Monday, December 15, 2008

Efrén Paredes, Jr. and the Case for Justice

Public Hearing Generates Large Interest
by Necalli Ollin
December 5, 2008

A public hearing was held for Efrén Paredes, Jr. at the G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility on Thursday, December 4, 2008, to consider his commutation request. The hearing began at 11:00 a.m. and lasted nine hours. We were told it was the longest such hearing.

Efrén is a 15-year-old Latino former high school honor student who was wrongly convicted for the 1989 murder and robbery of a grocery store manager in St. Joseph, Michigan (USA). He was home with his family when the crime occurred.

Four youths accused Efrén of committing the crime. Three of them pleaded guilty to armed robbery, and one of them pleaded guilty to both armed robbery and second-degree murder. One of the youths was not charged at all. All were older than Efrén at the time the crime was committed.

Efrén was tried and convicted in three months amid a barrage of adverse media publicity which disseminated false, misleading and erroneous information about his case. Police, prosecutorial and judicial misconduct were in large part the reason he was wrongly convicted.

At the public hearing, five members of the Parole Board were present and two employees from the Attorney General’s Office. (In most hearings one Parole Board member and an Asst. Attorney General (AAG) preside over the hearings.)

The building was filled to capacity with members of the public. Every chair was filled and several people stood along the back and sides of the room. Efrén was brought into the hearing room and seated in front of the Parole Board chairperson and AAG.

There were several members of the media present, as were prison administrators and staff that were not part of the security detail. They came to observe what many predicted would be the largest public hearing in Michigan history.

That prediction was transformed into reality. Most public hearings for prisoner commutations attract less than 10 people and last less than two hours.

Over 150 people were present to express their support for Efrén. Many of them wore “Free Efrén” T-shirts or “Free Efrén” stickers on their clothing. People traveled from Berrien County, Lansing, Detroit and various other cities, including some who came from Illinois and Indiana. Over 40 of the supporters were from the Berrien County area alone.

A contingent of Michigan State University (MSU) students arrived at the hearing in an MSU bus to support Efrén. Students from the University of Michigan and other universities were present as well.

Before Efrén entered the hearing room everyone was instructed to not communicate with him or attempt to touch him. Efrén sat with his back to the public during most of the hearing.

The AAG grilled Efrén for more than four hours. The AAG made disparaging and rude remarks towards Efrén and constantly interrupted him when he was responding to questions.

The AAG’s unprofessional and unethical conduct was offensive and disturbing to many citizens present. His actions as a civil servant were worse than those of any television show attorney. Certainly not behaviors that would be tolerated in a courtroom.

There were several exchanges between Efrén and the AAG about the facts in the case. Efrén calmly and politely corrected the AAG several times about inaccuracies and information that the AAG discussed. He also asked the AAG on more than one occasion to be honest with the public about issues the AAG was misrepresenting.

The information the AAG used to oppose Efrén’s release was received from the Berrien County Prosecutor’s Office in summary form. The AAG admitted to not having read the court transcripts or police reports, and that he was taking all his cues from the Berrien County Prosecutor’s Office.

The AAG used fragments of statements to illustrate his points, often not knowing what the rest of the statements were which he received his information from, or the context they were pulled from.

At one point the AAG admitted he also did not understand the court appellate process, yet unsuccessfully attempted to argue that Efrén’s appeals being denied were evidence of guilt.

The AAG stated that U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan judge who denied Efrén’s habeas corpus petition, Gerald Rosen, was not a “prosecutor’s judge.”

Efrén informed the AAG that in his 20 years of imprisonment he has spoken to many attorneys, and done extensive legal research, and he has never read a single prisoner appeal that Judge Rosen granted.

The AAG stated he was not aware of this information. It was one of several moments the AAG admitted his lack of knowledge about matters he was arguing.

The AAG asked Efrén why he did not raise certain issues on appeal. Efrén conveyed to him that he was only 15-years-old at the time of his arrest and had to rely on his attorney to file appellate issues. Efrén also stated he did not know how to navigate through the criminal justice system. Unfortunately for Efrén, he received ineffective assistance of counsel.

Despite the rigorous interrogation-style tactics launched against him, Efrén remained poised during the entire hearing. He never allowed the AAG to evoke anger or hostility in him at any time. Efrén responded to all questions posed to him and presented compelling arguments to support his defense.

No members of the community where the crime was originally tried were present opposing Efrén’s release, other than the victim’s family members, police officers or members of the prosecutor’s office. There were, however, dozens of members of many communities present in support of Efrén’s commutation request being granted.

Twelve people spoke in opposition to Efrén’s release. They included family members of the victim, one friend of the victim, three Berrien County Sherriff, three city police chiefs, the Berrien County Prosecutor and his Chief Asst. Prosecutor.

The prosecutor’s office argued that there was public outrage opposing Efrén’s release. Besides victim family members, a few friends of the family, and the police and prosecutors, no other members of the community were present to validate the claim of opposition. In total those opposing Efrén’s release present numbered less than 20 people.

The Berrien County Prosecutor, Art Cotter, spoke to the Parole Board and recited lyrics from a rap song found in Efrén’s school locker at the time of his arrest. The lyrics were from a rap song by multi-platinum artists NWA from their album “Straight Outta Compton.” Cotter contended that possession of the lyrics was reflection of Efrén’s mindset — implying he had a propensity for violence.

Efrén’s youngest brother, Hans Koppenhoefer, Jr., later spoke and countered by stating that when he was in high school he knew someone who had a steno book full of rap lyrics much worse than the ones that Cotter read.

Hans went on to state that the same person is now employed as a police officer in Berrien County.

Dozens of people requested to speak on Efrén’s behalf at the hearing. Efrén limited the number to twenty people which included three immediate family members, clergy, community leaders, organization board members, a psychologist, MSU students, two of his employment supervisors at Michigan Braille Transcribing Fund, 1320 AM Lansing radio show host Jack Ebling, and wrongful convictions expert, Paul Ciolino.

Efrén’s supporters presented compelling reasons why he should be released besides the fact of his innocence. They talked about all the positive things he has done while imprisoned for himself and others, how he could be a productive member of society if released, his employment opportunities, available home placement, and overwhelming support.

They also argued why Efrén’s sentence is a violation of the Convention On the Rights of the Child (CRC) and constitutes a human rights violation. The CRC prohibits the imposition of the death penalty or life without parole sentences for children.

Paul Ciolino, world-renowned wrongful convictions expert and Chicago-based private investigator, told the Parole Board that Efrén’s case is a classic wrongful conviction case. He reaffirmed the AAG’s position that criminals change their mind all the time. Ciolino told the Parole Board that the criminals who accused Efrén of being the perpetrator of the crime have changed their stories many times.

Efrén’s defense has remained consistent for 20 years and he has maintained his innocence. Ciolino told the Parole Board he has reviewed hundreds of wrongful conviction cases and exonerated 20 innocent men, including cases with much more alleged evidence than in Efrén’s case.

The previous day at a press conference Ciolino told the media that the conduct of the criminals in Efrén’s case is consistent with the actions of criminals — they pursue deals with the police and prosecutor and do anything they can to escape punishment. Efrén, however, has never done that or wavered about his innocence.

The AAG also argued that Efrén has only served 20 years and “20 years is not a lot of time.” Efrén responded that he totally disagreed. He went on to say that he was arrested at age 15 and is now 35-years-old. Efrén has spent more time in prison than he did a free boy in society.

In a post-hearing conversation with members of The Injustice Must End (TIME) Committee Efrén stated, “20 years is a lot of time by anyone’s standard — I have no idea what the AAG’s concept of time is.”

Once Efrén’s supporters concluded speaking the Parole Board chairperson, Barbara Sampson, told Efrén what some of the terms of his parole would be, if he is released. She also told him that if the Parole Board does not release him she urged him to continue on the path he has been on, doing the same positive work he has been doing.

Ms. Sampson commended Efrén for all his accomplishments and the large amount of support he had present at the hearing. She told him, however, if the Parole Board releases him, it will not be because of all the support he had present at the hearing.

Efrén was informed, if he is released it would occur because of his accomplishments, that he has served sufficient time, and he is not a danger to society. It was stated that the Parole Board could not take into consideration Efrén’s innocence because he has been convicted and is guilty under the eyes of the law.

According to Ms. Sampson, the purpose of the public hearing was not to examine guilt or innocence, though the AAG spent several hours extensively discussing Efrén’s case. Ms. Sampson stated that the purpose of the hearing was to determine Efrén’s readiness to return to society.

The AAG then opposed Efrén’s release and added that because Efrén has been convicted and he refuses to admit to the crime it makes him a sociopath, and he would pose a danger to society if released.

Efrén was subsequently allowed to make concluding remarks to the Parole Board stating why he feels he is deserving of release. He delivered a powerful and moving appeal to the Parole Board for the opportunity to reclaim his life and experience life as a free citizen for the first time in his adult life.

He assured the Parole Board he would comply with all conditions of parole and do whatever was asked of him, including not returning to Berrien County for any reason. Efrén also told the Parole Board he harbored no ill feelings toward the people who put him in prison. He said he understood that anger and bitterness are destructive to the human spirit and he did not wish to live like that.

Efrén said he was focused on the future and moving forward with his life. He stated that every moment he spends thinking about the past is a moment he cannot think looking to the future. Efrén added that he rejects the notion that people are inherently incorrigible and that he engenders the concept of redemption. He asked the Parole Board to consider this as well.

Finally, Efrén told the Parole Board that he has accomplished more than many prisoners that have been paroled, and feels he is equally deserving of the opportunity for release in the interest of fairness and equality.

Ms. Sampson told everyone present at the hearing that the Parole Board will likely make their recommendation to the Governor about Efrén’s release after the new year. The Governor will then issue a final decision about the commutation request after reviewing it.■

To learn more about the case of Efrén Paredes, Jr. visit or To write a letter to the Governor of the State of Michigan requesting Efrén's release please download two different sample support letters you can select from at

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