Teen criminals savor freedom as parole ends life sentences
WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) — It’s just a few blocks from the house Earl Rice Jr. left behind as a teenager to the places he remembers. But after more than four decades in prison, he has ground to cover.
Skirting Franklin Street’s neatly trimmed lawns in long strides, and praising the glories of the afternoon heat, he reaches the park where he and his brothers used to go sledding. Across 18th, kids, laughing and shouting, bound down school steps. Rice slows, taking it all in.
“For 43 years I’m behind a wall or some kind of a fence with guard towers ... and then you come out here,” he says. “I can imagine what Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong and them felt like going to the moon, because that’s what it seems like. I’m on a different planet!”
Rice, jailed at 17 for a purse-snatching that took a woman’s life, is 61 now. He is one of dozens of inmates — sentenced to life in prison without parole for crimes committed as juveniles — who have been released since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled such mandatory sentences amount to cruel and unusual punishment. Courts must recognize teens’ incomplete brain development and their potential to change, the justices found.
Rice walked out of a Pennsylvania prison in September to find his fiancee at the gate, a father waiting to take him in and a daughter who now calls each day to say, “Good morning, Daddy.”
Others, though, have confronted less welcoming realities.
When John Hall was released from a Michigan prison in February after nearly 50 years behind bars, he had $1.37 in his pocket. At 67, he carried his life’s possessions in a few boxes: a small TV and a photo album filled with faded newspaper clippings and pictures of himself in white satin boxing trunks, from his fighting days as “Kid Hall.” With no family to greet him, he was met by his lawyer and volunteers who brought him to his first home — a Detroit rescue mission.
“I don’t think you can find anyone who really can describe how it feels to be free ... but I’m always thinking about my future and sleeping in the streets and not having a chance to even get in the fight for the life that I want,” Hall said then. “The world has moved past me.”
In the weeks since, Hall has joined Rice in embracing a truth the Supreme Court justices never addressed.
Juvenile offenders can take responsibility for their crimes. Judges and parole boards can assess how they have changed. But to make it at 60-something in a world that has tossed aside most of what you knew as a teenager, it takes something more.
By 17, Earl Rice had spent a year in a juvenile detention facility. The oldest son in a family of nine children, he was raised by a homemaker and a maintenance worker. His father’s sideline as a jazz organist kept him away nights — an absence the elder Rice, 89, says he regrets. Rice Jr., by his own account, was “ornery as hell,” known to police for stealing cars and break-ins.
In September 1973, Rice went to a party in West Chester, Pennsylvania, his hometown before moving to Wilmington. When he left around 2 a.m. with another teen, they spotted a woman walking down the street.
Ola Danenberg had just left the Moose Lodge, where she’d been listening to a country band with friends. She was 62 and the grandmother of three, cleaned dorms at the local college, and was looking forward to retiring to her hometown in eastern Tennessee. She didn’t drive. So that night, like most, she set out for home on foot.
Rice and his friend ran toward her, and Rice snatched her purse. As he took off down an alley, he says he looked back to see Danenberg fall to her knees.
Two days later, hearing police were looking for him, Rice went to the police station and confessed to robbery. That’s when detectives told him Danenberg had hit her head on the sidewalk and died. They charged him with murder.
“It was like being hit in the gut by a Joe Frazier left hook. ... I couldn’t fathom the idea of being responsible for somebody’s death,” Rice recalls.
Danenberg’s family still mourns.
“She loved us so much. We were her life,” says Charlene Peterson, who was 15 when Rice killed her grandmother. “I want him to know how he hurt us, what he took away from us.”
Hall, too, was frequently in trouble as a teen, engaging in petty theft and skipping school. He worried his mother, Bessie, who worked seven days a week cooking and cleaning other people’s homes.
In January 1967, when he was 17, Hall and a friend saw Albert Hoffman at a bus stop in Detroit one night. They dragged him into an alley, then beat and robbed him of his watch and some money; his wife told police Hoffman had gone out to cash his Social Security and veteran’s pension checks.
Hoffman, a former Army sergeant who served in World War I, died of his injuries on his 73rd birthday.
The friend was never arrested, but Hall was convicted of murder. A half-century later, he still cringes when he remembers the judge’s words at sentencing: “You’re unfit, you’re a throwaway, you’re a predator and you should be put away for the rest of your life.”
“Everything was a blur and everything was moving so fast,” Hall says. “But when I looked at my mother’s face ... it was a look that I’d never seen before. It was a hurt look ... a helplessness.”
In prison, he got into his first fight early. Two inmates pulled Hall into a bathroom and stabbed him in the neck, where he still has a scar.
“If they had let me go two weeks after I was there, I would have never ever done anything wrong again, because that’s when you realize it’s for real,” he says in his deep rasp. “There ain’t nothing worth your freedom. Nothing.”
Years passed with few visitors. He wanted to do his time, he says, without leaning on family for help. His mother made eight trips to see him before her death in 1983. But her words helped him keep going. ”‘As long as there’s life, there’s hope,’” she’d told him. ”‘You’ve got a chance.’”
And so he kept busy, taking college courses, earning an associate degree, deciding that even if he never got out, he could be a better man. Still, he dreamed of having a family of his own, a good job and a nice home. He befriended newly arrived inmates, savoring every detail they provided about life outside. But nothing could prepare him for the changes he’d encounter, starting with his first day of freedom in February.
Hall, who’d grown up in the era of the transistor radio, was handed a cellphone so he could share a FaceTime call with his stepsister in Georgia. “This is just like Star Trek,” he said with a wide grin as he stared at the face he hadn’t seen in more than 30 years.
But anxiety soon set in. Back home in Detroit, he puzzled over “10 for $10” signs at grocery stores that touted special deals. He was alarmed when he heard gunshots outside at 2 a.m. Seeing homeless people, he worried constantly about becoming one of them. Sometimes he’d shake and ask, “What am I going to do?” says June Walker, who runs a prison ministry that provided clothes, housing — and friendship.
Hall was determined and eager to work, but job prospects didn’t pan out. Quickly, as Hall figured out small things — how to ride the bus, how to use a cellphone — his confidence steadied. After a month in the mission, Walker arranged for him to move into a halfway house. He set up his little prison TV in the bedroom corner.
“I have it as a reminder of where I came from,” he said.
On Rice’s first day in prison, an inmate he knew from home warned: ”‘You’re a young kid. You’re in here with some dangerous dudes.’”
“Not two hours after that conversation,” Rice remembers, “this guy came up to me and he said, ‘Damn, fresh meat in the jail,’ and I turned around and I hit him as hard as I could and I kept hitting him until he was down on the ground, and I made sure he stayed down.”
Years later, another inmate came at him with a knife in the prison yard. That convinced Rice he might well die without changing himself.
Even so, more than a decade passed in prison before he came to terms with his responsibility for Danenberg’s death. When his legal appeals ran out, he blamed his lawyer for giving up on him. The attorney’s letter back was a turning point.
“I’m sorry you feel that way,” the lawyer wrote, according to Rice. “It’s not that I’m quitting and throwing your life away. You did that when you grabbed Mrs. Danenberg’s purse.”
“He was dead on,” Rice says.
In 1992, Rice was one of three inmates who intervened when dozens of prisoners surrounded four guards and began throwing punches. He took classes in refrigeration. He cared for dying inmates in the prison hospice. He spoke regularly to at-risk teens and law students, in part to learn how to interact with people other than inmates and guards, in the hope that he’d one day live free.
His siblings and parents, a daughter born to a former girlfriend and her children were all regular visitors, as was Doreen St. John, Rice’s girlfriend in middle school. The couple married in a prison wedding, then divorced, and now plan to marry again.
“I fell back in love with him, just seeing him, being with him,” St. John says.
When she picked him up last fall from the state prison in Graterford, Pennsylvania, Rice asked her to gun the engine.
“I didn’t want to look back and see the walls at all,” he says.
Juvenile lifers in Pennsylvania and Michigan get re-entry training before leaving prison, focused on subjects like budgeting and anger management. The Pennsylvania Prison Society has been pairing them with mentors, often former inmates, who assist as the lifers are released to halfway houses and beyond; Michigan’s appellate defender’s office provides similar help.
Rice spent a month at a Philadelphia halfway house. He was granted 12-hour passes to walk around the city with other parolees. He tried his first cheesesteak, learned to use a touchscreen to place a food order at a convenience store. In October, he moved back to his father’s house in Wilmington and settled in to a bedroom lined with his father’s jazz tapes and records.
Father and son often take to the porch, talking a shared loved of music. In the middle of many nights, Rice heads to the kitchen to make himself a sandwich — just because he can.
He applied, without luck, for warehouse jobs and realized he needed computer skills even to fill out an application. So on Thursdays and Fridays, he takes free computer classes at the Department of Labor.
“You don’t breathe and live and eat and sleep something for all them years that you want, that you crave, that you pray to happen, and then when it happens, be intimidated by it,” he says.
His first weekend back, five generations of family — from great aunts to grandchildren — gathered in a grove along Brandywine Creek to throw him a cookout. It had been more than four decades since a judge allowed Rice a moment to hold his newborn daughter, Crystal, just after he was convicted. Now, as music floated over the grass, Crystal Twyman walked over to her father.
“I’ve never danced with my daddy before,” she said.
Rice, who went by “Big Earl” in prison, has arms thick with muscle from pumping weights in the yard, and a loud laugh. But talking about those closest to him, he often turns quiet.
“For years and years, I didn’t have to worry about anybody but Earl Rice,” he recalls telling St. John. So “when I do something bullheaded, keep talking to me. ... I am listening, but you got to keep on hammering.”
In April, Hall’s prison ministry friend, June Walker, drove him to see his 81-year-old stepsister in Georgia. On the 13-hour drive from Michigan, he talked about making it a quick trip, not wanting to burden his family.
But when Hall entered the house, he found his own picture on the wall. Generations of family he didn’t even know embraced him, calling him “Uncle John.” Relatives put together a photo album for him, and one tucked a $100 bill inside. His stepsister offered him a permanent room in her home. He thanked her but declined.
Back in Detroit, they spoke regularly. “You shouldn’t have to feel you’re a failure because you’ve been to prison,” she told him.
Hall began acknowledging his limitations. “I want to live like a grown man lives in a free society,” he says. “But it got to be too much for me in a world that I’m already behind in.”
He began to think maybe he didn’t have to go it alone.
Before dawn on a Saturday in May, Hall carried his few belongings to Walker’s car, and they drove again to Georgia. This time, it was a one-way trip for him.
When they arrived, about 35 members of Hall’s extended family were waiting with a home-cooked meal. One of the youngest, a 2-year-old, told Walker, “You’re not taking away my Uncle John again.”
Hall plans to take some classes in Georgia, do some fishing and get acquainted with the family he never knew. He’d like to counsel teens, too, hoping he can do some good.
“A man’s life was lost. That’s what I don’t forget,” he says. “That’s why I want to contribute, so maybe I can prevent one of those youngsters from going out there and doing what I did — or even thinking about it.”
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Geller reported from Wilmington, Delaware, and Cohen from Detroit.