LatinaLista — Nationwide, there are more than 2,200 juveniles serving sentences of life without parole. That figure includes dozens of children as young as 13 years old.
Four years ago, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-to-4 decision that executing anyone for a crime committed when he or she was younger than 18 is unconstitutional. Last month, lawyers arguing on behalf of two Florida prisoners tried to convince the court that the rationale behind the death penalty decision also should extend to life sentences because they are equivalent to executions behind bars. The Supreme Court has yet to decide on the argument.
Yet, one person who knows very well just how a life sentence to a young person is literally a death sentence is EfrÃ©n Paredes, Jr.
Paredes has spent almost 20 years in a Michigan jail, entering at the age of 15. An honor student with no criminal record, he was accused of murder and armed robbery while steadily maintaining his innocence.
Over the years, witnesses have recanted and countless experts and professionals have testified on behalf of Paredes proclaiming their support for his innocence and belief that he was wrongfully incarcerated.
The list of supporters Paredes has garnered is impressive and has attracted wide attention. However, it has not been enough to convince a Michigan parole board to move in a timely manner to make a recommendation to the Governor of Michigan to commute his sentence.
In fact, it was one year ago that Paredes had a public hearing where parole board officials sat for 9 hours to hear testimony as to whether or not his case should be commuted.
The hope that this public hearing evoked in Paredes and his supporters has turned into despair as the parole board has not reviewed his case in a timely manner.
Paredes shares with Latina Lista readers his feelings, his fears and his hopes moving forward and wondering what will be his ultimate fate.
(Editor’s Note: A call made to Michigan Governor Granholm’s office confirmed that Efren’s case was still being reviewed and had not yet reached the Governor’s desk for consideration. Latina Lista is still waiting to hear from Russ Marlin, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections.
Update: Russ Marlin of Michigan Department of Corrections returned a call and informed Latina Lista that the case of Efren Paredes, Jr. was sent to the Governor the third week of August.)
Buried Alive: Breathing in a Living Tomb
by EfrÃ©n Paredes, Jr.
Waking in an 8′ x 11′ concrete box each day is a painful reminder of the walls that forcefully keep me separated from society and the people I love. It is within these merciless barriers that I toil and struggle to keep the flame of hope and liberation burning.
Today, December 4, 2009, marks one complete year since my public hearing was convened. The wait has been arduous and often times seemingly endless. Some days the wait has felt like weeks and months have elapsed, other days it has felt like the past year has been longer than the previous 19-1/2 years of my imprisonment.
A year ago over 150 members of my family, friends and supporters traveled to the G. Robert Cotton Facility through the cold elements to observe the hearing and express their support. They packed a standing-room only area, which typically only has one row of chairs reserved for most public hearings. At my hearing there were dozens of rows filled with chairs.
People wore the Free EfrÃ©n T-shirt, Free EfrÃ©n stickers, and braved the nine-hour-long hearing in a small room where every seat was filled. Some stood for hours along the wall and others sat on the floor due to the unavailability of seating.
Most people did not even eat a full meal the entire time. They consumed protein bars and other snacks and stayed the entire duration of the hearing so they would not miss any of what would be the longest and most attended public hearing in Michigan history. The only time some people left the room was occasionally to use the restroom.
Seeing the prosecutor and police who investigated my case at the hearing again after two decades since my original trial evokes myriad memories. As I raced through the corridors of my thoughts, I felt myself recalling my arrest, court proceedings, sense of hopelessness and the soul-crushing tears I fought hard to suppress as I sat alone for weeks in a cold jail cell (at age 15, under constant light 24 hours a day) wondering when this nightmare would ever end.
I sat during the hearing last year the entire time handcuffed in a chair, shuffling through papers, responding to a barrage of inquiries, and only drank cups of water — all while defending myself against manufactured stories, distortions, verbal assaults, unwarranted remarks, and unprofessionalism of an Asst. Attorney General who argued to the Parole Board that I should remain in prison because “20 years in prison is not a lot of time.”
It was a skillfully rehearsed performance of political theatre; one the Asst. Attorney General and Berrien County Prosecutor’s Office hoped would result in transforming my prison cell into a death chamber…
Their fixation on plotting my extinction was a total abandonment of civility and the concept of redemption — two signposts of their moral impoverishment.
In the midst of it all I felt the warmth, love and strength of all those who came out to support me. I was never discouraged and I never felt alone. I was wrapped in the solidarity we shared and spread widely throughout the room.
While the weight of the past year has been enormous and often disheartening, I have vigorously sought to stave off feelings of disappointment and despair. I have often sought refuge in the Creator, prayer, and meditation, and wrapped myself in the solace of my writings and activism.
Thinking about the people who love and care about me has been a constant source of strength as well. They have provided me with a lifeline when I have been most challenged, confronted with difficult moments, and found myself trudging through the pockets of pathology and ubiquitous darkness of daily prison life. I am grateful for all their love and support and I think about them often. I never take any of them for granted.
Despite everything going on the past year, I have continued to work on my personal growth and development and I persist in my work educating others, promoting worthy causes, and enriching the lives of others. I have not allowed my personal struggle to consume me or diminish my work helping others.
I know the value of service to others because it has been the gracious selfless acts of wonderful people who have helped me become the person I am today. I try to pass those blessings on to others every opportunity I receive.
This experience has not defined me in a negative way. It has only motivated me to fight even more diligently to pursue justice and evolve as a human being. I have worked hard to transform the negative energy into positive energy and use it to fuel my resiliency and determination to never be defeated by lies and inhumane policies.
While my life and future continue to be deliberated by the Hon. Governor Granholm, I ask each of you to please continue inviting people to sign our petition, asking her to grant my commutation request. It is a small contribution to my campaign that will go a long way. The petition is available at http://tinyurl.com/FreeEPJ.
The outcome of the Governor’s decision could result in my release in the near future or condemn me to spend many more years in prison — a veritable death sentence. The urgency of this very critical hour cannot be underscored enough.
It is a possibility that I may never again receive this opportunity for release from another Governor of conscience willing to utilize their extraordinary clemency power to correct an injustice.
Collectively we have established that I am a worthy candidate for release, that I would pose no danger to society if released, and that I would thrive and be a productive member of the community. Others, who have achieved less than I have while incarcerated, and contributed less to society than me, have been afforded the opportunity for release. All we have ever said is that I am equally deserving.
Today I will reflect about the past year. I will nourish my spirit and continue exploring new ways to avoid the minefields of self-destructive thoughts. I will also endeavor to persist converting gulfs of sadness into healing sanctuaries, and summon radiant rainbows from storm-filled clouds of despair. I will disallow any embargoes on my creativity.
I intimately know the human capacity for survival. It has taught me to thrive and reminds me that I will emerge from this experience stronger than ever. It has also inculcated in me that the Creator didn’t create human beings to live in chains or condemn their lives to expire in them.
As W.E.B. DuBois wrote, “There is in this world no such force as the force of a person determined to rise. The human soul cannot be permanently chained.” The onus is on us to make this reality manifest each day.
Please continue to keep me in your thoughts and prayers.