Photo by Jeff Rogers Photography
I was born in Shreveport Louisiana. My mother was 16 when she gave birth to me. All my family is conservative Baptist, and when my mother became pregnant, there was a stigma. They sent her away for a period until she gave birth to me, and then my grandparents became my primary caretakers. My mother graduated high school, but my grandparents retained control of her.
Because I was born out of wedlock, I was always treated differently, but I didn’t understand it as a young child. As a way to remove the shame, I was put in church from sunup to sundown, practically seven days a week. From K to 3rdgrade I went to a private Catholic school. My mother eventually married and lived with her husband, but I stayed with my grandparents. The private school closed and I began going to a public school near my mother’s home. My mother would take me to my grandmother’s home as soon as I was out of school, and I would stay there until the next morning when my grandmother took me to my mother’s to catch the bus to school. During this time, I was still in church all the time but it felt foreign to me. I didn’t feel a connection. The teaching at church didn’t line up with my life at home, and that was confusing for me.
My stepfather took me as his own son and loved me. But my grandparents told my mother that she had to divorce him because he drank. I don’t remember his drinking being a problem in our home. He was good to me and had a good job and provided well for our family. My mother divorced him. He loved my mother and never married again. He began drinking excessively after she divorced him. He drank himself to death, dying of liver cirrhosis at 43 years of age.
My mother had to move to the ghetto because she didn’t have the income from her husband, and her family didn’t help her financially. That’s when my life started to take off in a negative way. I felt like I had two lives. When I moved to the bad neighborhood, the structure was different. Because I sought to belong, when I attended school, I hung out with the children that were doing everything wrong. By this time, I was 11 or 12. I had been sheltered and now was introduced into this community of kids doing all these things I didn’t know anything about. I was just trying to fit in. Eventually this led to me to participating in gang activity. I never did anything with the gang per se. I never got involved in crime because I was still staying with my grandparents at night. This time in my life was a turning point for me because I began to become emboldened. I developed an attitude. My grandmother told my mother, “Come get him because if you don’t, I’m going to kill him.” Between 6thand 7thgrade, I moved back with my mom. My mother was never home. I had to watch my younger sister. I would pick her up from school and watch her until my mom would come home. My mother wasn’t there to tell me to go to school, so many times I didn’t.
I was baptized at Paradise Baptist Church, my grandparents church, but I began going to Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church down the street from my mom’s house. Every Sunday my mom would say, “Get dressed, get your sister dressed, and go to church.” The pastor, Rev. Hunt, wanted to know where my mother was. He took me home to meet my mother and that began a relationship between us. After school I would go to Rev. Hunt’s office and spend time with him. He became like a model father figure for me. He took me to his home and treated me like his own son. But there was still disconnect between church and my own personal life. I appreciated him and loved him, but I didn’t feel any sense of peace or belonging in church. Little did I know, all the training that I received at Paradise Church and Morning Star Church would come back to help me in a most difficult period in my life when I went to prison.
By this time, I was about 15 ½ years old and had been kicked out of school for tardiness. I was attending what is now called an alternative school. There was a teacher, Ms. Huntington, who was kind and compassionate, and she exuded love. She always told me, “You are an intelligent young boy.” She always encouraged me. Rev. Hunt and Ms. Huntington became the two people that gave me self-worth and were positive. I didn’t want to fight and be with the guys because I had these two adults in my life encouraging me and believing in me.
The goal at the alternative school was for the students to spend one semester and then go back to their regular school. We were to sit in a cubicle all day and do our normal school work sent over by our regular school and also do additional work. It took a lot of discipline to sit in that cubicle every day and do that work, but I was determined to get back to my school and worked hard to do everything that I was supposed to do.
When I went back for my school board hearing to see if I could get back into my regular school, the assistant principal at my old regular high school said I was doing good where I was and I should stay there another semester. That crushed me. I had tried so hard. That day I stopped caring about everybody and everything. But I was still attending church. I can remember sitting in church saying to God, “To hell with it all. I don’t even care.” I didn’t go back to school. My mom found out and was really mad. So I ran away from home. The second night, my mom was out looking for me. When she found me, I could see she was holding my little sister. My stepdad told me to always be there for my little sister and my mom. I went home that night.
The next night, we were at church. Rev. Hunt told my mother she worried too much and that I was going to turn out all right. He told her that I was going to be a preacher. She said, “What?” I looked up in the sky and there was a full moon. And these words stuck with me the whole 28 1/2 years I spent in prison. I said, “God, if you want me to change, you got to put me in a position to make me change.” I don’t believe that God brings bad things to people. I believe that God laid choices before me. My statement to God essentially was that I’m not changing unless something drastic causes me to change. I was rejecting doing what was right.
I was supposed to go to school the next day, and I wanted to go to school, but I missed the school bus. I thought I could catch the city bus. I got dressed and walked to catch the city bus. I saw a gang member fixing a car and thought he could take me to school. He asked me to go with him to take two rings to the pawn shop to get money to buy a catalytic converter, and then he would take me. I saw the city bus and something inside of me said, “Get on the bus,” but I didn’t get on the bus. At the pawn shop I saw another city bus. I had a second chance to get on the bus. Again, I didn’t get on the bus. We left the pawn shop. The guy’s younger brother had joined us and this younger brother said he needed to go by his girlfriend’s house, and we began walking that way. The guy I was with at first forgot his receipt at the pawn shop and as he turned around to go back, I saw another city bus. This was my third opportunity to get on the city bus. Something again said, “Get on the bus!” I let the bus pass. We made it to the street where the younger brother said his girlfriend lived. He asked me to go knock on the door and ask for Kelly. I did but no one named Kelly lived there. We all three started to walk back up the street. And then the younger brother knocked on another door and a woman answered. They started arguing. His older brother and I walked off and when we were some distance away, we heard four shots. We walked home and about 15 minutes later, the younger brother caught up and said, “I did something.” I said, “I don’t want to hear about it.”
Later that night he was arrested for stealing a bicycle. He had a check made payable to the woman he shot. He was suspected for murder. He had shot two ladies at point-blank range in the head. One died and one was badly hurt but lived. He was 16 years old at the time. He told the police that two other people were with him and named me and his brother. They questioned his brother first and let him go. The next day they came and got me and they questioned me and I wouldn’t tell them anything. My mom came with Rev. Hunt and he said that he thought I should tell the police what happened, but my mom said no, I couldn’t talk.
Because I wouldn’t talk, the police said they were going to hold me up to 72 hours in juvenile hall. On the third day, I stood before the judge, and he said there was probable cause to transfer me to an adult facility. But because of my age, they separated me from everybody else. I stayed there for about two to three days before I appeared in court. The court-appointed attorney said, “There is no probable cause to hold this person. You’ve got to let him go.” But then they asked me to stand in a line-up in front of the lady who survived. The police said that she said, “It looks like #3 (which was the one who shot her) but it sounds like #6 (which was me)” and that became probable cause to hold me. The indictment was first-degree murder and attempted first-degree murder.
I was appointed to a different attorney and I still wouldn’t talk. Now they wanted to file the death penalty and I was moved to a high-security isolation cell. The entire cell was painted white and the light remained on 24-7 with a camera pointed directly in the cell and chicken wire over the bars. I was 16 when I went in and they kept me there almost 4 ½ years. They were telling me they were going to kill me. Everything I had learned in Paradise Church and Morning Star Church came back to me in that cell. The only thing I knew was to turn to the Bible. For 4 ½ years, my routine was that I would eat breakfast and then read the Bible from about 7:30-3:30 and then I would pray. Every day I read and prayed and read and prayed. My family slowly drifted away from me. They said I had no business being with those boys and told my mother not to go see me. I was cut off from all communication. There I was—alone, 17 years old, facing death. And I just read my Bible, prayed, and sung old Baptist hymns.
I ended up changing lawyers because he wanted me to cop out. I got a Christian lawyer and told him everything that happened. He believed me and did everything he could to help. He ended up filing a motion to perpetuate testimony to bring the victim to the trial to testify about me, and when he did that, they took him off my case, but they had to go through with his motion. They brought the lady who survived to the court and she said, “That’s not him. Where did you get him from? I don’t know him.” After her testimony, they amended my indictment from first-degree murder to second-degree murder and attempted second-degree murder. The language in the law in the Louisiana Revised Statute 1424 says that all persons concerned in the commission of a felony whether present or absentare principals to the offense. A low-degree principal was engaged in the crime but disengaged. From the time I walked from pawn shop to the first house where I knocked on the door and asked for Kelly, I was engaged. I was a principal in the murder even though I was absent from the scene of the crime and had no intent and no knowledge that he was going to shoot two people. I faced life in prison because I was a principal according to this law. The guy who actually shot the two women and killed one of them got only seven years because they gave him a deal for testifying against me. His brother, the guy I initially asked to take me to school, who was with me when his brother shot the two women, served no time at all.
So I go to Angola prison to serve a life sentence. The best way to describe how I felt is to imagine yourself in a dark room, as dark as it can be, pitch black and soundproof. And you are thrown in and the door slams behind you and you don’t know where the door is to get out. No one can hear you. How do you get out? That’s how I felt. You are just in this dark place.
For 4 ½ years I had been praying, thinking that God knew I was innocent and was going to deliver me. Then that all went away. I didn’t want to hear about church. I didn’t care about the Bible. But there was something that kept calling me from inside myself not to lose faith. So one day, I found myself going to the chapel at Angola. Angola is unique. It is an 18,000-acre farm, and under direction of Warden Burl Cain they built chapels in each satellite campus. Inmates are allowed to go to church. The churches are for the most part led by inmates but they also allowed free people to come inside to conduct churches. There was a chapel led by a woman (Cindy) from the outside, an Episcopal deacon. I started going to this chapel and to their Bible studies. Even though I didn’t understand their liturgy, there was a song that they sang in every service that reminded me of my Baptist upbringing. It resonated with me. But eventually I stopped going. At the end of the year the Episcopal church holds a banquet for regular attendees. Even though I had stopped attending, my name was on the call-out list to attend the banquet. But I said I wasn’t going. At 5:30 they opened the doors and this guy said, “Come on and go.” But again I said, “I’m not going.” Finally, it was my third chance (just like with the buses). It was my third chance to say yes to the opportunity God was giving me to help me. This time, unlike with the buses, I finally said yes to the opportunity for God’s help. The guard said, “Last call for call-outs.” I said “Alright. I will go.”
At the banquet, there was Deacon Cindy. She walked up to me smiling and said, “How have you been doing? We love you and miss you and hope you come back.” I said, “I will come next Saturday.” I was there the next Saturday and have never left the Episcopal church. Deacon Cindy is such a kind and loving person and is a mother to me. She never asked anyone why they were in prison. She never criticized anybody. She never told me what to believe. She let me figure it out. This was foreign to me because I came from a background that was dogmatic. One day she pointed out the Genesis 1:31 passage: “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” Then she said to me, “You are very good in God’s eyes.” It blew me away and I started looking at Scripture differently. I was never able to be me. I was always trying to fit somebody else’s mold, and when Cindy showed me that, I realized that I am good despite all else and it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks or says. I am good. Period. It changed my whole perspective and woke up a new person inside of me.
I stopped thinking about my case and getting out. After this, I knew that I would get out. Because of all of the inmates with life sentences in Angola, 85% of the inmates in Angola will die in Angola. But I knew I would get out, and I had a sense of peace about it. I came to the conclusion that if I just do what is right and listen to the voice of God, everything would work out. For 12 years I went to church faithfully and ended up becoming a Eucharistic minister in Episcopal church. The New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary had an extension center at Angola where inmates could attend classes. Through this program, I got an associate’s degree in Christian Ministry and then a bachelor’s degree in Christian Ministry. When you graduate they say you have to get a job. They gave the inmates the authority to be peer ministers and now they send inmates to other prisons to be ministers in other prisons. There was only one job in ministry available when I graduated. It was to deliver death messages (tell inmates when loved ones had died). I also helped inmates who couldn’t read and write to write letters. I sat with inmates when they were sick and dying and did funerals. The prison staff called me when people were suicidal. The process humbled me and I actually began to see God. When I was sitting with people who were dying, I was looking at them but it was like I was seeing through them to God. God was molding me through their suffering. I met inmates at very vulnerable times in their lives, and because of the experiences we shared they protected me. I didn’t have problems in prison that most people have—God kept me from that. I watched people get stabbed and beaten. I didn’t experience any of that. Thank God.
In 2010, the US Supreme Court ruled that it is illegal to give a juvenile a life sentence for non-homicide, and inmates who were in put in prison for life as a juvenile were let out if they didn’t commit a homicide. But because I was considered a principal in a homicide, that ruling didn’t apply to me. Then there was a new case from Arkansas, and the Supreme Court said the ruling about juveniles DID apply in homicide cases. But that still didn’t help me because Louisiana said the ruling wasn’t retroactive. In 2018, the Supreme Court said the ruling was to be retroactively applied.
So this is when I had the opportunity to go before the parole board. Cindy got so many people from the church to speak on my behalf. The district attorney had written an opposition letter, which he read. He said I was a cold-blooded murder and should never be let out. At that point, my lawyer went point by point through the transcript from my trial to show that everything that the district attorney had said was not true. My lawyer did a phenomenal job. Then the parole board stepped out to take a vote. They stayed out about 20 minutes. The warden looked at me and said, “Man, you have a lot of people standing up for you. I think you got a shot.” I had also gotten a paralegal degree and horticulture degree while I was in prison, and I was enrolled in the master’s degree program at the seminary. I had stayed out of trouble and hadn’t had a write-up in almost 20 years. The parole board came back in with their decision. “So you didn’t kill anybody. You have a lot of support. I better not ever see you in here again.” Three days later on October 5, 2018, I walked out of Angola.
I have reconnected with my family. I chose to forgive my mom. I told Cindy when I got out that I needed a church home, and she found a church home for me in an Episcopal Church in New Orleans. I have had so much support from my church family. They have helped me every step of the way with reentry. God has blessed me greatly through them. I have started my own landscaping business. I reapplied to finish my master’s of divinity. I am in a training program in the Episcopal church to be able to visit people in hospitals—to be a lay Eucharistic visitor.
I often go back the Bible stories of Daniel in the lion’s den and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and the fiery furnace. In both stories, it was all about whether they would choose to serve God or not. The moral of both stories was that serving God has nothing to do what I get out of God. It is about everything that God has done for me, and the essential thing that He has done for me is give me salvation. I am very grateful to be out of prison, but even if I had not gotten out of prison, I had committed myself to serving God while I was there, and that’s why I took the jobs that I did. I still have that approach. Even if God doesn’t grant my desires, I will still serve Him because that is what life is about, and that has brought me so much peace. One of my seminary professors said, “It’s not about you.” But it is all about perspective. Change of perspective. Change of life.
I would like to thank God for patience. God gave me patience because in those trying moments something inside of me kept me in peace and kept me patient. I never got so discouraged to think about killing myself. I had a peaceful patience that came from God. I kept my eyes fixed on Him and knew everything would work out.
We often deceive ourselves into thinking that God doesn’t exist and that He doesn’t care about us. Don’t be deceived. He does exist and He does care about us. God is real. Belief in the Bible is based on pure trust. But faith is different than belief. Faith is based upon some tangible experience. Look though the course of your life and identify those moments of doubt, frustration, and insecurity and try to discover how did you feel. You may have felt hopeless but also hopeful. Those moments of hope are the moments you have to hold on to. Your faith can build from that. You don’t have to know the end. You just need to know the present. God will take care of the end.
Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. James 1:12-13