SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Can a murderer ever be redeemed? Nancy Mullane, who's done stories for "This American Life" and NPR member station KLAW in San Francisco has made dozens of trips to California's San Quentin prison over the past few years. She's interviewed men locked up inside for committing the most heinous, hurtful and inexcusable crime: murder. Yet, even life sentences can run out in the peculiarities of the penal system and sometimes convicted murderers get paroled.
But what kind of life can they make after being behind bars? Can someone with blood on their hands ever be given a fresh start in life? Nancy Mullane has written a new book, "Life After Murder: Five Men in Search of Redemption." Nancy Mullane joins us from KQED in San Francisco. Thanks so much for being with us.
NANCY MULLANE: It's a pleasure.
SIMON: And we are also joined at KQED by Jesse Reed, whose story is one of those told in the book. Mr. Reed, thank you very much for being with us.
JESSE REED: You're very welcome.
SIMON: Nancy Mullane, what drew you to try and tell these stories?
MULLANE: I was asked to do a story, actually, by National Public Radio about prisons in California. And I went into San Quentin State Prison, just north of San Francisco. And I was put in this small room to wait. And the door opened, and four men who had committed murder walked in the room and sat with me, alone. There were no guards, and I thought, these men committed murder. My impressions in my mind, my impressions at the time were that if someone commits a murder, we keep them behind the walls, because if they have access to people on the outside, they will want to kill again, and I assumed in my mind that they would want to kill me. And instead of that happening, they reached out their hands and gave me their names and asked me who I was.
And that was the beginning of a question. What is change? What is redemption for someone who commits the most horrible of all crimes? They take another life.
SIMON: Jesse Reed, can you tell us about the crime that you committed?
REED: Well, at the time, I was using drugs, and one event led to another, and out on a quest to find money for more drugs, I end up taking someone's life.
SIMON: Can I get you to be more specific?
REED: What happened was I did point a gun at Mr. Bates and demanded his money. And through the event of, you know, through the things that were naturally occurring at night, I ended up shooting him. And that was not my intention. However, it was something that did happen.
SIMON: How do you shoot someone unintentionally?
REED: Well, a lot of times when you, you know, when people are involved in this type of lifestyle or behavior, you know, they are afraid as well, you know. And at the time, I happened to be afraid. I was nervous. And, you know, when you're nervous and you're not really thinking clear, things happen, you know, and sometimes they're really bad.
SIMON: Nancy Mullane, what's the recidivism rate for convicted murderers?
MULLANE: In California, from 1990 until May 31, 2011, about 1,000 individuals who were serving sentences of first or second degree murder were paroled from California prisons. Of that 1,000, zero have committed another murder. And if you look at the national statistics as well, in one decade, from 2000 to 2010, 57,000 people who committed a murder offense were released from state and federal prisons - 57,000. That means - and with the lowest recidivism rate - about 1.6 percent.
SIMON: But, Nancy Mullane, can you see why, for all the statistics you cite, those are statistics. And people recall a story like Jack Henry Abbott, you know, who was released from prison to much fanfare among the literary set in New York and then stabbed a man to death within a month. Can you see why people would say, I'm sorry. I don't care what the statistics are. I don't want to take that chance?
MULLANE: I completely understand that. But I also think that I wasn't seeing the Abbotts. I was seeing human beings that were self-reflective, that had examined who they were, that were steady on their feet. And I thought, we don't know this. And I had no idea who people who commit murder become.
SIMON: Jesse Reed, how are you different now from the teenager who went into prison?
REED: Today, I'm an individual who decided that he wanted to change. And the Bible talks about renewing your mind. Today, my mind has been renewed. I do not no longer want to participate in criminal behavior, criminal activity but to be a productive member of society. In fact, today I work two jobs. I come home and change clothes and go to another one, you know. It's just having a desire to be better.
SIMON: Let me ask you both the question we began with. Can somebody who committed murder be redeemed?
REED: What is redemption? What does redemption look like? Redemption is being given another chance, trying to recapture who you really are.
MULLANE: I really think that redemption is something that is forever, you know, and I'm not equating murder with any other kind of crime. But we have all made very bad decisions, but for redemption for a murder, I think that is something possibly that goes on for the rest of their lives.
SIMON: Nancy Mullane and Jesse Reed. Jesse Reed's story is told in Nancy Mullane's new book, "Life After Murder: Five Men in Search of Redemption." Thanks so much, both of you.
MULLANE: Thank you.
REED: Thank you.
SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.
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