David was 16 when one of his gang friends shot at two guys on the street. Nobody was badly injured, and David wasn’t the one holding the weapon. Still, he was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to life in jail, with no chance of freedom, ever.
David’s father was in and out of prison and he and his three younger siblings were raised by their aunt. Their mother came to visit sometimes. One day she took David’s younger siblings and disappeared. David was left behind, alone. At night he often lay awake thinking, ‘Why doesn’t she want me?’ He tried to make up all kinds of reasons, but nothing felt right. David’s cousins teased him because he didn’t have any parents. When he was seven, he asked his aunt why he couldn’t live with his mother. “Times are tough,” she replied. A few years later, when David was eleven, his mother came back and took him to Mexico. But she abandoned him again there. His father was hardly ever out of prison long enough for them to meet. David got used to the fact that his parents couldn’t take care of him.
“This feels like a bad idea. Let’s not do this,” said David as he handed over the weapon. He was right. Not long after, his friend shot at the two boys and hit one of them. David was standing beside him and saw the boy fall. Later that day, he was arrested by the police.
The boy who got shot only sustained a minor injury, and he was able to leave the hospital the same day. But the shooting was still considered attempted murder, and it was decided that David should be tried in an adult court, although he was only sixteen. The prosecutor offered him a deal: “If you agree to a life sentence you don’t have to go to trial and have the chance of getting out on parole after 25 years.” But David said no. He didn’t know much about the law, but he hadn’t shot anyone, so why should he go to jail for 25 years? David was held at the youth detention center for seven months, until the first day of his trial. At four in the morning, the youth detention center bus took him to court, shackled hand and foot. The defense lawyer gave him a suit to wear and told him to hide his gang tattoo. When David entered the court, he looked so young and thin that the jury, twelve men and women of different ages, seemed to feel sorry for him. But the prosecutor said: “This little kid is not as innocent as he looks.” Then he showed old police pictures of David and his tattoos. A gang expert testified and described David as one of the worst of the worst.
The jury’s decision
The trial lasted for a week and a half. Then the jury retired to deliberate. David waited alone in a small, cold, dirty cell. He shut his eyes tightly and said to himself: “Be ready. This will be bad.”
After an hour the jury came back. David was brought back into the courtroom and saw his aunt, his mother, and his girlfriend sitting there. “I love you guys,” he said before a guard handcuffed him to the chair. One of the members of the jury stood up and read from a piece of paper: ‘Guilty’. David felt his insides turn to ice, even though he had been expecting it. The judge looked at him and asked if she should feel bad for giving him a harsh sentence. “You are so charming, and look so young and innocent… You look like a little angel.” Her nice words confused David. She paused and continued: “But that’s what scares me.”
Just a few weeks later, the prison was rocked by violent rioting between different gangs. Many were stabbed and beaten with weapons that had been smuggled in or made in prison. Both prisoners and guards were injured. Although most of the prisoners were not involved, all the inmates were punished by having visits and phone calls withdrawn for a year. David and the other prisoners were hardly ever allowed to leave their cells. “The guards called us ‘ghosts’ because we all turned so white in there, without any sunlight.”
Text: Carmilla Floyd Photos: Joseph Rodriguez