My involvement in crime escalated very quickly from when I was a 12-year-old petty thief to when I became a teenaged, street-gang hoodlum almost overnight. One day while hanging out in the neighborhood, drinking and smoking, three homies and I decided to commit a robbery to make some easy money. Sadly, the robbery went awry and an innocent man was killed. A few hours later we were all arrested and charged with murder. To make a long story short, we were convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to 15 years to life. This was 1982; I was 16 years old.
Initially, it all seemed like one big adventure in a movie—cops and robbers. Reality didn't actually set in until my preliminary hearing (when evidence is presented against you and all the witnesses get to take the stand to testify against you) and then you start to realize that play-time is over. In the process, ironically, I got a lot of attention–something I had craved all my life—but not like that!
One of the witnesses that testified was the murdered victim's older brother who needed a translator. The district attorney began to ask him questions, such as when was the last time he saw his brother alive. After about the second or third question, he just broke down and began to cry as a very small child would do. Never once did he look at me with any hate or hostility—as I had expected. He just tried to cover his face with his hands and arms—perhaps out of embarrassment for showing a weakness. He just sat there, continuing to cry while looking so humble and meek.
I was a little disturbed because I'd never seen a grown man cry like that. I immediately turned around to gage the effect the brother's obvious emotional despair was having on my parents who were sitting right behind me. They certainly must have felt some sort of twisted blame for being the parents of such a wicked person, someone who could commit such a heinous act. I'll never forget my mother’s and father's faces. They looked so sad and full of grief—mesmerized, it seemed, by the poor man whose brother had been murdered by their son.
I have never in my life felt so much guilt and shame. I realized then that I was a monster! I just wanted to dry up and crumble like a dead leaf and let the wind scatter me in all directions of the known and unknown worlds--to dissolve into nothingness. In that instant, if I could have taken it all back by replacing my life for the victim's, to bring him back, to bring him home, I would have done so without hesitation. I just wanted to yell at the top of my lungs, "I'M SO VERY SORRY, SO ASHAMED! I DIDN'T MEAN TO DO WHAT I DID! I AM STUPID! I DIDN'T THINK! I'M SORRY!" But I didn't have the courage.
In prison, I've played the bad guy, the victim, the revolutionary, and the good guy—nothing seems to be the perfect fit.
Fast forward, several decades later. . . Still behind bars, I'm a mature, middle-aged man of about 50 years--with many regrets and unresolved issues. I spin between two worlds of purpose and meaninglessness. In prison, I've played the bad guy, the victim, the revolutionary, and the good guy—nothing seems to be the perfect fit.
Maybe I am a little bit of everything or maybe I am nothing at all. I just know that I'm tired of playing. I have wasted thousands of hours being bored out of my wits—being around the same old people, the same old food, the same old rules—just thinking about the same old shit—thinking about how things were, were not, could have been, should have been. I have come to realize that if life has any meaning, then suffering and dying must also have meaning. Sometimes I see myself as a deep thinker yet at other times, I feel so shallow.
Recently, I began participating in self-help therapy groups. One of these groups is called
Victim Awareness. It has helped me to see or perceive crime from the victims' perspective
and to develop a better sense of empathy. It assumes, rightly or wrongly, that criminals
lack a certain ability to connect with or relate to the feelings of other people—no matter how
long they've been incarcerated.
In the group, I was asked to perform an exercise. I had to write an essay describing how I
believe the victim felt the day of the crime, the day I robbed him and murdered him. I wrote
the following essay:
"In the Victim’s Shoes"
It's a Tuesday. I'm walking home after a long day's work. I'm tired and hungry. I'm almost home. I wonder what's my brother doing right now.
Who's in that car driving by real slow? They're looking at me. Do I know them? I don't think so. They look like cholos (Hispanic street-gang members). I hope they don't mess with me--I'm almost home. My heart is starting to beat really fast. I try to keep up with the beats by walking faster. I'm almost home--I'll be alright. Oh no! The car is stopping by the curb in front of me.
Three cholos are getting out. They're walking my way. What do I do? What do they want? I hope they are just looking for someone else. Wait! One has something in his hands. It looks like a rifle, a gun. I think they are going to try to rob me. Many of my friends have been robbed by cholos. They almost got me one time, but I ran and got away. That was a long time before.
I'm starting to panic--my adrenalin is running. Should I run? I have a little money, but I can't afford to lose what I have. I worked very hard for my money. I need to pay bills, and I need to send some home to Mexico for my family who depends on me. Without me, they can't make it.
The cholos block my path. The one with the gun points it at me and starts yelling.
"Give me your feria (money)!"
"I don't have any," I say.
I keep moving forward. I'm almost home. I can make it. They are just little punks, but there are three of them. I don't think I can take them
all at the same time, and one has a gun pointed at me, demanding money, yelling profanities. I turn to the right, but another cholo starts blocking my way and also starts yelling.
“Give up the money, baboso (slimy one)!” And he pushes me.
“I have no money," I say to him.
He begins to throw punches at my face, but I block them all. I have to keep moving before they shoot me or all jump on me. I'm more scared now. I have to keep moving. Should I run? Yes! I can run into that apartment building. People will come out. They know me there and will help me.
It's dark in the building. I can barely see anything. I hear a bang like a fire-cracker. I instantly feel a kinda funny, forceful impact just as a sharp pain hit my side. I don't know if I'm shot or just grazed. I just don't know--I really don't want to know. I can still stand and move though.
I turn and see the cholo with the gun; he’s at the door. He is pointing the gun at my face, coming towards me, and demanding money. I grab the gun hard with both hands. If I can take it away, I can defend myself. Why doesn't anyone hear us?! Why doesn't anyone come out of the apartments?!
There is something wrong with me. It hurts inside. Here comes another one of those cholos through the door. I have to get the gun or they are going to kill me. The other cholo starts yelling.
"Let go, pendejo (stupid)!"
I ignore him and struggle harder to get the gun. I then feel two hard blows and a stinging sensation to my stomach. I pull even harder. I need the gun. The gun will scare them away.
Where is everybody? Why doesn't anyone come out to help or call the cops? I feel two more hard blows to my back--they hurt worse than the first two. They knock the air out of me. I feel like I'm suffocating. I immediately drop to the ground. I can't run or fight anymore. I'm terrified now. I have to give them my money before they hurt me some more. I pull out my wallet and hold it as high as I can and then yell.
"Here! Take my money! Here!"
One of them takes my wallet. Finally, all of the cholos run away.
Finally, it's over. They leave me alone but I can't breathe right. There is
something seriously wrong with me. My lung is making a weird noise. I try to command my body to get up. They’re gone now, so it’s alright.
"Come on, breathe," but it does no good.
My heart is beating faster than ever now. I feel all wet. Is that my blood flooding the hard floor beneath me? I feel saturated. What is that wet, warm slush? But I don't really want to know. I can't breathe no matter how hard I try.
Oh, God! Don't let me die. It hurts so bad. I've never felt this much pain before. Please God, help me. I'm only 27. My family in Mexico needs me. They depend on the money I send. I worked so hard to come to this country to try and make a better life for my family. I have so many hopes, plans, and dreams. I want to see my children grow up and be happy. It can't end like this. This isn't fair!
Where's my brother? I hope the cholos don't get him too.
It's almost impossible to breathe now. I'm getting nauseous. I think I just threw up clots of blood. I'm getting very cold. Oh, God! Please forgive me for all the wrong I've done. Please bless and protect all my family. I love them so very much. I'm so cold. I can't feel my body any more. Now I just want to let go. . . .
I tried to be as sincere as possible in writing this vignette, trying to put myself in the victim's place, but for some reason it doesn't seem to be enough. I want to do more. It did get me thinking. In truth, I've never before put myself in the victim's place like this as
I did in this story. I mean, I've thought about it, but not like this.
Another group suggests that people, like me—people who do wrong to others--should make direct amends to the people they've victimized (unless doing so would injure them or others even more). So I decided the least I could do in that respect was to sit down and write a letter of apology to the victim's family. It began like this:
To My Victim's Family:
I don't quite know exactly how to start this letter, which has been so long overdue—33 years by now--without the fear of causing old and hurtful memories to resurface for you.
No matter how reluctant I may be or fearful of causing more harm, my
conscience compels me to address your terrible tragedy--one that I had no right to cause.
In 1982, I was a sixteen year old, no good street punk. I had no respect for myself, and thus, I had no respect for other people. Yet, more than three decades later, I am nothing like the troubled kid, or hoodlum that I was then.
Your loved one was an innocent human being—someone I never knew on a personal level. I never knew his struggles in life or his responsibilities to his family. I did not know all the fine qualities that all of you loved about him and which made him so unique--a person that you will always miss so very much. I feel such guilt knowing that my actions left children without their father. I take full responsibility but I don’t ask for nor deserve your forgiveness.
I acknowledge the despicable crime I committed against your family. I cheated all of you, but I especially cheated the late Mr. Hernandez by ending his life long before his time. No matter what I do or what is done to me, I can never bring him back nor reverse the chain of events that led to his death.
The best way that I can ever hope to redeem myself for my acts is to swear off all forms of violence and never hurt another human being again (in or out of prison). If given the chance someday, I hope to become a productive member of society, helping rather than hurting people.
The sorrow and regret that I feel I can't put into words. I simply cannot express strongly enough how very sorry I am for all the grief, pain, and loss that I have caused your family. . . .
I don't know. It seems to me that no matter what I try to do in order to better myself or to make amends, it's just not good enough. Maybe it's more of an art than a science or maybe there is no redemption for murdering a human being. Still, I must make the effort and maintain hope. When I start to understand that I may never reach that place of redemption, I remember an old Chinese proverb: It is better to travel with hope than it is to arrive.
You know, it's funny, but I never used to think about other people's feelings, hopes, and dreams–I just didn't care. Not caring or thinking all the way through about the ultimate effect of my actions made it very easy for me to hurt others in the worst ways possible.
Now, after spending most of my life in prison and not likely to ever get out, I realize that that kind of indifference has been and is my greatest failure. I hope this column can show others the paths to avoid and the ones they should take.