91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit 104.1 Grand Rapids 91.3 Port Huron 89.7 Lansing 91.1 Flint
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

"We are responsible for them." Victim's sister wants life without parole outlawed for juveniles

Two people embrace in an office.
Paul Sancya
The Associated Press
Valencia Warren-Gibbs hugs Bobby Hines in 2017, the year he was released from prison.

Valencia Warren-Gibbs remembers the first time she saw the boys who killed her older brother.

Of the group, “he was the smallest,” she said of 15-year old Bobby Hines. He couldn’t have been more than 100 pounds soaking wet, she said. “You could clearly see that he was a child.”

Warren-Gibbs was devastated when her brother, James Warren, was murdered. There were five kids in their family, but Valencia says she and James were extremely close. Born a little more than a year apart, she says they’d connect their fists together and shout “Wonder Twin powers, activate!” like the brother and sister cartoon superheroes they watched on TV growing up. “He was fearless. I loved him dearly,” she said.

In an interview with Michigan Radio’s Beenish Ahmed, she shared how her brother struggled with drug addiction before he died. She recounted the events leading up to his murder one night in May 1989, and the agony of losing her Wonder Twin.

She says no one at her house slept that first night. As police started piecing together what happened, the next day Warren-Gibbs remembers praying for all of the families involved. “Because I could not imagine waking up and having my son deal with that or dealing with that with my child,” she said. Warren-Gibbs imagined a world where the roles were reversed. Where James was on the other side of the gun, and Bobby was dead instead.“I just felt … that it could have been the other way around. There was so much going on at that time in the … communities that were struggling with drugs.”

So she was stunned at the sentencing hearing later that summer, when she realized this 15-year-old Black boy was never getting out of prison. “We got him,” she recalled hearing the prosecutor tell her family, when they walked out of the courtroom.

I just burst out in tears because it didn't make sense to me,” Warren-Gibbs said. The equation of crime and punishment didn’t add up. My brother didn't reappear. It didn't change the outcome. It didn't change anything. But you're killing this other person in place of my brother's life.”

“But I was too ashamed to tell anybody why I was really crying,” she said.

Yusef Qualls attended a rally in support of criminal justice reform initiatives at a park in Detroit just days after he was resentenced and released from prison. Now 44, he was sentenced to life without parole when he was 16 years old.
Beenish Ahmed
Michigan Radio
Michigan sentenced over 360 minors to life without parole — more than any state except Pennsylvania. Half of them have now been released and 90% have been resentenced, in most cases to a finite length of time.

It would take Warren-Gibbs several years to broach the topic with her parents. As Bobby Hines fought to get re-sentenced, Warren-Gibbs remembered asking her mother if she thought maybe Hines should get out of prison at some point. Her mother shot down the possibility immediately. Embarrassed and ashamed for asking, Warren-Gibbs hesitated to bring it up again.

“It makes you feel isolated, so you really don't want to share it,” Warren-Gibbs said. “I felt this way the entire time.

That feeling lingers now, six years after Hines’ release from prison. When Warren-Gibbs tells people she’s forgiven Hines for his role in her brother’s murder – even forged a friendship with him – she braces herself. “People will be like, ‘Oh, you're better than me, because I wouldn't be able to do that.’” But Warren-Gibbs cringes at that notion. "I don't think I’m ‘better than.’ It's a human rights issue. It's a civil issue…He was a kid.”

In early October, Warren-Gibbs traveled to Lansing to support legislation that would outlaw life-without-parole sentences for people younger than 19 in Michigan. It appears unlikely the bills will get a vote before lawmakers adjourn for the year. But Warren-Gibbs said it’s the job of adults to protect children.

We are responsible for them as much as they are responsible for themselves, but we are even more culpable and responsible for them,” she said. “And so therefore, we need to protect them in every way possible.”

Beenish Ahmed is Michigan Public's Criminal Justice reporter. Since 2016, she has been a reporter for WNYC Public Radio in New York and also a freelance journalist. Her stories have appeared on NPR, as well as in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, VICE and The Daily Beast.
Lindsey Smith is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently leading the station's Amplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
Related Content
  • The United States Supreme Court has said life without parole should be reserved for “the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption" and set standards to determine when it's an appropriate sentence. A hearing this week will determine if Ethan Crumbley should be one of those rare cases.
  • Michigan sentenced over 360 minors to life without parole — more than any state except Pennsylvania. Half of them have now been released and 90% have been resentenced, in most cases to a finite length of time.
  • With two landmark rulings, the United States Supreme Court has made it clear: Mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles are unconstitutional. This has meant that the more than 360 so-called juvenile lifers in Michigan -- the second-highest total in the nation -- are eligible for re-sentencing, and possibly a second chance. It’s also meant time-consuming case reviews and court hearings, and, for victims’ families, often a painful reopening of the worst moments in their lives.The week of December 12th, 2016, Michigan Radio took a close look at how Michigan is following up on these landmark U.S. Supreme Court rulings.Are juvenile lifers in Michigan getting a second chance?It's a difficult discussion that has life and death stakes, murders and victims, issues of justice and fairness, and a lot of legal maneuvering. It's also a conversation about how we, as a society, should treat the most troubled children among us.There are few easy answers. See our entire series below.
  • As this infographic shows, only Pennsylvania ranks higher than Michigan when it comes to handing out life sentences without the possibility for parole to…
  • A group of state lawmakers say it is time for Michigan to change the way it sentences juveniles convicted of murder.This summer, the U.S. Supreme Court…