BESSEMER, Ala. -- In 2006, just before Republican dominance took hold in Alabama, two Democratic state representatives sponsored a bill to fix the nebulous language of the 1992 drive-by shooting law under which Aaron Johnson was convicted of capital murder.
It seemed a minor miracle when a correction passed both houses in the form of a joint resolution. Legislators said they intended the change to be applied retroactively, which would have given Johnson a path to parole.
The resolution said the 1992 law was designed to limit capital murder enhancements to drive-by shootings that were "gang related or intended to incite public terror or alarm."
But no reform comes easily in Alabama.
"This clarification by the legislature should have changed the sentences for countless individuals serving life without parole (due to) the prosecutors' and judges' misapplication of the law," according to a prisoner advocacy group, the Free Alabama Movement.
But two successive Alabama attorneys general, Republicans Troy King and Luther Strange, have refused to recognize the joint resolution; they say it doesn't have the weight of law.
"I remember going into the law library at St. Clair (the prison where he was held at that time) one day, and the guy who worked there showed me a story about the change in the drive-by law," Johnson said. "He told me, 'You're going to be out of here soon.' My mom called and was all excited."
I said the attorney's general's interpretation must have been devastating.
"Naw," he said. "I laughed. I had to. It keeps me from being super, super sad."
Should Johnson's capital conviction be regarded as prosecutorial overreach, considering the attempted legislative fix? I submitted that question and others to his prosecutors, Laura Poston and Michael Anderton.
I asked the same question of Brandon Falls, Jefferson County DA since 2008 and a staffer there since the 1990s. He, too, failed to answer.
In April 2009, Claudia Whitman, Johnson's longtime advocacy advocate, spoke with Falls after he appeared on a panel at a college near Birmingham. He said he was willing to review old prosecutions, and Whitman sent him documents detailing her issues with Johnson's conviction. Two years later, Falls replied that the prosecution of Aaron Johnson was undeserving of his review.
Mother's Uncaged Birds
Johnson's mother, Dinah Robinson, still lives in north Birmingham, in a tidy little house on 36th Avenue North, just off Interstate 65. Her son's prison is barely 45 minutes west of home, but she stopped visiting him because she grew mortified by the frisks to which she was subjected. (Johnson rarely has a visitor; his wife Terina disappeared from his life long ago.)
Robinson remains dedicated to her son, whose photos adorn her home. She speaks with him by phone several times a week, and she provides financial and logistical support for his appeals, telephone expenses and other needs.
Robinson is 59 years old, intelligent, reflective and, like her son, soft-spoken. Over a series of conversations, she frequently expressed bewilderment at the "nightmare" that had befallen her son and, more broadly, her own life.
She spends much of her time as caregiver for Aaron's father, Aaron Robinson Jr., a bedridden diabetic who requires insulin shots four times daily. (She married Robinson in 2005, 30 years after she gave birth to their son.)
"I've spent all my life taking care of people," she told me, tears welling in her eyes. "I'm going to need my son to do that for me someday. And if he can't, who's gonna see about me?"
Robinson keeps company with a small flock of brightly colored parakeets in her living room. Their cage doors are wide open; the birds are free to roam.
"I started letting them loose when I came home from seeing Aaron in prison one time," Robinson said. "I walked in the door and saw those birds trapped in those cages, and I just couldn't do that to them anymore. So I decided to open their doors. Uh-hmm. And you know what? They're so much happier living like that."
Robinson experiences life through a prism of mysticism.
Not long ago, she went to a pet shop in Northport, Ala., to buy another parakeet. She chose a solid yellow bird that caught her eye. But as a shop employee reached to remove it from its enclosure, it evaded his grasp, escaped the cage and beat a path to the front of the store, where an arriving customer had just activated the automatic doors.
"Those doors parted like the Red Sea, and he flew straight out," Robinson said.
She said she was horrified because she knew the bird wouldn't survive outdoors, "and I set that chain of events in motion."
But she said she prayed about the parakeet and found solace. "It was just so magical, the way it happened," she said. "The way that parakeet went free--that's the way Aaron is going to go free."
Faith informs her view of her son's circumstances. When I asked how she explained his life, I expected an answer rooted in sociology--poverty, drugs, the black urban experience.
Instead, her reply was metaphysical. She said he is trapped in a "generational curse." (She added with a smile that certain of her friends think she's crazy.)
The concept is a favorite subject of Sid Roth, a televangelist whom Robinson follows. (He cites a Kennedy family curse based on Joseph Kennedy's bootlegging.)
"From my understanding, when a relative--and it can be way down in the family--creates a great sin, like stealing or killing, that sin continues on for generations and brings a curse into that family," Robinson said. "No matter who you are, when you open that door to sin, if nobody repents and stands in the gap and goes to the Lord and prays for forgiveness, that curse passes on down from one generation to the next."
She noted that Aaron's father was in prison when he was born, and that many other relatives on his paternal side had served time.
A few minutes after she explained the family curse, I asked whether her son had maintained a relationship with his own son, Demaraaron, now 22.
"They try, but it's hard," she said.
I asked whether she saw much of her grandson.
"Not since he got arrested," she replied.
He is in jail in Birmingham, awaiting trial following a state arrest related to heroin possession and a federal arrest for currency counterfeiting. From behind bars, Aaron Johnson has been working on his son's case. Recently he wrote:
My son and his generation all think the same. They are undeveloped children who are treated as intelligent adults! And once they are in trouble, it seems it never stops
He could have been referring to his teenage self.
The Inflation of Sentences
Billy Wayne Sinclair speaks with rare authority about interminable punishment for young men. Like the Johnsons, he had serious crime troubles as a teenager in Louisiana. In 1965, a few weeks after his 20th birthday, he shot and killed an attendant during a gas station holdup in Baton Rouge.
His death sentence was commuted to life in 1972, after the Supreme Court invalidated capital punishment. Sinclair found inspiration as a prison journalist while serving life. He and his wife, Jodie, spent decades fighting for his freedom. He was paroled 10 years ago, after 40 years locked up.
"This system we have now where everyone is locked up, pitched into prison and thrown away, without any hope of ever being released, I don't believe in it all," Sinclair told me. "It's devastating to our criminal justice system."
He said life without parole is no more humane than capital punishment, and jurors ought to recognize that.
"That decision clearly is being made by someone who never spent one single solitary day in prison, and they do not know what it takes to survive," he said. "There's nothing humane about life without parole."
UC-Berkeley law professor Jonathan Simon argues that the popularity of extreme sentences like life without parole has had an "inflationary effect" on punishment for all types of crime.
Until the 1970s, life without parole was unheard of in the U.S., and it still is extremely rare in most of the world. But as jurors have grown queasy with capital punishment, they have imposed life (with and without parole) with jarring regularity.
Ashley Nellis, an analyst with the nonprofit Sentencing Project in Washington, D.C., said the normalization of extreme sentences "desensitized the country into how out of synch we are with the general human rights conversations when it comes to punishment."
In the 1970s, a heat-of-the-moment killer could expect to serve as little as 10 years in prison.
Sinclair noted that under Louisiana's old "10-six" rule, many convicted killers enjoyed presumptive parole after 10 years and six months. When the death penalty was suspended, Louisiana legislators imposed a 20-year minimum for murder and soon raised that to 40 years. The state in 1979 became a standard-bearer in the "life-means-life" sentencing movement.
As a result, virtually all 4,700 people serving life in Louisiana have no chance of parole.
Sinclair said certain killers have forfeited their right to live freely--serial or spree murderers like David (Son of Sam) Berkowitz, Charles Manson, Jeffrey Dahmer, the Unabomber. But the art of justice comes in determining who deserves a second chance.
Is the same life-without-parole sentence equitable for Aaron Johnson and Gary Ridgway, who strangled 50 women in the northwest? Paul Wright, a former homicide lifer in Washington State who now edits Prison Legal News, called that "a serious disconnect."
Some Support Review Mechanism
Systematic post-conviction reviews are gaining modest traction in the United States. Twenty four district attorneys now have conviction integrity units--which means that 99 percent of the 3,000 DAs in the U.S. don't have them.
Sinclair supports creation of comparable sentencing review panels--"not political cronies but professional people who understand the criminal justice system"--for lifers and other prison long-termers, beginning after 15 years served. The panels would function like parole boards used to before they became calcified by politics.
Stefan Underhill, a federal judge in Connecticut, has suggested that judges be given a chance to review the integrity of their own sentences. This "second-look review...would allow every sentenced defendant one opportunity to petition his sentencing court for a reduction based on extraordinarily good conduct and rehabilitation in prison," he wrote in the New York Times.
The idea has some support even in conservative Alabama.
Last month, a Republican state senator from Montgomery introduced a bill to create an Innocence Inquiry Commission to review claims by convicted felons.
"We've had some very high-profile exonerations lately," state Sen. Dick Brewbaker said, "which ought to make anyone kind of pause and wonder if the process is as good as we think it is."
Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, suggests that sentences be capped at 20 years, except for mass shooters and other egregious killers. He points out that data suggests nearly all criminals quit the lifestyle after age 40. (A Stanford University study found that just five of 860 California lifers paroled from 1995 to 2010 had returned to prison on new felony charges.)
Peter Wagner of the Prison Policy Initiative said that it is shortsighted for lawmakers to ignore sentencing relief for those convicted of violent felonies, about half of all state prison inmates in the U.S.
"In some of these cases, we are talking about significant offenses that happened a long time ago and are unlikely by reasons of age or other factors to occur again," he said. "And in many other cases the label 'violent' offense is really misleading and applies to offenses that most people wouldn't consider very violent at all."
President Bill Clinton now says he regrets championing the extreme punishment of his 1994 crime act. "I signed a bill that made the problem worse," Clinton said, by locking up "minor actors for way too long." Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton, who supported the act in 1994, has also pushed away from her past tough-on-crime rhetoric.
Yet the law continues to weigh on many of the country's 2.3 million prison inmates--people like Aaron Johnson.
Richard Cohen of Alabama's Southern Poverty Law Center, noting that a generation has been lost to mass incarceration, suggested it is time for the country to find a new path.
"Look, we want to be a merciful people, but I don't think that mercy is contrary in any way to justice," Cohen told me. "We want a justice that ought to be tempered with mercy and understanding.
"I think sometimes our nation reacts on the basis of fear and anger. And I don't think good public policy is made on the basis of fear and anger."
As my time with Johnson grew short during an interview with him at Alabama's Donaldson prison, I asked whether he dreamed of life as a free man.
"Every day and every night," he replied.
He told me he would leave Alabama--"I'd probably spend one night with mama"--and move to New York or Los Angeles to work to expose wrongful convictions for a law firm or advocacy group.
As I rose to leave, Johnson asked if he could amend that answer. He said he has urgent work in his home state.
"One thing I would like to do is stop people from fallin' in the same trap I fell in, thinkin' a certain way," Johnson said. "Alabama being so poverty-stricken, it's the state of mind of the people. They're divided and they don't know how to be good friends or care for one another like it's supposed to be.
"I really want to do something about it, but it's gotta be more than just me. It's gotta be a collective effort."
David J. Krajicek (@djkrajicek) writes about crime and justice for The Crime Report, Alternet, The New York Daily News and others. His work on this article was supported by The Fund for Investigative Journalism in Washington, D.C.