As a respite from packing and cleaning, I watched a documentary the other night that got me thinking about the lies and half-truths we tell ourselves in order to survive. The documentary was called Lost for Life, and it’s on Netflix if you’re interested.
The subject is kids who murder and receive sentences of life without parole (I know — not exactly a light-hearted comedy!), a topic that came before the Supreme Court in 2012. The Court abolished a mandatory sentence of life without parole for juvenile offenders, and kicked it back to the state level, leaving state courts to hand down sentences, which may or may not include life without parole.
The legal stuff was interesting, but not the part that grabbed me.
In the film, four (now adult) juvenile perpetrators were interviewed extensively (there is a fifth one, and his sister, who are a large part of the film, but their story is so complicated, and there is so much left unsaid, that I’m leaving it out here):
A former Blood shot and killed a man (not in self defense, mind you, but as a random act against an unarmed, unaffiliated man), one kid hired a fellow student to kill his parents (and then finished the job himself), and two kids stabbed a classmate to death for no reason other than it was the culmination of their stupid, twisted, Columbine-inspired fantasies. These kids make it difficult to feel sorry for them, and the filmmaker, Joshua Rofé, does a great job of letting the viewer sit with that difficulty.
But here’s what got me: of the four perpetrators, only the three above took responsibility for what they’d done, and one of that three (Jacob, in the upper right hand photo) uses such bizarrely distancing speech when talking about it that you have to wonder whether he actually does take responsibility or is just parroting what he’s been told he should be saying (ie. he refers to slaughtering his parents as “when the incident happened…” –passive language that implies it happened to me and my life and not because of me and my actions).
The former gangbanger, whose sentenced was eventually commuted, turned his life around while in prison, and devoted (and still devotes) his time to educating young men about the false promises and empty hope of gang life. One of the kids who stabbed a classmate to death also owns his responsibility and punishment without equivocation.
But the other kid who killed a girl from school? The one whose picture I’m leaving out, who is clearly heard on video, scheming both before and after the murder?
He says he is innocent.
Now, I wasn’t in the courtroom. I’ve only seen what I’ve seen (including some of the video, in which both boys say that they will kill the victim and in which the kid in questions tells the other one, after the murder, that they need to get their story straight), but to say that you spent weeks planning, and an entire night lying in wait, to kill an innocent girl — who was stabbed 29 times, by the way –and never once thought to excuse yourself from the entire operation and are innocent because you didn’t deliver the stab wound that finally killed her?
Yeh, I’m not buying it, kid.
What really made the hair on the back of my neck stand up was a scene in the middle of the film in which that kid’s parents visit him in jail. The way they talk to their incarcerated son, the way they prompt him with leading statements (ie. “This must all be a lot harder for you than for [the accomplice], since you are completely innocent…you just did what [the accomplice] said to do”) and refer to his beautiful, peaceful, loving nature…it made my skin crawl.
Because that right there? That’s the roadblock to any sort of future.
Wherever you come down on the possibility of rehabilitation for juvenile murderers, it is simply ludicrous to suggest that ANY rehabilitation can take place while the offender is still denying his (or her) involvement in the heinous acts that landed him in prison. There is no possibility of rehabilitation — for them, or for any of us — until everyone owns his own actions. It simply cannot happen.
So while two of the three men featured in the documentary make a strong case for the possibility of rehabilitation, and thus, release….
That fourth guy?
Not at all.
As a lawyer who appears briefly in the film — a man whose wife was killed by a teenager — says, speaking of the rehabilitation of juvenile offenders who were ‘so broken inside’ before the age of 18 that they committed murder,”all [they’re] going to do is learn to walk and talk like a normal person….like serial killers do.”
Again, I think the filmmaker did an admirable job of showing both sides of the argument about juvenile life in prison sentences. He gives screen time to both those who argue for the abolishment of these sentences (citing, among other things, the cycle of abuse that has generally culminated in such crimes, and the lack of brain development in juveniles that regulates impulse control and the ability to calculate long-term consequences) and those who argue to maintain life in prison sentences for juvenile murderers (citing the immeasurable damage to the victim’s loved ones, and the chance for recidivism in those who committed such horrible acts at such young ages).
The parents of the kid who maintains his innocence have had their lives altered in a way that is unthinkable to most of us. I feel for them. So while I don’t think they are helping their son in any way (and are, in fact, actively hurting him by continuing to deny his involvement and brokenness), I do understand that maintaining their son’s innocence in the face of all evidence to the contrary may be the only way they get through the night.
But somewhere, in the wee small hours of darkness, they’ve got to know the truth.
And that truth, like the old man’s heart under the floorboards in Edgar Allen Poe’s Telltale Heart, will make itself heard.
If not now, then soon.
For more information: Interview with Joshua Rofé.
To watch a trailer of the film: Lost for Life Trailer