever hold your peace, man. So I’m tugging a war and, you know, I said all right. Okay, okay man. Where do you want me to meet you?
Samantha Broun It was June. Kempis was a week short of completing the 9th grade.
Samantha Broun: Did you have any doubts?
Kempis Songster Yeah, of course. Of course I had doubts. I never did anything like this. This was a complete break from any kind of respect that I had for my mom. Even though I knew that I was — I definitely knew I was-I was doing something wrong, I didn’t stop myself. I-I-I was—something was still pulling me.
Samantha Broun: Kempis had just started high school when he started to stray. Crime was up and a lot of fear was directed at young people. Specifically, young black men.
TV 1 It is a troubling phenomenon that is blurring the line between children and adults in many criminal courtrooms across the United States. With more and more juveniles committing once unthinkable crimes, judges are taking a harder line when it comes to sentencing.
TV 2 This generation is desensitized to violence. It’s not quite the taboo that it once was.
TV 3 The next generation of young criminals we’re told, will be more dangerous and violent than anything we’ve ever seen in this country. There’s even a name for them: super predators.
TV 4 A super predator is a young juvenile criminal who is so impulsive, so remorseless that he can kill, rape, maim without a-a-giving it a second thought.
Laurence Steinberg During the crime wave of the 1980s and early 90s, people began saying that the juvenile justice system wasn’t doing it’s job and juvenile crime was increasing as a consequence of that…that the juvenile justice system was too soft on crime.
Samantha Broun Laurence Steinberg is a developmental psychologist at Temple University in Philadelphia. He focuses mainly on adolescence and young adulthood.
Laurence Steinberg And you have this really massive experiment done in which every state in the country starts to change the way that it treats juveniles who commit serious crimes, even serious non-violent crimes.
Samantha Broun Bradley Bridge, a long time public defender in Philadelphia, explains that in reaction to these super predator theories, a lot of states around the country turned to mandatory sentencing schemes for juveniles.
Bradley Bridge The theory was that if we incarcerate and incapacitate that group of people, that will have a substantial impact, uh, long-term on crime rates in general. Uh, it turned out not to be true, but that was the theory at that time, which is why a number of states enacted rather onerous statutes, uh, dealing with juveniles that go back to the 80s.
Samantha Broun In other words, starting in the 80s, in response to the super predator theories, states began making life sentences without parole mandatory for first and sometimes second-degree murder regardless of the age of the offender. The result: thousands of juveniles sentenced to life in prison without parole across the country. Bridge explains that Pennsylvania had a head start.
Bradley Bridge One thing that distinguishes Pennsylvania from other places around the world or the United States, is the length of time for which that has been the penalty… Those penalties, the first and second-degree murder penalties, were long standing in Pennsylvania. They go back to the 1800s.
Samantha Broun And so Pennsylvania, where Reginald McFadden was from and where Kempis Songster is now, became the juvenile lifer capital of the world. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, nearly 72% of juvenile lifers from Pennsylvania are black and 9% are Latino. Although the United States hasn’t banned life sentences without parole for juveniles, by 2012 the Supreme Court had ruled that it couldn’t be a mandatory sentence for juveniles, including those convicted of murder. And then in 2016, they declared that that ruling applies retroactively. Meaning any juvenile sentenced to mandatory life without parole needs to have their sentence reconsidered. It was the work of people like developmental psychologist Laurence Steinberg and his neuroscientist colleagues that helped win these cases.
Laurence Steinberg Developmental immaturity mitigates somebody’s criminal responsibility; the same way that mental retardation might mitigate somebody’s criminal responsibility. It doesn’t make them not guilty, but it makes them less guilty in a way that should be taken into account in coming up with a proper punishment, a proper response to the crime.
Samantha Broun By using scientific research and brain scans Steinberg and his colleagues showed that adolescent brains are in fact different than adult brains. Their findings may not come as a surprise to you.
Laurence Steinberg There’s nothing that’s been said about kids in the Supreme Court decisions that people didn’t already think before science was introduced into this discussion. The first is that they make impetuous decisions, the second is that they’re especially susceptible to coercive influence of others particularly their peers and the third is that their characters are not yet hardened. They can still change and that that’s why we should treat them different than the way we treat adults. Well, everybody already knew that compared to adults, kids were impetuous, susceptible to peer pressure and still growing up, but I suppose it carried more weight to say and now we have scientific proof that this is in fact the case.
Samantha Broun Do adolescents know the difference between right and wrong?
Laurence Steinberg Oh sure. I mean, people know the difference between right and wrong when they’re in early elementary school if not before. Your dog knows the difference between right and wrong. That’s a pretty low bar…. It has nothing to do with knowing right from wrong. It has to do with the ability to exercise complete control over your behavior. You know, I mean, there are very few kids that I’ve ever met who decide in a thoughtful premeditative way, “I think I’d like to be a criminal when I grow up.” I mean, that’s not how it happens. It’s just sort of one thing leads to another for whatever constellation of reasons and that’s the train the person gets on. And it’s hard to get off that train.
Samantha Broun When Kempis and Dameon got to Philadelphia, they connected with members of the Shower Posse – a notorious gang from Jamaica that was dealing drugs in cities across the country. They were known to recruit kids to work in their crack houses. They were known for being violent.
Kempis Songster Just being on our own, the excitement of it. The, you know, the adventure of it. Yeah, it was-it was- it was-it was intoxicating. Poisoning, actually.
Samantha Broun And you’re selling drugs?
Kempis Songster Huh?
Samantha Broun You’re selling drugs.
Kempis Songster Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. We’re selling drugs. From going to school a few weeks ago, to selling drugs.
Samantha Broun And can I ask, you never started using crack yourself? Like did you-do you-did y–
Kempis Songster No.
Samantha Broun No.
Kempis Songster No. I never did any narcotics.
Samantha Broun Yeah.
Kempis Songster Dameon – the same with Dameon. I hate to put it that we were too smart for that because obviously, we weren’t too smart to be in that situation period.
Samantha Broun And when somebody came…
Kempis Songster They would knock on the door, you would serve them. They would slide their money in and you would slide something else out.
Samantha Broun So you don’t open the door.
Kempis Songster No you never open the door. The door is fortified with two by fours and stuff like that, wedged into the ground and wedged into the floor.
Samantha Broun Kempis says they were handling thousands of dollars a day. But made nothing.
Kempis Songster Well, we wouldn’t get cash. But we once in a while, we’d get clothes and sneaks and you know, nice-nice things and stuff like that. But no cash.
Samantha Broun How would you eat?
Kempis Songster They would bring the food.
RECORDING This is a call from Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution Graterford. This call is subject to recording and monitoring.
Kempis Songster They’d bring the food. So, that was my existence. Yeah. And it was mostly young people. We were kids. Teenagers.
Samantha Broun From all over? Were there other kids who had run away?
Kempis Songster Yeah. You know mostly everybody had left their homes. We were all runaways employed in that situation.
Samantha Broun Anjo Pryce, the young man Kempis and Dameon would eventually murder, had left home too. Anjo was from a large Jamaican family. He was 10 when he came to the United States and was in the 10th grade when he ran away from his home in Florida. His family described him as a talented artist. And the Philadelphia Inquirer said, “he left an unfinished mural about American history on the wall in his high school.” By the time Anjo met Kempis and Dameon, he had been missing from home for over a year.
Samantha Broun While Kempis and Dameon were selling crack, Anjo had been promoted. He’d go from house to house. Bringing more drugs, picking up money, delivering food. Kempis mentions Anjo a lot. He feels an obligation never to forget him.
Kempis Songster What if he never ran into me? He would still be here. And looking at it that way, that’s the most realest way I could put it and it’s the way that cuts deepest into me. But I’ve got to put it like that because that keeps my kite tied to the ground. So that I could never get to a point where I get lost in my own growth and my own development. And I forget that at the end of the day, had this person had not run into me, they would still be here.
Samantha Broun If there are thousands of juvenile lifers across the country, there are thousands of victims and victim’s families. These Supreme Court rulings affect them as well. I asked a crime victim advocate about this.
Samantha Broun So do you—Just going back to these Supreme Court rulings, do you remember when they began to come down what was your initial thought? Were you excited? Were you hesitant? Were you worried?
Jennifer Storm Panic…it was panic.
Samantha Broun Jennifer Storm is the Victim Advocate for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Jennifer Storm As a victim advocate we’ve been able to provide to a family that this individual received a life sentence. So barring any appeals that would overturn that, you never have to deal with the criminal justice system again. What this ruling did was it ripped off that certainty of justice from over 500 families in the Commonwealth and said, “Sorry, but what you thought was true, is not true today.”
Samantha Broun In 2016, when the ruling came down requiring that juvenile lifer’s sentences be reconsidered. Jennifer’s office started reaching out to the 500 plus victim’s families in Pennsylvania.
Jennifer Storm A lot of our families woke up in a different world when all of a sudden, we're calling them and we're sending them notifications that are saying, "The person you thought you were never going to have to deal with again is now not only going to be thrust back into the media, the case is going to be in the media, but you're going to have to come back to the courthouse for their re-sentencing hearing if you want to, to give input." Which most do. Not all, but most do. "And then they're going to be parole eligible, most likely. So you're also the going to have to come to the parole board and talk about the reality of this person coming back into your community," in many instances. These individuals took a life and in many cases horrifically and maliciously and pre-meditatively. That's a lot for people to deal with in a split second. And we're finding it has been incredibly victimizing, and incredibly traumatizing. And the word we keep hearing is "betrayal."
Bobbi Jamriska My name is Bobbi Jamriska and my sister was murdered by her 15 year old boyfriend in 1993. She was pregnant with their baby at the time.
Samantha Broun Bobbi Jamriska is one of the victim’s families Jennifer Storm’s office reached out to.
Bobbi Jamriska She was secretly dating this boy. No one in my family knew anything about it. They had broken up and she realized she was pregnant. She also kept that a secret. So she got to the point where she knew she was going to have to tell my mother that she was having a baby. And so she asked to meet the boyfriend in a schoolyard and try to figure out what she was going to do. And so he brought a kitchen knife to the meeting with her in the schoolyard. And I guess they got into an argument there and he stabbed her repeatedly in the neck and chest. And when they found her body, they actually lifted shoe prints off of her stomach.
Samantha Broun They-Can you say that again? They what?
Bobbi Jamriska They were able to lift shoe prints from him stomping on her stomach, off of her stomach when they did the autopsy.
Samantha Broun Bobbi was in her early 20s when her sister was murdered.
Bobbi Jamriska My sister died in November of 1993, and my mother died in August of 1994. She just couldn't deal. And then my mother's mother, my grandmother, died in that November. So in a year, I basically buried four generations of my family if you include my sister's kid. Right?
Samantha Broun Wow. Wow.
Bobbi Jamriska So, it probably changed everything about the trajectory of my life. Because just to deal with that much of that at that age, when I should have been figuring out what I was going to do with my life and what was going to be next, it was really quite some time just wrapping my head around all of that that had happened, and how to live with it and how to move forward.
Samantha Broun Yeah.
Bobbi Jamriska I've had panic attacks. I probably have PTSD even though I've never actually done anything about it. I still have anxiety. I had nightmares for the first couple years fairly often. And just basically at 22, 23 years old shut down for probably quite awhile before I really figured out how to live and how to move on. When all this started to happen where, you know, there were these hearings and these opportunities to speak out... I felt a responsibility to her as well as to all these other victims who maybe can't speak up for themselves, to step out and be more public about it, and-and at least tell this side of the story because quite a bit of the reporting tends to be one-sided about these poor kids that made a mistake.
Samantha Broun …So I know that a lot of the basic premise of these rulings is based on science and neuroscience, which sounds fairly logical to me. You know, the basic premise that adolescent brains aren't fully developed. That while they may know the difference between right and wrong, they often aren't able to stop themselves from doing something that's wrong in a way that somebody older can, and that they still have the potential to change. And I'm wondering do you agree with those basic premises? And if not, where do you differ?
Bobbi Jamriska I probably completely disagree with those premises. And they way that I've always looked at it, and the way that I've always expressed it is, I was a teenager and I probably made some bad decisions as a teenager. But it never occurred to me as a teenager when I had a disagreement to take a knife to a schoolyard and stab somebody to death. It never occurred to me as a teenager to, you know, make a list of horrible things to do to a child and then murder them. It never occurred to me to get a gun and execute a family. Those are some of the cases that I'm familiar with; you know, families that I'm friends with. My own case, obviously. And to say, well they made a mistake, or they didn't have the ability to have judgment, I disagree. There's millions of teenagers in the world and they're not all accidentally or murdering somebody but not realizing the consequences. I disagree. I think if you're someone who calculates and premeditates the murder of another human being, that science means nothing to me. It's more than likely you should not be on the streets.
Samantha Broun I recognize Bobbi’s anger and fear. I hear it in my own voice when I listen to my testimony from the Senate Judiciary hearing in Harrisburg from over 20 years ago. From after my mother was attacked. When I wanted to be sure that someone like McFadden wouldn’t slip through the cracks again.
Samantha Broun Testimony How was all of this possible? That a man, who is sick enough to commit such violent, hideous, destructive crimes just months after being released from prison; a man, who the chief of the South Nyack Police Department describes as having the mentality of a serial killer; how is it that his life sentence without parole is commuted?
Samantha Broun Now, in my conversations with Kempis, my head nods in agreement that sending children to prison for the rest of their lives is harsh. Yes, yes I think. I know people can change. But then my body screams, don’t be fooled! Remember what Reginald McFadden did. How do we know it won’t happen again?
Kempis Songster Yeah. So what are you, what are we talking about today?
Samantha Broun Well, I have to say, now that we’ve brought up the fact that we need to talk about my mom and what happened to her, it’s really hard for me to stop thinking about that. I-I-I just sort of feel like it’s the-it's an elephant in the room kind of thing.
Kempis Songster Yeah. I mean, I’ve been thinking about it all weekend, since you brought it up. You know because I didn’t know if we were going to talk about it today. You know I didn’t know how we were going to talk about it.
Samantha Broun Mmm.
Kempis Songster Let me just say this, Sam. I remember when you came up here to Graterford. And I listened to the conversation that you had after. And I listened to the men, how desperately, they was trying to convey to you how much they — h-how much they appreciated you not seeing us all like a Reggie McFadden. You know, I guess I do want to ask, how have you been able to get to this point?
Samantha Broun Ugh. I don’t, I don't even, I don’t know…I don’t know how to answer that question. I feel like… Ah. This is—It’s hard to talk about this. I feel like, to answer your question, I think I’m a person who’s wired with hope, you know, and wired to see the good in people and to acknowledge people’s struggles. And to see the systems that weigh down on people and make things not fair for everyone. But to have what happened to my mom – to witness that violence and that evil act, it’s really hard to reconcile. I feel like I’m trying to find my way back to believing in that again.
Kempis Songster Yeah.
Samantha Broun And there are plenty of people who are in my shoes who aren’t where I am on this issue. And what would you say to those people? How do we know, how do they know, how can they believe that you’re not Reginald McFadden? And I get that that’s partly informed by the media and politicians who tell us that we should be afraid and there are super predators and…there’s…
Kempis Songster: Nah. I don’t think, I don’t think it’s entirely – I mean. Yeah. You right. That’s a part of it. We know that the media is a part of it. We know the politicians, the tough on crime politicians, but people have every right to be scared. People have every right to be afraid. A lot of horrible things have taken place. You know people have lost family members in gruesome fashion.
Samantha Broun So for me personally, it's like, um, this is about rewiring something in me, that I had before this horrible thing happened to my mom and I’m trying to get back to… It’s like I’m desperate to get back to that. Like I need it to be true that you can change. That you did something terrible at 15 and that you are a changed person now. It’s like a cellular level thing. It’s not—it's, you know…And-and-and to go back to your question of why do I think I can think this way, the, like, one moment that stands out for me, was the first time I saw Reginald McFadden in person. Which was at the court. At the trial. And-and, I had a fantasy seeing him there. I had this fantasy of taking a gun and shooting him. Starting with his feet and working my way up to his knee caps, and all the way up, until he suffered and died. And I realized that if I have that in me, if I have the thought, if my brain can go there, that I would hope that he would have the capacity to remedy himself. To feel remorse, to feel the opposite of that.
Kempis Songster Yeah. Yeah. I mean, agh, yeah. I hope so too. I think about your mom. I don’t know, I don't know what I would say…I think, no I think I do know. I would have to tell her, not on behalf of Reginald McFadden but just on behalf of, just not on behalf of anyone, I just would have to tell her I’m sorry. You know. Because in some ways, I feel responsible, you know, too. You know, I would have to tell her sorry.
Samantha Broun What do you mean you feel responsible too?
Kempis Songster Just, just, I don’t know, I just-that I’ve contributed, you know. I can’t separate myself now from, from violence that takes place in the world, you know?
Samantha Broun Mmmm.
Kempis Songster I can't. Maybe before, if I had never done something like that. But, now that I’ve done it, you know, I’m part of it.
Samantha Broun But you know, I think the longer I live this, the more convinced I am that there is no healing. It’s like the healing doesn’t stop. It shifts. It’s like the trauma doesn’t stop. It, just, it shape shifts. And it, and it sometimes it almost disappears and sometimes it’s so big you can’t see past it. I-I think that’s the thing. It doesn’t go away, and I hope it doesn’t go away for you either. Like I think, I just think, you know, you have to live with what you did too for the rest of your life. And as long as I know that you are carrying that and that that’s propelling you forward in whatever you do, I’ll feel okay. Because, I think it’s the denial of it. Or, the-well it’s done now or that sense that somebody’s healed or it’s been resolved because I-I don’t think it can be.
Kempis Songster I think-I think you’re right. I think you’re right. I’ve been thinking about a possible life outside of these walls. And walking down the street or speaking to somebody…let’s say somebody sees me and knows what I was in prison for, and they yell out murderer. I’ve been thinking about that. You know, thinking about if I tried to do something good or speak about something in society…somebody saying you don’t have a right to say anything, you know, because of…I’ve been thinking about that. You know, and how, how that would make me feel. And I arrived at that same point, that exact point that you just made. That I’m going to have to walk with that for the rest of my life. And I don’t ever want to become, like, insensitive to the pain that I’ve caused. I always want to be re—to-to-to-to-to look at that. And repulsed by it.
Samantha Broun I think talking to you, it changes things. It changes things.
Kempis Songster It does?
Samantha Broun Yeah.
Kempis Songster: How?
Samantha Broun: I think it’s such a simple concept, but…to be able to put myself in your shoes, um.
Kempis Songster Wow.
Samantha Broun And I think that’s partly what you’re saying about hearing my mom’s story, is that for you and for maybe other guys at Graterford, is that they could her and hear how things impacted her, and—
Kempis Songster: Yeah.
Samantha Broun: And so, I just think we just keep going.
Kempis Songster: Let’s do it. Let’s do it, Sam.
Samantha Broun Yeah.
Kempis Songster So, I’ll call you in the morning. Same time. Alright?
Samantha Broun Okay. Alright. Talk to you tomorrow.
Kempis Songster: Okay. Bye bye.
Samantha Broun Bye.
Raney Aronson Next time on the FRONTLINE Dispatch, we continue the story of Kempis Songster, and find out what happens when he is re-sentenced. We’ll hear from the District Attorney’s office:
Chesley Lightsey: Who were these people, really? Who are they when they don't think it matters?
Raney Aronson And we’ll hear from Toshira Pryce, the victim’s sister
Toshira Pryce: I just really hope he’s who he portrays himself to be.
Raney Aronson We’ll get the perspective of a victim’s advocate.
Jennifer Storm In this juvenile lifer kind of climate, it is release, release, release…I think in some instances, maybe more people than should be released.
Raney Aronson And of course, Kempis Songster himself.
Kempis Songster Sometimes, people don’t want you to do anything. They just want you to die. They just want you to sit down, sit in a cell and die.
Raney Aronson That’s coming next time on the FRONTLINE Dispatch. Subscribe now in Apple Podcasts or your favorite podcast app so you don’t miss it.
This story was written and reported by Samantha Broun. It was produced by Samantha and Jay Allison in collaboration with the public radio website Transom.org. For PBS’s FRONTLINE, the story was produced by Sophie McKibben. Sophie is our Series Producer. Jamie York is our Senior Producer, and our Creative Director and Senior Editor is Jay Allison. Jay also does our audio mixing. Andrew Metz is our managing editor, Lauren Ezell Kinlaw is our Series Story Editor, Amy Gaines is our Associate Producer, and our Special Counsel is Dale Cohen. Lisa Palone helped with fact checking. Thanks to Atlantic Public Media in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Music in this episode comes from Stellwagen Symphonette. The FRONTLINE Dispatch is produced in WGBH's Studios in Boston and powered by PRX. I'm Raney Aronson, Executive Producer of the PBS investigative series FRONTLINE, and I hope you'll keep listening to the FRONTLINE Dispatch. If you want more stories like this one, subscribe at our website pbs.org/frontlinedispatch or wherever you get your podcasts.