LAURA SULLIVAN, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Laura Sullivan, in for Guy Raz.

The Supreme Court this week heard arguments about the fate of 2,500 offenders who were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole when they were teenagers. Seventy-nine of them were 13 or 14 years old when they committed their crimes. Many prosecutors and family members of victims spoke out about the need to keep the sentences in place.

But in a small building cafeteria, just a few blocks from the Supreme Court, a different group of family members quietly came together. Half of them were families of teenagers who committed horrible crimes.

GRACE WARREN: My name is Grace Warren. I'm from Illinois, and I have a son that's serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

ESSIE: Hi. I'm Essie(ph). My oldest son is serving a juvenile life without parole.

DEBRA BUCHANAN: Hi. My name is Debra Buchanan(ph), and my husband is serving life without parole.

SULLIVAN: And then there was the other half - family members of the teenagers' victims.

BILL PELKY: Hi. My name is Bill Pelky(ph). I live in Anchorage, Alaska. My grandmother was murdered by four teenage girls.

LINDA WHITE: I'm Linda White. My 26-year-old daughter Cathy was killed by a juvenile.

ANGELIE FREDO: My name is Angelie Fredo(ph). My son was killed less than five years ago.

ACHILLES SURRELLS: My name is Achilles Surrells(ph). My 19-year-old son Terrell was murdered in...

FREDO: And I am here to support this campaign.

SURRELLS: People can change. I do believe they deserve a second chance.

FREDO: And I'm here to support Citizens for Second Chance.

SURRELLS: I believe that every child has a second chance.

SULLIVAN: This is not a group you often hear about, victims' families who want the teenage perpetrators to get an opportunity for parole, who wants to see sentences of life in prison for teens overturned. Many say they have often been unwilling to talk about the issue because they have been accused of not missing their loved ones enough. But on this day, in this room, there was enough sorrow to fill an afternoon, there was also enough forgiveness.

That's our cover story today: Families devastated by the actions of teenagers who want those teens to one day get a chance to make amends. People like Mary Johnson.

MARY JOHNSON: I don't remember going down eight flights on the elevator. I don't remember the short walk to the car. I don't even remember the short ride to my sister's home.

SULLIVAN: Nineteen years ago, Johnson was at work in Minnesota when her sister-in-law called to tell her her 20-year-old son Laramiun was dead. He had been shot to death. There was a fight at a party and a gun.

JOHNSON: It was two or three days after Laramiun was murdered, I got a call from the detective. And he's told me he had picked up a 16-year-old boy.

SULLIVAN: The boy's name was Oshea Israel.

JOHNSON: He was an animal. I wanted him charged as an adult with first-degree murder, imprisoned for the rest of his life.

SULLIVAN: Then you went through the court process, and you were in the courtroom, I'm sure, when he was sentenced.

JOHNSON: Yup, I was there every time there was something going on, because, I mean, I hated Oshea.

SULLIVAN: Sitting here, off to the side of the rest of the group, Mary Johnson smiles. She looks directly across the table at Oshea Israel.

Oshea, did you kill Laramiun?

OSHEA ISRAEL: Yes, I did. I was 16. He was 20.

SULLIVAN: Oshea Israel was initially facing life in prison without parole, but the judge lessened the charge and sentenced Israel to 25 years, most of which he served. He got a few years off for good behavior. It was a long time since that night at the party.

ISRAEL: Neither one of us wanted to back down. And me just being foolish enough to think that I held the most power and - because I had a gun. He and I probably could have been the best of friends had we just taken the time to communicate.

SULLIVAN: At 16, though, Israel says none of it was really registering.

ISRAEL: All I can do was kind of shut down and numb myself to it. It wasn't until years later that I started to make that connection, like, wow, you know, I really did do this. I really am responsible for someone losing their life.

SULLIVAN: Johnson and Israel, and everyone else in this room, came together this week at the urging of a nonprofit group called the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. But how Oshea Israel and Mary Johnson ended up sitting here at this table is mostly a testament to Johnson.

She struggled with her grief for more than a decade. But one day, she read a passage from a book about two mothers who had lost sons. The mothers were in heaven.

JOHNSON: And one mother said, I would have taken my child's place on the cross if I could have. And the other mother fell on one knee and she said, oh, well, you are she - the mother of Christ. And the mother of Christ lifted her up, kissed the tear from her cheek and said, tell me of your son, so I may grieve with you. And she said, my son is Judas Iscariot.

SULLIVAN: A small seed lodged itself in Mary Johnson's head.

JOHNSON: Over the years, I just kept getting this (unintelligible) two mothers. Bring these two mothers together. And I knew that in order to do that, I would have to meet Oshea.

ISRAEL: The case warden came to me and told me, well, hey, Mary Johnson wants to talk with you. You know, I had to really think about it, like, if my life was taken, I hope the person that took my life would - (unintelligible) man enough to take my life be man enough to face my mom and give her the closure that she need.

SULLIVAN: And so early one morning in 2005, Mary Johnson went to the prison in Stillwater, Minnesota, where Oshea Israel was incarcerated.

JOHNSON: Halfway up, I just broke down and I said, God, I cannot do this. I'm not ready to do this.

SULLIVAN: But she made it to the conference room and took a seat. Israel says he was ready if Mary Johnson wanted to yell at him or even hit him. But what she said instead surprised him.

JOHNSON: I said, look, I don't know you. You don't know me. You didn't know my son. My son didn't know you. I said, we need to lay our foundation. We need to get to know one another. And that's what we did.

SULLIVAN: They talked about Mary Johnson's son, about her pain, about Israel's remorse. And then they talked about their lives. They talked for two hours. Mary Johnson had only planned to visit Israel once. But a moment at the end of the meeting seemed to bind them together, when Oshea Israel asked Mary Johnson if he could hug her.

ISRAEL: I felt like, you know, she just offered me her forgiveness. I don't have anything to offer her. At least I can show her some compassion.

SULLIVAN: They met halfway and embraced.

JOHNSON: I tell you I had something going on in my feet physically, moving, stirring in my feet, and it just moved up and up and up. And I felt this whatever leave me. And I knew that I knew that all that hatred and the animosity and anger, the bitterness, I knew that all that stuff I had inside for 12 years, I just knew it was over. It was over with.

SULLIVAN: Theirs is not a surprising story in this cafeteria. Each of a dozen tables held families of perpetrators and families of victims, all talking to one another.

SHARLETTA EVANS: Casson Xavier Evans, that was my son's name. Nickname was Biscuit.

SULLIVAN: Sharletta Evans tells her table that 17 years ago, her 3-year-old son was killed in a drive-by shooting by two 14-year-olds and a 15-year-old. All three got life without parole. Across from her, Mona Schlautman nods her head. Her son was killed by an adult and an accomplice who was a teenager.

MONA SCHLAUTMAN: I knew he did not get a fair trial, but I didn't care at that time. I was just glad that he had been caught and locked up. And that's as far as I could really care.

SULLIVAN: It takes a minute before Esa Mathis speaks up. Her son Ralph is serving life without parole.

ESA MATHIS: My son, the seeds of wrong decisions were sewn a long time before those decisions were made. You know, by the time my son was 15 years old, not only did he not have a father, but I had been married and divorced three times because of my own brokenness and not knowing how messed up I was. I had to own a part of that.

SULLIVAN: Everyone in the room wants the teens to pay a price for their crimes for however many decades in prison. But for every story of trauma victims' families shared, the teens' families seemed to describe an equal number of stories of trauma in the perpetrators' lives.

Experts have argued that teenagers' brains are less developed than those of adults, so they are more impulsive and less able to weigh the consequences of their actions. But prosecutors say the sentence is an important tool. I spoke with Scott Burns, who was head of the National Association of District Attorneys. He says the sentence is rarely used. Ninety-nine percent of juveniles do get parole. But he says sometimes it's needed.

SCOTT BURNS: Thirty-nine states passed laws - and some of them recently - to provide that in the rarest of cases, life without parole for a juvenile be a possibility. If they were repealing all of these laws, that would likewise show a consensus the other way, but that's not happening in America.

SULLIVAN: Do you think that someone who commits such a heinous crime at such a young age has the ability to change and express remorse over the decades to come? And do you think that's worth anything?

BURNS: Well, that's the debate, isn't it? Is it the goal to rehabilitate someone to see if they change? Or is it also the goal to do justice to the victims and others, and there is some retribution about this for paying for that crime?

SULLIVAN: But if you ask Mary Johnson, she says for her, rehabilitation is retribution. She says she knows this because she sees it every day in the apartment next to hers; not long after Oshea Israel was released from prison, he moved in to the apartment next door.

JOHNSON: I'm in his business. I get on his case because he won't take my garbage out.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JOHNSON: You know?

ISRAEL: Or she's in my business - I really know that she's in my business out of care and concern. And she doesn't want to see me suffer or go do anything that would cause me any kind of harm or pain. Knowing that I caused her pain, but she is the very person that protects me from it, it's just like, wow.

SULLIVAN: Mary, you're crying.

JOHNSON: Yup, that's true. He's suffered enough for what he's done, you know? Young people deserve to have a second chance. We all deserve to have a second chance.

SULLIVAN: Every day, Oshea Israel stops by to check in on Mary Johnson. They spend their weekends together. Johnson looks across the table at a man, no longer a child, who two decades ago killed her 20-year-old boy. To me, she says, Oshea is like a son.

The Supreme Court will rule in the next few months on whether life without parole for teenagers is constitutional.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.