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Tuesday, Sep 19, 2017
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Strangers offer support when child criminals get long sentences

TAMPA — Erica Zweig of San Francisco has never spoken to Kenneth Young of Tampa.

If they ever do meet, it may not be for another 15 years.

That’s when Young is scheduled for release from the Everglades Correctional Institution in Miami.

Still, Zweig recently donated $30,000 to a new trust fund for Young as one of a number of strangers who are pitching in nationwide to help right what they see as the wrong of lengthy prison sentences for juveniles.

Young, now 30, was 14 when he was arrested for armed robbery in Tampa and tried as an adult.

“No one should be punished for so much of their adult life for a crime they committed as a child, especially if they have proven they turned their life around,” said Zweig, 65. “I’ve been told by those who support Kenneth that he is now a lovely young man. I’m not rich but I feel like I need to do what I can to help this young man get his life started when he is released.”

Zweig learned of Young through the documentary, “15 to Life: Kenneth’s Story,” broadcast on PBS and screened over 70 times at events and conferences including the 2015 Gasparilla International Film Festival in Tampa.

Pequeneza started the fund after Zweig contacted her about donating money to Young. Pequeneza’s husband, Jean-Philippe Arcand, serves as trustee.

Through her travels promoting “15 to Life,” Pequeneza has learned of other benefactors helping inmates imprisoned for crimes as teens — including a writing teacher in Connecticut helping a women in prison for a murder committed when she was 14, and a public defender in Georgia helping a man sentenced for a murder that happened when he was 15.

“An adolescent is not an adult and every biologist knows this,” said Young’s attorney Paolo Annino, who represents him pro bono and runs the Children in Prison Project at Florida State University. “It has been well documented by neuroscientists and developmental psychologists.”

The U.S. Supreme Court factored this into its 2010 decision outlawing life sentences without parole for juveniles in offenses other than homicide and into its 2012 ruling that expanded the ruling to include homicides, too.

The court now is deciding whether its 2012 decision should be applied retroactively. If so, as many as 2,000 adults would be eligible for parole.

What’s more, due in part to Young’s case, Florida lawmakers adopted a measure in 2014 making juveniles eligible for resentencing after 20 years if they are sentenced to 20 years or more for crimes other than homicide. Rehabilitation must be weighed as a factor.

The measure also requires that in cases where juveniles commit murder, their sentences must be weighed against factors including maturity level, background and nature of their crimes.

“We know children do not have the same capacity as adults to assess risk or understand the consequences of their actions,” said Jody Kent Lavy, director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. “They also are more susceptible to pressure from peers and adults. These young people need to be held accountable for their actions in a way that is age appropriate.”

Lavy said her organization and others lobby to ban life sentences of any kind for juveniles as well as what she calls “de facto life sentences” of 50 years or more.

“If you look at other developed nations we are off the grid when it comes to how we treat our children,” Lavy said. “We are sentencing kids to decades in prison, making it harder for them to reintegrate into the community later on.”

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The success of the documentary “15 to Life” has helped broaden the legal debate.

“It has thankfully received a ton of exposure,” said director Pequeneza. “People think it is unfair what has happened to Kenneth and want to support him.”

Young was raised by a single, drug-addicted mother in the low-income neighborhood near the University of South Florida derided as “Suitcase City.”

In 2000, a man who dealt crack to Young’s mother, 24-year-old Jacques Bethea, told the boy he’d kill her unless he agreed to help him in a series of armed robberies. Victims testified that Young beat them and threatened their lives.

Still, Young’s supporters say, it never escalated to gunfire or murder. One victim, Jennifer Norman, says in the “15 to Life” documentary that Young prevented Bethea from raping her.

It was Young’s first major scrape with the law, according to “15 To Life.” But Young initially received four life sentences without parole while Bethea received just one.

For his safety, as a minor in an adult prison, Young spent much of his sentence in solitary confinement at first.

After the 2010 Supreme Court ruling, he was resentenced to 30 years.

Still, attorney Annino said, he should go free now.

The only mark against Young in prison has been forgetting to make his bed once, Annino said. He has received educational certificates, helped other inmates get theirs, and has learned the barbering trade.

At Young’s rehearing, as shown in “15 to Life,” – Hillsborough Circuit Court Judge Daniel Sleet said he believed Young had been rehabilitated but did not interpret the Supreme Court ruling to mean that this should be considered.

“An unbelievable injustice is being done to him,” said Zweig, the trust fund donor. “I’d like to meet him some day, but if I don’t, I’ll still help.”

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Zweig and Pequeneza held a screening of the documentary in San Francisco in early October and collected a couple hundred dollars for the trust. They hope to hold more, maybe in Tampa.

Meantime, information on donating is at www.15tolifethefilm.com.

Young declined to speak with the Tribune because he is mourning the death of his sister.

“He told me that he felt blessed that people cared to help him,” Annino said.

“It is unbelievable that strangers care about him,” said Ernest Young, Young’s cousin and a warehouse coordinator for the Tribune. “It’s God’s will. God has compassion for my cousin. He was a kid when he did those things. It is time to forgive him and let him live.”

Other strangers care about other inmates, too.

Harriet Hendel of Connecticut, 72, a former writing professor at maximum security prisons, supports Robin Ledbetter, a 33-year-old inmate at York Correctional Institution in Niantic, Connecticut.

Ledbetter was 14 in 1996 when she and her boyfriend tried to rob a cab driver in Hartford. The driver fought back and was stabbed and killed. Ledbetter was convicted of murder and sentenced to 50 years with the possibility of parole, though she denies she was the killer.

Hendel learned of Ledbetter through an essay of hers published in the book, “I’ll Fly Away: Further Testimonies from the Women of York Prison.”

Hendel believes Ledbetter is no longer the same girl who would agree to play any role in a robbery or hang out with the people who would. So Hendel is helping Ledbetter pay for a college education and will one day start a trust fund.

“She was a girl then and I believe she has become a remarkable young woman,” Hendel said. “She will have a difficult time when she gets out. I’d like to make it easier.”

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Leisa Johnson, 51, is a public defender in Albany, Georgia, who supports Damien Chapman, 33, an inmate at Georgia’s Calhoun State Prison.

Chapman was sentenced to life with possibility of parole for his role in the 1997 murder of his mother. He was 15 at the time, and in the absence of a father, had grown close to 30-year-old man who was a drug user and thief, Johnson said.

“Damien told this man he hated his mother and wanted her dead,” said Johnson, who met Chapman at a prison high school graduation ceremony in 2013. “And that man did it. He killed Damien’s mom. How many times do kids say things they do not mean?”

Whether Chapman was just popping off in anger is at the center of the debate over his incarceration. According to court records, he did not call police about the slaying.

Johnson, a mother of two, visits Chapman in prison, calls him regularly and sends him gifts.

She has prepared a room for him in her house, hoping he will one day be paroled.

“I love him as much as the children I gave physical birth to. He is a good person. There is such thing as redemption.”

Attorney Annino said he hopes Young will be a free man soon.

A year ago, Annino filed a petition with the U.S. District Court in Tampa arguing that Young’s rehabilitation should have been factored into his resentencing.

Annino said the case could be heard any time in the next three years.

Young has offers of a place to stay when gets out.

Ernest Young says his cousin is welcome to stay with his family in Tampa. And donor Zweig said he could get a fresh start with her help in San Francisco.

In the year that the documentary on Young has been shown, many strangers have sent Pequeneza, Annino and Young letters saying they believe Young should be a free man.

“The last time I spoke with Kenneth, he told me all of the support gives him hope,” Pequeneza said. “Hope is something that is hard to come by when you’re in prison for a mistake you made as a child.”

pguzzo@tampatrib.com

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