At 48, Damion Todd knows family and friends his age who are already looking ahead toward retirement. He’s dreaming of his freedom. A judge recently resentenced Todd, making him eligible for parole next year after more than 30 years behind bars.
Todd was 17 when he was sentenced to life with no parole for fatally shooting a girl while spraying a crowd with gunfire. He and his friends were trying to scare some guys who’d shot at them after a party, he says. Instead, he killed Melody Rucker, 16, and injured her friend. At the time, Todd was heading into his senior year of high school in Detroit. He was co-captain of his football team, hoping for a college scholarship.
In prison, he’s taken college courses and mentored younger inmates. But rather than seeing “a silver lining,” he says, “I would much prefer to be like a lot of men my age that have lived honest, law-abiding lives.”
Expressing shame and regret, he says, “It doesn’t excuse what I did, but I’m not that kind of person anymore.”
Nearly a decade ago, with help from a friend, Todd contacted Melody’s mother, Vera Rucker. “She asked me to promise her that when I was finally released that I wouldn’t let her and my family down,” he says. “It was a turning point in my life.”
“It doesn’t excuse what I did, but I’m not that kind of person anymore.”
After Vera Rucker died, Todd composed a letter to Melody’s father. He never sent it, but did read parts of it during his resentencing: “I would never want you to think that I even slightly minimize your pain in her loss, or that I’ve minimized my role in this tragic incident.”
Todd’s supporters and friends have offered him jobs and a place to live after he’s out. “I’m not naive to how challenging things are going to be, but I have no fears,” he says. “I have too many people I owe. I have to go out and be the best person I can be.”
LOCKED UP FOR LIFE
Decades ago in the tough-on-crime ‘80s and ‘90s, many states — stoked by fears of teen “superpredators” — enacted laws to punish juvenile criminals like adults. The U.S. became an international outlier, sentencing offenders under 18 to live out their lives in prison for homicide and, sometimes, rape, kidnapping, armed robbery.
There has since been a shift. Five years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court banned mandatory life without parole for juveniles in murder cases. Then last year, the court went further, saying the more than 2,000 already serving such sentences must get an opportunity chance to show their crimes did not reflect “irreparable corruption” and, if not, have some hope for freedom.
The January 2016 ruling set the stage for an unprecedented second look at hundreds and hundreds of cases, some many decades old now, in courtrooms across America. The Associated Press leveraged its reporting power in all 50 states to examine how judges and prosecutors, lawmakers and parole boards are now revisiting juvenile lifer cases. Many have been resentenced and released, with more hearings continuing in the days, weeks and months ahead. But in some states, officials have delayed review of cases or fought to keep the vast majority of their affected inmates locked up for life.