Prison Reform Crisis
IN THE SENATE OF THE STATE OF FLORIDA
RICHARD SMITH, JR.
CURTIS THOMAS, JR.
KEVIN LITTLE, SR.
PETITION FOR REDRESS OF GRIEVANCE AND TO OFFER OPINION CONCERNING LEGISLATIVE ACTION
Comes now, the above-named Petitioners, all in their proper persons, pursuant to §11.0044, Florida Statute (2021) and herewith petitions this Honorable Body of Congress for the redress of a grievance suffered and to offer a learned opinion concerning legislative action on prison reform. In support thereof, the following is stated:
In the spirit of Sir Edward Coke who penned the Petition of Right (1628) when King Charles, against the mandates of the Magna Carta (1215), began arbitrarily imprisoning his citizenry, WE THE PETITIONERS, in the presence of Congress and the PEOPLE of this Nation, lay out a grievance to be redressed and then offer an inside perspective of legislative action on prison and judicial reform.
When in the course of human events it becomes necessary to connect the course by which we treat humanity under the color of law, the proper action requires that we lay out in plain language both the grievances and the redress sought.
The phrase "tough on crime" was coined by the Nixon campaign and then snowballed into political elections, law-making agenda, judicial sentencing schemes, and even privatized investments. It was touted as if it were a real solution, but then a few years ago the Atlantic Magazine interviewed the writer of Nixon's "tough on crime" speech, and the result was that he admitted that "we knew it was bullshit when we started it."
David C. Acheson, recorded in a footnote in the
landmark precedent Miranda v. Arizona, said "tough on crime" sentencing will have about as much impact on crime rate as an aspirin will have on a brain tumor.
And what you know "was bullshit when [you] started it" turned into sentencing schemes like the and sentencing, and, mandatory minimums and minimum mandatories. You took sound Judicial Discretion from
judges as a result of what we knew was "bullshit when we started it" and in the face of decades of research that shows there is a better method, you stonewall prison reforms that retroactively correct long sentences that do far more harm than good.
It is in that line of logic that the Petitioners seek redress in the for of (a) stop stonewalling prison reform bills and (b) give rehabilitation a meaningful opportunity to reduce recidivism.
We know the cure to crime. We know the cure because we know the cause. Criminogenic factors like anti-social cognitions, substance abuse, family and marital problems, work and school-related issues, as well as clinical and personality disorders. These causes have cures. Humbly, it's worth realizing that had we, as a nation, addressed the real cause and cure of crime, people like Treyvon Martin and George Floyd would still be alive.
The fact of the matter is that the tough-on-crime rhetoric caused an all-out witch hunt for would-be criminals. While police went on hyperalert, many Americans became defensive, annoyed by brutality tactics, and disenfranchised from the very political bonds that tie us together. The result was more police tactics that echo the kind of brute force seen in Salem's witch hunts rather than an evolving nation seeking real solutions.
When will we realize what we have done and fix it? Tomorrow? Next year? After billions more dollars are thrown at a system we knew was "bullshit when we started it"? Morally, today seems the better answer.
The Professor of Sociology at University of Florida said that one out of every six or seven in Florida Department of Corrections are wrongfully convicted. One of the authors of this very petition -- the pen writing this very sentence -- is innocent and has been in prison 21 years suffering the horrors of 2 natural life sentences. Many more are over-sentenced and, as a result, disconnected from their children. And this is equitable justice? Fundamental fairness? Due Process of Constitutional magnitude?
Please understand, distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen of this great Congressional Body, We, The Petitioners,
are on your side. We are citizens and the very substance of that which you swore to protect. We, too, seek real solutions. But enough is enough. Tough on crime had its day and failed everyone miserably.
Opponents of prison reform say the alternative is that we become "soft on crime." The real answer is that we determine ourselves to be "smart on crime" and begin reaching across the aisle, across socio economical and racial divides, and across the very issues that often divide us, and fix it. We have a long road ahead of us, but there is a cure. So in the words of one of our recent Governors "Let's get to work."
For those reasons, it is time to reform the broken system of justice, put an end to tough-on-crime tactics that do far more harm than good¹, and usher in the concept of being SMART ON CRIME by stopping the stonewalling of the reform bills, including but not limited to, gain time of 65%, ending the P.R.R. retroactively, the rewritten felony murder statute, the Citizen's Oversight Committee, the Second Look Provision, aging and chronic-medical prisoners released from custody, and the bill that keeps judicial discretion with the judges and within guidelines.
Having laid out the grievance and redress sought, the PETITIONERS turn our attention in the following pages to
offer real solutions in rehabilitation, and humbly pray for your attention in these matters for the greater good of all.
1. See Gross, J, concurring opinion in Alfonso-Roche v. State of Florida, 199 So.3d 941, 946 (Fla. 4th DCA 2016)(discussing how sentencing has come full circle in the last 40 years and how ur policies have gotten away from the sentencing codes of Ch. 921, Florida Statutes and away from our guidelines (at 946-950). Gross also discusses the practical downside of long-term sentencing being a recent recognition and that it's just beginning to dawn on the correctional authorities and criminal lawyers (at 953-954). See also the cited United States v. Presley, 790 F.3d 699, 702 (7th Cir. 2015) wherein Justice Posner identified three sentencing policies that call into question the propriety of such lengthy sentences. Among them Posner explains that high-risk offenders have a high discount rate -- that is, they weigh failure consequences less heavily than normal individuals, and that increase in sentences are an increase in future not present punishment, and, therefore, have little deterrent effect, if any. He also considers the cost of long sentences to the government, which is not trivial. The bottom line is that we are making a huge mistake.
OPINION ON LEGISLATIVE ACTION
If the cards are always stacked against us, perhaps the game we're playing is somehow rigged.
A "TRUST" ON STAFF SHORTAGES
Interest in working for the Department of Corrections is extremely low. We watch new employees come and go -- usually they speak to us on the way out the door and say they're leaving because of how prisoners are treated. We won't get into a discussion about what that means, but to be fair, corrections is a difficult field.
Today's career-oriented people (especially the younger ones just beginning) are the product of a more liberal paradigm. Because of that, they seek meaningful, as opposed to mere gainful, employment.
They pursue purpose more than profits.
What if you re-appropriated money and put it D.O.E. (Department of Education) rather than D.O.C. and hired educators or counselors for your program dorms or institutions? There is meaningful purpose in helping, being a life coach, and watching a prisoner identify his/her criminogenic factors and face them, or get an education, or reach goals until that "OMG!" moment hits them, and their eyes open to see the world differently.
What if the majority of your Correctional Institutions become "Corrections Institutes" and rehabilitation became the real focus? If that happened, not only would employees find purpose, but the warped institutionalized mentality that fosters recidivism would disappear.
The fact of the matter is that we can, as a STATE, as people, be the first to discover the cure that not only reduces, but effectively eliminates recidivism.
Recidivism isn't about whether I come back to prison or not, it's about the creation of new victims. That paradigm shift is worth whatever dollar amount is necessary to put an end to it. Without any argument, warehousing prisoners isn't the answer -- but there is certainly an answer.
In her book "What works in Therapeutic Prisons," Jennifer Brown discusses how staff have to be properly trained and supported to ensure accurate and consistent implementation of the program, and that the intervention must be systematically monitored and evaluated. The dragnet of mass incarceration is going to need a personal touch to untie, and that means boots on the ground.
Everyday your PETITIONERS work as mentors and life coaches in a therapeutic community at Liberty C.I., and
we know firsthand what it takes to change a life.
Hiring D.O.E. workers/educators/counselors, even former inmates, would put properly trained personnel on the floor and provide the personnel evaluation necessary to discover who is (and who isn't) ready for reentry/second changes.
Schrödinger's cat provides the model of what it is we're saying. This isn't an exhaustive look into the cure -- that would require months of personal interviewing -- but a cat in a box can be dead or alive until observation confirms that it is either one or the other. People in therapy may be thought of as, similar to the cat, both changed and unchanged (or a mixture of the two) until observation (not statistics or paperwork) confirms he or she is ready to be productive and thus worthy of that rare quality of mercy that tempers justice.
The common observation amongst TC workers is there appears to be a moment when the ex-offender "gets it" and the proverbial lights come on. Dramatic shifts in personality occurs until the disorder becomes order almost simultaneously with the "gets it" moment.
Therein lies the cure.
The argument between the treatment module and the punitive module are so wrought with political bonds that
this discussion -- is it's an honest one -- cannot even use those terms. But the fact is, there is a cure. Without a personal touch for observation, it will never happen. Of that you can be sure. But had we had this discussion 40 years ago...
The bottom line is this: No one really wants to work in a prison. Those few who are, have an almost impossible job. The study at Cambridge University says all we need to say, and after five or ten years of a place like prison, both the guard and the inmate are severely impacted, and not for the good either.
However, putting educators/counselors and people who want to help into the TC arena will provide a much needed interest and purpose for new employees.
WHAT ABOUT THOSE WHO WON'T CHANGE?
In this approach we are herein proposing, there will surface the question of what to do with the prisoner who is just hell-bent on not changing. In the next segment you'll see a tier-styled arrangement of prisons themselves that act as a gradual sifting process, and in it you'll see that mixing high-risk and low-risk offenders increases the recidivism and prison violence. By "high risk" and "low risk" we do not mean to imply violent versus nonviolent offenders, nor any
conventional definition; we simply mean those who have a will to improve versus those who do not.
At some point of observation, the D.O.E. worker will come across a phenomena not new to anyone: A sociopath or psychopath. Either one has lost the ability to test whether or not what he or she believes about the world around them is true. Both of them need to be separated and dealt with differently.
The point of this opinion, thus far, has been the objective failures of an impersonal system (i.e., dealing with the so-called criminal via statistics, printouts and paper data) and the need for a subjective and personal approach to deal with people on an individual basis to correct whatever criminogenic problems are at hand. It is during this hands-on, personal, subjective sifting process that a counselor/educator may run across a genuine sociopath or psychopath. When they do, the bottom line is that neither psychosis should be put into public society until they have been treated, and until decisions have been made by psychologists and psychiatrists concerning a treatment plan upon release.
The fact of the matter is that the wrong kinds of people get released from prison at times and they commit horrid crimes that result in a feeling that what we need
is harder sentences. That's untrue. There are too much of the wrong kind who have harsh, long-term sentences that beg justification.
A psychotic act (like the Jimmy Rice Act, only aimed at pathological disorder as opposed to sexual disorders) would allow for a person to be held at a facility indefinitely until decisions are made and we can be confident that the individual won't continue the behavior.
Prison "mentality" borders sociopathology. It's certainly antisocial in its forced belief system.
Prisoners pick up on it immediately and it's the most destructive element in the way of real rehabilitation. Sadly, the mentally was put here (in prison) by sociopaths and psychopaths. It should have been removed from the equation long ago. Some sort of pathological act should be passed so that socio and psychopaths can be isolated in an environment and treated.
WHAT ABOUT THOSE WHO WILL CHANGE?
In the same vein of thinking as it relates to a personal hands-on sifting process to find those who can/should be released, the wise senator correctly asked the question that summed up the issue. He asked, "why is he still in prison after he's been rehabilitated?"
Since rehabilitation is the goal, then the question correctly turns back to the question of why a person is still in prison after rehabilitation. To find those who are rehabilitated, a sifting process is needed.
By "sifting process" I mean hand selecting those who have distinguished themselves as having learned the lesson that Lady Justice has as her legislative intent.
Suppose you had 10 prisons; each one having its own purpose, and each one being more progressive in rehabilitation than the previous prison. The first prison would be the lowest, most punitive: A CM camp (for those prisoners who are destructive and need "controlled" movement).
The second prison would house the AMU prisoners (administrative management unit). The third prison would be a regular prison (some prisoners just want to do their time without being held to a higher standard). The fourth prison would be the common intake/reception center as they currently stand (wherein prisoners would be offered the choice of moving up to the fifth prison for incentive gain, or electing for regular prison).
The fifth prison would begin the process of "sifting" upwardly toward rehabilitation. This would be a Phase One of the faith and character program currently offered, with a mandatory GED program for those who
don't have their GED. The Sixth prison would be Phase Two of faith and character program -- and done
peer-to-peer style in dorms that are therapeutic communities. Here is where the DOE workers and mental health counselors are introduced to the new system.
Instead of being called a "Correctional Institution," change the name to a "Corrections Institute." It may not be politically correct to use the term re-education camp, but if you think I'm suggesting anything less, you're incorrect. The Seventh prison is a peer-to-peer therapeutic community with Phase Three of the faith and character program.
Here, the D.O.E. workers are more concentrated (in number) and continues to be called a Corrections Institute. The Eighth prison steps up in intensity with programs aimed at social adjustments (in thought and behavior). This, too, is a therapeutic prison that is a Correction Institute, and focuses on a dynamic readjustment that teaches social etiquette for social and professional life. It should include marriage and parenting class, but accomplish far more than surface ideology. This polishing school should leave the graduate appreciative of life and the lives of others, and realizing a whole new outlook on life.
The ninth prison should continue in peer-to-peer
therapeutic community dorms, but focus should be on vocational training and college education wherein a person can elect a trade or a degree to take with them. Money management and finances should be a focal point (like learning to dial down the needs so that the individual can afford to live on a budget that is far lower (as opposed to greater) than their income to allow saving). Small financial paradigm shifts, like, buying a cheap, used car and then making "car payments" to yourself rather than the banker cannot only put the person in great financial status in 5 years, but in the greater scheme it lessens criminogenic factors and offers smart options that are realistic.
Financial success has little to do with how quickly money is made, but focuses on what you do with your money after it's made. The men we are in prison with, really need, (and are hungry for), this kind of training.
The Tenth prison is a work-release program. To graduate this stage, the individual has to earn and purchase (a) a car, (b) insurance, (c) a driver's license, (d) clothing, (e) first/last month's rent and security deposit for a future home or apartment, and (f) a minimum of $3,500 in savings.
If a prisoner can elevate themselves through all of
that, then indeed the question turns to "why are they still in prison?"
A POINT OF CLARITY
The system has been gamed.
We don't want to say it, but we know without a doubt that the system has been gamed. As humans, we seldom know how to wield the raw power of intelligence within us. Historically, we design a system (say, for trade or commerce) and then gamers game the system. It's called gamesmanship -- the art of striking foul blows that aren't necessarily outside the rules. So then we redesign the system. Then gamers game the system. To fix the problems, we redesign the system again. Then gamers game the system again.
What happens next is that we scrap the old system with all its amendments, and build and entirely new system. Eventually, gamers enter in with quantitative gamesmanship, and the process continues until we scrap another, build another, and eventually exploit it. We do that ad infinitum, ad absurdum.
From Ur-Nammu's Code to Hammurabi's Code, to the 12 tables of ROM and on to the Magna Carta and our United States Constitution, those represent a scrapping of old, game systems and building a new one. As far as economics are concerned, the same is happening today.
Capitalism, socialism, and communism have been gamed, amended, revised, and regamed so much that the next step will be "scrap the old, introduce the new." That, for sure, is the conversation for forward thinkers of economists. Similarly, our present system of criminal justice is so engrossed in gamesmanship that politics and money decide the outcomes, not the genuine truth-seeking. The estimates for innocent people in prison is far beyond the 100,000 mark. It's around 350,000.
Remember, those are humans. People. Citizens. And we have names. I'm one of them. I was put in prison behind a flawed felony murder theory and sentenced to two life sentences, plus 15 years without parole behind a flawed P.R.R. sentencing scheme. More so, I'm innocent of the crime entirely. I was literally just there.
But the system had a crime -- and now it needed criminals. The shooter was resentenced a few years ago to 25 years... And I remain in prison with LIFE. My appeals were a sham. No one listened. No one even cared. And I'm only one of an estimated 350,000 humans. If I manufactured a lawnmower that had a design flaw where the blade would come unbolted in use, and it cut the legs off an estimated 350,000 humans, you'd make me
take it off the shelf until I fixed the flaw.
Our idea of justice and corrections, police tactics and prosecution, sentencing and rehabilitation, need to be scrapped, taken off the shelf, and fixed.
To prove the point, not one person reading this petition will take me serious enough to look into this. My name is Michael Jason Nicks. When a system is capable of errors that cannot be remedied, the only place for them is a scrap yard.
For that reason, prison and judicial reform are not just something we believe to be a good idea that we'd be happy to see happen, but they are required and necessary by right. For that reason, we the Petitioners seek Redress of Grievance in the form of making prison reform a reality and passing every bill designed to make the changes necessary for a better system.
While this esteemed Body of Congress is honored by us all, and is certainly entitled to its own opinions, it is not entitled to its own set of facts. "Tough on crime" was -- and still is -- a political agenda. The citizens suffered while politicians flourished over it.
This borrowed phrase, coined by Nixon, was turned into a hired gun that resulted in long-term sentencing
with horrid downsides and little deterrence. The agenda created an all-out witch hunt that imprisoned an estimated 350,000 innocent people. The Professor of Sociology at University of Florida reported that "one out of every 6 or 7" in Florida's Department of Corrections is wrongfully convicted.
Manifest injustices and miscarriages of justice² are more in number than any of your consciences are prepared to handle. Prosecutorial gamesmanship is rampant, and judicial integrity is not yet a standard whereby it is demanded and enforced. Prisons are overcrowded, the staff in them are underpaid, underqualified, untrained, and we are going in the wrong direction fast. Our system, for a lack of a better word, is broken.
Smart on crime is the cure. Solve et coagula.
Dissolve and rebuild. Such is the only course of those who are bound by conscience and by God.
The felony murder rule needs to be rewritten.
Sentencing needs to be recalibrated to keep judicial discretion at the helm (in charge) but within the guidelines. A Citizens' Oversight Committee isn't just a good idea (if any of this is going to work) it's essential. The Second Look provision is simply fair in light of neuroscience that says when the brain doesn't even fully develop until age 24.
This Body of Congress already has these bills -- and more -- and yet they remain unpassed solely from someone else's political agenda. That needs to stop. The bills proposed have the well-articulated aim of beginning to fix our broken system.
At some point, Congress of this State needs to create a statute that defines, for once and for all, what a "manifest injustice" is and what a "miscarriage of justice" is, complete with remedy available to allow victims of wrongful convictions to use for writ of habeas corpus.
Wherefore, the Petitioners herein named, and in the
full presence of Congress in this Great State of Florida, do hereby make the grievance plain: We were denied justice and due process by the "tough on crime" runaway tactics and all-out witch hunts birthed by a political agenda that you "knew was bull shit when [you] started it."
You have ignored the signs of fixing criminogenic disorders that cause criminality. The effects of long-term sentences have caused damage to our children, families, and communities, not to mention the self and soul of the so-called criminal.
That damage far outweighs the crime. As far back as Hammurabi's Code "an eye for an eye" means that the punishment cannot outweigh the crime.
The redress we seek is that you join our efforts to fix a broken system.
These Petitioners are more than "felons," more than "criminals" or any offensive label put on us; we are mentors, tutors, life coaches, students of law, and part of an incredible therapeutic community in one of your prisons: Liberty C.I.
Together, we can fix (on both sides) what the other
Michael Jason Nicks
Liberty Correctional Institution 11064 NW Dempsey Barron Road Bristol, Florida 32321
Joined by the above-named petitioners.
IN THE SENATE OF THE STATE OF FLORIDA
A. An insightful addendum from an amazing Perspective. Well said. Worth the read. By Kenneth Strawn.
B. Testimony of Michael Nicks -- innocent but sentenced to life 21 years ago (Page 24-32)
C. Testimony of Shane Shaw -- completely reformed, with a powerful pen (Page 33-40)
D. Testimony of Albert Cooper -- from a perspective you can't learn in law school (Page 41-43)
E. Testimony of Guillermo Calderon --stamped "defect" and warehoused with "Defects" (Page 44-48)
F. Testimony of Danny Knight -- a journey through the justice system (Page 49-56)
G. Testimony of Aaron Stoudemire -- Smart on crime and evidence of change (Page 57-60)
H. Testimony of Lewis Drayton -- building a system that helps us bounce back (Page 61-63)
I. Testimony of Dulie Green, Jr. -- Sad, breathtaking story with a comeback (Page 64-67)
J. Testimony of Jackson Prescott -- 70 years old, and being to what? (Page 68-69)
Testimony of Michael J. Nicks, D.C.#U04169
Saturday, February 26, 2022
If someone doesn't do something to help me, I'm going to die in here. That is a fact far beyond debate. I'm one of the 350,000 innocent people thrown in prison, and this is a story that needs to be told. Loudly.
Wednesday, February 24th of 2001, I was sitting in a Dixie Crossroads interviewing as a chef with a man I presumed was the manager. 45 minutes into the interview, I realized he wasn't a manager. He was the owner of the entire chain of restaurants. He'd never seen a man show up for an interview wearing a suit and tie -- his words, not mine.
Truth be told, I was on my way to be baptized at the First Baptist Church in downtown Mount Dora. I was early, so I figured I'd try my luck at the Dixie Crossroads. I'll never forget his words. "Chefs are a dime a dozen," he said. "I get them all day long, but people like you are one in a million. I'll tell you what, you give me three years and I'll give you one of those," his arms sweeping the entirety of the restaurant. "Travel with me. Help me open these up and down the east coast, Michael. Infuse my employees with that pizazz you got."
That was Wednesday. I was supposed to start that
Monday. Unfortunately, I never made it.
I was baptized that night. Records of all these events still exist. But that weekend altered my life, and everyone else's involved, including the star of my life: my son. He'd just turned 1 year old the December before. And I was 23, and I'd finally landed a career opportunity of a lifetime.
By Saturday I was on Church Street Station in Orlando. By the time Sunday rolled around, I was sitting in a jail cell. Over the course of the next 18 months, I was charged with conspiring to rob a cab driver with a firearm, and tried for the felony murder that took the life of a man I'd never met before that night, and will never forget.
The police, via an eyewitness named John Porter, said that Mario Bellamy and I robbed the driver. I held the driver down from behind, pinned against his seat, while Bellamy shot him point blank behind the right ear.
Everyone but Bellamy ran from the car, and a cell phone was stolen. After the phone was stolen, Bellamy shot the driver a second time, and then ran to catch up with me, Porter, and a girl named Laura Matthews.
I was found guilty and sentenced to life for Bellamy's murder, life for his robbery, and 15 years for conspiring -- thereby becoming his principle with
Bellamy and helping him.
The problem with the story is that not a word of it is true. But police had a crime, and now they needed criminals. For 18 months I sat in a jail cell, and the lawyer appointed to me by the court never ONCE came to see me. I had no idea that Bellamy was already tried and found guilty under an entirely different version of events. Laura testified against him, but was conveniently swept under the rug when it came to my trial.
All I knew was that my impounded property slip said my jeans and Nikes were taken into evidence, and up at the top of the pink copy I got handed to me was a handwritten "Count I: first degree murder w/ firearm; Count II: rob. w/ firearm; Count III: consp. rob. w/ firearm." I never saw a charging information. I never knew I was being accused, not of murder and robbery, but of being principle to a robbery and murder (or what that even meant.)
At the close of my trial, my attorney, Steven Jewett, asked for an acquittal on the conspiracy charge. The whole thing would hinge on that charge alone. He said the State wasn't accusing me of murdering anyone or robbing anyone. "And I don't think the State wants to go down that road at this point, Your Honor. But if
you'll remember, Your Honor, I kind of let Porter run wild the first day of his testimony.
By the second day, he impeached himself, and by the end, Your Honor will remember that he admitted that he never heard my client conspire with anyone."
My Judge, Richard Conrad, said the acquittal would be a "no brainer at this point, expect that the State is using the principles theory. Mr. Jewett, I'd focus on that if I was you."
Pause. Using the what? I'd never even heard that word before. 20 years later I now know that our Supreme Court had long since held that the principles theory cannot be used in conjunction with the conspiracy charge. That was not the first error, but perhaps was the most pervasive one.
Back to the courtroom setting, Judge Conrad told Steven Jewett to focus on the principles theory. Jewett; the principles theory. One, That my client had a conscious intent that the criminal act be done; and two, that my client did some act or said some word in furtherance of the robbery.
In light most favorable to the State, they have my client holding the victim down while he was shot. I suppose this Court could take that as an act in furtherance of.
Conrad: That's all I can think of.
End quote. That's all I can think of. That act alone put me in prison for life without any eligibility for parole -- ever. At sentencing, Conrad said I wouldn't leave prison except for "feet first." What's disgusting, appalling, and inexcusable is that their story about me holding the guy is a forensic impossibility. It never happened.
Stippling. Trajectory. Entry wounds. Those are the things of science. Abraham Lincoln once said that we can better know that a house is burning whence we see much smoke than by two witnesses. The two witnesses can perjure themselves. The smoke cannot. Forensics here, is the proverbial smoke that cannot be perjured.
The driver and Bellamy were wrestling in the front seat over the gun -- not pinned against the seat. The gun went off "I think accidentally" and shot the cab driver at a close range (causing a severe amount of stippling) in the left cheek area, traveling slightly left to the right, and lodging just in front of the third and fourth vertebra. Not behind the right ear. The right ear was the second shot. We weren't in the car for that. And there's no stippling burns (hot powder and gas from the barrel) on that wounds, yet John testified the right earshot was first -- that he saw the
hole, saw blood -- resulting from me holding the driver against the seat.
That, with scientific and evidentiary certainty, never happened. John gave three depositions -- all of which were different -- before he gave the fourth version that, for the first time, said I was involved. In the other three he exonerated me. The fourth was purchased by the State of Florida by the common occurrence of a plea bargain -- a plea they lied to my jury about.
The first day's testimony in my trial was different than the fourth statement. Then the second day's testimony was different than the first day's. Caught in so many lies, my attorney asked John )in black and white transcript testimony) if he was just flipping a coin -- heads was yes, and tails would be no -- and John literally said that was what he was doing. He literally said "I'm lying."
And everyone in that courtroom that mattered knew forensics. They knew John's story was not possible. Judge Conrad knew it . Steven Jewett knew it.
Wilson Green, III, the prosecutor knew it... Everyone but me knew it, yet no one stopped the charade. The overreaching zealousness of our "tough on crime" system spun out of control until, holding on for dear life, the
judge sentenced me to 2 life sentences, plus 15 years.
For almost a week I couldn't talk, sleep, or eat. I just stood in my cell staring in disbelief at the steel door.
My son was out there somewhere.
Since then, I studied law the old fashion way: I actually read it. I memorized it. I wrote it. I'd start on the Table of Contents, and wouldn't stop until the Index in the back. Rules of Court. Rules of Appellate Procedure. Habeas Corpus Practice and Procedure. The Evidence Code. The U.S. Constitution. The Florida Constitution. Case law. Expert opinions. Evidenced based (what works and what doesn't) books on rehabilitation. You name it. I've read it.
Law is a lofty ideal. Its benchmarks are high. From Augustine to Lord Eldon, the precision of which evidence is weighed is dramatically impressive. How disgusting then, that we use such fine silver plates to serve dung. I've met men in here who were and are innocent. The number is small in relative comparison, but they exist. So do their children. So do their mothers. I've met others who were so severely sentenced that no judge could justify the amount of time they caught.
And that is but the tip of an iceberg -- an iceberg that desperately needs to be scrapped, redesigned,
rebuilt, and serves the purpose of establishing justice rather than someone's re-election.
For that cause, I have put pen to paper and began drawing, drafting, and redesigning. For that cause, I have put pen to paper and decided to ask this Senate and House of Representatives for help. The word "balance" comes from the Latin Bi lanx: The two plates. The one weighs against the other and a force is exerted that counteracts the effect of another.
Lord Eldon rightly said that truth is best discovered by powerful statements on both sides of the question.
There were powerful statements on my side of the scale that were never heard. If given the chance today, these aren't any state attorneys -- indeed, not a team of them
-- that could produce a guilty verdict in my case.
The first time, I didn't even have a chance. For that reason I ask for a second one. One single, second chance.
Several years ago the system took Mario Bellamy back and resentenced him to 25 years. They didn't even bother to tell me. I had to find out through a third party. And who's idea of justice is this? Yours?
Mine? My son's? My pastor's?
I'm but 1 of 350,000. My name is Michael Nicks. I don't know the names of the rest of them, and what's
worrisome is that neither do you. How then will you find them? If you were where I'm at, you could hear
them screaming, "please help." If you don't, we'll die in here from the life sentences you imposed. I realize none of you intended for any of this to happen, and so my personal challenge to each of you is to come here and see me yourself.
Thank you, Senators and Representatives for listening. I do believe in each of you.
I had a beer before I had a bike. I was smoking
marijuana at eight years old. My parents took my sister and me on burglaries. I grew up in neighborhoods where I had to fight my way to and from everywhere I went. I began to carry weapons to protect myself. Weapons that got me suspended from school. My parents used and sold drugs and, yes, I was a victim of child abuse, even spent time in state custody (DCF)
By 12 years old, I was already lost in the streets selling crack cocaine, involved in robberies, and moving in step with others who were leading similar lives.
Sadly, I was a 12-year-old thug who unknowingly carved himself a bad reputation. Using violence was the only way I knew how to get what I wanted.
I was a kid who grew up thinking that the use and sale of drugs was normal. Raised to believe that there was nothing wrong with taking what you wanted. I didn't understand the injury I was causing in my life nor the world. This lifestyle I'd inherited from my parents gave me reckless pride built on a foolish ego.
Surrounded by peers who looked up to me. Who ran with me as we ran through the streets. Then I was taken advantage of and molested.
To this day, it's difficult to grasp how it happened
and why. Being molested forever impacted my mind. It changed who I know myself to be. Confounded, I became
depressed and consumed by anxiety and depression. I was diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. I was prescribed medication. I became addicted to heavy drugs. I was expelled from school for fighting, struggling with suicide, I was easily Baker acted a dozen times. Struggling to find the will to live.
My good friend whom I loved like a brother told all of our closest friends of my molestation. Of course, what happened to me got out to what felt like the world. For the next few years I would inevitably become an outcast by my peer group labeled as "gay." Fighting with my friends, I was unequipped to deal with this social lynching.
I struggled with my sexuality: Why was I molested?
Why did he choose me? Why did everybody hate me for it? Nobody would listen to me. I began to hate myself. I started to hate everybody else. So I hated the world.
I wanted to die. I didn't know how to open up. How to tell somebody I was embarrassed of not being strong enough to handle the problems I was faced with. Not me, not the street-tough thug.
I was ashamed. My shame gave birth to anger. Anger from abandonment by my friends. I was isolated and felt
betrayed. Lost and alone in the depths of despair, hating myself, I made mistakes at 18 years old that
broke lives. It broke our souls. Choices that brought me to prison.
From those days forward, all I ever wanted was to take responsibility for my wrong. I could not live with myself. It felt like life was over. Not knowing what to do, I cried out to God. I asked Him to help me fix what I had done. A week later I was in handcuffs.
It was the first time since I was a young boy that I felt peace. To finally give to those I hurt the reparation and closure that we all needed. That could only come from honesty and justice. I was just at the bottom. In my heart I was not that broken, foolish kid, but it felt right and meaningful to want to be punished, because it would be what is fair, making for me a doorway that I could finally be of privilege to go through.
The door that would take me to the rest of my life where I don't have to be defined by my past. More importantly, it's the same door that all those I hurt would get to finally go through, the door that allows them to live the rest of their lives in peace knowing that justice served. Any human being with a soul could understand this if they had a heart, and I did, because
I was sorry.
I've spent every moment of every day making sense of my life, learning how to be a better man. Working towards becoming a model inmate. Learning what it means to be a citizen of a community in the peer-to-peer therapeutic community program. Taking advantage of any available programs, though few they are. If nothing else, I take pride, and find joy in listening and following rules. If that just means making my bed, and completing my work assignments until the next step comes.
I've learned to love myself regardless of what others think. I've learned to love others regardless of what anybody thinks. Compassion has helped me to repair what was broken in me and to repair what's broken in other people's lives. I find purpose in helping others in any way I can that's positive and realistic in the eyes of the Lord. I realized that through righting my wrongs, I can't change the past. It's about shaping the future.
So then justice isn't about fixing the past, but actually fixing the future. Nobody's harder on me than I am.
I've watched as men go home and come back. Men who come to prison without a drug problem, and leave addicted to drugs. Men who were unaffiliated and left
gang affiliated. Men who leave without a GED or any type of vocational training. I believe in a better tomorrow, because I found a better me. One day I hope to start an outreach program for the kids. To tell them they're not alone. That their dreams can be real and are possible. A program that works with local authorities that helps identify when kids have been victims and are being victimized. A program that is a safe place for them to turn to.
I would like to see a new system of laws that protects the kids' rights and futures. The kids who are the seeds to the future in the garden of life. Justice has a duty and an interest to cultivate our future by fortifying our children with the development and tools they need. I am a seed to the future. I made mistakes, but I am not the mistake. The system may have initially thought I was a lost cause, but I'm not that lost kid anymore.
I've said all of that to say this: I was a broken boy who over the years collected all the pieces of the puzzle that is me and made myself whole, made myself anew. What I wanted you to know is there is no law that allows for an 18 year old to bring to the courtroom my mitigating factors. In Roper v Simmons, the science spoke to the developed mind not being fully developed
until the age of 24. Where would I be if the question in Graham was for youthful offenders up to 21 years of age, or 24 years of age. Graham and I were less than six months apart. Had we lived in the same neighborhood, we could have went to the same school, been in the same grade, and had the same friends. We would have played for the same football team and gone to the same prom.
I am living proof that the science in Roper is real.
I am living proof that a kid can grow up beyond his broken conditions that he lived through and become a good man. Just because a guy has lesser crimes does not mean he's not dangerous. Just as a man who has greater crimes does not mean that he is dangerous.
There is a rehabilitation that's supposed to be going on, and it's not. People come to prison and actually get worse. There's no sifting procedure that helps the system identify who the high, medium, and low risk offenders are. There's no incentive nor reward to help shape and push the wills of men to change.
We are dropped off in these institutions, stuck with our own devices as if the crime themselves are the root of the issues, when actually they are the symptoms.
I've a release date, just like a lot of other convicted felons, and it feels like those in Congress, those in
power, don't care about fixing the underlying issues i.e., bring real rehabilitation to these institutions and truly protect our societies by curving recidivism.
Planting new and good seeds in this life our garden.
From where I'm standing, what I've learned can't be taught. Remember, recidivism means more victims. There comes a time when necessity for change is the answer.
The wisdom inside these walls, like the love inside my heart should no longer be divided from the community. The problem and the solution are two sides to the same coin.
Strange it may seem that I am the solution to the problems society faces because I've lived my mistakes and turned the coin over from problem to solution. We bring a deeper hope that's built on longevity as we understand the sociological issues that plague our society because we possess the ground zero experience lacked by society, though real society has had the money in its pockets all along -- we the coins.
It's the exceptions to the rule that prove the rules.
The exception is that good men who were told "no," believed in "yes." "Yes" to the education. Men who were ignorant made it their business to educate themselves, and the world around them. Men who were told there was no hope and against all odds became hope
when we made the conscious choice to believe in a purpose much greater than ourself.
To fix what's wrong with our communities because we fixed what was wrong with ourself. We took
responsibility and we took ownership of our lives. And the rule that stands the test of time is where I grew to love my neighbor as I love myself, built on morals like flowers whose noble standards project beautiful.
PETITION FOR REDRESS OF GRIEVANCE
To whom this may concern: My name is Albert Cooper DC# 123872.
I'm an African-American male, who was just 18 and a half years old at the time of arrest on June 14th, 1991. My birthday is 12/17/72.
I'm a first-time offender from Miami, Florida, which is my hometown. I have no prior significant criminal history. I was convicted on two separate robbery-homicides charges that happened 20 days apart. I've been incarcerated 30 years and 8 months now.
I'm the youngest of my mother's six children, and the only male child. I also have a half sister by my father.
My father was a very abusive man. He was a drug addict and an alcoholic that took his frustrations out on my mother, sisters, and me. I've suffered several head injuries and traumas because of him. Twice, head injuries have landed me in the hospital due to my father's abusive outbursts by the time I was three years old.
This abuse by my father shaped and affected my moral concepts in very negative ways all by the time I was between the ages of 6 to 8 years old. This distorted a lot of my viewpoints as a child and fueled my rage
toward negative things.
I grew up harboring this resentment toward my father and toward authority for which I look back over the years now and regret my actions. That traumatized my life, those who I cared about, and both of these victims' families.
It has now given me a goal and purpose for the sanctity of all life. I greatly resent my actions, involvement, or any pain and suffering or hardships that I've caused to the victims' families. To those very young and innocent children who were deprived of the chance of growing up with their fathers' because of my very foolish actions, my heart goes out to you all.
I desire nothing more than to turn back the hands of time and to restore that which I have so gregariously taken from your lives. The mere fact that I am very remorseful isn't enough for the wives or the children of these men. I desperately want to make amends for those terrible actions.
Throughout this whole ordeal, this situation has vastly changed my life and the way I see the world around me. And I want something more than just sitting around all day inside a cell in prison. I want to be able to contribute to society and help other young men in their lives who might be traveling down similar paths
in life. Be able to show them a better way of coping and dealing with the problems they are now facing.
This has made me become a better person and man. To face adversity in my life with courage taught me humility and to persevere even when matters seem hopeless, to continue my drive in the betterment of self.
My aspiration is to get out of prison while my mother is still living, be a productive member of society, own my own business, run a nonprofit organization, help victims of crimes, those less fortunate than myself, and the homeless.
These are the things that I most desire to do, and see the greatest success for myself in life. This once troubled child has become a man now and wants to help others find their place in life.
Albert Cooper DC#123872 Liberty C.I.
Guillermo Calderon, DC X85889 Liberty C.I.
11064 NW Dempsey Barron Rd. Bristol, FL 32321
This is my story. Here in prison I have learned that stories like mine are very common. It's important that I share this for those who can't. Though I was born in New York, I was raised by a single mother from Puerto Rico, who spoke very little English. So in many ways as a kid, English was my second language.
As a child, it was hard to focus on school when my mom was struggling to keep a roof over our head. By the age of 13, I was bagging groceries for desperately needed money instead of doing my homework. Like my brothers and sisters, I dropped out of school to pull my weight. Unlike some of the others in our rough neighborhood, my family took no shortcuts. Right and wrong were strongly instilled into my family. I never got into trouble for 46 years of my life. I let no one question that I was a law-abiding citizen and good man.
Without an education, I too struggled to support my own family, but I worked hard to make sure my four children got their education. After 46 years of steering clear of legal issues, I found myself in a situation I couldn't understand. I had no experience
with law or the justice system. I had no money so the State assigned me a public defender. Because of the backlog of cases filling the courts, it took six months for the first one to interview me. She told me that she would "be in touch." Finally, after months of trying to get in touch with her without response, I was interviewed by other defender who had taken over my case. This one, again, rushed through the interview speaking more than listening, and told me she'd be in contact soon.
Three months later, after no contact, a third public defender rushed me through yet another interview, explaining that the jail was overcrowded with cases and we needed to speed things up. Again, it was saying I saw him only one short time before he brought my case before the judge.
Both times before, he rushed meetings that left me confused by the strange legal language he spoke. He told me just to trust him, and because I was confused and lacked an education, I felt I had no choice.
I was angry at myself for not being educated enough to stand up for myself in the way I should have as they hurried me through the process. Even though I know he hadn't heard my full story, I let him "handle it" as he insisted. I had to trust him because I had no idea what
was going on. The third time I met with him before my trial, he advised me that I had no need to take the
stand and speak in my own defense, so I said nothing. I didn't fight because I didn't think I could and I didn't know how.
I wish I could have afforded a lawyer who would have made the time to actually listen and understand what I had to say, someone who wanted to believe in me and fight for me, rather than rush me through. Public defenders are supposed to faithfully represent people like me, but clearly there is a disconnect.
Schedules are so overcrowded, impossible to do so when the system is so full and inpatient. I wondered if my lawyers had spoken Spanish, if that would have helped them relate and understand, but the even bigger issue is time.
When I was convicted, I thought maybe it was just me, but after hearing many stories in prison, I know that the problem is much, much bigger. It is normal now. It isn't just my public defender that fail ed, it is the entire system. And it's not even a secret. Everyone seems to know, yet no one is fixing it. It is being ignored.
I sit here behind bars knowing that if I could have been a model inmate -- I am finally getting my
education. I don't want to ever be in the position of not being able to fight for myself. I lost everything I ever had because I couldn't. I lost my future, my family, my beautiful wife, our house, my car, my dog, and my ability to support the people I love. My grandkids have lost the opportunity to have a supporting, loving, positive role model. They know me only through pictures and stories.
I deserved the opportunity to fight for my freedom. But there are so many more out there that suffer from the system's failure. Children growing up without the lessons of role models who overcome their mistakes. We are brother, son, fathers, grandfathers, and human beings who deserve a fair chance.
Like so many others, I don't want to die behind bars without even knowing my grandkids simply because the system is too crowded or hurried or disinterested to listen or recognize the real me. I feel like I was spit out of an assembly line, stamped with a defect label, and forced to accept a future I was not designed to have.
I am now in a warehouse with all the other defects hidden from the world because of a failure in the system quietly controlled. I am not a defect, even though the warehouse tells me everyday that I am, tries hard to
break me. I will never tell my family how hard is it to mend myself here when I'm told everyday I am broken.
It's no wonder so many people come back because if we brace ourself to leave, the world outside will now tell us the same thing, that is the label we have been given by the assembly line.
I know I am better and I just want people like me to be given a chance to show it, to prove it, to show that the mistake isn't me, but the choice to take away my freedom to show how I do work.
My name is Danny Knight, and this is my testimony of what I've been through and have experienced throughout my journey through the criminal justice system. I am writing this in hopes of raising awareness to some of the flaws in the system that prevent reaching the ultimate goal of "rehabilitation," as well as giving some ideas on possible solutions from someone who has experienced these problems firsthand.
I was arrested in early 2008 at the age of 17 for armed robbery and trafficking hydrocodone. I was direct-filed and charged as an adult. I knew very little about how the judicial system worked because these were my first felony charges. I trusted that my court-appointed attorney had my best interest at heart, so I followed him and took his advice.
As you continue to read, you will see why this was a terrible mistake. I understood the charges against me were very serious and I was looking at prison, but I had no idea what was about to happen. I was a scared kid who, at the time, didn't know the severity of the crimes I committed, nor did I understand the consequences. No one was hurt or harmed in either of my crimes.
I was a young kid trying to follow and impress the older people I was hanging around with and allowed them to talk me into doing things I never imagined doing.
Before I started hanging out with this group of older men, I was a normal kid who made decent, but not the best grades. I played football and made people laugh.
I was outgoing and had a lot of friends who were doing a lot of positive things and doing good things preparing for their future. Until one night turned my whole world upside down.
It started as any other night. I went to sleep because I had school in the morning, only this night I was startled awake by crashing noises followed by over 200 gunshots as my father destroyed everything in the house. Several bullets came crashing through the walls of my room, narrowly missing me by inches as I laid balled up on my bed, too scared to move and in fear of being killed by the one man I always thought would protect me no matter what.
Any father or son reading this should understand the love and bond between a father and son and how devastating it would be to lose it in the blink of an eye and go from feeling safe and secure with your father your whole life to now cowering in fear of the same man trying to kill me.
I lost all the structure and stability in my life, as well as losing the male guidance I received from my father. Please don't think I'm blaming my father for my
actions or making an excuse for what I did. I'm only bringing this up as a backstory that led me up to where I was at mentally and emotionally when I committed these crimes.
I was young and didn't know how to cope with what I was going through, and I didn't understand my feelings or how to reach out for help, so I ended up turning to drugs and alcohol as an escape to not feel anymore and not have to think about my troubles. I stopped going to school and hanging out with all of my friends who were positive influences in my life because I was embarrassed and felt like they were all talking about me.
The school, the police, and the state attorney all knew what had happened to me, and none of them offered any kind of counseling to help me. I felt so alone.
Then I met a group of older guys who made me feel like I belonged and allowed them to manipulate me to commit crimes.
And they would feed me drugs and alcohol to keep me satisfied. My life had spiraled out of control, and before I could recognize it, it was too late.
So now here I was sitting in front of my court-appointed attorney being told that the state attorney was offering me a plea deal for 25 years. I was only 17 and hadn't every seen 25 years. I asked him
if that was my only option, and he told me that since I met every qualification for youthful offender sentence, that I could plea open to the judge and ask for it.
This was only for my trafficking charge. He advised me that he wanted to avoid the 25 year minimum mandatory sentence, and the only way to do that was to plea open to the judge and ask for my youthful offender sentence.
I didn't even have time to consult with my family and was forced to trust my court-ap pointed attorney. So I did as I was advised. During the state's part of my sentencing, the only person they presented was the detective who used a confidential informant to set up a drug deal with the detective, the confidential informant, and myself.
No one was present by the state saying I was a menace to society or that they would be in fear if I were to be released. Over a month later it was my turn to have character witnesses speak on my behalf, but before that happened, the judge ordered a psychological evaluation for me to speak about my past.
So when the psychologist came, he performed a competency test instead. When we provided the information to the judge, she said she would just disregard it and move on with sentencing. So my family and friends all came to speak on my behalf to show how I
had got lost in life, that I was a good person who deserved a second chance. The judge never really acknowledged any of my family or friends or paid attention to what they were saying. Then without any remorse or sympathy, sentenced me to a mandatory minimum 25 years in prison.
Now we need to really take a second to put things in perspective here. I was a 17-year-old kid being set up to make a drug deal by an adult detective and an adult confidential informant to sell 98 Vicodin, and was subsequently sentenced to 25 years in prison when this was my first felony charge.
At that age, how could I have known that my life was going to be thrown away because of one drug deal?
Imagine for a minute this happened to your child.
Would you still be alright with such a harsh, cruel, and unusual sentence? These drug trafficking minimum mandatory sentences were meant for people with a "kingpin" status, and surely not low-level drug dealers, and especially not for a juvenile.
I don't believe that sentencing juveniles to minimum mandatory sentence for nonviolent crimes and crimes that don't involve great bodily injury is the proper route for rehabilitation. The focus should be treating the underlying issues and what is causing them to commit
crimes. They should be sent to rehabilitation programs instead of being warehoused in the Department of Corrections and surrounded by gang members, murderers, rapists, and career criminals.
If science has proven that the male brain doesn't fully develop until the age of 24, then why are juveniles being sentenced equally or sometimes worse than a mature adult? In my case, I was never given a second chance to prove I learned my lesson.
I've been incarcerated now for 14 years and have watched people who were a lot older than me with way worse charges and have been coming to prison their whole lives receive significantly less time than I did on my first felony charge.
I've also watched some who had the exact same change as me (trafficking hydrocodone) receive a seven-year minimum mandatory sentence because he caught his charge after they reduced it from a 25-year minimum mandatory because it was deemed excessive.