Freed juvenile lifer finds emotional maze out of prison

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Some people will say “what about the victim?” They should. John Sam Hall does, and he’s the killer.

Or maybe the killer was his friend. He can’t be sure, but legally, it doesn’t matter. A man still died, and Hall’s entire adult life was wasted — 50 years, from his arrest at age 17 until he walked out of prison two months ago, blinking through unbelieving tears at an unfamiliar world.

“What I did was horrible,” Hall says, and it’s important to set that out front where everyone can see it. “I took something precious, and I can’t never put it back.”

There should be more to him now than a few punches as an angry teenager, and there is. But being one of the first prisoners in Michigan set free from life sentences imposed for crimes committed when they were children, and when hundreds are still waiting and the cause is so personal, you want to offer your chin so anyone who cares to can take a swing right away.

A man died. A boy went to prison. Half a century later, a 67-year-old emerged.

By then, few were left to care. He has a brother and stepsister in ill health down South, a new pen pal up north, his devoted lawyer, and one old friend Hall recognized even after all that time. The friend tracked him down and they hugged, something as peculiar for Hall as his surroundings.

Eight weeks into his second chance, Hall is curious and also cautious, willing and also wary. He says he wants to do something valuable with however many years he has left — something to keep today’s more jaded and better-armed teenagers from following him into the system, and to help make sure other juvenile lifers get the same chance he’s been given.

He’s living with a few other parolees in a cigarette-scented halfway house on the east side, near Jefferson and Chalmers. It’s his second stop, after a month at the Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries Oasis in Highland Park.

The Oasis, a five-story former YMCA, offered meals. Now he has to feed himself with a Bridge card. But he likes the halfway house better because the iron bars on the fence outside the Y reminded him of where he’d been, and because for one of the few times in his life, he has his own room.

“A guy who did as much time as I did,” he says, “I need to be by myself. You know what I’m saying?”

His earthly fortune is spread out beside him on his bedspread: four $1 bills and a few dollars in change. His worldly goods fit easily into a small closet.

On his own in what inmates call “the World,” he has real-world problems. He can’t get a job without a state I.D., and he can’t get a state I.D. without a birth certificate, which finally arrived from Alabama bearing his father’s last name instead of the stepfather’s name he carried in prison.

As he left the rescue mission shelter, he says, someone stole his toiletries, and toothpaste and deodorant only seem trivial when you can afford to replace them.

But he’s free — which doesn’t surprise him as much as it probably should.

His sentence was life without parole. Somehow he never let himself believe it, even as other convicts went home and he stayed behind.

A champion boxer in prison, “I told myself I was just losing these rounds,” he says. They were years long, not three minutes, and his hairline and gum lines receded and a good sampling of his teeth fell out, but he kept jabbing as the calendar turned.

Then darned if the U.S. Supreme Court didn’t step in and award him a decision.

‘She came to get me’

The case was Miller v. Alabama in 2012. The court ruled that life sentences without parole for juveniles violated the Eighth Amendment, the one about cruel and unusual punishment.

Four years later, Montgomery v. Louisiana made clear that the ruling in the Miller case was retroactive, and that existing sentences needed to be re-examined.

Eight months after that, in September 2016, Valerie Newman of the Michigan State Appellate Defender Office was in a Wayne County courtroom, arguing for the new 40-to-60-year sentence that made Hall eligible for parole.

“That lady there got me out,” he says. He’s seated on a stool next to the first soft bed he has known since Lyndon Johnson was president, and she’s standing watch nearby, wearing peace-sign earrings and an affectionate smile.

“Then she came to get me,” he continues. “That’s a good lawyer.”

Fulfilling his request, after a bit of research on her part, their first stop was Royal BBQ on Mount Elliott in Detroit.

He wanted fried chicken. “In prison,” he says — and state records say he was in eight of them, from southwest Michigan to the U.P. — “you don’t get fried food. It’s all broiled or boiled.”

Newman, 53, stepped in to the restaurant first. She wanted to explain why a small, New York-based documentary crew with an interest in juvenile lifers was following her dining companion, and to make sure the intrusion was OK. It turned out to be more than that.

“We tried to make him feel at home. To make his food special,” says Aleks Vuktilaj, a manager.

Hall ordered a four-piece dinner with greens and yams, and before it arrived, staffers came by his booth to shake his hand and welcome him back to Detroit. None of them had been born when he left.

Owner Nick Cekaj comped his meal and slipped him $100. What Vuktilaj most remembers is that “he seemed very calm. Like you’d seen him the day before. That’s how calm he was.”

Serenity was something he acquired in prison, like the scar on the front of his neck.

Crime and consequences

The scar came from the State Prison of Southern Michigan in Jackson. Screwdriver, bad intentions, long story, long time ago.

Mostly, he says, he did well in Jacktown.

Lean and quick at 5-foot-9 and 132 1/2 pounds, fighting as “Kid Hall,” he held prison boxing titles simultaneously in his weight class and the two above it. In manila envelopes and plastic grocery bags, he keeps the photos and clippings from a long-gone inmate newspaper to prove it, along with his diploma from Jackson Community College and various certificates for courses in public speaking, life skills and something called Ways to Happiness.

He does not say he had been an unhappy child, but the record suggests it.

His mother, Bessie, was a domestic, often working seven days a week. “A great woman,” he says, but she couldn’t keep him home. A runaway, a truant and an occasional burglar, he confesses, he was sentenced to a year in a youth detention center when he was 14.

He was a high school dropout with a factory job the night he and a buddy left a party, saw a stranger at a bus stop near Van Dyke and Gratiot, and decided to drag him into an alley and steal his wallet. To their surprise, on his 73rd birthday, Albert Hoffman fought back.

Hoffman was a World War I veteran who lived with his wife, Flossie, in the Parkside Homes, a low-income housing project at Conner and East Warren. She told police he had gone to cash his Social Security and veteran’s checks and visit a few taverns.

“I hit him,” Hall says. “The guy I was with hit him.” When a passer-by pretended to have a gun, they fled. Hoffman lay on his back in the alley with his skull crushed.

Whether it was one specific blow or the entire barrage, Hall doesn’t know, but he learned the next day that Hoffman had died, his life over before police arrived.

“I always took it for granted I was responsible,” Hall says, though that wasn’t what he said on the witness stand. The first jury mostly bought his alibi and the vote was 9-3 for acquittal when the judge declared a mistrial.

The second jury believed the two witnesses who said they heard Hall bark, “If you (obscenity) move again, we’ll kill you,” and “Get his watch and ring.” The judge gave Hall what the law demanded — a death penalty, the slow way.

Revisiting the case

The judge is long gone. So are the prosecutor, Hall’s lawyer and his mother, who he last saw in a coffin when guards escorted him on a brief visit to the funeral home in 1983.

His partner in the alley died a free man 12 or 13 years ago having married and raised twin girls who presumably had no idea of the secret Hall continues to keep. As best Hall knows, “He never did another wrong thing.”

The first time Newman went to see Hall in prison, in a barracks-style, low-security facility in Coldwater, he admitted his role in the crime. That impressed her.

Then she read the transcript of his trial. That appalled her.

Very thin evidence, she says, though an appeal on various technical grounds was ultimately denied, 3-2, by the Michigan Supreme Court.

No intent to kill, she says. A 17-year-old perpetrator, too young to vote or drink or buy cigarettes, who claims he was never even asked about the partner he wouldn’t have named anyway. And when the gavel falls three months after his 18th birthday, he gets life without parole?

“It’s barbaric,” she says.

Newman has been with the appellate defender’s office her entire career. Since the second U.S. Supreme Court ruling, she has taken over more than 200 of the 350 juvenile lifer cases in Michigan, frequently finding what she sees as obstruction from county prosecutors.

In the Montgomery decision, the court held that life without parole should be reserved for “the rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility.” But in many affected cases — about half in Wayne County, and 90 percent elsewhere — prosecutors have simply asked for reinstatement of the original sentence.

Any number of studies, Newman points out, show that the human brain continues developing into the mid-20s. “As any parent knows,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy in another decision, children are more likely than adults to be irresponsible and impulsive.

With that in mind, Newman would like to see maximum juvenile sentences of 25 to 60 years, leaving release up to the parole board at the first number and every five years afterward.

“Are you going to tell me,” she asks, “that a 15-year-old is still a danger to society at 75?”

What about the victims?

To that question, Jody Robinson of Davisburg responds, why take the chance?

She’s the president of the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Murderers and the sister of James Cotaling, who was stabbed to death for his car in 1990 by a 16-year-old girl and her 20-year-old boyfriend.

“If you can premeditate murder, I don’t care how old you are,” says Robinson, 45. “If you’re capable at any point in your life, you have it in you to do it again.”

Any commutation or parole hearing, she says, becomes an emotional attack on the victims’ families, who are forced to relive the darkest moments of their lives. The killers have already had jury trials and appeals, and when does it end?

Complicating things in Michigan are a pair of competing decisions awaiting a ruling by the state’s Supreme Court.

When prosecutors attempt to renew juvenile life sentences, says retired Thomas M. Cooley Law School professor Ron Bretz, there’s a hearing to decide if the penalty is appropriate. One appeals court said the sentence should be decided by a jury, and another said it should be a judge.

Those cases are in limbo. Hall’s was different, in that the prosecutor had signed off on a fresh sentence with parameters — a decision Robinson agrees with.

“From what I’ve read,” she says, “they beat (Hoffman) up. They didn’t shoot him, they didn’t stab him, they didn’t try to kill him.

“This is one of those cases where they should have had a commutation hearing before now.”

Force of habit

With his life finally unscheduled, Hall spends most of his time in his room, reading or thinking or working Sudoku puzzles from one of the booklets Newman bought him.

He’ll stay up until 3:30 a.m. and rise at 9, an unheard-of indulgence even in light security where beds had to be made by 7:30 a.m.

He keeps mostly to himself. It’s a holdover from prison, where he learned to be in but not of a place.

“I never allowed myself to become institutionalized,” he says. “I looked at that as being the enemy.”

He had his training routine, long after he stopped boxing. Pound the heavy bag, do calisthenics, run. He had his thoughts, and his questions for newcomers on the cell block. Those debit cards we see in commercials — how do they work?

But mostly, as best he could in tight quarters, he kept his distance. “If you socialize with those people and do what they do,” he says, “that’s prison life. I always looked at ’em from outside.”

By habit, a response to prison food, he eats late and only once a day. He weighs 145 pounds, 12 1/2 above his fighting weight, and he bounds up staircases while others take the elevator.

He walks sometimes, too, but not far. In his fearless youth, he shared space with other young lifers in a prison proving ground known in the system as Gladiator School. At the Rescue Mission, on Woodward just south of the Davison, he was cautious: “It’s not a nice neighborhood.”

He did explore a few nearby strip malls, mostly to get a feel for his surroundings so he wouldn’t get lost. In the stores, he kept his hands wide at his hips, like a gunfighter.

No shoplifting here, Mr. Store Manager. Nothing to send a man back where he was.

World of wonders, worries

There are televisions in prison, and with them some exposure to pop culture. Hall has, for instance, seen “Star Wars.” But using a small screen to view the vast expanse outside the walls does not provide perspective.

In 1967, a late-model used sedan might have had tail fins, not that he ever owned a car or had a driver’s license.

Now, “All the cars are small,” he says. Power windows are a novelty for him, and the navigation system in Newman’s Jeep Renegade is a revelation. Center turn lanes are new, while self-parking cars are “science fiction to me, man.”

His old friend bought him a cellphone, and even after lessons from Hall’s roommate at Oasis, a wrestling match breaks out when he needs to slide a finger across the face to pick up a call.

“Little things for an average person are gigantic things for me,” he says.

That’s an assessment, not a complaint.

He’ll tell a story about something that happened inside, but be stuck to provide a time frame for it because the years all blended together. Goes with the territory.

He’ll list the jobs he held in prison — at one point, he literally made license plates — and shake his head at the thought of what useful things he might have been doing elsewhere. Goes with the crime.

His frustrations are the sort that go with independence, like red tape.

He had a line on an opening for a recreation leader, probably $9 per hour, but without a state I.D. card he couldn’t even get an interview. He’ll likely qualify for a needs-based federal disability program called Supplemental Security Income, says a spokeswoman for the Social Security Administration, with its maximum monthly payout of $735 — but again, not without an I.D.

“He does not want to be a burden to anybody,” Newman says, and he’s still feeling his way through an emotional carnival maze.

In prison, he built his own walls. “Any time there was a breach,” she says, “like a call from his sister, it was hard for him.” There’s a joy in being able to connect any time, but also a boundary to break down.

That’s long term, like his two years of parole. Short term, “I just want to maintain a modest life,” Hall says.

Work. Pay the rent. Do whatever he can to persuade people that you can go to prison as a child and grow into someone worthwhile. Talk to whoever will listen about staying out of trouble.

“If I can save one life ...,” he says. If someone hears that he weathered 50 long years and thinks, “He knows.” If that person passes along the message and saves someone else.

If all of that happens, maybe he’ll look at things differently. He took a man’s life in the darkness of an alley, but he’d like to know he didn’t completely squander his own.

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn