Update March 21, 2014: In a landmark ruling Wednesday, the Illinois Supreme Court granted new sentencing hearings for every inmate serving life without parole for a crime committed as a child. In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court found that sentencing juveniles to life without parole was cruel and unusual punishment, but allowed states to decide whether to apply that retroactively.
The Illinois ruling means that after more than two decades of thinking he would die in prison, Adolfo Davis could possibly be resentenced and released as early as this year. In November, America Tonight sat down with Davis to discuss how he's processing this possibility, and what he would do if he got out.
In October 1990, three members of Chicago’s Gangsters Disciples went out to settle a score, and shot dead two members of a rival gang.
The youngest of the group, just two months past his 14th birthday, was Adolfo Davis. It was never proven that he fired his gun, but he was an accomplice. Davis was tried as an adult, convicted of double murder and sentenced, as the law required, to life without parole. Barely 5 feet tall and just over 100 pounds, Davis went off to prison. Years later, he started to realize that prison is where he would die.
“My journey was written before I even joined the gang,” Davis told correspondent Christof Putzel in an exclusive interview, part of the second installment of America Tonight’s “Crime and Punishment” series. Putzel visited Davis in Stateville Correctional Center, a maximum security prison in Crest Hill, Ill.
“My destiny was written when I was born into a chaotic family,” Davis continued. “So being born into that, as many other kids get born into it every day, it's like life is already written for us.”
Adolfo Davis' former prison therapist
Juvenile life without parole is banned in the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has been ratified by every single country in the world except three: Somalia, South Sudan and the United States. In Somalia and South Sudan, there are no known cases of people serving a life without parole sentence for a crime committed as a minor. In the U.S., there were around 2,500 as of 2008, according to a Human Rights Watch tally.
In 2012, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and bar associations from Japan to South Africa filed a joint amicus brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to outlaw the practice as cruel and unusual. Last summer, the Supreme Court did just that, concluding in Miller v. Alabama that it was unconstitutional for a child’s crime to automatically trigger a life without parole sentence. Now, courts have to take mitigating circumstances into account.
But it was left to the states to decide whether this ruling applied retroactively, and the results have been mixed. Davis' case comes before the Illinois Supreme Court in December, and if the court accepts the ruling as retroactive, Davis could be resentenced and released as early as next year.
Taking childhood into account
Davis’ childhood was anything but easy. His father was absent and his mother was a drug addict. His grandmother, who was also caring for a bedridden husband, a son with mental disabilities and other grandkids, became his primary caregiver.
“My grandmother, my heart,” Davis told Putzel. “She took care of me and everybody else, you know. But she couldn’t keep an eye on me a lot, or pay as much attention as I needed at the time. So it led me to the streets.”
Davis had his first brush with the law at the age of 9, when he was hanging out at the gas station, trying to pump gas for money. Customers weren’t coming, and he was so hungry it hurt. When a little girl came out of the gas station store with a bag of food, he tried to snatch it. Instead, he only managed to scrounge $0.75 and $3 worth of food stamps that fell to the ground in the scuffle. Police found him soon after in a nearby restaurant.
His file also shows that a young Davis would bang his head against the wall until it bled, burn himself with cigarettes and wet the bed, Chicago Public Radio reported. He also suffered nightmares, severe insomnia and hallucinations. According to court documents, the juvenile court acknowledged that Davis had fallen through the cracks of the child welfare system.
As he got older, Davis started hanging out with older guys who were in a gang. They gave him a roof, food every day and a few hundred dollars a week just to stand watch.
“It was like heaven for me,” Davis said.
In prison, Davis stuck to his gang, which would eventually land him four years in isolation for misconduct. There, he recalls being visited constantly by the voice of his grandmother, telling him over and over, “You’re better than this.” He decided he wanted to change.
Jill Stevens, Davis’ therapist during his period in isolation, can’t believe that Davis is still behind bars.
“I think most people would feel like you should need to be a pretty heinous, remorseless person to be locked up for your entire life without a chance to go before a parole board to see what they think of you,” she told Putzel.
Victims' rights advocate
Some juvenile offenders serving life without parole are callous murderers. Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins believes that the boy who brutally killed her sister while pregnant falls into that category, and as the president of the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers, she’s a leader for efforts nationwide to defend life sentences for juveniles.
“The 17-year-old who killed my family members was not a child,” Bishop-Jenkins told America Tonight back in September. “He planned the murder for months in advance, months. He was not a poor kid from a gang-infested neighborhood. He was a white rich kid, who lived in a $3 million house, and he did this because he was bored and was thrilled by violence and evil.”
Bishop-Jenkins advocates on behalf of victims’ loved ones, who may be traumatized by the fear of an offender being released again. She thinks it’s impossible to reopen all these decades-old cases and recreate due process. But keeping these individuals behind bars also comes at a cost.
“It boggles my mind,” said Stevens, “that anyone would choose to use Illinois' limited resources to keep Adolfo Davis in prison for more than he's already been in prison.”
Davis has had more than two decades to stomach his life sentence. He told Putzel that his greatest fear is still dying in prison. But he admits that the idea of reentering the outside world is scary.
“All the terror that you feel trying to come to prison, it’s like reverse for me,” he explains. “Like, this is all I know.”
Davis is confident about the first thing he’d do if he ever gets out: He’s heading to Disneyland. Whether that day might be coming, however, is still not a given.
“I don’t want this to be the last thing I see,” Davis said. “It’s a whole beautiful world out there and me dying in here, it’s like a nightmare.”