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At the age of 16, while committing a robbery, I murdered Reno Koncz, a Hungarian immigrant who was just trying to make an honest living for himself and his family in this country.

Life Sentences for Juveniles

I was arrested the following day. Due to the serious nature of my crime, the court found me suitable to be tried as an adult. A jury of 12 found me guilty of first degree murder, and I was sentenced to 29 years to life in prison.

Today, I am 40 years old and have spent the last 24 years of my life in a prison cell, contemplating my past actions and why I committed this callous crime. How could I have taken the life of an innocent human being?

It was easy for me to live in denial by blaming alcohol, drugs, and other people for my crimes. However, facing the truth by searching for the answers within me was an entirely different matter.

Many years would pass before I fully accepted responsibility for taking Mr. Koncz’s life. Accepting responsibility meant developing remorse and empathy, not only for Mr. Koncz and his family, but for every other innocent life that became the collateral damage of my careless and self-centered actions.

I came from a pretty good home. My mother and grandparents raised me as an only child. They did not raise me to be a killer. I never knew my real father, which always left a void in my life. My family understood this and did the best they could to make up for my father’s absence.

As much as they tried—try though they might—they could never make up for the deep sense of loss and abandonment I felt because my father was not a part of my life.

Deep down, I longed to know my real dad. I longed to know who he was, to be loved by him, and to be taught what it meant to be a man.

When I was a child, I was molested by a childhood friend, and later by a distant cousin. The experience left me confused and ashamed. I didn’t know how to express those feelings, so I didn’t talk about it—something that caused more harm than it did good.

Being an only child, I was spoiled and always allowed to get away with every form of negative behavior. Thus, without accountability or proper guidance, I gravitated toward negative influences in search of the father figure I always wanted, and the brothers I felt were missing from my life.

I found the father figure and brotherhood I was seeking in a group of street thugs. Eventually, I joined a gang and began using drugs. The first drug I used was marijuana, followed later by heavier drugs such as cocaine and PCP.

At first, I used drugs simply to fit in with my friends and not to be “the odd kid out.” In those days, I would do just about anything to be accepted and belong to my gang.

As time went on, I realized that when I was high, I didn’t feel the underlying emotional pain I had been suppressing from having been abandoned by my father, or the feelings of anger and rejection I felt from other childhood friends who had pushed me away, or the feelings of guilt and shame that I harbored from being molested. I didn’t know how to express those feelings, so, at the time, it was hard for me to trust people.

As my addiction progressed, I started selling drugs to support my habit and carrying a gun for protection. I’d recently been shot, so I believed having a gun would protect me from robbers and rival gang members.

By the time I was 16, I already had a child and another on the way. Unfortunately, not even the realities of parenthood could slow me down. I was too young and too reckless.

At the time, if someone were to ask me who I love most in the world, I would have answered, “My parents, my girlfriend, and my baby.” However, my actions told an entirely different story. At every turn, I chose the homies and my destructive lifestyle over my family.

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In my mind, I believed that because I was hanging with an older crowd, using and selling drugs, having sex, and living life on my own terms, I believed that I knew everything there was to know about life!

I would soon find out how wrong I was! In the meantime, I still felt like an adult, like no one could tell me what to do. Back then, I defied every form of authority, including my parents.

Though I was making what I thought were adult decisions, I certainly wasn’t ready to face the consequences of those decisions, much less accept responsibility for them. I was irresponsible, reckless, and selfish, and refused to be held accountable to anybody.

When I entered prison, I played the role of a “tough guy.” But that was only a mask. I was really afraid, lost, feeling hopeless, in denial about my crime, and looking for guidance.

The first place I turned for guidance was the veteran inmates. The old inmates embraced me and I became “one of the fellas.” But it wasn’t long before I was taking orders from the older homies. I’d become a follower—making my decisions based on what others thought of me and how I wanted to be perceived. This was the extent of my insecurities then.

Just like when I started hanging around gang members on the streets, I wanted to fit in with the crowd in prison. Even on the inside, I was still seeking that sense of brotherhood (a false brotherhood, I realized later) that led me to joining a gang in the first place.

During my first week in prison, I was given the Southern Mexican prisoners’ code of conduct. Though I never obeyed my own parents, in prison I found myself obeying other inmates. No longer could I live life on my own terms!

Eventually “homies” introduced me to heroin. And so began a new addiction. Over the next 12 years, my life continued to spiral out of control with drug use and violence. Throughout that time, I dragged the people who loved me the most through an emotional roller coaster of lies, betrayal, pain, grief, and sadness.

I used and manipulated anyone to support my habit—my mom, grandma, girlfriend—it didn’t matter. I did anything to keep myself numb--anything to avoid acknowledging my conscience—that nagging, persistent voice in my head, saying “You killed someone! You deserve to be in prison! Start doing the right thing!”

I still had all of the unresolved core issues going on within me, those things which stemmed from my childhood. What I didn’t realize is that at the center of my addiction was a vicious self-centeredness which kept me running from reality and reason for as long as I could.

But my day of reckoning would finally come. Ironically, I’m thankful for the Institutional Gang Investigation officers (IGI) who did their job in labeling me as a prison gang associate—an action which resulted in my receiving an indeterminate SHU-term (Security Housing Units). To me, being categorized an SHU was the means God used to really shake me up and bring me to my knees!

My options were clear: Either go to Pelican Bay SHU and spend the rest of my life playing the “tough guy” role and living the façade or turn over a new leaf and get right with myself, my family, and God.

After much hard work and self-examination, I eventually came to understand the importance of making amends to my victim, to his family, and to all the people I had harmed while living a violent and reckless lifestyle.

Unfortunately, it took getting a life sentence and many harsh lessons in prison for me to change my ways. I pray that what occurred in my life doesn’t happen to anyone who reads this article.

I didn’t change on my own. Few people ever do. I had to want it, and once I began to seek change, I found there were people who had been willing to help me all along.

I’ve shared this portion of my life to send a message to anyone who is listening, to those who are looking for a way out and a better way of living. No matter who you are, what you’ve been through, what you’ve done, or where you are--know that there is hope. Know that there are people who care.

Know that you are valued, and that with effort--healing and change are possible. The question is, are you willing to embrace such a future?

Johnny Martinez