In this week's episode, an ecologist must confront a man-eating croc, and a criminologist receives a letter from a convicted murderer.
Part 1: Ecologist Evon Hekkala travels to Madagascar to help protect a village from a man-eating crocodile.
Evon Hekkala was born just outside of Fossil, Oregon, population 200. How she ended up living and working in NYC and traveling around the globe studying wildlife is all a bit of a big crazy fluke, set in motion by a mixture of really good, bad parenting and the naive ability to never see her own boundaries. Now she spends her time teaching and researching at Fordham University and the American Museum of Natural History where she and her students explore a century of change in the wild world of animals.
Part 2: Criminologist Stan Stojkovic receives a letter from an incarcerated man who killed two people when he was a teenager.
Stan Stojkovic, PhD is Dean and Professor of Criminal Justice in the Helen Bader School of Social Welfare at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM). He has been a faculty member within the Helen Bader School of Social Welfare for the past 33 years. He received his Ph.D. in social science (with cognate specializations in criminal justice and criminology, public administration, and philosophy) from Michigan State University in 1984.
Note: Stan Stojkovic's story was produced as part of a partnership with Springer Storytellers. Find out more at www.beforetheabstract.com/
Part 1: Evon Hekkala
Several years ago, I found myself at an airport in Madagascar and I was surrounded by several bags of cash and several guards. And I was on my way to go and capture a giant man-eating crocodile.
Before I tell you about the crocodile thing, I actually didn’t have anything to do with crocodiles before this. I was actually going to study lemurs in Madagascar as a graduate student at Columbia University.
I had this great plan that I was going to understand more about the behavior of humans, by studying the interactions between species of lemurs because they were early primates.
So I set off on this trek across Northern Madagascar and it was this hundred and fifteen, hundred and eighteen kilometer trek across Northern Madagascar.
I was absolutely convinced that I was going to discover this hybrid zone between these two species of lemurs and that was going to help us understand what was going on with lemurs, with social behavior and interactions.
This was my PhD project at Columbia University. It was this grandiose plan and I set off on this trek. And as most people know, things don’t go as we plan them to.
I was about two days into this trek with eight guys from Madagascar who spoke Malagasy and one guy who spoke French, and I spoke pretty rickety French.
I fell down a mountainside with this sixty-pound backpack, and I tore my meniscus and almost dislocated my hip. But I was like, I’m going to do this, so I just kept going.
People on the way were telling me, “Well, actually, the lemurs aren’t here anymore because we ate them and we can’t find them anymore. It’s getting harder and harder to find them and they were our favorite lemurs because they were the biggest ones and protein is hard to come by.”
Actually having met a lot of these Malagasy families on my way, families of six would get by on maybe a cup of rice or two a day, and so you couldn’t really begrudge them a little bit of protein even though it made me incredibly sad about the lemurs that I planned to go study.
In the end, I finished the trek with my torn meniscus and my hopes crushed and no lemur samples, and a much greater respect and understanding of the people of Madagascar.
I had to come back to my dissertation committee at Columbia University and tell them that I completely failed. I did not successfully achieve this goal, and I don’t know what I’m going to do.
My committee, they were kind of gentle. They actually said, “Well, we have this bag of blood samples from a hybrid zone. It’s not lemurs exactly—it’s crocodiles. Would you like to do that for your dissertation instead? Because you’re really running out of time.”
I was like, Oh, well, crocodiles. Lemurs, cute furry beautiful glorious lemurs. Crocodiles.
I said, “Well, actually, when I was in Madagascar, I happened to notice that there were all these crocodiles as well.”
They have this really interesting relationship with the people there and plus I had heard that they were actually kind of unique and might be a separate species, which that could be cool.
So I told my committee, “I would like to do the hybrid crocodiles if maybe I could actually go back to Madagascar and also study the crocodiles in Madagascar,” because I’d actually really fallen in love with Madagascar.
My committee said, “Oh yes, we’ll humor you. If you can get back to Madagascar in the next three months and get some samples of Malagasy crocodiles, then sure. That’s great. But otherwise, just keep working on these hybrid crocodiles.”
And I said, “OK, great.”
The next week, I thought, OK, I’ve got to start researching crocodiles. How am I going to get back to Madagascar? I had no money, I had no plan. I don’t know anything about crocodiles.
I get this phone call at the graduate office at Columbia. And the secretary says, “There’s a phone call from National Geographic for you.” And I was like, “That’s not for me,” and [she was] like, “No, it’s for you.”
I answer the phone—this was landline time. There was this woman and she says, “Hi, I’m with National Geographic Television and we’re doing this new program called Out There. It’s a show about how actual scientists do research. We are working in Madagascar on this other episode, and it just so happens that there are these crocodiles that started eating people in the lake beside where we’re working.”
I said, “Well, that’s interesting. Why are you calling me?”
And she was like, “Well, we heard you study crocodiles.”
I said, “I … oh, really? Yes, I do study crocodiles.”
She was like, “So, can we fly you to Madagascar and have you come and figure out what’s going on with these crocodiles that just started eating people, because they were never eating people before, apparently. We’ll take care of everything. Don’t worry about it.”
And I was like, “Hmm, I have like three months to figure out how to get to Madagascar and yes, I can do that. I can come to Madagascar.”
This woman, this producer, says, “And actually, can you bring us seventy-five thousand dollars because our field crew is out of money, and we need someone to resupply them, and the banking is not really very effective. And so it would be great to have someone bring them the cash.”
Actually, I’m just going to tell you. I think that they thought that they would … they didn’t care about the crocodiles. They just wanted me to bring the money.
Anyway, I was like, “I can do that.” Then she said, “Can you do it this Friday?”
And I was like, “Yes…?”
And it was three weeks before Christmas. I had no plans.
I found myself sitting at the Chase Bank on the Upper West Side of Manhattan for three and half hours, signing American Express traveller’s checks, if anyone remembers those.
You have to sign and then eventually countersign to show that… you know. Anyway, it was seventy-five thousand dollars that had been wired into my bank account, which, by the way, usually the government is a little skeptical about that when you are a graduate student. I had no idea.
Anyway, they wanted small denominations, so it was all twenty-dollar bills of American Express traveller checks.
So I set off. Oh, wait, but I should have been spending my time learning how to wrangle crocodiles. So I called a friend of mine who shall remain nameless and I said, “I have this gig and I actually have to handle some crocodiles,” and this person said, “Oh, yeah, I have some you can maybe come and handle.”
I was like, “Okay, today?”
And he’s like, “Okay…”
I trekked on to where the unnamed crocodiles would be, and I found these little crocodiles. I picked up a couple and then I was like, “I’ve handled crocodiles. Yay!”
Then on Friday, I got on a flight to Madagascar with seventy-five thousand dollars in American Express traveller’s checks.
As we all know, flights to Africa are frequently delayed, as are flights to La Guardia, and to and from La Guardia. I live near La Guardia so I could say that because it sucks, sorry.
Anyway, so I ended up showing up at the airport in Madagascar after about, I don’t know, twenty-four hours of flying, and the bank was closing. I should have said that National Geographic was very explicit that I had to exchange all the money at the bank, in the airport, because none of the other banks actually would have enough money in their accounts for me to exchange the money.
On top of that, they were like, We’re going to this really remote village in northwestern Madagascar, and they only take money that is in the currency equivalent to like fifty cents.”
I just want to step back and do a little math here, but seventy-five thousand dollars in American dollars is fifteen million nine hundred and something thousand dollars in Malagasy Francs, and they wanted small-denomination bills.
Actually, the airport [bank] was kind of like, “Well, were about to close, but we really like American dollars,” and so they stayed open.
That is how I found myself walking out of the airport in Madagascar with many, many, many giant bags full of cash, and some people that I hired to walk out of the airport with me to a bus to go and take National Geographic the money that they had asked me to bring, on my way to capture a man-eating crocodile… wherein I had lots of experience.
I get to the luxury hotel the National Geographic film crew had been staying in. They were really happy because I was able to pay their bill.
They said, “We are leaving tomorrow morning to go to this remote village and on the way we’ll tell you what the plan is.”
I was like, “Okay.”
And they said, “We should have maybe told you that the government wants to just kill these crocodiles that started attacking people, but the local people believe that these crocodiles are sacred, and these crocodiles are maybe their ancestors, and so maybe we shouldn’t mess with the crocodiles.”
And I was like, “Okay.”
Then we get to this village and let me just tell you that if you think it’s fun to have a National Geographic camera like ten inches from your face for twenty hours a day, while you try to interview a community of people about their family members who’ve been eaten by crocodiles, and their children who’ve been eaten by crocodiles, and people who’ve been dragged into this lake by crocodiles, it’s really not all you might think in terms of celebrity status and happiness.
It’s not a good thing, but there were also other complications that happened.
No one told me that this lake, the people who lived there believe that you can’t have any metal on the lake.
And so we had brought these boats so we could do these surveys of the crocodiles to try and figure out what was going on, and they were like, “No, you can’t. No metal can go on this lake. Metal can’t touch the lake. That will upset the spirit of the lake.”
And we spent like sixteen hours going to a small fishing village to try and rent these gigantic fiberglass fishing boats from the ocean, to bring them back to use for our surveys.
That’s okay, I can handle that.
Then they told me, “You have to buy and sacrifice a zebu,” which is kind of a really cute cow—the one with the hump and they were kind of small in Madagascar.
Actually, I was a vegetarian at the time so I was like, “Okay, I guess I can do that in the interest of this.”
Then they said, “And we have to have this thing called a Tromba ceremony.” And the Tromba ceremony [is] where you call up the spirit of the lake to get permission to do the research. This one hundred-year-old woman who was quite lovely and spry, she… Everyone drinks a lot of palm wine, which if anyone’s ever tasted palm wine, is the most disgusting thing you’ve ever tasted in your life.
This woman is inhabited then by the spirit of the lake, which is wonderful. I had a background actually in anthropology, and so I really was enjoying this, but then I found out that the spirit of the lake is actually a man. And so I’m dancing with the spirit of the lake, who is embodied by this woman, but then it’s a very lecherous spirit of the lake and it’s also being filmed by National Geographic, and it was a little bit uncomfortable, just going to say.
All this being said, we did these surveys of the lake. We tried to figure out was going on and we weren’t able to actually capture the supposed man-eating crocodile.
And we actually brought in this guy from Kenya who was actually really good at catching crocodiles, in case we caught a crocodile, because there was this plan that maybe we would catch this crocodile on camera, and we would take it to the zoo at the capital of Madagascar, Antananarivo. The people would be happy because the crocodiles that are sacred to them would be protected, and the government would be happy because people weren’t being eaten by crocodiles. Great.
Well, we didn’t catch this crocodile. And so we ended up having this big party to say good-bye to the guy from Kenya, who was there to catch a crocodile, and we didn’t manage to catch a crocodile.
And the minute he left, and I’d had a little bit of Malagasy beer and a little bit of Malagasy palm wine, I get a bunch of people outside my tent going, “Oh, my God! Oh, my God! We’ve caught this crocodile,” and I’m like, Great.
Okay, it’s just a little one, right?
No, it’s a really big one.
I go with these people to the shore of the lake, which is about three feet wide, and there is this enormous crocodile on this little tiny rope, and I’m like, That’s actually a man-eating crocodile.
It was right where all the other people had actually been attacked by this crocodile and I’m like, That’s the one.
And I’m thinking, What am I going to do? I don’t have a crocodile wrangler, and I at that point weighed about one hundred and four pounds and I’m like, Very interesting.
And In the meantime, the entire village had come to see this captured crocodile, partly because they were like, This is the one, right? This is the one that actually ate people and attacked people and did all this stuff.
I’m thinking, Oh, great. Now on top of me being on camera with National Geographic, with lights in my eyes, these lights in my eyes, I have a giant crocodile and I have an entire village of sixty people holding babies and little children and they are all like, “So what are you going to do?”
I’m like, “Well, actually, as far as I understand, this crocodile represents the spirit of the lake and so I sort of defer to you all.”
They were like, “Well, it’s good to see the crocodile upfront and personal,” and I’m like, “Yes. Yes it is.”
It’s like fourteen feet long and about six feet from me, and I have like sixty people behind me with small children, and there is no way I’m going to be able to pull this crocodile… You do this thing when you catch crocodiles, which I’d actually learned from the crocodile wrangler. You pull and then they roll and they roll themselves up, and then you jump on them but usually, you need at least three large humans to jump on them, and to kind of know what they are doing, to catch them.
And so I was thinking, There’s no way this is actually going to be successful, because not only will I die but there’s lots of people with small babies and they’re going to die too.
I had a little conversation in my head and I was like, You know, I think this crocodile is important to everybody, and nobody really wanted it to be killed or removed. They were just pissed off that it had done bad things, and so we all decided to scare the crocodile.
Everybody on the shore was yelling at the crocodile and I’m like, “Okay, we’re going to harass it and then it’s going to decide it’s a bad idea to eat people.”
And so in front of National Geographic and the entire village, I leaned down and I cut this rope and let this crocodile go. I’m thinking, Oh, my God, it could actually now attack us.
And I’m thinking, And there’s babies and tiny two-year olds and humans and oh, my God.
Instead, it just flipped its tail and it dove and it got the hell out of there. It was like, Humans are evil.
I could end it there, but from everything we’d learnt from interviewing all these people, and talking with them about what had happened, we’ve realized there was some ecological things that they had changed about the relationship of the crocodiles to the community.
They’d started using nets on the lake and over-fishing, and they had changed the water flow in the lake and some things.
But we worked with them and we got the Peace Corps to put in some wells, and we put up these barricades to protect people so they could go down and wash themselves at the edge of the lake.
We did some education with some local communities. We got a small crocodile and we let kids touch it and pet it, and understand this is the natural history of crocodiles, and for ten years after we did all these things, no one was attacked by a crocodile.
All I can say is if you see the episode of National Geographic called Man-Eaters of Madagascar and you see me looking cranky and sweaty and tired and pissed off, I really, really was, but I’m also really glad I actually said yes when I answered the phone.
Part 2: Stan Stojkovic
I want to offer a disclaimer before I start. I’m not Dr. Phil. I get asked about ten times a day, am I Dr. Phil? I always say, “I’m smarter but he’s a lot richer,” so we’ll just go forward with that disclaimer.
My story is really a story about redemption and the opportunity for redemption, and something that really, most people in the criminal justice system, whether they are studying the system or they are studying criminology or they are working with individuals in the system, don’t really have any sense of.
My story is really about this, and it begins with a man named Andre. Andre is a prisoner who is in a Wisconsin prison for a double homicide that I’ll talk about a little bit later, but Andre killed his victims when he was fifteen.
There were particular things about Andre that made him so unique, because I get literally hundreds of letters from prisoners every year.
I work with the California Department of Corrections—I’m working with them now. I’ve been all over the world looking at issues of correctional—how to run correctional institutions and what the management issues and the implications. So when I get letters from prisoners, they’re pretty common.
They usually are along two dimensions. One dimension is, “My prison is a terrible place. It’s horrible. It’s awful, blah, blah, blah, blah. I shouldn’t be here. Can you help me?”
Or they give me a second type, which is, “I need legal advice,” and I’m not a lawyer. I mean, I can’t help them. I can’t really give them the kind of advice that they need.
But Andre’s letter sticks out. Most of these letters, you get and you can tell that they come from a correctional institution because they’ve got their number and they’ve got their name, and you know that it’s coming from a prison. And you start, you know, “Okay, I’ll read this letter.” Well, this guy’s letter was about fifteen pages. That’s unusual.
Most of my letters are cryptic. They are handwritten, maybe a page or two but his letter is really so profound. I’m reading this and I’m really enamored. “Wow, who is this guy? This guy writes better than most of the students I have. How is it that he writes so well?”
And so I get intrigued with this letter. Basically, his letter is about—and he has a whole plan for redemption, not only his own personal redemption but the idea of redemption as a correctional goal. He wants to take it there, and I’ll get to that in a few moments.
I’m certainly intrigued with this, and I decide that I’m going to read his plan—he has a redemption plan. I read this plan and I send off a letter to him and I basically say, “Listen, you have a lot of hope. What I hear in your voice through this letter is hope.”
But when I think about hope, I always say to students, “Hope is not a methodology. You can’t hope two variables together. You have to have a plan.” [That’s what] I always tell people. Okay, I’m going to tell Andre the same thing, and that began our story, which started in November 11th 2011, with me receiving his first letter.
As he started to write [to] me, he wasn’t asking for anything in particular. He wanted me to be aware. So I inquired in my letters, “Well, how did you find out about me?” What he had done was the prison apparently had taped these public-broadcasting shows that are in Wisconsin and they go across the state.
There was one in Milwaukee about incarceration. They had a bunch of keynote speakers and I was one of them and they were talking about, “All right, how do we make prisons better? How do we make their correctional system better? What are the kinds of things we need to do to improve this system?”
He had seen one of these tapes. It was in the prison library, and he writes all the details about how he got the tape. Writing can be very cathartic. You get an opportunity to interact with someone who is going to interact back, because most people, they send letters to people, and they don’t get heard from. They get thrown in a circular file and nothing really happens to them.
But he starts to tell me about his story and his life through these letters. You read these letters and you think, “Wow, I’ve been working in correctional systems and evaluating them and working with people in the system. I’ve been doing research and writing about it for over four decades, so I have a sense of what he’s going to say.”
What he has to say though is really poignant about his story of how he got to prison.
That story really is what you would expect. Born in the inner city of Milwaukee, father he never knew, mother was sexually assaulting and physically assaulting him routinely, he and his brothers. Growing up on the street. This is not necessarily unusual. A lot of people have had this experience unfortunately.
He winds up going to a party. He’s fifteen years old, and at that party he gets drunk, he gets high, he’s on crack. This was in the early ’90s when crack was still around and crack really hit Milwaukee later than the East Coast; it went across the country.
He winds up executing two fifteen-year-olds, his age. He had them bend down, took a gun, and shot them in the head—boom. A young girl and a young boy. Killed them.
Shortly thereafter, he’s arrested. He admits to it, admits that he had done it, and there is no factual dispute in his case. He was the bad guy. He had done it and he went to prison. He got waived from juvenile court to adult court at fifteen, tried on a double homicide and gets a maximum sentence.
He’s sentenced under the old sentencing laws in the 1990s, which gave people the opportunity for parole, but his first parole hearing isn’t until 2037. That’s his first hearing.
He’s writing me and telling me about this, and I’m thinking, “What does he really want out of me?” We went around back and forth for about a year with the letters. I’m just asking questions about this, but he doesn’t really ask me for anything. He doesn’t ask me, “Can you help me get out of prison?” He doesn’t really say that.
But he tells me about ways that he’s trying to really improve himself in prison. The big message is, “I did everything. I took all the courses. I took everything from metal shop to writing courses to college courses,” even though Pell grants weren’t available to prisoners. They were not allowed under law. The prison could give him certain types of things, but he did everything.
He did everything they asked him and didn’t have a disciplinary problem, very well respected, but he was stuck. He wasn’t going to get his first hearing until 2037. So I asked him, “How do you feel about this?”
He’s like, “I don’t think it’s fair, but at the end of the day, I have to show that I’m redeemed. I will owe the city of Milwaukee forever for what I did. I will owe my victims’ families forever for what I did. I will never not own that. That will always be part of my redemption plan.”
I believe that you have to earn redemption; you don’t just get it. It would be nice if everybody just forgave people on their own merit, but that’s not reality, right? Especially a guy who commits a double homicide, execution style—brutal murders. So his story to me is, “This is what I’m trying to do—to redeem myself.” And what really runs through his letters is hope.
I start to think, “How does a guy have so much when there is so little room for hope? How does he do this?” So I inquire about that with him. “Tell me more about yourself. Tell me more about your story. This is a fascinating story that I really want to know.”
In the meantime, a lawyer gets a hold of me and he’s a law professor at UW Madison Law School. He’s like, “I hear you’ve been conversing with my client.”
I’m figuring he’s going to say, “Cease and desist. Don’t do this anymore.”
I said, “No, I’m talking with him,” so then I get him on the phone. You’ve got to remember, I’ve never seen Andre to this day. If he was sitting in this room, I wouldn’t know who he was. I assume he’s African-American, but it could be false. I don’t know what he looks like. Do I plan ever to go see him? Yes, but not yet.
So I started talking to this lawyer, and this lawyer is part of a group in the Madison Law School that’s really helping indigent clients, people who are in prison who are seeking appeal. They are all appellate issues.
They are having law students basically work with these inmates, and Andre is one of these inmates, and so he becomes one of their clients, so to speak.
Here’s what he wants, but he doesn’t tell me this. The lawyer tells me this, the law professor. Andre wants a pre-hearing to his first hearing. Remember what I said a few moments ago, that his first hearing is 2037 so he can have under law, under the old law, a pre-hearing, which really determines his eligibility for the hearing.
That’s all he wants. He wants that prehearing because he figures he can convince people he’s done everything, and that they should let him out or at least give him an opportunity to get parole.
I said to them, “This story can’t end.” Now, what he’s done indirectly—and then I met his wife—he got married inside. I met his wife and we talked on the phone about his situation and what was happening with him. And I always say to her, “How does this guy stay so hopeful?”
“Well,” she said, “He has nothing else. There is nothing else for him. Everything else is negative, and negative he understands is just a bad thing. It’s not going to take you anywhere.”
I said, “Well, are you guys still working on this case?”
“Yes, we are going to try to develop an appeal for him so that at least he can get this pre-hearing. “
So then I come up with the brilliant idea, which is, “How about if I talk to the district attorney that prosecuted you? The office?”
The district attorney that did prosecute him is retired and I knew him too. He had been district attorney for forty years in the county. But I knew the new district attorney, who was very, very smart, very, very enlightened, a guy who wanted to try new things. He believed in science; he believed in these types of things.
I really was able to segue to him with Andre because Andre was sending me all these articles about neuroscience and brain development, and how a kid’s brain at thirteen, fourteen, fifteen wasn’t an adult’s brain. And he believed [because of] his youth—and pf course, he was under the influence of drugs and alcohol—that ultimately, he could maybe get an appeal. The Supreme Court at that point in time had recently said that you can no longer execute juveniles so there was a whole issue going on. Could he get an appeal based on the neuroscience?
And his understanding of neuroscience was unbelievable and I’m getting these lengthy letters. I figured, ‘Well, that’s my in with the district attorney, is to talk about… let’s see if we can do something with this.”
I have lunch with him and he doesn’t know what’s going to happen. All he knows is that “Stan and I were going out to lunch, and that Stan’s a good guy and I’m a good guy and we’re going to have a great lunch.”
We sit down by the lake, Lake Michigan. We’re in a nice little restaurant. We start talking about general things and what’s happening in the city, and I finally say to him, “I have a request.”
“Anything you want.”
“Well, wait a minute. As an attorney, a district attorney, you probably don’t want to say that because what I’m going to ask you is pretty extreme.”
“Tell me what you want.”
I explained the case to him.
He says, “Stan, what do you want out of this?”
I said, “I don’t want anything. I want you to consider thinking about the sanction, the criminal sanction, in a different way. That’s really what I want you to do. I want you to really think about this.”
He says, “Listen, I’ll give you this. I’m going to go dig this file out.”
The murder occurred in 1995, and here it was about 2013, 2014, so this is a twenty-year-old case, just about. Well, you lawyers know what happens to evidence after twenty years. Witnesses die, they leave, they move, evidence is lost, wherever they placed the evidence.
But he decides he’s going to get the investigator, the lead investigator who’s retired, a Milwaukee police detective, and he’s going to try to find the families. Well, they can’t find the families; they’ve dispersed.
Remember, his family home was pretty fractured and shattered anyway so they couldn’t find these people. There was no way to find them. But he did talk to the lead investigator who remembered the case because of the brutality associated with the case, that this was such a brutal murder. This wasn’t a drive-by, which is bad enough—this was an execution-style murder.
He comes in about a month later and he says, “Stan, we’ve got to have lunch. I want to talk to you about this case.”
We go have lunch and I said, “Listen, I can’t wait. Tell me what you’re going to do.”
“I’m not going to advocate for his pre-hearing.”
Not his hearing. Remember, that’s not going to happen until 2037, presumably.
“I’m not going to advocate.”
I said, “You won’t even write a letter saying that…?”
“Tell me why. What is it about this particular case?”
He said, “This is a double homicide. This is an execution. I would be executed by the public, because I’m an elected official, if I started to advocate for someone.”
I said to him, “John, when is it enough? Can you answer that question for me? Can you tell me when it is enough? How much time is enough? He’s done now twenty-one years. He’s thirty-six, thirty-seven years old. He’s done everything the prison said and required, even by the warden and the other inmates, and this guy’s a model prisoner. And I know all of the correctional people because of the work that I’ve done with them. When is this enough? And when you know that, how do you know that? All of a sudden? Is it thirty years? Is it forty years? Is it the rest of his life? What is it?”
He said, “Well, I don’t have an answer to that.”
My position was nobody does, right? Nobody has the answer to that question within the realm of our understanding of the criminal sanction now. Because what have we done in the last thirty to forty years? Heavily retributive, lock away people, throw away the key.
Now, this guy, you could argue legitimately, if you were retributivist, if anybody deserves to go to prison for life, this guy does. But is there any room for redemption?
His redemption plan is rooted in what he believes to be the best science available. That’s not only, “Yes, I’m accountable.” Like he said, “I’m accountable until the day I die. I owe the city, I owe the families until the day I die. That’s going to be with me, and I have to do that.”
I write back and I tell him, “Andre, it’s not going to happen. It just is not going to happen. The district attorney is not going to do it.”
“Okay,” he said. “We’ll find something else. We’ll do something else.”
And so hope springs eternal. But his redemption plan is a redemption plan. He knows about risk, responsivity, need. He knows those principles and he points out to me in a very fascinating article and just said, “You know, at a time when they were locking up all these people, the science was getting a lot better. They were like countervailing trends.”
It’s ironic, at a time when all of these people were going to prison, we were learning more about what seems to work with what kind of defender, based on these principals, and he knows them. Andre is just symptomatic of larger issues that occur, it seems to me, in the correctional system. There are a million Andres.
So what I said to him was, “If we can listen to a guy like this”—and I’ve dealt with a lot of prisons, and a lot of prisoners over many years. You hear all sorts of stories about all sorts of things, but if you come to a point where you say, “How do we rethink this thing called the criminal sanction, and what is it that we are really trying to accomplish within that criminal sanction? If we punish simply because we can, aren’t we just cruel?”
Then you start to think about these things.
My last letter [from] him was about four months ago in which he said to me, “You know, I’m thinking about doing some other kinds of things so that maybe I can get transferred to another prison.”
I called him back. “Why? Why do you want to go to another prison?”
“I want to go to another prison because I think the wardens probably are better placed there, and I’ve got pretty much carte blanche.”
I said, “Well, it sounds like you’ve got a pretty good life in prison.”
He says, “And that’s my fear. Prison really does nothing for me anymore. If anything, it’s destructive towards me. I really get no benefit out of prison.”
I took that and I thought, All of us are really minimized under that approach, aren’t we? Aren’t we all, not irresponsible, but at the end of the day, are we our brother’s keeper?
What does the deserving—undeserving, I should say—deserve? It’s a question we always pose. But until we change the way we understand the sanction, we will have a dearth of choices—limited options.
I always thought to myself, This guy did more to educate me than I ever educated him. Why? Because he lived it, and he lives it right now.
Now, do I think that Andre’s going to get out of prison in the near future? Probably not. Do I think he’s even going to get that pre-hearing? Probably not. Wisconsin is infamous. Even with those people who are eligible for parole under the old law, nobody gets out. That’s just their message from the governor’s office: nobody gets out.
At the end of the day, we have to ask ourselves, how have we imprisoned our own selves in our thinking about criminals? If we can think, finally, about people like Andre, what does that say about other offenders who may not have committed those serious types of crimes?
If we can come to a point where redemption seems to make sense [for] people who’ve committed the most heinous crimes, can we think about things in the context of other kinds of crimes, less serious crimes?
That’s Andre’s message, and I hope to continue that story as we go forward. Thank you very much.