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Forever Changed

Sometimes, listening to men recently released from prison is all counselor Sean Pica can do to help.

Sean, 35, can relate to their struggles, because he spent half of his life in a maximum-security prison.

"It's hard to swallow that due to my own efforts, my own hand, that I lost 16 years of my life," says Sean, who was 16 when he shot and killed his friend's father. Correspondent Harold Dow reports.

In 1986, Sean, a high school junior in Selden, Long Island, sat next to a girl named Cheryl Pierson in homeroom. Although they were just casual friends, Cheryl confided in Sean that her father was physically abusing her.

Desperate to stop the abuse, Cheryl told Sean she would pay him to kill her father. "I was a very confused, mixed-up kid," says Sean. "I really didn't think of the repercussions."

Sean, who had witnessed domestic violence at home, said he agreed to help: "We determined that, as two 16-year olds, that this was the only way we were gonna deal with this situation … I think maybe I had a little crush, but I don't think that's what motivated me. I thought I was helping a friend."

On Feb. 5, 1985, Sean hid behind some bushes in front of the Pierson home before dawn. He had a loaded 22-caliber rifle at his side. "It was pretty dark, so I don't know if he really could see me," recalls Sean. "But I stepped out, and he started to turn toward me, and I shot and killed him."

Sean and Cheryl were arrested a week later, and the teenagers quickly made headlines. "The word was 'hitman,' and the fact was, I was a 16-year-old kid, with braces on his teeth, that wasn't even shaving yet, that thought he was helping a friend in trouble," says Sean.

Although they both pleaded guilty to manslaughter, their sentences were very different. When it was determined that Cheryl's father had also sexually abused her, the judge showed mercy and released Cheryl after nearly four months in county jail.

But for Sean, it was just the beginning. Sentenced to 8 to 24 years, Sean was to spend the next 16 years in state prison.

"I spent a lot of years just getting through, day-to-day," recalls Sean. "I did what a lot of guys do. I used the only thing that's available to numb myself, to escape the situation…you get high."

Drugs and a bad attitude landed Sean in solitary confinement twice. And he says it was those stays in solitary that led to his change: "I just said, 'You know what? I can't live like this. Mentally, I can't take it.' And I started to make some changes at that point."

He got an education in prison, and received a lot of support from his fellow inmates. "All the men who were my mentors were just there for me for so long," says Sean. "Always a shoulder to lean on. No matter what the situation was, these guys were always there for me, always had my back."

While serving his time, Sean received his high school diploma, a bachelor's degree and a master's degree.

"The only thing I carried out those gates with me was that education," says Sean. "I'll tell you when I went through those gates to be released after 16 years, I had never been so scared in my life."

Sean was paroled from Sing Sing Correctional Facility in December 2002. "These past few months, just experiencing so many thing for the first time. I mean, things that everyone around me takes for granted," says Sean. "I made a mistake. I'll be the first to admit it was a huge mistake. But I still believe I deserved a second chance."

Today, Sean is making the most out of that second chance.

His days are now spent working with tenants in an East Harlem housing project. He's also still going to school, and working toward a second master's degree in social work.

Sean's family has never given up on him. And now, nothing is more important to Sean than his other family: those who have served their time, too. At Strive, Sean helps former inmates adjust to life on the outside.

"The prison system is just filled with so many men like myself that got in trouble young and spent the next 15, 20 years in prison, and went to school and really do deserve a second chance," says Sean. "I think that they should get it, just like I got it."

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