Life Without the Possibility of Parole. The first time I ever heard those words was in a courtroom at 16 years old. I wondered if such a thing even existed. The idea that they could get away with convicting me had not even occurred to me yet because I knew I had done nothing wrong. I thought that being in court was all just a mistake, this was all some big misunderstanding that would surely be cleared up at some point. Surely.
Even though I was being prosecuted in adult court I spend the first 13 months in juvenile hall. For the purposes of the justice system, the government simply decides when you are and are not a child. I was too young to be housed with adults, by their own law I had to be held in juvenile hall, surrounded by other kids. But when the government wants to take the rest of my life away from me suddenly their law says that I am an adult.
As the days passed while I sat in juvenile hall the severity of what I was being accused of began to sink in. At least to the extent it could at 16 years old. No matter how unreal it all felt, what they were doing to me was very real. They had already taken my freedom from me. Days turned into weeks and then months. No one was trying to clear up any mistake. They were getting ready to take me to trial for a crime I had nothing to do with.
Those first trips to the courtroom seemed so foreign to me. Having to sit up in the jury seats all alone, away from my family and friends; they were so close but still so far away. We were not even allowed to talk to each other. We would sneak a wave or a smile at each other when no one was looking.
To be sitting there so isolated in a room full of people felt unreal. My lawyer would come talk to me for a few minutes before it began. He would ask me if everything was OK at the juvenile hall and then assure me that he had everything under control in court. Then court would begin. The judge would come in and these people, adults who didn’t even know me would talk about me as if I weren’t even there. Discussing their intentions for the rest of my life, like I didn’t matter anymore.
I began to get scared. I could not understand why no one was fixing this obvious mistake. My own lawyer never even tried to. Especially when the prosecution changed the time frame of the crime and concealed it until after trial had already begun, which in the end was their biggest weapon against me. My lawyer knew the severity of what was happening to me and never informed me or tried to prepare me for how serious everything really was. Instead he always kept insisting that everything would be alright. He was wrong.
Looking back on it at almost 30 years old having lost 12 years of my life, I now understand how serious it all was. But to a kid who doesn’t have the comprehension to completely understand what is going on, let alone the ability to assist in my own defense, all I could think at the time was “Why aren’t they talking about how this is all a huge mistake? Don’t any of them care that I am innocent?” They had to know what they were doing to me was wrong. In some ways it never seemed real because I knew I didn’t belong there. How could it possibly be real that the government wanted to take the rest of my life away from me?
How does a kid thrown into the adult criminal justice system comprehend that someone wants to take the rest of their life away? Most teenagers can’t even see past the end of high school. The government wanted to sentence me to Life Without the Possibility of Parole, I did not understand this and it scared me. I had no place in adult criminal court. I was scared but I had no idea how scary everything I was facing truly was because I could not comprehend it at just 16 years old. Yes I was afraid, but I should have been terrified.