Prisoners sentenced to life without parole as teens are now being freed

It is 8 a.m. Labor Day, just outside Graterford Prison in Montgomery County.

The sun is shining, the birds are chirping and LaTasha Williams is smiling.

“It’s hard to believe this day is finally here,” Williams said excitedly.

Then a car pulls up just off prison property, the back door opens and Giovanni Reid emerges. The 42-year old Philadelphia native is free for the first time in 26 years.

How does freedom feel?

“It feels wonderful,” he says softly while shaking hands and hugging family members.

It’s a feeling more and more juvenile lifers in Pennsylvania are experiencing. The state had 514 people who were sentenced to life as juveniles, tops in the nation. According to numbers provided by the Department of Corrections, as of Aug. 4, 69 juvenile lifers have been released, 73 paroled, 122 resentenced. There are hundreds more still in the pipeline and still in prison.

The United States Supreme Court ruled it cruel and unusual to sentence a juvenile to life without parole, a landmark ruling that gave new life and new hope to inmates like Giovanni.

“Prison is a real dark tunnel. Sometimes you can’t see the light, but if you hold on and stay positive and you do all the things you need to do, good things can happen for you,” Reid said.

Bad things happened on a Philly street corner in 1991 when Reid was 16 years old and admittedly in the wrong place at the wrong time and with the wrong people. One of those other people confronted then shot a man to death. Giovanni was there but didn’t pull the trigger. It didn’t matter. He was convicted of second-degree murder and that 16-year-old was sentenced to life.

Latasha Williams, a student at Widener Law School, took up Giovanni’s case 15 years ago. She maintained his innocence, insists he was wrongly prosecuted and sentenced, and she fought for his release for 15 years. On Labor Day, all of her labor was rewarded. She was there as he walked out of prison.

“The commonwealth truly is a machine and little people like us, we don’t have the manpower to combat a system that has all kinds of resources to keep innocent people incarcerated,” Williams said.

She organized a get-out-of-prison breakfast for Giovanni and his family. There were cloth napkins with charger plates and lovely placemats. There were hugs, smiles, balloons, photos, and blueberry waffles made from scratch.

But the taste of freedom will also come with challenges for Giovanni and his fellow freed juvenile lifers.

“You’ve lived in prison where everything is provided for you, meals, and now you’re on your own in a world you know nothing about,” said Secretary John Wetzel, head of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. “Just think of Harrisburg 30 years ago versus today. It’s not the same place.”

Wetzel said DOC is working with the prisoners in the weeks before they’re released to prepare them as much as possible for life on the outside.

“What most bothers me is what I have to do with the victim’s family members,” Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman said.

Stedman doesn’t agree with the Supreme Court’s ruling and he isn’t comfortable that so many juvenile lifers are now walking free. While they get to enjoy celebratory breakfasts, Stedman says, their victims don’t.

“They’re dead. They were murdered and not because of anything they did. They were innocent victims and their sentence is permanent and irrevocable,” he said. “They don’t get an appellate court to come in and change the rules afterward.”

But Giovanni insists that he and his fellow juvenile lifers are so thrilled to get a second chance, they’ll make the most of it.

“I feel like it was a lot of wasted time in there. I’m just really excited about the opportunity to find my success, to find my way. It’s gonna be good,” Giovanni said with a huge smile.

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