Sentenced to Life At 16

Adolfo Davis hoped a Supreme Court ruling would give him a chance at a new beginning. But nothing about freedom turned out as he expected.

This is an excerpt from The Atavist‘s issue no. 114, “The Invisible Kid,” by writer Maddy Crowell. The year Adolfo Davis was arrested, he became one of 2,500 adolescents serving mandatory life sentences across the United States.

Maddy Crowell | The Atavist | April 2021 | 5 minutes (1,507 words)

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Sometime after he had given up hope and then recovered it, Adolfo Davis began writing letters from his prison cell. Around 1999, he bought paper and pens from the commissary and wrote one letter after another, three times a week. He wrote on his bed, a squeaky metal frame with a lumpy loaf of a mattress, under the ugly glare of a fluorescent light bulb. There was nothing much to look at in his cell, just gray walls and a burnt-orange door made of steel, with tiny holes drilled through it. Muffled sounds from the hallway helped him figure out what time of day it was, when it was mealtime, which guards were working.

“My name is Adolfo Davis, and I’m trying to get home and regain my freedom,” he would write. “I didn’t shoot nobody. Please, help me get a second chance at life.” He sent a letter to nearly every law firm in Chicago, and after that, to every firm he could find in the state of Illinois. Most of the time, the letters went unanswered. Occasionally, he received a curt apology: “Sorry, we are at capacity.” Or simply: “We can’t, but good luck.”

Adolfo was in his early twenties when he started writing the letters. He had a boyish smile, a light mustache, and a disarming charisma that could fold into stillness when he felt like being alone. In 1993, at the age of 16, he’d been convicted as an accomplice to a double murder that took place when he was 14. He claimed that he was there when the killings happened, but that he didn’t pull the trigger. For that he was serving a mandatory life sentence, without the possibility of parole.

Prisons in Illinois were teeming with cases like his—Black men who’d been locked up as teenagers. Few would ever be freed. Over the years, Adolfo watched friends become optimistic and then have their hopes dashed by the courts, by politicians, by their own lawyers. He once saw someone make it to the front door of the prison after a ruling was issued in his favor, only to be sent back to his cell when a state’s attorney made a last-minute phone call to a judge.

Sometimes Adolfo felt like he was trapped at the bottom of an hourglass, the sand piling up around him: Every falling grain meant another day of his life lost. Except that he wasn’t sure exactly what he was missing. He’d been free in the world for only 14 years—about as long as it takes some woolly bear caterpillars to become moths. What he remembered best was the small slice of Chicago’s South Side where he grew up. He remembered selling drugs on street corners, and coming home to find no food in the house. He remembered being evicted 11 times in 12 years, and sleeping in apartments crammed with other kids, aunties and uncles, friends. He remembered doing wheelies on his bike, showing off to the other kids in his neighborhood. He remembered getting up early on Sundays to get a Super Transfer—a bus ticket good for an entire day—and riding downtown, where skyscrapers towered above him. He and his friends would spend the day shining shoes or breakdancing for money.

The letters continued into Adolfo’s thirties. At some point, he began to wonder if he’d be writing them for the rest of his life. He would if he had to, because despite the terms of his sentence, the only thing that sustained him was the thought that he might eventually be released. So he kept writing; the months bled together, and the years did, too.

One day in 2009, Adolfo got a letter from the officials at Illinois’s Stateville prison, where he was incarcerated, notifying him that a lawyer would visit him the next day. Her name was Patricia Soung, and she was from the Children and Family Justice Center, a legal clinic run by Northwestern University, in Evanston, just outside Chicago. Adolfo had no idea what her visit was about, but he felt a sudden buoyancy.

When he met Soung, he could tell right away that she was, as he later put it, “an alpha”—professional and direct. Yet she seemed to care about him as a person, too. She and her team were working on juvenile-justice cases in Illinois, she explained, and they’d come across his. She wanted to take it on pro bono. Was he interested?

In more than a decade of writing letters, Adolfo had never sent one to Soung or the Children and Family Justice Center. This offer of possible salvation came entirely out of the blue.

***

At the time when Adolfo met Soung, the United States was the only country in the world that sentenced children convicted of certain crimes to life in prison. In Illinois, as in many other states, adolescents as young as 14 could be transferred to an adult court, allowing prosecutors to circumvent a juvenile-court system that was considered more rehabilitative than punitive. If a child was convicted of a double murder in adult court, the mandatory sentence was life imprisonment without the possibility of parole—judges were barred from taking into account the circumstances surrounding the crime to lower the sentence. The year Adolfo was arrested, 2,500 other adolescents across the country were serving mandatory life sentences.

In more than a decade of writing letters, Adolfo had never sent one to Soung or the Children and Family Justice Center. This offer of possible salvation came entirely out of the blue.

Individuals convicted of certain crimes before they were 18 could also be sentenced to death, until a 2005 Supreme Court decision, Roper v. Simmons, abolished that option on the grounds that it violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The decision was based in part on the idea that adolescents had an “underdeveloped sense of responsibility” and were “more vulnerable or susceptible to negative influences and outside pressures, including peer pressure.”

A coalition of activists and lawyers decided to use Roper to try to bring an end to mandatory life sentences for minors. The group was led in large part by Bryan Stevenson, an Alabama lawyer who saw an opportunity in the ruling: If the Supreme Court agreed that adolescents’ brains were fundamentally different from adults’, he reasoned, then why should a child ever be sentenced as an adult? Stevenson began searching the country for test cases—people serving life sentences who’d been locked up as kids. He had nearly 2,000 to choose from.

Stevenson zeroed in on 35 cases, spread over 20 states. They mostly involved the youngest adolescents condemned to die in prison. Stevenson filed an appeal in each of the cases, and two of them eventually reached the Supreme Court. In the first, Miller v. Alabama, a man named Evan Miller was 14 when he beat his neighbor and then set fire to his trailer, killing him, after a night of drinking and drug use. In the second, Jackson v. Hobbs, Kuntrell Jackson, also 14, robbed an Arkansas video store with two older teenagers, one of whom killed the store’s clerk.

In 2012, the Supreme Court delivered a monumental five to four decision in favor of Miller. It ruled that it was unlawful to hand a child a mandatory life sentence that failed to take “into account the family and home environment … no matter how brutal or dysfunctional.” As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg put it during oral arguments, “You’re dealing with a 14-year-old being sentenced to life in prison, so he will die in prison without any hope. I mean, essentially, you’re making a 14-year-old a throwaway person.”

The ruling was groundbreaking in that it compelled judges to consider a child’s background in determining sentencing. But it also left open the question of whether the decision could apply to older cases, ones that had already been litigated. Soung’s team at Northwestern wanted to use Adolfo’s case to set a precedent, cementing that the Miller ruling could be applied retroactively. In 2014, they brought his case before the Illinois Supreme Court, and to Adolfo’s amazement the judges ruled in his favor: Based on Miller, he could appeal his life sentence. The decision didn’t set him free, but it cleared a path for that to happen.

Suddenly, Adolfo’s story garnered national attention. He found himself on the front page of The New York Times—a photo of him in an oversize brown prison uniform appeared above a story about his case. “A Murderer at 14, Then a Lifer, Now a Man Pondering a Future,” the headline read. Journalists from the Chicago Sun-Times, the Chicago Tribune, and WBEZ contacted him, asking him to share his story. “‘I’m just praying for a second chance,’” one headline declared, quoting Adolfo.

By then he was 38. He’d spent nearly a quarter-century—most of his life—behind bars. With every letter he sent and every prayer he whispered, he’d been waiting for this moment. The possibility of release softened the harsh edges of prison, made them tolerable. At the same time, he was wary of what might happen when his case went back to court. The system had always been against him. Why should anything change now?

 

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