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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.

After 41 years in prison, Detroit man is first, and so far only, juvenile lifer to get second chance

(Left to right) William Washington, Lizzie Young and Vincent Washington.
Jodi Westrick
Michigan Radio
(Left to right) William Washington, Lizzie Young and Vincent Washington.

Wayne County has more than 150 juvenile lifers, by far the most in the state. As of today, only one of them – and, in fact, the only person among the more than 360 juvenile lifers in the entire state of Michigan – has been given that second chance. 

On June 4, 1975, 17-year-old William Washington and his 26-year-old co-defendant, Kenneth Rucker, robbed a record store. After a scuffle with the store owner, Mr. Rucker took the victim into the back room and shot him to death. This incident led to Washington receiving a life without parole sentence for first degree murder, as well as a second life sentence for armed robbery, for his role as an aider and abettor.

On November 17th of this year – 41 years after he went to prison – William Washington became a free man. 
Washington and his mother Lizzie Young joined us in the studio.

(This story is part of our series Michigan's Juvenile Lifers: Who Gets a Second Chance?)

Washington told us it’s hard to put into words how he’s felt since he got out of prison.

“I can’t describe how 40 years of just wanting to be back with your family, sitting down eating a meal, waking up in the morning, good morning, greetings, I hadn’t realized how much I missed it,” he said.

“To be here now with my mom being interviewed, I can’t describe that.”

When asked what surprised him most since getting out, he warned us he might get “a little philosophical.”

Washington said he was most surprised to find “how love doesn’t really change. How I felt for my brother, my mom years ago as a child, I still feel the same.”

By his own admission, Washington was “not a very good son” growing up.

“I think my mom was a very good mom, I was just not trying to hear what, you know, the discipline, what’s-best-for-the-child-stuff. I really wasn’t trying to hear that, especially from my father. So I would skip school, just do what I want to do at a very young age,” he said.

Washington received his life sentence at age 17, and told us he thinks his mom was more affected by it at the time than he was.

"I don't think it was about me, I just happened to be the first one released. It's not about me, it's about the 300 and more others."

“She started crying and kind of pleading with the judge, and … I felt more saddened by that than the sentence itself,” he said, “probably because I didn’t grasp the significance at that time, what that held for me for the rest of my life.”

Washington didn’t hesitate when asked if he felt he deserved that sentence.

“Yes, of course. Probably ever since I was 12 years old … stealing from my mom and my father, just making my mom’s life miserable,” he said. “The stuff she just put up with me is amazing.”

“These were the times when I would think deeply on how a lot of the stuff my mom had to put up with, how she felt, because I never had a chance to really think about how other people felt about the stuff that I did to them or the impact that I may have had in their life,” Washington said. “A lot of that was about the stuff that I had did to people, you know, harming people, and how it was literally coming back to haunt me.”

Then, after 41 years and two Supreme Court decisions, Washington was resentenced to a term of years and became immediately eligible for parole.

(Support trusted journalism like this in Michigan. Give what you can here.)

Listen to Washington and Young tell the story:

Washington doesn’t know why he was the first of Michigan’s more than 360 juvenile lifers to be released.

“I know it was probably because the lot of hard work and sacrifice of people who’ve been working with this juvenile bill for the last 20, 25 years,” he said.

“Even though it was a Supreme Court decision that ruled juveniles being sentenced to life sentence is cruel and unusual punishment, you know, you give a shout out to all the lawyers involved. I don’t think it was about me, I just happened to be the first one released. It’s not about me, it’s about the 300 and more others.”

“A lot of it has come through the forgiveness of these families that we victimized and traumatized and all that stuff. It’s through their efforts as well as not being opposed to us being released now, so I think they are just as integral to this as anything else.”

"If I can spend the rest of my life living next door to my brother, taking care of my mom's house and her lawn and the other lawns and vacant lots, I'm good."

People don’t get sentenced to life without parole without being part of a pretty horrible crime that results in loss of life. There are likely some who believe that since Washington was involved in a crime like that, he should not have been released.

To those people, Washington said: “I understand it.”

“I have no problem with them saying that. The crimes I’ve committed, I wouldn’t have any problem with remaining in prison for the rest of my life. I absolutely had no problem with that.… You’re never released from murder. Whether you pull the trigger or not, being part of that lifestyle, you’re never free from it because you never forget about it.”

Moving forward, Washington says his only plans are to be with his family and to be a productive member of society.

“I really enjoy being with my family, that’s all I ever wanted to do was be with my family,” he said. “What my brother and my mom have established over where I'm living, they would clean the neighborhood, I mean literally clean the neighborhood, two or three houses down, vacant lots, and that's what my brother's got me doing. I was telling him it's a joy, you know, because I'm able to put some of my skill sets in play."

"It's a joy working around the house and the property, it's a lot of space to take here, a lot of lawn to maintain, a lot of grounds keeping work which is labor-intensive, and I love it. So if I can spend the rest of my life living next door to my brother, taking care of my mom's house and her lawn and the other lawns and vacant lots, I'm good."

There are more than 360 prisoners in Michigan sentenced to life in prison without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles. Michigan's Juvenile Lifers: Who Gets a Second Chance?is Michigan Radio's week-long series looking at juvenile lifers in Michigan, and the efforts to re-sentence many of them.  

(Subscribe to the Stateside podcast on iTunes, Google Play, or with this RSS link)

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