“Freedom was enough:” Life after life without parole for one metro Detroit man
Lorenzo Harrell held his two-year-old daughter as he tossed a tennis ball for their dog, Pinky, to run back to him in their quiet, suburban backyard. It’s an ordinary experience that he could barely let himself imagine for much of his life. That’s because Harrell was supposed to spend all of his adult life in prison for a crime he committed at the age of 17.
A U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2012 changed his fate — and that of hundreds of other so-called “juvenile lifers” in Michigan — when it determined that automatic life without parole sentences for minors were unconstitutional. Four years later, the court determined that its decision was retroactive.
Harrell had spent more than 20 years behind bars for a homicide when that decision came down. Reviewing his case in 2017, Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Richard Skutt examined factors that were not part of Harrell’s original sentencing, and determined that Harrell should serve 25 years. Having already spent more than that amount of time in prison, Harrell went before the parole board, which approved his release in 2019.
Among the circumstances Judge Skutt considered were Harrell’s home life: Both his parents had substance use issues, and his father was frequently absent.
“We basically lived in an abandoned house,” Harrell said. “Our neighbors were very, very violent. My mother was violent. We used to get whoopings all the time, for the smallest things. The only people I really, really saw and looked up to were drug dealers, gangsters.”
He began to follow in their footsteps from a young age.
Harrell was 17 when his cousin — also a teenager — asked for help confronting someone who owed him money. Harrell shot and killed the man without talking things through with his cousin or thinking about the consequences. He couldn’t grasp the fact that he would spend time in prison for his crime, and recalled balking when his lawyer brought him a plea deal that would’ve had him in prison for just 10 years.
“I looked at that [and] was like, ‘Ten years?! Ten years?’!” Harrell said he did the math and realized that in 10 years he’d be 27 years old. “I can't do that,” he recalled thinking at the time.
His court-appointed lawyer, Robert Slameka, has since been discredited for urging a 15-year-old to plead guilty to a quadruple homicide he didn’t commit, and was disbarred for forging signatures.
Decades later, Harrell can recall the response Slameka gave when the 17-year-old asked if he should take the plea deal: “What he told me was, 'Tonight I'm going to lay on my bed. I'm going to be comfortable in my bed. It's your decision on what you're going to do and that's your life.'”
Harrell didn’t take the plea deal. Instead, he and his cousin went to trial. Both of them were teenagers when a judge sentenced them to life without parole.
Supreme Court steps in
Judges in Michigan sentenced hundreds of minors to life without the possibility of parole — more than any state except Pennsylvania.
The Supreme Court in its 2012 Miller v. Alabama decision said life-without-parole sentences for juveniles can only happen after a judge considers mitigating factors including their home life and the circumstances of the crime. But it wasn’t until the court issued a second decision in 2016 that people like Harrell got a shot at release. That decision, in a case called Montgomery v. Louisiana, forced Michigan to apply the Miller decision retroactively and re-sentence more than 370 people sentenced to life without parole for crimes they committed as minors.
About half of them, including Harrell, have since been released.
Jose Burgos is another. The former juvenile lifer now works with the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, an advocacy organization that supports legislation to ban life without parole sentences for minors.
On his very first day on the job, in early October, he facilitated a panel discussion at the Michigan Capitol on the issue of life without parole as part of a day of advocacy in support of a bill that would ban the sentence for minors. The legislature adjourned its session without voting on the bill.
“It's not about whether I should be held accountable for my actions or not,” he said. “But something is morally wrong about sending children to prison, and I think we can do it better.”
Burgos was sentenced to life without parole as a teenager after he shot and killed a man just a few years older than he was, and left that man’s twin brother paralyzed. Burgos fought back tears as he recalled the crime he committed, and said he still thinks about both of his victims every day.
“I try to … make sure that I live my life. I'm constantly trying to give back meaning, trying to make that right,” Burgos said. “The loss of life is something that you can't give back.”
“I threw my life away.”
It can take time for a young person to make sense of the indefinite space between them and the sunset of their lives. For Lorenzo Harrell, it took about a decade to wake up from his “immature stupor” and understand that he was to spend every last day of his life behind bars. He was plagued by questions. “How did I get here?” and “What the hell have I done?” Eventually, an unsettling reality dawned on Harrell: “I threw my life away.”
But not only his own life; Harrell’s actions caused his teenage cousin to be locked up for life as well. And, most troubling, he had taken the life of another person. A man he hadn’t even known.
That’s when the waves of guilt set in, bringing with them tears of remorse.
“I think I started, at that particular point, I started to accept responsibility,” he said. He had what he called his “first real cry” in regards to his crime. “I think that cry, that was the genuine cry when you cry from your soul.”
Harrell came to feel that if he was going to spend the rest of his life in prison, he had to do whatever he could to redeem himself. “I think when it sunk in for me, I just told myself, like, I just need to do good because I don't want to die a murderer to the people closest to me,” he said. “I want to die somebody that they say, ‘Man, he was a good dude.’”
“Freedom was enough”
Once he realized he would be released from prison, Harrell said he tried to imagine what that would mean for him.
“I was looking forward to having a real relationship with a woman – like a real, real relationship,” but said he hasn’t found that in the four years since he’s been out of prison. “I think freedom was enough.”
And yet, Harrell said, he still isn’t totally comfortable being out in the world. “I tell people I went in at 17, I came out at 17, in regards to life experience.”
Harrell has tried to make the most of his freedom. He works full time at the State Appellate Defenders’ Office, which handles many cases of those sentenced to life without parole as juveniles. Sometimes, lawyers will come in with a “juvenile lifer” they’ve helped to get released and Harrell will again feel all the awe and gratitude he did when he was in their position.
He puts the skills he used in prison to use translating textbooks into Braille, and spends as much time as he can with his daughter. When asked, he shares his experiences with young people to try and steer them down a different path than the one he took when he was a teenager.
But mostly, he has tried to live an ordinary life. He recently bought a house and got a dog.
Harrell thinks the Supreme Court had the right idea to look at the factors that influence a young person’s crime. He’s also ready to admit that not everyone who grew up in the same sort of circumstances as him would do what he did. But, he said, some people make mistakes. Some people fail.
Harrell watched his daughter go through a box of crayons. She asked him what color she should use and he told her, “You can color any color you want.”
He wants to do all he can to make sure he raises his daughter to have better circumstances and make better decisions than he did.
“At 17, I couldn't imagine my daughter with a gun. I couldn't imagine my daughter selling drugs or in the streets,” he said. “She’s just a child. But my mother was okay with it [for me]. There was no push back.”
Sometimes, just looking at his little girl can send him into a spiral of guilt. The man he killed had two daughters. One of them was about the age that his daughter is now.
“I didn’t just kill [a person],” he said. “I killed that relationship that a daughter have with her father.
Harrell is grateful to have gotten a second chance at life. But he knows that’s something no one will ever be able to give to the person whose life he took.
CORRECTION : An earlier version of this story misspelled Robert Slameka's name.