Kimberly King woke up at 5 a.m. on a February morning in 1997 to her phone ringing. Her mother was on the other end, calling to tell her that her brother, Damani, had been shot in the head in North Philadelphia.
King, who was 26 years old at the time, said she entered a state of shock. She threw up. Then she began to pray.
“When my mother said he was shot, I just knew he was gone,” King said. “My faith has never been shaken as much as it was shaken at that time.”
Damani, who was 23, spent five days in a coma before he died. Police never charged anyone with his murder.
The question of who killed her brother consumed King in the days and months after his death. But that changed with time, King said, as she came to realize that learning the identity of her Damani’s murderer wouldn’t take away the pain of losing him.
“The only thing that could remedy that pain was bringing my brother back,” King said. “And that’s not reality. I couldn’t bring him back. So I had to find a way to heal.”
King’s reversal — from a crime victim seeking retribution to a merciful one — may sound extreme. But she says that another loss, one that rocked her family years earlier, tempered her thirst for revenge.
As King’s family mourned Damani, another brother, Terrell Carter, sat in a cell at a state prison in Montgomery County. He’d been there since 1990, and was convicted of second-degree murder — a charge that carries a mandatory sentence of life without parole in Pennsylvania.
“I could not ask for forgiveness for Terrell and turn around and not be willing to give it to the individual that took Damani’s life,” King reasoned.
Watching one brother serve a life sentence, King said, is a different, distinct loss from losing another one to gun violence. But both events inform her work as a victim advocate.
King is one of many people in Pennsylvania who considers herself a “dual victim” — someone who’s lost a loved one to violent crime, and who also has a loved one serving life in prison.
King is far from alone. Sandra Hill, a Philadelphia grandmother of 10, also considers herself a dual victim. So does Lorraine Haw, whose brother was killed by gunfire and whose only son, Philip, is serving a life sentence with no possibility of parole.
These Pennsylvanians are pushing the state to reform sentencing practices to give lifers a chance to get out of prison — a move that faces staunch opposition from the Office of the Victim Advocate, Pennsylvania’s official victim advocacy agency.
‘The epicenters of violence’
King, Hill and Haw all belong to the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration, a Philadelphia-based advocacy group. CADBI organizers estimate that scores of crime victims across the state also have loved ones serving long sentences in prison.
That phenomenon is due to the simple fact, they say, that the areas hardest hit by violence are also the most heavily incarcerated.
“Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Chester — these are the epicenters of violence,” said Robert “Saleem” Holbrook, a coalition member who was sentenced to life in prison as a juvenile, and who was released on parole in 2017, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled his sentence and hundreds of others unconstitutional.
“But you know what they are too? They are the epicenters of mass incarceration. You can’t separate these two issues.”
Pennsylvania legally recognizes crime victims and provides them services through the Office of the Victim Advocate. Jennifer Storm, who heads that office, pointed out that “dual victim” isn’t a legally recognized classification.
“You can’t be a ‘dual victim,’” Storm said. “By law, you’re not a victim if a family member has been an offender… [but] if you are a homicide survivor, meaning you are a family member of somebody who was murdered, then you’re a victim and you have the ability to register with our office.”
That’s true under state statute. But people like King, who have experienced the criminal justice system as both a victim of violent crime and as a witness to a loved one’s incarceration, say they’ve felt firsthand the competing pulls of vengeance and mercy.
They say that perspective will be critical as Pennsylvania continues its quest to cut prison populations.
It’s been nearly a decade since a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers and advocacy groups decided that America’s strategy of mass incarceration had failed. In Pennsylvania, that’s lawmakers to scrutinize the state’s criminal justice system, from its sentencing practices to its parole guidelines.
That movement has already generated some landmark policy reforms. Pennsylvania’s Clean Slate Law, which took effect earlier this year, made thousands of non-violent criminal charges eligible for automatic sealing. One advocate called it a “completely revolutionary law” that’s unprecedented in American history.
The state Senate approved a package of bills this spring designed to reduce prison populations by improving probation, parole, and diversionary sentencing programs. Reformers have high hopes that they can secure sweeping changes to the state’s probation system this legislative session.
To date, the successful reforms in Pennsylvania have benefitted non-violent offenders. But advocates like those at the Sentencing Project, a D.C.-based research organization, point out that such offenders make up less than half of prison populations nationally. Reducing sentences or creating diversionary programs for non-violent offenders alone won’t cure America’s epidemic of mass incarceration.
“We’re never going to see a massive reduction in our prison populations until we start looking at sentencing reform for everyone,” said Celeste Trusty, a Pennsylvania lobbyist for FAMM, a national sentencing reform organization. “We have to look at people who have offended violently and see that they, too, can change.”
A good place to start, Trusty said, is with inmates who were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
No. 2 in life without parole
Pennsylvania is the sixth-most populous state in the country, but it’s second only to Florida for the rate at which it doles out life without parole sentences, according to the Sentencing Project. It’s one of only four states where more than 10 percent of prisoners has no chance of ever leaving.
“There are nearly the same number of people serving life sentences in Pennsylvania today as the entire state prison population back in 1980,” Ashley Nellis, a senior research analyst at the Sentencing Project, wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer earlier this year. “This growth poses a major obstacle to ending mass incarceration, and is counterproductive to public safety.”
One reason Pennsylvania’s population of lifers has remained so stubbornly high, Nellis argues, is because the sentence is mandatory in all first- and second-degree murder cases. And under state statute, a defendant can be found guilty of second-degree murder if he was an accomplice in a crime.
Many states have abolished mandatory minimum sentences as lawmakers try to give more discretion to judges. Pennsylvania tossed its own mandatory minimums for drug offenses in 2015, after the state Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional.
For decades, the commonwealth was also the world’s leading jailer of juvenile offenders sentenced to life in prison. The state has re-sentenced and released hundreds of them, including Holbrook, in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling that found their life sentences unconstitutional.
Now, Trusty and other reformers think it’s time to re-examine the role of mandatory minimums in more serious cases.
They say bills like one sponsored by Sen. Sharif Street, D-Philadelphia, which would create automatic parole eligibility for some people found guilty of murder charges, could bring about much-needed change in Pennsylvania’s prisons.
It would allow for the release of aging inmates, who are the most expensive to care for and the least likely to reoffend, Trusty said. Street’s bill would also give a second look to women convicted of murdering abusive husbands and inmates serving life sentences for their involvement in murders they didn’t personally commit.
Right now hundreds of lifers, families and supporters are rallying at the PA State Capitol to #PassSB942 and to #PassHB135 which would extend parole eligibility to lifers. This is the largest rally of the Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration yet. #abolishDBI pic.twitter.com/HNe3mDHa9F
— Amistad Law Project (@AmistadLaw) October 2, 2018
But not everyone agrees.
The Office of the Victim Advocate sent surveys to more than 800 registered victims this year to hear their thoughts on parole eligibility for second-degree murderers. Less than half responded, but the vast majority said they didn’t support the reform, Storm said.
“[They] came back saying they absolutely, strongly oppose any form of parole eligibility,” Storm said. “Our office is in this position where we have to reflect the overwhelming majority of the survivors that we provide services to. And they have overwhelmingly asked us to oppose this legislation.”
Storm also disagrees with the belief, held by Trusty and others, that Pennsylvania needs to reexamine its sentences for violent offenders.
“I don’t think we’re there yet, and I don’t think we should be there yet,” Storm said. “We have not yet instituted the necessary reforms on non-violent offenses, nor have we studied them properly, for us to start moving into violent offenses.”
Storm said that every crime carries a cost to a family, and that any reform in the criminal justice system will affect victims as much as it will people in prison. It’s a point she also raised before the Senate Judiciary Committee in June, during a two-day hearing on probation reform.
“We cannot have conversations about change, reform, diversion, reentry, release, and so on, without appreciating and analyzing how this will shift the scales for crime victims,” Storm said in prepared testimony. “[Rehabilitation, redemption, restoration, and restitution] … are all vitally important concepts in our justice system, and they have a rightful place. So does retribution. However, it has become a word that we seem to feel uncomfortable applying, as though it has no defensible place in our system.”
Crime victims like Haw know how it feels to want retribution. Thirty years ago, after Haw’s brother, Peter, was killed in a Philadelphia housing project, she wanted his murderer to pay with his life.
“When you’re raw with emotions, forgiveness is the last thing you have in your heart,” said Haw. “Vengeance is what comes at you.”
That changed after Haw saw her son, Philip, sentenced to life in prison for his role in a murder. In the 25 years since, she says she’s watched him accept accountability for his crime. That’s convinced her that long sentences have diminishing returns, and it’s part of the reason she’s fighting to get her brother’s killer off of death row.
Her son’s case also convinced her of the need for individualized sentencing. Haw struggled with drug addiction for most of her son’s life, she says, and only got clean after Philip was in prison.
“There’s a stigma that lifers are savages or animals, that they’re in prison because they deserve it,” Haw said. “My son never had a chance because I was an addict.”
King says her brother, Terrell, was fighting addiction when he participated in the murder that led to his incarceration.
Attorneys who reviewed the case after his conviction said he should have been charged with third-degree murder, which doesn’t carry a mandatory life sentence. But the appeal would be too hard to fight, King said, so her family has put their hope in a commutation application that’s two years in the making.
“Our system has failed in having a one-size-fits-all sentencing model,” King said. “I know my brother’s background story, but there’s a background story for everyone.”
King recently visited her brother in the Montgomery County prison where he’s being held. He’s served 27 years there — turning 30, 40, and recently 50 years old behind bars.
King brought along her two sons. In a visiting room, her 11-year-old turned to her, eyes wide, and asked if some of the men in prison uniforms were murderers.
King told him that some of them were. And then she told him what she’s learned from decades of loss, healing, and advocacy.
“Nobody should be careless with life,” King said. “Not the people who take a life, and not those who are granted authority to punish them.”