Imprisoned at 14, Illinois inmate gets resentenced to life without parole

After the U.S. Supreme Court struck down life without parole for child convicts, Adolfo Davis hoped for a second chance

After almost a quarter century in prison, Adolfo Davis will not go free.

In a blistering ruling Monday, Cook County Judge Angela Petrone resentenced the Illinois prisoner to natural life in prison without chance of parole. He was first ordered to life in prison without parole when he was just 14 years old and convicted as an accomplice to a gang-related double murder in 1990. It was never proven that he fired his gun.

His landmark case has been closely watched all over the country, putting the issue of juvenile justice reform in the spotlight. In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court found that sentencing children to life without parole was cruel and unusual punishment, allowing states to decide whether to apply that retroactively to cases like Davis’. 

In 2014, after taking a look at Davis’ case, the Illinois Supreme Court granted new sentencing hearings for dozens of inmates serving life without parole for crimes committed as a child. The Illinois ruling meant that after more than two decades of thinking he would die in prison, Davis would get a second chance.

Now 38, Davis wiped his tears at the end of Monday's emotional hearing. Judge Petrone criticized defense witnesses, asserting that they were inherently biased toward Davis and overlooked the facts of the case. Petrone came down hard, saying a young Davis had planned to kill. Through the booing from the gallery, she announced her decision – Davis’ life sentence was reaffirmed.

“This sentence is necessary to deter others. It is necessary to protect the public from harm,” Petrone said. “The defendant’s acts showed an aggression and callous disregard for human life far beyond his tender age of 14.”

Petrone acknowledged that Davis has done some good while in prison, but said his “commendable acts towards self-improvement" weren’t sufficient to change his sentence. Davis at first stuck to his gang in prison, which eventually landed him around four and a half years in isolation for misconduct. But he says he broke off ties with the group more than a decade ago and is a changed man.

Petrone finished by stating Davis’ “attacks on other people, threats to kill and hurt those around him, and his continuous involvement in gang activity, all show that the prior sentence was the correct one.”

Davis’ lawyers can appeal the decision within 30 days.  

Juvenile life without parole is banned in the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has been ratified by every country in the world except two: Somalia, and the United States.* In Somalia, 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.

Davis was the youngest of the three members of Chicago’s Gangsters Disciples who went out to settle a score in October 1990, shooting dead two members of a rival gang. He 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.

But Davis’ story starts even earlier – with a childhood that was anything but easy.

“My destiny was written when I was born into a chaotic family,” Davis told America Tonight in 2013 when we visited him in Stateville Correctional Center, a maximum-security prison in Crest Hill, Illinois. “So being born into that, as many other kids get born into it every day, it's like life is already written for us.”

Davis' 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 said. “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 says he was so hungry he attempted to snatch a bag of food from a little girl. 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.

Davis hoped the court would take details like this into account in his resentencing, along with signs of rehabilitation in prison. But after hearing the judge’s words Monday, he simply bowed his head. As a child in prison, his biggest fear was dying behind bars. Twenty-four years later, that fear remains.

“I don’t want this to be the last thing I see,” Davis said back in 2013. “It’s a whole beautiful world out there and me dying in here, it’s like a nightmare.”

*Update May 6, 2015: An earlier version of this article stated that the only countries that hadn't ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which bans juvenile life without parole, were South Sudan, Somalia and the United States. On Monday, South Sudan ratified the convention.

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