Guernica Magazine

That Night, It Never Ends: A Story of Life With or Without Parole

Should a convicted murderer ever be given another chance? The post That Night, It Never Ends: A Story of Life With or Without Parole appeared first on Guernica.
Prison corridor, photo by Christopher Michel via Flickr.

Rhode Island prison inmate Steven Parkhurst gives his rap, sees the students who should be listening strutting their stuff on one side of the visiting room. Swaggering, holding court. Oh, yeah, Steven thinks. There’s me at their age. Think they’re tough. This ain’t shit. This is a field trip.

The students had come to John J. Moran Medium Security Facility in Cranston as part of a program to influence middle- and high-school kids to make good decisions. Steven wonders, How do you have a class of high schoolers not on the edge of doing something stupid? You don’t.  

“Each of you has power,” he tells the students. “You have the power to integrate into society or you have the power to go to prison. Follow a path. Left or right. Turn wrong and you’re building a bridge to prison. And inside you’ll do what you’re told. Oh, yeah, you’ll do what you’re told.”

He notices a redhead boy, maybe 15, 17 years old, not really paying attention.

“Yo, what’s your name?” Steven asks.

“Trevor.”

Steven feels his stomach drop to the floor. He remembers that night again and again. It’s why he is here decades later, lecturing kids who today are the age he was when he went to prison.

*

Twenty-six years ago, when he was 17, a jury found Steven Parkhurst guilty of first-degree murder, and several other counts, for the 1992 shooting death of Trevor Ramella, 20, at a party in North Smithfield, Rhode Island. It was the beginning of a crime spree that ended with Steven’s arrest in the Midwest. A judge sentenced him to life imprisonment with the possibility of parole, plus forty-five years to be served consecutively. In 2008, following an appeal, Steven was resentenced to life imprisonment with the possibility of parole, plus twenty years to be served consecutively.

In 2014, Steven was denied parole. At the time, he had completed a bachelor’s degree while in prison; enrolled in an MBA program through Adams State University; trained 14 dogs to serve disabled and deaf people; spoken before hundreds of high-school students about avoiding the mistakes that lead to prison; become a Buddhist; and participated in dozens of self-improvement programs, including victims’ advocacy and anger management. Believing he had been treated unfairly by the parole board, and after more than a quarter-century behind bars, he decided to challenge Rhode Island’s state parole laws.

In a lawsuit he filed last year, Steven argues that the Rhode Island parole board violated his rights and U.S. Supreme Court precedent by not considering his youth as a mitigating factor and failing to offer children who were tried as adults and sentenced to mandatory life terms a “meaningful opportunity” to gain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation. Steven relies on a series of U.S. Supreme Court rulings that declare it unconstitutional to sentence a child to death or to life in prison without a chance of parole. He faults Rhode Island laws for failing to incorporate these constitutionally required protections.

Adults jailed for crimes they committed as children have filed similar lawsuits and won. In February of 2012, the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Michigan represented nine Michigan prisoners who were serving life sentences without possibility of parole for crimes perpetrated when they were children. In 2017, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals declared that all prisoners in Michigan who committed crimes as children and were sentenced to life have a right to parole. The court required the state to give “notice to all such persons who have completed 10 years of imprisonment that their eligibility for parole will be considered in a meaningful and realistic manner.”

In response to Rhode Island’s effort to dismiss Steven’s suit, his attorney wrote, “There is no basis on which to conclude that the plaintiff’s juvenile status at the time of his offense, his development while incarcerated, maturity, acceptance of responsibility, or his rehabilitation were considered by the Parole Board.”

*

I first heard of Steven in the fall of 2016, when the ACLU issued a report on offenders 18 year of age and younger. “False Hope: How Parole Systems Fail Youth Serving Extreme Sentences” found that more than 8,000 inmates across the country had been sentenced to 40 years or more, the equivalent of a life term, for crimes they had perpetrated as children.  The ACLU put me in touch with Steven’s friend, Bruce Reilly, who then helped arrange my first interview with Steven.

In 1992, Bruce, then 19, fought with and killed Charles A. Russell, 58, an English professor at Community College of Rhode Island. Charles had offered Bruce a ride. When a dispute spiraled out of control, they fought. Bruce beat and stabbed Charles to death, and then stole his wallet, credit cards, and car. He was arrested about a year later in Boston.

“I was surviving, a drug dealer open to other criminal activity,” Bruce told me over the phone. “I was fucked up in the head and I killed someone.”

Bruce is now 45. He served nearly 12 years in prison. He studied law and helped other prisoners with their cases. In 2005, after his third parole hearing, he was released. He became involved in prisoners’ rights issues, enrolled in college, and formed a theatre company that produced several plays he had written. After finishing five years of parole, Bruce transferred his probation to Louisiana to attend Tulane University Law School.

He spent his first eight years

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