Incarcerated: 22 years
Housed: California Medical Facility, Vacaville, CA
Back in 2003 I was housed at the Salinas Valley State Prison. I wrote to Father Gregory Boyle, aka Father Gee, from Homeboy-Industries out in East Los Angeles. I asked him if he could sponsor me. I needed to take a paralegal course offered by Blackstone Career Institute out in Emmaus, Pennsylvania.
I gave him my word, if he sponsored me, I would assist other indigent prisoners. Father Gee responded in less than a month. He made 14 payments of fifty-five dollars and in 2004 I graduated. I learned about the branches of law and it was a good course, but my hands-on training was earned in the prison’s law library. Two African-American jailhouse lawyers took me under their wings, and gave me a crash course in state and federal law and post-conviction appeals.
I was working on my case when a fellow prisoner reached out to me. He needed help in the Federal District Court. All state sentenced prisoners in California get a pro-bono appellate lawyer to work on their direct state appeals all the way to the California Supreme Court. Once the direct appeal is final, if the prisoner can’t pay for a private lawyer they are on their own. I needed the experience, so I asked him for his trial transcripts and minute orders. I reviewed all of his case.
At times state appeal lawyers bypass important grounds. His appeal lawyer did, so I had to stop his one-year statute of limitation by submitting a writ of habeas corpus to the State Appellate Court. I had to exhaust this new claim before proceeding to the Federal District Court. I also filed for ineffective assistance of counsel on the appeal lawyer. His counsel at trial asked the court for an identification expert and the judge on the record said, “Experts take up too much time,” that’s a violation of due process.
This would become my first win in the courts. I said, “Once you’re back in the court, if the judge offers you a deal, take it, as long as the life sentence comes off.” He went back to court, refused a 20 year deal, and went back to trial. This time the expert was allowed to testify. Although I helped overturn his conviction, I felt because of my advice, I had lost.
Fast forward to 2019. I’m at the California Medical Facility Prison. I’m on the waitlist for college and a job assignment. An elderly prisoner had just been denied for the seventh time by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Board of Prison Hearings (BPH). He was a lifer on his 31st year of incarceration on a 17 to life sentence. He asked me if I could help him with this injustice. I had free time, so I asked him to let me read his BPH transcripts and that we would go from there. I came across a page where they had no knowledge of domestic violence, when indeed the record showed that he did. I went to the prison’s law library and found the case I needed, Inrepalmer2019. I wrote out the first draft, then onto typing it on a habeas writ. He sent it out to the Superior Court of his county.
A few months later I arrived at the chow hall for dinner and he called out to me. “I have a response here from the court.” I asked, “Is it a thick envelope or is it thin?” Usually denials are a one page notice and an order to show cause is thicker. He was holding a thick envelope. The good news took him by surprise, and I finally saw some hope in his eyes: I got his right foot in the door. The court appointed lawyer assigned by the court did the rest. Three months later the Superior Court judge rendered its decision. He ordered him to be released. He went back to the board and was granted parole.But he was a Mexican national and soon ICE picked him up. He was 81 and during his 31 years of incarceration he never received a serious rule violation report, a 115. That’s a hard feat in prison.
I’ve been in prison for 24 years. My sentence is Life Without the Possibility of Parole (LWOP). I’ve helped many prisoners get back into court. I just shared two cases. One left a sting, the other gave me hope in the courts vs. BPH. I learned the law out of necessity. Many prisoners reach out to me, but today my time is limited; college, self help groups, and work. I’m content I’ve kept my word to Father Gee and I believe soon LWOP will be abolished in California, giving those of us who have that sentence a chance at a new start.