Rights & Liberties

Children Condemned to Life: In Film

Before the crimes, when he was still a small child, Kenneth Young's mother would lock him inside the house and disappear for days at a time. “I knew she was getting high,” Young says in the documentary film “15 to Life: Kenneth's Story,” which was released this fall by PBS. In 2001, a Florida judge condemned Young to life in prison without the possibility of parole for his role in a string of armed robberies. At the time, Young was 15. Young's co-defendant was an adult; he was also Young's mother's crack cocaine dealer. The film opens on Young as a 26-year-old and chronicles his re-sentencing hearing — an opportunity that emerged due to a recent landmark Supreme Court decision.

Throughout the hearing, Paolo Annino, Young's lead lawyer, unravels his client's narrative. It is packed with mitigation, or evidence of diminished culpability. Annino argues that Young's childhood was marred by his mother's drug addiction, which left Young unsupervised and vulnerable to harmful influences beyond his control. Annino also leverages Young's 14 years of incarceration to demonstrate his client's maturity. After Young, who is African American, apologizes for his crimes in open court, Annino places an adolescent psychologist, a prison warden, and Young's mother, who is in recovery, on the stand to testify on Young's behalf.

The state prosecutor is intent on preserving Young's original sentence. The state's options, though, are somewhat limited. It would be futile to question the adverse impact of Young's mother's negligence on her son's development. The facts are too glaring. Likewise, Young's recent successes are indisputable. At the time of his trial and conviction, Young had hardly made it out of middle school. While in prison, Young earned a GED.

Kenneth Young's hands, folded, during an interview with the documentary crew.

Instead, the prosecutor implements the state's most compelling strategy. The prosecutor lays bare the details of Young's crimes and their lasting effects on the victims. When the prosecutor begins to question Sandra Christopher, a robbery victim who did not testify during Young's trial, Annino objects.

“Objection, your honor. Relevancy,” Annino says.

“Overruled,” the judge says.

“The issue in this case, Graham v. Florida, is whether or not there has been demonstration of rehabilitation and maturity.” Annino says. “This is not a case where we are retrying three separate trials.”

“That is not the standard. The Supreme Court of the United States did not instruct trial courts on resentencing for that to be a standard.” the judge says.

“It's a principle, your honor.”

“It's a principle sir, but it's not a guideline for sentencing. I am going to focus on the facts for this offense,” the Judge says.

With the objection overruled, Christopher tells the story of how Young and his co-defendant placed a pistol against her head, tossed her to the ground, and demanded cash. The experience, Christopher says, propelled her into counseling. More than a decade after the crimes occurred, she is still shaken. “I'm not ready to have him walking around where I live,” Christopher says of Young. “And I'm not moving.”

It is no surprise that Nadine Pequeneza, the film's director, is Canadian. Foreigners are often fascinated — and appalled — by the fact that this nation imposes the world's harshest punishments on its children. Scattered throughout Pequenza's film are black and white stills of American kids locked in prison cells. The images would be disorienting if not for the superimposed title cards made up of statistics. One reads, “There are more than 2,500 children in the US serving life in prison without the possibility of parole.”

Largely unknown, until recently, it was legal in the US to sentence children to death. It took the Supreme Court until 2005 to recognize what nearly everyone who has survived adolescence knows intrinsically: due to their unrealized development and maturity, teenagers are fundamentally different than adults. Juvenile advocates have continued to rely on neuroscience, psychology, and other empirical evidence to make moral and constitutional arguments against the imposition of life sentences on youth. To advocates, achieving progress has moved at a glacial pace.

In 2010, five years after the decision to eliminate the death penalty for juveniles, the Supreme Court further expanded its distinction between adolescents and adults. In Graham v. Florida, the Court outlawed juvenile life sentences for offenses that are less than murder — ruling in part that the lack of proportionality between non-homicides and life without parole violated the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The decision presented Young, and hundreds of others, with an opportunity for new sentencing hearings. In the years since Graham, some juvenile lifers were re-sentenced to time served. Many more were not.

Pequeneza's film arrived on the heels of “Lost for Life,” a documentary that opens with an audio recording of a jail house call by a boy to his mother. As the boy asks when he can return home, the screen fills with a grainy still image that at first appears to depict a dark forest. The camera slowly pans out on the image as we hear the boy grow more desperate. “Mom, I need to come home,” he says. The mother, her voice cracking with emotion, promises that she is working on securing her son's release. Then it becomes clear that the image is not of a forest but human hair. The mother asks her son if he is praying. The camera pans out further on the image. It is the bludgeoned body of a young girl.

We learn later that the boy's voice belongs to Torey Adamcik, arrested when he was 16 for the premeditated murder of Cassie Jo Stoddart. Her body appears in the film's opening image. Stoddart was stabbed 29 times by Adamcik and his juvenile co-defendant. The boys, like the victim, are white. The evidence is disquieting. The killing's planning and immediate aftermath was recorded on home video. “Lost for Life” explores the crimes and the irrevocable life sentences imposed on the teens and other juveniles convicted of murder. The film is a meditation on the question, “Are kids better than their worst acts?”

For Bryan Stevenson, director of the Equal Justice Initiative, who appears in both documentaries — and has twice argued on behalf of juveniles before the Supreme Court — the question is rhetorical. In “15 To Life: Kenneth's Story,” Stevenson says that irrespective of the offense, placing a child in prison and condemning him to die there is unjust. But in a nation corrupted by politics and fear, where elected officials and judges are jockeying to appear tough on crime, “everybody's afraid to be seen as sympathetic, compassionate, and merciful to people who have committed violent acts,” Stevenson says.

In “Lost for Life,” the portraits of Adamcik and other young men are set against Stevenson's broader battle to categorically end juvenile life without parole. Jacob Ind, now 36, is among those profiled. Ind was arrested for murdering his mother and stepfather when he was 15 and sentenced at 17. A resident of a middle-class home in Woodland Park, Colorado, Ind was sentenced to life without parole. At the time, dozens of other states maintained similar juvenile sentencing statutes. The film elegantly cuts (the editor won an Emmy) between Stevenson's 2012 Supreme Court fight in Miller v. Alabama, and Ind holding his breath for an outcome that could lead to his own re-sentencing hearing — and with it, a chance for parole.

That four out of the five young men featured in “Lost for Life” are white and middle class is not insignificant. The portrait stands in sharp contrast to the racial and socio-economic makeup of our nation's incarcerated youth. Juveniles sentenced to life are disproportionately African American and poor. Though African Americans make up 16 percent of the US juvenile population, they account for 58 percent of all juveniles arrested for murder. Also, because they are more likely to be charged as adults, the number of African American juveniles in residential facilities is four times higher than the same proportion for whites. Meanwhile, court-appointed attorneys and public defenders — whose caseloads are notoriously high — represented nearly 80 percent of juveniles currently serving life.

The white sub-section of juvenile lifers depicted in “Lost of Life,” however, may have helped resonate with the film's chief investor. After watching an early cut, Ted Leonsis, a billionaire entrepreneur and founder of Snag Films, backed the film. In an interview with Indiewire, another company Leonsis owns, he asked, “Why are we as a country so populated with so many children sentenced to life without parole? Who are they? Should they be released and forgiven? When? Why?”

To be fair, in spite of its shortcomings, the film's success may be due to the fact that it delivers a grave and intimate view of young people ensnared in our justice system. To juvenile and sentencing reform advocates, the increasing engagement in the film's fundamental message is good news. Dr. Marty Beyer, a psychologist, says in the film that as traumatized children become adolescents, the untreated trauma reveals itself in the form of depression and aggression. “Somebody does something to them,” Dr. Beyer says, “and having been victimized before, they overreact to it.” The film later reveals that before the murders, Ind had been tortured and abused by his mother and stepfather. Indeed, one of Stevenson's arguments in Miller is that the vast majority of juveniles who commit violent acts ought to be viewed and treated as victims in need of services and rehabilitation.

“Lost for Life” culminates with breaking news of Stevenson's apparent victory in Miller trickling out of the Supreme Court. Early reports suggest that juvenile life without parole is abolished. We watch Ind's hope for parole rise. Ind celebrates. But within the hour, news reporters qualify the scope of Stevenson's win. For juveniles, the Court outlaws mandatory life without parole — the emphasis is on mandatory. In Miller, the Court holds that trial courts may continue to impose life without parole on juveniles, but judges must take “mitigating evidence,” and the unique circumstances of each young offender into account prior to sentencing.

In theory, Miller transformed the constitutional landscape for juveniles. Yet in the nearly two and a half years since, change has been sluggish and inconsistent. Some states passed legislation or supported litigation that applied the Miller decision retroactively; others did not. Meanwhile, in spite of an overwhelming body of scientific evidence demonstrating that adolescents maintain a unique capacity to rehabilitate, juveniles continue to be sentenced to life. For them, justice is not distributed evenly across our nation, but as a patchwork divided along racial and socio-economic lines.

Not surprisingly, seven of the top ten states with the highest incarceration rates dot the American South. In Louisiana, where I recently moved to become a juvenile mitigator, judges impose life sentences on children with a frequency that would suggest that they are still mandatory. The kids are almost exclusively African-American, indigent, disabled, and have suffered unbearable trauma and abuse. Here, as in much of the county, the battle for fair and restorative sentencing of youth is ongoing.

In a telling scene from “15 To Life: Kenneth's Story,” Annino's co-counsel, and one of Young's public-interest lawyers, cross examines Sandra Christopher, the state's witness.

The lawyer's line of questioning establishes that much of Christopher's testimony and memories of Young's crimes were inaccurate. It wasn't Young holding the firearm, it was his adult co-defendant, Christopher admits. Also, it was Young who attempted to compel his co-defendant to leave the store, Christopher recalls. Then Young's lawyer asks Christopher a final question.

“Are you still the same person you were at age 14?”

“I want to object — relevance,” the prosecutor says.

“Sustained,” the judge says.

15 to Life: Kenneth's Story, by Nadine Pequeneza, is available to stream on PBS's POV. Check your local PBS listing for its next broadcast. Lost for Life, by Joshua Rofe, is available for streaming on Netflix, and for rent, or purchase on iTunes.

About the reporter

Marcos Barbery

Marcos Barbery

Marcos Barbery is a journalist, filmmaker, social entrepreneur, and founder of ReACT.

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