Dearest EXPLORE reader,
Rene Lima-Marin was a 19 year old thug in 1998 when he and a buddy robbed a video store outside of Denver, Colorado.
They were of course picked up quickly, and being poor dumb black kids, they were hit with a variety of trumped up charges despite the fact that nobody was hurt in the robbery and the guns used in the crime were actually without ammo, as Lima-Marin admitted that he couldn’t afford bullets. After a brief trial, they were each sentenced to 98 years in prison. Essentially, a death sentence.
In 2008, a clerk at the prison accidentally counted his eight sentences concurrently instead of consecutively, so he was released. Lima-Marin asked no questions, and simply told his friends that his prayers had been answered.
He complied with the terms of his parole for the next five years, got a job and was promoted multiple times while learning a trade, got married, and raised two sons in a home that he bought. He coached his boys’ sports teams, joined a church, and focused on building a life away from the prison that he had spent a decade.
Days, weeks, and eventually 5 years passed as Lima-Marin grew further and further away from the man that he once was. As you might have guessed, the State eventually caught their error, quickly picked him up, and tossed him back in his cell. Multiple hearings are looming, as of course Lima-Marin is claiming that he is a changed man and doesn’t deserve the sentence, and an embarrassed prosecutor is out there making passionate arguments about the reverence of our justice system and about how it must be served as ordered. Picket lines are outside the jail chanting for his release, and a judge is sitting somewhere having to consider it all.
In the mean-time, Lima-Marin watches the days pass through bars.
This may or may not surprise you, but there are a lot of stories out there like this. Stories of men and women that committed crimes, and then had an opportunity to turn their lives around….and did so. One of my favorites was of Michael Anderson, who was given 13 years for an armed robbery of a Burger King. Upon conviction, he appealed while out on bond and through a wild series of clerical errors and miscommunications, the State thought he was already in prison. So they never told him to go to jail. In fact, nobody ever said anything to him about his conviction and sentence. So he got married. And had children. Started a business. He even voted with his real address. He said to his wife that “I guess that they just wiped the slate clean.”
13 years later (as his original sentence should be ending), the State discovered their error and arrested him. In this instance, however, the Judge ruled that he was a changed man and with a bang of the gavel, he was set free.
I’m not sure why, but stories such as these just fascinate me. They are real life movie scripts with villains, and crimes, and changing hearts. They are of people that taste freedom, and realize its value. They tell stories of redemption, and who doesn’t want to root for the underdog? They force people to consider the PERSON and focus less on the crime. They are stories of the human spirit and remind us that we are all the same.
I’m not sure that I like the way our justice system operates. It’s run by PEOPLE, and people do stupid things and I think that our justice system has a lot of stupid parts to it. Like sentencing 19 year old kids to 98 year prison sentences for robbing a Blockbuster on a Tuesday night with an unloaded gun. These are death sentences, and I think that we should value life more than that. But we don’t.
Sometimes when I’m having coffee outside the Boerne Grill, I people-watch. And sometimes while I’m people-watching I think about people and their pasts. I wonder how many of them have committed crimes, and yet are currently very important bankers while climbing into their BMWs. I wonder about their lives and I daydream about the people that they became despite errors that they have made in their lives. I think about what the extremely fashionable man in tailored clothes would look like in jail scrubs. During these times, I think I conclude that we are all criminals to varying degrees. That’s not a pleasant thing to consider or admit, but with as many laws as we have on the books nowadays, I’m pretty confident in my assessment.
There’s a lawyer, Harvey Silverglate, that wrote a book entitled “Three Felonies a Day”. He opines that a run-of-the-mill American actually commits three felonies in the course of an average day without knowing it. He goes on to explain that our laws are written in such convoluted ways, and can be entwined with other statutes and laws to make it so that the most innocent of “crimes” can be prosecuted as a felony. It is in these ways that 19 year old thugs get 98 year sentences. (Our friend Lima-Marin wasn’t charged with one count of robbery. He was charged with one count of robbery for every person in the building.) People don’t like to consider themselves “criminals” and rightfully so. However, some honesty would probably reveal that you have, in fact, committed crimes in your life.
I could probably be locked up pretty easy. Not because I’m actively committing crimes, but because I have before. Just like you. I can think back to younger days, and I can remember some amazingly stupid stunts I have pulled when I was a 19 year old, and how the right circumstances could have elevated a stupid stunt to a serious felony. And according to the law, I would deserve the punishment.
But I have gone on to earn a couple of degrees. Have 3 beautiful children. Join a church, and start some small businesses and only occasionally annoy our local government officials with the printing of Old Timer articles. From most accounts, I’ve lived a pretty normal life as an active member of a community.
So am I a changed man? Or was I never really “bad”? Would prison rehabilitate me, or would it have made me worse? Am I any better than the kid sitting in jail right now for doing something stupid and getting caught up in a serious criminal charge?
This world has so much life in it. So many opportunities to experience, and engage, and to make a difference. Heck, most of Jesus’ most passionate followers were ex-criminals, yet they broke away from those lives to accomplish the amazing.
I’m a lover of PEOPLE, as they unendingly fascinate me. From the good to the bad, people have eternally both inspired and terrified us all. I suppose that the entire point to this little ramble is this: I wish that there was a way for us to choose mercy in the ways that we seek justice, even for those that don’t “deserve” it. I wish that we could take stupid 19 year olds and instead of a death sentence via 98 year lock-ups, we could give them the opportunity to try again. I am so lucky that God was merciful on me and kept me out of trouble, but many aren’t as fortunate. Since you’re a criminal, and I’m a criminal too, I say that we launch a revolution on our justice system. Maybe we could be like Portugal, which decriminalized drugs, and instead, they send you to rehab and then you’re free. They figure that once you’re free of drug addiction, you’re free of drug crimes as well. I like that. Here in the States if you get caught with the right amount of drugs, prepare for a life sentence. That hurts my heart.
It hurts my heart even worse that there’s a 70 year old sitting in a jail cell with a death sentence for something he did when he was 19. And all I can do about it is say that it hurts my heart. He’s staring down the gallows and I’m sipping coffee lamenting his cause. God help us.
Maybe it’s all about the fact that I know we’re all sinners, and that I’m no better than the guy on death row. I just played my situation a little different. I know that justice is necessary in this world, but I also know that mercy needs to find a greater role. And compassion. And second chances. And freedom.
And the absolute highest appreciation for…each other.
Welcome to April. Spring has sprung and life begins anew. May you sip coffee, people-watch, EXPLORE your heart, and smile at all those fellow criminals out there. Like me.
Benjamin D. Schooley