Juvenile lifer who shot brothers gets chance at freedom
Jose Burgos was 16 when he shot twin brothers during a bungled drug deal on Detroit’s southwest side involving sacks of marijuana nearly 27 years ago. One died and the other was left a paraplegic.
Burgos was convicted and sentenced to life behind bars without parole in 1992 for killing Omar Kaji and wounding his twin, Ayman.
Now 43, Burgos has a chance at freedom because the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled life sentences for juvenile offenders constitute cruel and unusual punishment.
He was resentenced as part of a sentencing agreement Thursday in Wayne County Circuit Court to 30-60 years by Judge Ulysses Boykin, who said Burgos has become a “changed person” in prison and had few discipline problems since being incarcerated.
“There is a possibility that people can be redeemed or reprogrammed,” Boykin said, adding that he believes Burgos is “headed in a positive direction.”
Burgos’ attorney Michael Dezsi said his client has dedicated himself to being a positive example by mentoring at-risk inmates and taking part in other prison programs.
Burgos, who could be paroled as soon as June, said he understands that he affected the Kaji family “forever” and acknowledged the lives he “destroyed and took.” He said it’s a story that he has been sharing for the past six years with other prisoners.
“The victims have never been forgotten,” Burgos said. “I’ll never stop trying to repair the damage I did.”
Ayman Kaji, for his part, said he would not oppose Burgos’ release, despite the suffering he has endured. Kaji said his mother has to feed him, bathe him and take care of all of his other daily needs.
“He could have killed us both and it would have been much better,” Kaji, 46, said Thursday in a telephone call to the judge that was amplified so everyone in the packed courtroom could hear it.
Still, Kaji told the judge he and his brother “were doing wrong,” adding that he hoped something positive could come out of Burgos’ eventual release: “If Mr. Burgos can do good out in society, I’m all for it.”
Burgos told the judge that at the time of the shooting, his life was on a “downward spiral” from the death of his mother and that he didn’t have a “sense of direction.”
Burgos said his work with the prison’s dog training program is a way to give back.
“The independence I took from (Ayman Kaji), I may be able to give back to somebody,” he said.
Assistant Wayne County Prosecutor Tom Dawson said what Burgos did was “horrific.”
“At the time that this happened, based on what Mr. Burgos has shown us in the past 26-plus years, he wasn’t the same person,” said Dawson. “He was a young man that had no respect for life. No respect for other people. Showed no remorse for what he did.”
Dawson said Burgos changed after making mistakes in prison during his first years behind bars and then “something went off in his head.”
“I was very impressed with some of his (prison) records,” the prosecutor said. “He has shown that he’s ready to make the change. Hopefully he continues that change when he gets out of prison. However I also have to consider what he did and when we made that (agreement), people felt a 30- year minimum prison sentence was appropriate based on the facts of the crime and his prison record and what he has done since this crime.”
Outside the courtroom, Dezsi said he believes his client is eligible for parole “immediately,” explaining that his client is eligible to be freed now because of a federal court ruling last month that reinstated good behavior credits for juvenile lifers.
Dezsi said Burgos has about five years of “good time” credit. Burgos, said Dezsi, will have to go before the Michigan Parole Board, which meets again in June, to seek approval for his release.
Michigan has 323 inmates who were sentenced to life terms as juveniles and remain incarcerated, said Holly Kramer, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Corrections.