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Juvenile lifer walks free at age 67, after five decades in prison

Mar 7, 2017

It happened in a Detroit alley in 1967.

Detroiter John Hall and an accomplice beat a man who later died of his injuries.

John Hall was convicted of first-degree murder and received a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole. He was 17 years old. His accomplice was never arrested.

But Hall's future changed with two landmark rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court – rulings that outlawed mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles.

On Feb. 2, at age 67, John Hall walked out of a Michigan prison.

John Hall and his lawyer, Valerie Newman
Credit Jodi Westrick / Michigan Radio

He had virtually nothing to help him start his new life as a free man.

"Ninty days before I got out, they're supposed to have all the stuff that you need ready for you in the re-entry program in prison,” he said. “When I got out, I didn't have anything. Only thing I had was $1.37 and a social security card.”

At that point, he also had no birth certificate, which meant no state ID card, and no driver’s license.

There are over 360 of these so-called “juvenile lifers” in Michigan prisons today.

John Hall is one of only five who have been re-sentenced and released since the Supreme Court rulings.

With his lawyer Valerie Newman of the Michigan State Appellate Defender Office, John Hall sat down with Stateside. To start, he explained what freedom feels like after 50 years without it.

Freedom after 50 years

“When I went to prison, the only cell phones I’d seen was on Star Trek,” he said. “‘Beam me up, Scotty!’"

"It’s reality, but back then it was science fiction. And I’ve got to learn everything all over again.”

He said his attorney, along with the rest of his support group, keep saying the way forward is in baby steps. 

“And it’s not been easy,” Hall said. “Little things that everybody takes for granted, you know … get your card to the, your debit card to the store keeper. He swipes it, or whatever he do, and you’ve got to punch it in. I had to learn that, you know.”

"When I went to prison, the only cell phones I'd seen was on Star Trek. 'Beam me up, Scotty!'"

So much of what he’s learning, he said, falls under the category of what others take for granted. That means he’s constantly reminded how long he’s been gone – 50 years.

For example, someone recently told Hall to give him a call.

“I said, ‘Okay,’ because I was too embarrassed to say I didn’t know how to use a phone,” he said.

The man asked again if Hall would really call.

“I said, ‘Come here, man. Show me how to work this.’ You know, I built up the courage … because I felt like that’s a step forward. And he showed me. And I’m beginning to learn.”

While Hall has yet to master the modern phone, he has control back – the power to learn these things and make his own decisions.

“It feels good," he said. "It feels real, real good. And it was something I thought I’d never feel again.”

“Coming out when I want to after 9 o’clock, being on my own all day, not being in the environment that I was in – where there’s 13 gangs in one prison – and … being free. Ain’t nothing like it.”

Right now, Hall is living in a homeless center. His mother, the support system he had before he went to prison, has died. 

“If I didn’t have the support I have from my attorney, and the support system that she’s surrounded me with, I wouldn’t have made it,” he said. “But I’m taking baby steps and I’m going to make it because I want to and because, like I say, she’s surrounded me with people that I’m comfortable with. That I don’t have to feel embarrassed about nothing. And like she always tells me, if we are going too fast, or they’re going too fast, let them know. Don’t hold back.”

Prison for life, starting at age 17

Since his release, Hall has learned new things about his childhood. It started when he saw his birth certificate.

“I didn’t even know my father’s name – first name, I knew his last name, but I didn’t know his first name. And I’m a junior. He only had one son – one child. That was me. And my mother raised me.”

Hall said his mother did domestic work for various people up to seven days a week.

"But I'm taking baby steps and I'm going to make it because I want to and because, like I say, [my attorney's] surrounded me with people that I'm comfortable with."

“So basically, the streets raised me, because she was gone all the time,” he said. “But she did what she could do, as far as trying to raise a son and provide, but the streets really raised me. So I went to school and did all that, all the things that other kids do, you know, and got into trouble.”

He started getting into trouble around age 13 or 14.

At age 17, a judge told him he’d go to prison “for the rest of your natural, entire life.” 

“By me being so young, I knew it was bad,” Hall said. “But when I swirled around in that seat at that desk and looked at my mother’s face … when I looked at my mother’s face, I knew it was bad. Real, real bad.”

After the ruling, he was taken to the county jail. His mother went to see him there.

“And she said, ‘Don’t worry, baby. The Lord is going to be with you … it’s going to work out,’” he said. “And it did, because of my attorney, Ms. Valerie Newman. Fifty years later, but it did. But [my mother] wasn’t around to see it. And that’s what hurt.”

At first, Hall went to the prison in Jackson. When it was decided he was too young to be there, he went to “gladiator school,” otherwise known as the Michigan Reformatory.

He said his mom tried to deal with lawyers, but she didn’t have the money for it.

“So I was trying to get to Jackson, because they had the factories – guys making four, five, six, seven hundred dollars a month,” he said.

He also contemplated making money by letting researchers do experiments on his body.

“You could make money by letting them inject stuff in you and all this and all that,” he said. “And the more severe whatever they were trying to cure was, the more money you got. You’d seen guys with arms cut off, fingers cut off, trying to get out of prison because they got natural life.”

But eventually, he was called to work at the license plate factory in Jackson.

“And I was making money,” he said.

He made $300-400 a month and got a bonus every 90 days.

"I had to reinvent myself. I didn't have nobody to look up to when I come to prison a little kid, because I didn't want to be like them. I was going with the flow, so to speak, but I didn't want to be like them."

“I was paying prison lawyers to work on my case, because I didn’t have enough money to get a paid attorney, it’s too expensive,” he said.

In addition to working in the factory while in prison, Hall got his associates degree and religious certifications as well.

That made him the first in his family to earn a college degree.

“My mother mentioned it one day and I said, ‘Well, momma, I’m going to be the first one to do it.’ And after she died, I remembered that promise. Even though she wasn’t around physically, I was going to keep that promise to her. And that’s what motivated me to take college.”

Eventually, Hall said he began to work toward a new way of thinking.

“When I looked back at myself, I didn’t like the John that I’d seen in the past,” he said. “I had to reinvent myself. I didn’t have nobody to look up to when I come to prison a little kid, because I didn’t want to be like them. I was going with the flow, so to speak, but I didn’t want to be like them.”

Another “very important” thing happened around this time.

“Remember what that judge said to me? He messed me up psychologically for at least 20 years, because, ‘For the rest of your natural, entire life.’ You never forget those words,” he said. “But when I stop and I’m seeing people leaving prison with life sentences, I said, ‘Wait a minute, man, that judge lied to you. You can get out.’ You know what I’m saying? I had heard it. But I didn’t believe till I’m seeing guys that I know personally get out. I said, ‘Wait a minute, man. You’ve got to change.’”

Hoping someone will hear him

And change he did. Hall is out of prison now, free. But still, it’s not all easy.

“I got to wake up every day – every day that I live I got to wake up and think about how I took a life,” he said. “Every day. The man’s wife … she forgave me. Her, like my mother, used to come to court every day. She was there when I got the life sentence. She forgave me. But that woman can’t never forget. Just like me. It’s going to be inside of me for the rest of my life.”

“And I hope that, in some way, that somebody will hear me and I can save a life.”

If Hall could speak to his younger self – his 16-year-old self – right now, he’d say this:

"Don't follow the crowd. Don't try to fit in and get in. Try to be an individual. And if you've got a role model, let it be somebody positive, not somebody out there on the streets selling dope, robbing people, breaking into houses. Because that only leads to one thing – two: death or prison."

“In life, you have to make decisions. And it’s best not to make rash decisions. Think about what you’re going to do or say before it comes out of your mouth or you act on it. Because there’s that fork in the road where you have to make a choice: Do I do what I like doing, or do I do what’s best for me?”

The best thing young kids can do, Hall said, is what’s best for them.

“Don’t follow the crowd,” he said. “Don’t try to fit in and get in. Try to be an individual. And if you’ve got a role model, let it be somebody positive, not somebody out there on the streets selling dope, robbing people, breaking into houses. Because that only leads to one thing – two: death or prison.

“But you can change your life,” Hall said. “You can change it. Can’t nobody else change it for you. But you can, if you look down inside and stand on principles, if you stand on principles and have got some kind of integrity, you can do it.”

“It ain’t going to be easy. Guys are going to be smoking around you, getting high. You’re used to doing it. The temptation’s going to be there. But you’ve got to fight it. You’ve got to fight it. You’ve got to do the best thing for your future. Don’t think about the here and now. I did … 50 years in penitentiary. And I hope you don’t do 50 years in penitentiary. I hope your future’s a lot better and brighter than that, because a lot of things could have happened – positive for my future, had I not been in prison for 50 years.”

If Hall had a son, he’d teach him to “stand on your own. Don’t let nobody lead you. Be your own leader.”

While he doesn’t have a son, Hall wants to tell this story to others for the rest of his time on Earth.

“I ain’t good at it, but I’m sincere,” he said. “I don’t want to get no polish or nothing, I just want to stay real and sincere and hope that somebody, somebody can hear me and listen to what I’m saying – because a lot of people hear you but they don’t listen – that they can listen to what I’m saying and it might get started a chain reaction. ‘Well, man! That old man right. That old man right.’ Chain reaction.”

Forgiveness

The crime Hall committed was not a small one. A man died. Some say, for that reason, he should not have been released.

In response to those people, Hall leans on words from the Bible.

“It might be to a lesser degree than what I did,” he said, “but ‘let he who hath not sinned cast the first stone.’ We all make mistakes. Some it’s more severe than others, but Jesus said, ‘Forgive your bother. Forgive him. Don’t fake like you’ve forgiven him, forgive him.’ Because if all of us was condemned for our sins, I don’t think I even need to say no more about that.”

"Because God knows that in my heart I would never, ever even think about doing nothing like that no more. And this voice is not the most articulate voice you’re going to hear... But it’s raw and from my heart."

Yet, Hall has not forgiven himself.

“Because I feel like God didn’t let me live these 50 years just to come out of here like the rest of these guys who forget where they came from,” he said.

Forgiveness, he said, should live within each individual.

“If you want to forgive, you can. If you don’t, you can’t. You’ve got to go on with your life.”

“I’ve got a lot of work to do,” he said. “I’ve got to live with this the rest of my life. I’m a very emotional person, as you can see, and sometimes I’ll be alone and I think about what I took from that woman, his wife, his community – everything. I can live with myself, but I can’t forgive myself. I think that’s the best way to say it. I can live with myself, but I can’t ever forgive because I can’t forget. I took the most precious thing that we have from another human being.”

The next question people will want to know, he said, is if he can’t forgive himself, why should other people forgive him?

“It’s their choice,” he said. “But I’m the one that did it. I know I’m not the same person no more, and everybody that knows me knows I’m not that person no more. And another thing was I didn’t understand the finality of life. I didn’t know it meant forever. And it wasn’t meant to kill him, because wasn’t no weapons involved.”

Hall said he knows God has a plan for him.

“I could have come out of prison and been bewildered,” he said. “But I’m sitting here because that’s part of the plan. Because God knows that in my heart I would never, ever even think about doing nothing like that no more. And this voice is not the most articulate voice you’re going to hear. It’s not going to be smooth or none of that. But it’s raw and from my heart. That’s what I want to do. I want people to see that I’m just an everyday guy that’s trying to say, ‘Walk right, live right, talk right.’ That’s all I’m trying to say. If it wasn’t God’s plan, I wouldn’t be sitting here. And God said to forgive. So, I’m working on it.”

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