Sharletta Evans

Casson Xavier Evans was Sharletta Evans’ youngest son. On December 21, 1995, Casson, who was just 3, was caught in the crossfire of a drive-by shooting. He died in her arms.

Three teenagers were charged in the crime, and two were tried as adults. Sharletta attended each day of the trials. In shock, overcome by grief, and confused as to how children so young could get access to guns and commit such a crime, Sharletta allowed her family to speak for her at the trial and during sentencing. She did not question the District Attorney’s plan to use the boys “as an example.” One of the boys was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Eleven years after Casson’s murder and after she had received several letters from two of the youth involved in Casson’s death, Sharletta began to correspond with them.

Sharletta knew that, in particular, the boy charged with firing the gun that killed Casson had changed. At the time of his arrest, he read at less than a third-grade level. Both of his parents had abandoned him, forcing him to raise himself with the help of grandparents. Since the crime, however, he has earned a GED, kept a clean record in prison, and committed to his faith. Most importantly, he has expressed his remorse in his letters to Sharletta many times over the years since the shooting.

Over the years, Sharletta’s perspective changed, and she emerged as a leader in Colorado and nationally for banning life without parole sentences for children.

Normally, Colorado law prohibits convicted felons from meeting with their victims or the victim’s family members.  However, as a result of Sharletta’s advocacy, the Colorado Department of Corrections began a pilot program allowing these meetings to take place. Sharletta and her surviving son, Calvin, were the first victim’s family to be accepted into the program.

On May 23, 2012 Sharletta and Calvin met with the person involved in Casson’s death face-to-face for the first time. They remain in close contact, corresponding by letter and speaking by phone three times a week

Read more from Sharletta here and here.

Ronald Simpson

Ronald Simpson lost his only son on Father’s Day in 2001, when he was killed by a 14-year-old boy.

Ronald said the teen was under the mistaken impression that Ronald’s son had been physically abusive to his girlfriend, who was the boy’s sister. The boy confronted Ronald’s son and shot him.

Ronald was devastated at the loss of his son, but he believed the boy was capable of change and rehabilitation. Ron advocated for the boy to be tried as a juvenile.  The courts honored his request, and the boy  was sentenced in juvenile court to serve time until he reached the age of 21, assuming he demonstrated he had been rehabilitated and met various other requirements.

Ronald recognized that, at the time of the crime, this teen little grasp for the severity of his actions. When Ronald initiated communication with him, the teen immediately expressed remorse. When the boy’s case was reviewed after seven years, Ronald supported release because the youth had undergone significant change while incarcerated and deserved a second chance at life. The court released the young man, and he and Ronald remain in touch. In fact, they are now related; the boy’s sister gave birth to Ron’s grandson.

Ronald always understood that “it would serve no purpose for the boy to serve life in prison.” Sending a child to prison for life would only bring more harm to him, his family and the community. Instead, he believes rehabilitating and reintegrating youth into society serves a beneficial purpose to them and their communities. While he believes that everyone who commits a serious crime must be held accountable, he thinks “we must seek accountability that makes sense.”

Mona Schlautman

On October 8, 1992, 15-year-old Jeremy Drake was killed by two of his friends, one of whom was 17-year-old Jeremy Herman. Herman pled guilty to kidnapping and was sentenced to life in prison.

A year and a half after Drake’s death, Mona Schlautman, his mother, told Herman at his sentencing that she forgave him. “I was angry and I was upset, but just because of my own personal spiritual growth, I knew right away I needed to forgive – if not for him, for my own sake,” she said.

After some initial difficulties getting in contact, Herman and Mona connected and began exchanging letters in 2004. Mona met with Herman in 2005, and they continued communicating by letters and phone calls. Mona observed firsthand Herman’s growth and progress. He went from a deeply-troubled high school dropout to someone Mona regards as a well-read and intelligent man. “He wrote me beautiful letters, repeatedly expressing his sorrow…”

Mona believes all youth should have a chance at parole and supported Herman’s release. She even testified before the Pardons Board several times in support of a reduction in Herman’s sentence. Ultimately, Herman’s original life-without-parole sentence was reduced to 40 years in prison. When Herman was released early in 2012 for good behavior, Mona was there to greet him.

Mona said she believed “he needed a chance at life. I couldn’t discount what he had done, but he deserved a chance.” She says she “got a sense of joy out of helping” Herman, and that she chose to live her life with that mindset rather than the mindset of bitterness and anger. While Mona readily admits that the wounds of losing her son have never healed, she also believes that her own pain does not justify keeping Herman in jail for the rest of his life. Mona believes that all children should receive a second chance at life like Herman if they show they can be responsible moral citizens.

Mary Johnson

Mary Johnson hated 16-year-old Oshea Israel when she met him.

“Who did he think he was that he could take my child’s life?” she said.

Oshea killed Mary’s only son, Laramiun Byrd, 20, during a dispute at a party in Minneapolis, Minnesota on February 12, 1993.

Searching for answers on how to heal, Mary founded From Death to Life in 2005, an organization dedicated to ending violence through healing and reconciliation between families of victims and perpetrators. Through that organization, Mary enters into dialogue with parents whose children have been killed, as well as families of those who have taken a life. Mary soon realized that her failure to forgive was “like a cancer that eats you from the inside,” and that if she wished to heal, she needed to meet her son’s murderer.

Twelve years after Laramiun’s death, Mary reached out to O’Shea, who agreed to meet her. But when the day of the visit came, Mary was suddenly overcome with emotion. For Mary, “the anger and bitterness was over. I just knew it. I had reached the point of total forgiveness.”

Oshea was released on March 7, 2009, after serving sixteen years of his sentence. Mary’s organization hosted a homecoming celebration for Oshea and his family. Mary also introduced Oshea to her landlord, who invited Oshea to move in next door to her. Now, Mary considers him to be her “spiritual son,” and he sees Mary as his second mother.

Mary and Oshea now regularly travel together around the nation speaking at various functions to a wide range of audiences about anti-violence and forgiveness.

To Mary, justice is giving young offenders a chance to be rehabilitated.

“What does it achieve to lock them all up for their entire lives?” she said. “If they don’t have a chance to reform and heal and to show others how to learn from their mistakes, there’s no hope for anybody.”

To learn more about Mary’s story, read her story of forgiveness here, listen to her storycorps interview here, and visit the homepage of her organization here.

Linda White, PhD

Linda White never imagined that she would become an ardent critic of the practice of sentencing youth to spend their lives in prison when her 26 year-old daughter, Cathy, was killed by teenage boys on November 18, 1986.

Days later, the boys who murdered Cathy were arrested, confessed to the killing, and led police to Cathy’s body. One of them, Gary, pled guilty and was sentenced to 54 years in prison. He was 15 at the time.

Spurred by the unexpected death of her daughter, Linda went to college for a bachelor’s degree in psychology and studied to become a death educator and grief counselor. She soon began conducting research into the theory behind prison sentences. Eventually, Linda decided to pursue a doctorate. Her research brought her into direct contact with incarcerated individuals. As a professor at Sam Houston Community College, she began teaching a few classes to inmates at various facilities. There, for the first time, she interacted with people facing the possibility of spending most of their lives behind bars. She determined that even the most hardened individuals can develop a sense of deep remorse and desire to make amends for past misdeeds when given the chance.

When Linda and Gary finally met in 2001, Linda found that Gary was a different person – a remorseful grown man who was desperately seeking both forgiveness and a chance to start making up for all of the hurt that he had inflicted. Linda was more than willing to grant Gary forgiveness, and he eventually earned the second chance he so desperately wanted.

Gary has been out of prison since 2010. In that time, he has immersed himself in a new community, found and held a job, and begun working at his church with people addicted to drugs and alcohol – a role in which his minister says he has made an incredible difference. Gary has remained out of trouble. He and Linda remain in contact and he never stops apologizing for the pain that he caused. To Linda, Gary is a perfect example for why life sentences are so unjust, especially for children.

“Cathy,” Linda says, “would be gratified to see Gary have a second chance.”

Jeanne Bishop

Jeanne Bishop’s pregnant younger sister, Nancy Bishop Langert, and brother-in-law Richard Langert, died when a 16-year-old boy broke into their home and killed them.

Jeanne attended every day of the two-week trial. The jury found the teen guilty in two hours. At the time, Illinois law required that the only possible punishment for a double homicide committed by a child was mandatory life without parole. There was no opportunity for the family to give a victim impact statement to share how they had been affected by the crime. Even though Jeanne opposed the death penalty, she was initially happy that David would spend the rest of his life in prison.

Based upon her faith, Jeanne forgave the teen in her heart but decided never to mention him. When the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 2012’s Miller v. Alabama that it is unconstitutional to impose a mandatory life-without-parole sentence upon a child, Jeanne realized the teen might be re-sentenced and wasn’t sure how she felt about that possibility. As far as she knew, he was still remorseless. When a friend asked her how she knew that, Jeanne realized she couldn’t say.

More than 20 years after the crime, Jeanne wrote to the person responsible for the death of her loved ones, telling him that she forgave him and was wrong for not telling him sooner. She also offered to visit him in prison. In response, Jeanne received a fifteen-page, double-sided letter from him. In his letter, he confessed to the crime for the first time and expressed his deep regret.

On March 3, 2013, Jeanne drove to the prison and met face-to-face with him for the first time. She told him about the damage he had done to her family. As Jeanne watched him react to her story she thought, “This is the best victim impact statement I could ever ask for… He has to hear me.”

Over the course of the last three years, Jeanne has visited him in prison at least a dozen times. She says their relationship has grown into a strong, honest, and respectful one. Importantly for Jeanne, each time they meet, Jeanne tells him about her sister and brother-in-law. He told her that getting to know Jeanne and her family members makes him feel even more remorseful for the harm he caused.

Jeanne knows that many want to write off people like the person involved in her sister’s death because, in their minds, they can never change.  She is a fervent believer that every child should have the opportunity to demonstrate remorse, rehabilitation, and the ability to return to society. “Our loved ones are not honored by mercilessly throwing a young person’s life away.”

Glen Mitchell

Fourteen-year-old Jeff Mitchell was Glen Mitchell’s first born son. On November 4, 1993, Jeff was killed by a group of teens that included 16-year-old Ellis Curry.

The teens were arrested and charged in Jeff’s death. The two youngest boys, one of whom was Ellis, pled guilty.  Prior to their sentencing, Glen and his wife, Margaret, asked to interview the two youngest offenders in order make a recommendation for sentencing.. Ellis immediately showed remorse for what had happened. That led the Mitchells to recommend leniency for him. Ellis was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Although Glen did not forgive Ellis initially, he remained curious about how he was doing in prison and what type of adult he had become.

After he was released, Glen contacted Ellis’ probation officer and arranged a meeting. At that meeting, Ellis described growing up without a father but with a loving and very permissive mother. The two began working together, giving public presentations about ending violence.

In 2010, while Glen was preparing for a presentation at a program, Ellis, who was also a speaker, walked in. At that moment, Glen realized that, at some point along the way, he had forgiven Ellis. Glen recalls that reaching that point was a big step for him and that he believes Jeff would have wanted him to forgive Ellis.

Glen and Ellis have remained in contact and speak together regularly. Glen says Ellis is unquestionably a productive member of society, and he firmly believes that he and his wife did the right thing in asking for leniency. “If you take away their hope, they are lost forever,” says Glen.

Bill Pelke

On May 14, 1985, Ruth Pelke, a 78-year-old grandmother fondly known as Nana, was killed by four teenage girls she allowed into her home when they said they wanted to study the Bible with her.

Bill Pelke, Ruth’s grandson, was a father of children of similar ages to the teenage girls. The juvenile death penalty was still legal, and when prosecutors sought it for one of the assailants and one other girl, Bill’s family did not question the recommendation. At the time, Bill thought that the death sentence was appropriate because, as long as it was the law, his “grandmother deserved that her murderers should receive death.”

However, just a few months after one of the girls, Paula, was sentenced to death, Bill realized that the death penalty was not the right response to the murder of a woman with a tremendous faith in God. He became convinced that his grandmother would have wanted him to show more compassion. In fact, Bill was so certain of this that he wrote to Paula and began petitioning for a sentence for Paula that he felt his grandmother would approve of. Eventually, Paula’s sentence was reduced to 60 years with an early release after 30 years for good behavior.

During her time in prison, Bill had regular contact with Paula – he wrote to her every 10 days while she was on Death Row. Although he wanted to visit Paula immediately, he was not permitted to do so until Thanksgiving of 1994 – eight years after Ruth’s death. He described the meeting as “wonderful”: “Wonderful to have been able to face Paula, and not have the hate, anger and desire for revenge that it would have been so easy to have had, but to have the kind of love and compassion that I feel God wants us to have for all of his creation.”

As a result of attaining her GED and college degree, Paula was released in July 2013. However, the conditions of her parole – for which Bill was not asked to provide input – dictated that she could not make contact with him for two years after her release. While Bill was anxiously waiting to welcome her back into the world, he was heartbroken to learn that Paula committed suicide in May of 2015. Paula left behind suicide notes expressing her deep remorse for the crime she committed 30 years prior.

Bill is devastated that he was not able to be there for Paula and could not continue to express his forgiveness during the past two years. He believes that being able to talk to her may have helped her deal with her feelings of guilt. According to Bill, Paula’s story is a testament to the negative consequences of the overly punitive treatment of incarcerated individuals, even after their release.

Bill feels forgiveness has an immense healing power for all involved in a tragedy, including victims and perpetrators.

Azim Khamisa

Tariq Khamisa was a 20-year-old college student at San Diego State University with a caring family, a beautiful fiancée, a bright future, and a love for life. On the night of January 21, 1995, Tariq was delivering pizzas when he a 14-year-old 8th grader killed him on the orders of an older gang member.

The youth pled guilty to first degree murder and was sentenced to 25 years to life in an adult prison.

Tariq was the only son of Azim Khamisa, a former investment banker. After his son’s death, Azim was very angry, but his anger was not directed toward his son’s 14-year-old killer.

“From the onset, I saw victims on both ends of the gun,” Azim said. “I will mourn Tariq’s death for the rest of my life. Now, however, my grief has been transformed into a powerful commitment to change. Change is urgently needed in a society where children kill children.”

Determined to honor his son, and his son’s love for life, Azim established the Tariq Khamisa Foundation (“TKF Foundation”), which focuses on crime prevention, stopping youth violence and helping youth become productive members of the community through education, mentorship and community service programs. Shortly after the TKF Foundation was established, Azim contacted Ples Felix, the grandfather and guardian of the 14-year-old involved in Tariq’s death, and asked him to work at the TKF Foundation. Azim and Ples have served together on the board of the TKF Foundation for more than two decades.

In addition to the many other youth that Azim has met through his work with the TKF Foundation, he has been in regular contact with the boy who killed Tariq. The youth has since passed his GED and is working towards a degree in Child Psychology.

Azim has invited the person responsible for Tariq’s death, who will be eligible for parole in 2018, to work with him and his grandfather at the TKF Foundation upon his release from prison, to “join in the quest to prevent other kids from going down the same path.” Azim believes that his experience is indicative of the potential in other child offenders, remarking that “all offenders, even the most hardened, have something of value within them. We can turn these kids around.”

Azim believes many families like his can move on in life with greater peace knowing the person who killed their loved one has a chance to be meaningfully rehabilitated and returned to society one day, as opposed to languishing in prison.

Aqeela Sherrills

It has been more than a dozen years since Aqeela Sherrills’ teenage son, Terrell, was killed by another teenager at a party in an upscale Los Angeles neighborhood. April 28, 2015 marked the twenty-third anniversary of a historical peace treaty that Aqeela brokered between two rival Los Angeles street gangs. These two anniversaries represent sorrow and hope; they have shaped Aqeela’s views against life imprisonment for children – even for the teenager who murdered his son.

Home for winter break from studying theater arts at Humboldt State University, Terrell was killed by a 17-year-old at a party. Police never identified Terrell’s killer, but he was quickly identified by people known to Aqeela and his family and friends. Many people were shocked when Aqeela, while addressing the nation on the “America’s Most Wanted” television show, he said he did not want the boy responsible for Terrell’s death to spend the rest of his life in prison. Rather, Aqeela wanted to meet the boy, and he wanted to be sure the youth received appropriate care while carrying out a more appropriate sentence. Aqeela reiterated to the police, to family, and to friends that his primary concern was getting the youth the help that he needed to heal.

Aqeela had been opposed to life without parole for children even before Terrell’s death. A one-time gang member himself, Aqeela negotiated a historic peace treaty between two rival Los Angeles street gangs 25 years ago. He said he understands how and why young gang members turn to violence. Aqeela know personally the impact that sexual, physical and psychological abuse can have on children because he experienced them himself. He has alsoseen that youth can redeem themselves and  play critical roles in reforming their communities.

To Aqeela, a life sentence without the possibility of parole for a 17-year-old is unjust. He recognized that his son’s killer, while having committed a heinous crime, is still a person who could someday contribute positively to his community.

“The community cannot afford to lose another child,” he said. “It is imperative that we give people, especially children, a second chance and the opportunity to redeem themselves. Why destroy two lives? There is a smarter way to deliver justice.”