Rubin: After 50 years in prison, a second second chance

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

John Sam Hall, who once killed somebody in an alley in Detroit, is leaving his past behind. Or part of it, anyway.

Among the treasures John Sam Hall found on a family visit was a photo of himself as a child. After spending 50 years in prison, the former juvenile lifer is moving in with his sister in Augusta, Georgia.

He’s moving home to a place he’s never lived before, to share a house with his sister and share his life with an extended family of strangers.

That’s all new. So is his last name: a man who left prison 31/2 months ago as Hall will arrive in Augusta, Georgia, as Hutton. What’s unchanged, he says, are his remorse and his allegiance to the 350 prisoners in Michigan who are still serving life sentences for crimes they committed as children.

Hall, 67, did 50 years for a mugging that went tragically wrong when he was 17. At 1 a.m. Saturday, if everything goes according to plan, he will load his possessions into his church’s faithful Dodge Grand Caravan and be driven 13 hours to people who never gave up on him even though they didn’t know him.

He was one of the first juvenile lifers in Michigan released after the Supreme Court decreed that any sentence for a minor should include the possibility of parole. Response varied after his story was told in The Detroit News; some applauded his second chance, which he appreciated, and some objected, which he understood.

Mostly, he says, people have been helpful, and he wants everyone to know he is grateful. His lawyer, Valerie Newman, and her team at the Michigan State Appellate Defender Office. The good souls at Hope Community Church on the east side, where he was baptized two Sundays ago: “How about that?” The people who donated clothes, and the University of Michigan social work students who sent cards after he spoke to their class.

To all, he says thank you — and goodbye.

Among the treasures John Sam Hall found on a family visit was a photo of himself as a child. After spending 50 years in prison, the former juvenile lifer is moving in with his sister in Augusta, Georgia. 

Photo by Neal Rubin

First family visit

John Sam Hutton was born in Alabama and moved to Detroit in his early teens.

At some point he acquired his stepfather’s last name, officially or otherwise. That’s the name the prison system used after Hall and a friend left a party and decided to drag 73-year-old World War I veteran Albert Hoffman from a bus stop near Van Dyke and Gratiot.

Given the different surnames, it took considerable effort to line up a birth certificate, state ID and Social Security card. They were issued to John Hutton, as is a $734 monthly check from a federal disability program.

The first check arrived in May, and with it an additional sense of independence for someone making his own schedule for the first time in half a century. He feels better now about leaning on his sister, 81-year-old Mary Brown, who has a bedroom ready for him.

The Georgia contingent “is a little upset with me,” he says, for not admitting he was broke and at least a little overwhelmed outside the prison walls.

“I wanted to be an adult,” he explains. “I ain’t never been an adult, you understand?” But he was cajoled into a visit six weeks ago.

A man who spent 50 years penned in with criminals turns out to be afraid of flying. Instead, he rode with church volunteers June Walker and Ernest Conerly Jr.

“He was so nervous,” says Walker, 57. When they crossed the Georgia state line, Hall told her, “I can visit my sister, then go see my brother for a few hours and we can leave.”

Those are the two other survivors out of five siblings. Brown has battled breast cancer, and brother Van lost both legs to diabetes.

“We came 900 miles,” Walker told him. “You’re going to spend some days and get to know these people.”

Then he walked through the door and 40 eager relatives were waiting with open arms.

‘They forgave him’

His photographs were on the walls, he says. There were clippings from the prison newspaper about the boxing championships he won at Jackson.

Tiny great-great-great nephews were calling him Uncle John. A strapping University of Georgia football player told him, “We don’t know you like we should, but we will.”

Hall could tell they hadn’t been coached. They knew things about him because they’ve always known — because Brown had kept him a part of their lives, even when it seemed certain he could never be.

The former boxer walked in with his guard up. He left knowing he had to come back.

“They forgave him,” Walker says, and for the first time, at least a little, he forgave himself.

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn