Second Chance Kids: Unique Release of Two Juvenile Lifers
Jan. 31, 2022
By Anthony Gomez, Paralegal for Attorney Bryan J. Jones
There’s a saying among prisoners that goes, “You came in alone, you leave alone.” This saying is a reminder when going into prison and throughout your incarceration that you cannot depend on anyone behind those walls. In 1997, I was convicted of a serious crime as a seventeen-year-old and ultimately sentenced to life without parole. (Virginia abolished parole in 1995). Entering the prison system alone as a teen in the 90’s was a tough proposition, one that did not give me (or anyone) the greatest opportunity to reflect on the choices that landed me there or to protect myself against groups seeking to test and take advantage of me. It didn’t help that I was a young Puerto Rican from New York City. So, when two young Puerto Ricans made eye-contact at the Department of Corrections Receiving Unit and saw surface similarities, we naturally gravitated towards each other.
Upon meeting Angel DeJesus at the Department of Corrections Receiving Unit in Southampton, I quickly learned that we had more in common than our ethnicity. We were both from New York City and had gotten into our troubles soon after coming to Virginia. We were both juveniles when we committed our crimes and even had the same attorney represent us (although in different jurisdictions). And we were both sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. This background set the stage for the strong bond of brotherhood that Angel and I would forge in the decades to come.
Angel and I would eventually be transferred to the same prisons and become long-term cellmates several times. We encountered our fare share of troubles early and helped each other to avoid some of the common pitfalls of prison life. We spent most of our time reflecting on our circumstances, often fighting back tears at the grim prospect of dying in prison for poor choices we made in our youth. Determined not to let our worst choices define who we were as individuals, we pressed on to become better versions of ourselves through any available means, despite the fact that our circumstances dictated that we would not be getting out of prison anytime soon, if at all.
It was Angel who pushed me into my legal career as a paralegal when, back in 2004, there was an opening in the prison law library. I was in my early 20’s and this position was one out of two in a population of 1,150 where mostly the older prisoners were vying for it. The truth is that I did not know much about the law, which is what everyone in prison expects of folks working inside of a law library. But everyone always saw me going to the law library and reading case law – all pertaining to juvenile offenders – and they assumed I knew law. Angel saw something different. He saw that I was an easy person to talk to and if I did not know something, I would research it until I did. And he wanted me in that law library because he felt I could help more people.
The only reason I filled out the application was to get Angel off my back. I didn’t want anything to deal with working behind that desk in the law library and never imagined that, of all the prisoners vying for that position, I would get it. In three days, though, I received the memo saying that I was hired as the new law library clerk. I was shocked and intimidated to say the least, but I remained working there for the next 14 years! I helped a lot of prisoners during that time challenging their conditions of confinement as well as their convictions. And it was during my work there helping a prisoner with an innocence claim that I popped up on the radar of a young attorney fresh out of law school, Bryan Jones.
In 2016, I prepared pardon petitions for me and Angel to the Virginia Governor making the case for why we believed we have earned a second chance at life. Bryan Jones joined the effort by writing letters in favor of a second chance for us and telling the Governor that if granted, I would also have a job waiting for me as his paralegal. Bryan also pushed the effort through the courts for us based on U.S. Supreme Court rulings that banned arbitrary life sentences for juvenile offenders, which Virginia was refusing to adhere to.
In 2020, the Virginia legislature passed the juvenile parole law that granted us parole eligibility after serving 20 years in prison. At the time, my pardon had already been investigated with a recommendation that it be granted, thanks also to the survivors of my crime who supported the effort after meeting with me, a process that Bryan was instrumental with facilitating. I ended up becoming the first juvenile offender, and one of few, granted parole under this law.
True to his word, Bryan Jones gave me the job of being his paralegal and the opportunity to continue helping make a difference.
In early 2021, Angel went up for parole. I was excited to be one of the supporters to speak on his behalf. Angel had an impressive team of supporters, and we had an amazing interview with a parole board member. However, Angel was denied parole soon after that interview. His appeal of the decision was also denied. We were all completely devastated by the news. Angel and I had committed that if one ever got out before the other, we would do what we could to advocate for the other’s release. I did everything I could, but felt like I had failed Angel.
On top of all that, there was a heated gubernatorial election. All the criminal justice reforms under which I was granted a second chance were being used as a political football by one party to cast the other party who voted in favor of it as weak on crime and demonize people like me on account of the poor choices that landed us in prison in the first place. To make matters worse, the party advancing this so-called “tough-on-crime” campaign prevailed with the newly elected officials stating that they were going to roll back those reforms and fire the entire parole board.
But on January 13, 2022, two days before Governor Northam’s term was over, he granted Angel a pardon, and I had the privilege of picking him up the next day at the prison. It was truly the most amazing experience for me to see things come full circle in this way. I got to share in some of his first experiences and relive them again through him. We were told that we would die in prison and were not given any reason to hope for a second chance. But we kept the faith against all hope, and with the help of people like Bryan Jones and the many others who were part of this effort who believed that we deserved a second chance, we are free today to continue our advocacy work and the plight to help fight for your rights.
Charlottesville Post-Conviction Lawyer
Some cases seem impossible, but my situation and Angel’s prove that nothing is impossible and the importance of never giving up. You need an attorney who believes in second chances and will fight for your rights. Such an attorney can make sure you get the best outcome in your case. Bryan J. Jones is committed to his clients and will develop a defense strategy tailored just for you. Contact Bryan J. Jones, LLC today.