PBS Documentary Looks at One Juvenile’s Life-Without-Parole Sentence

By Mark Walsh — August 04, 2014 3 min read
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Four years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that that a sentence of life in prison without parole for a juvenile offender in a non-homicide case was unconstitutional.

“Life in prison without the possibility of parole gives no chance for fulfillment outside prison walls, no chance for reconciliation with society, no hope,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion in Graham v. Florida. (The judgment was 6-3, though only four other justices signed onto Kennedy’s opinion. The high court in 2012 ruled that states could not mandate life-without-parole sentences for juvenile murderers.)

Across the nation, the 2010 decision made 128 prisoners who were sentenced to life-without-parole for non-lethal crimes eligible for new sentencing, including 77 in Florida, the film says.

One of those 77 is Kenneth Young, the subject of a fascinating hourlong documentary that is part of public television’s “P.O.V.” series. “15 to Life: Kenneth’s Story” premieres Monday at 10 p.m. Eastern time on PBS, but viewers should check local listings.

At ages 14 and 15, Young participated in four armed robberies around Tampa with an older accomplice, a man in his early 20’s who had been the crack cocaine dealer to Young’s mother. The robberies were violent, with a gun brandished and some roughing up of the victims, including the manager of a motel. Tried and convicted as an adult, Young was sentenced to four consecutive life-without-parole sentences.

“One day I’m 15 years old, then you telling me I ain’t never going to go home?” Young says in an interview in the film. “That’s kind of hard to deal with.”

Now 26, Young is seeking resentencing under the Supreme Court’s Graham decision. His lawyers, Paulo Annino, the head of Florida State University’s Children in Prison Project, and Corinne Koeppen, a young assistant, ask that he be released immediately because he has been a model prisoner who had only one disciplinary violation in more than 10 years in some of Florida’s harshest correctional institutions.

Prosecutors are seeking a resentencing of 40 years, which could keep Young in prison past age 50.

The chief of the Pinellas County sheriff’s office, where some of the robberies occurred, tells filmmaker Nadine Pequenezza, “I’m not sure if Kenneth Young knew the consequences, quite frankly, at that time. At that age, they really don’t.”

Thanks to Florida’s sunshine laws, Pequenezza is able to film Young’s resentencing hearing in state court. The film is sympathetic to juveniles with lengthy sentences in general and to Young in particular, and we are told that African-American youths such as Young are sentenced to life without parole 10 times more often than their white peers. (Or at least they were, before the Graham ruling.)

But the film is eminently fair to other side as well, and we hear from the police, prosecutors, and victims.

“As much as I know he wants to be released, I’m not ready to have him walking around my neighborhood,” a woman who was one of the armed robbery victims testifies in the hearing.

Besides having an exemplary discipline record in prison, Young has gone out of his way to pursue education, he testifies. A former warden at one of his prisons says in an interview in the film that many correctional authorities won’t facilitate educational pursuits by those with life-without-parole sentences.

“Why would you waste this educational effort on someone who is going to be in prison for the rest of his life?” the former warden says (stating the rationale behind such a practice, not his own view). A group of educators made similar points in a friend-of-the-court brief in the Graham case.

There is abundant drama involving Young’s mother, who has battled addiction and wants to play a part in helping secure the release of her son. And another robbery victim, who is back in Canada and doesn’t testify at the hearing, has forgiven Young and is thankful that he dissuaded his accomplice from raping her during the robbery.

The judge overseeing the re-sentencing is stern and poker-faced. I won’t reveal the outcome of Young’s hearing, but I was on the edge of my seat as the film drew close to its conclusion.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.