Thursday, March 12, 2009

Response to "Bill Could Free Teen Killers" in The Macomb Daily

I wrote the following message in response to some of the negative comments that were posted yesterday to the article, "Bill Could Free Teen Killers." The article appeared in The Macomb Daily.

I would like to add that the vast majority of individuals that life without parole sentences (LWOP) are imposed on are children of color. What is our criminal justice system saying, that only children of color commit crimes? Or is it sending a strong signal that they are only interested in imprisoning children of color and marginalized for life?

This discriminatory practice goes well beyond sentencing children to prison for their rest of their lives. It contravenes the principles of rehabilitation and is a reflection that our society, with all its professionals and educated people, cannot develop solutions to the problems that lead to children committing crimes.

If a 40-year-old person goes into adult court with the mentality of a 15-year-old courts across the nation very often deem that person as mentally unfit to stand trial. However, when a 15-year-old is accused of the same crime prosecutors seek to try him as an adult and banish him to prison for life.

These actions go against the evolving standards of decency in a civilized society. Contrary to what some may think, it is public policy like juvenile LWOP sentences that erodes our moral standing in the world. When we jettison common sense we deservingly invite global ridicule and create impediments to diplomacy with the rest of the world.

How can we expect the rest of the world to end human rights abuses in their respective countries when we are openly violating several international treaties related to the treatment of children in our country? How do we look as a society when we desert children, who are society's most vulnerable population?

I encourage intelligent dialogue about the lives and future of children impacted by LWOP sentences. It is not a conversation that should be infected with shallow, myopic ideas. Transforming society will require prevention that helps us steer youth away from crime. It makes no sense to continue manufacturing new ways to deal with the symptoms of crime rather than producing cures and preventive measures.

Please read "Sentencing Our Children to Die in Prison" by the University of San Francisco School of Law" to learn more about the realities of imposing LWOP sentences on children: You are also encouraged to visit to view many articles and research studies about juvenile LWOP sentences.

Remember, "The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons." (Fyodor Dostoevsky)

Sunday, December 21, 2008

A Window Into the Mind of the Berrien County Prosecutor's Office

by Necalli Ollin

Thursday, December 4, 2008, Berrien County Prosecutor Art Cotter made an appearance at a public hearing to consider the commutation request of Efrén Paredes, Jr. He traveled nearly two hours to and from the hearing and spent nine long hours at the event at taxpayer expense.

Cotter was flanked by Berrien County Chief Asst. Prosecutor, Michael Sepic, and the Berrien County Sheriff, Paul Bailey, and four other local Berrien County police chiefs who came to show their support. All these individuals are White.

In a bold and desperate move to curry favor with the Michigan Parole Board Cotter abused his opportunity to speak as a forum by attacking Efrén's character at the age 15, the time of his arrest. Using rap lyrics from multi-platinum selling rap artists N.W.A. found in Efrén's high school locker, Cotter attempted to convey to the Parole Board that the N.W.A. lyrics were a window into Efrén's mind.

This was an inflammatory move Sepic used 20 years earlier when he introduced the lyrics to a nearly all White jury during Efrén's trial, who is Latino. Only at that time Sepic had enough decency to not offend the citizens of Berrien County by reading the lyrics out loud in front of those whose support he needed to remain in office at the time.

This time when Cotter and Sepic took their show on the road they thought their openly racist attitudes would go undetected.

Seated directly before two African-American Parole Board members — including the chairperson — Cotter read verbatim the lyrics from the song "Gangsta Gangsta," including every expletive. He also brashly and unapologetically used the words "Ni**er" and "bi*ch" as he openly disrespected the elderly, young and worst of all, several African-American people present.

It was a shameful and offensive display of public service that repulsed everyone present.

As a representative of the citizens of Berrien County Cotter's unethical actions only served to reinforce the widely held belief that the Berrien County Prosecutor's Office has no regard for minorities receiving justice in their county. If Cotter and Sepic do not respect minorities as human beings, they could care less what treatment they receive.

This is evident with the long turbulent history that Berrien County has of mistreating minorities in its courts and trying them repeatedly before all White or nearly all White juries. It is an issue that has generated national attention in recent years, and the wrong kind of attention the county deserves. The four police departments represented by white males have the same reputation.

Cotter's actions reflected his ignorance about the hip hop community and the rap industry. Had he conducted even minimal research he would have discovered that the song he read has been purchased by consumers millions of time on CDs, and even as ringtones for cell phones. He would have known that millions of people all over the world have N.W.A. songs on their MP3 players.

By Cotter and Sepic's flawed logic all these people would be deviants and have inclinations of being murderers. By their standards life imitates art and we would have a nation of killers roaming the streets because of the music they listen to.

Dr. Dre, N.W.A.'s founder and producer, is one of the most successful producers in history. He has produced music for some of the highest selling rap artists of all time, including Snoop Dogg, Tupac Shakur, 50 Cent, Eminem, and many others.

Members of N.W.A. also went on to become multi-platinum artists when the group later separated. The author of the lyrics to "Gangsta Gangsta," Ice Cube, went on to continue releasing several albums and become an accomplished actor in over a dozen films including "Friday," "Barber Shop," "State of the Union," Triple X," "Three Kings," "Are We There Yet?" and others.

Cotter and Sepic argue that Efrén poses a danger to society based on his preference for rap music as a teenage boy. No one poses a greater danger toward the citizens of Berrien County than these two members of the Prosecutor's Office who will stop at nothing to destroy someone's life and secure a conviction.

The hip hop community and listeners of rap music are under siege in Berrien County. Until the citizens of the county decide to demand that the racist mentality and stranglehold on minorities desists, they will continue falling victim to the Cotter and Sepic web of treachery and injustice.

It is an issue every Berrien County resident should take with them to the voting booth next time they elect a prosecutor to represent the county. Malfeasance should no longer be the face of Berrien County.

To learn more about the case of Efrén Paredes, Jr. please visit or You can also click here to read my article about Efrén's public hearing which was held December 4, 2008.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Juveniles Incarcerated for Natural Life Within Adult Prisons: Public Opinion in Michigan

Michigan is one of 19 states that allow children of any age to be tried and punished as adults. Trying youth as adults opened the door to imposing sentences of life without the possibility of parole, particularly in Michigan and 26 other states that have mandatory sentencing.

More than 300 youths have been sentenced to life without parole (LWOP) in Michigan and are serving these sentences in adult facilities. Michigan ranks third in the number of youth sentenced to LWOP and is second only to Louisiana in the rate of juveniles age 14-18 serving sentences of LWOP.

To determine public opinion on the issue, questions related to the topic were included in an annual statewide survey of those 18 years or older. The survey, administered by a public university, was conducted during the spring and summer of 2005.

We found that only 5 percent of residents supported Michigan’s current law regarding juveniles serving life without parole in adult facilities. The majority believed “blended” sentences that included both juvenile and adult sanctions were more acceptable. Moreover, Michigan citizens were strongly opposed to juveniles 16 and younger being housed with adults in correctional facilities and believed that juveniles were strong candidates for rehabilitation.

Michigan residents are unequivocal in their belief that youths should be held accountable for their violent crimes, but that it should be in a manner that recognizes the physiologic, psychological and emotional capabilities of the youths, understanding that these capabilities differ from that of adults. These findings support alternative sentencing arrangements and changes to Michigan’s current policies and legislation.

The above abstract is from the study conducted by Wayne State University School of Social Work. Click here to view the entire study and press release.
Juveniles Incarcerated for Natural Life Within Adult Prisons: Public Opinion in Michigan

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

Saturday, December 13, 2008

How Efrén's Sentence Violates International Law and Constitutes Human Rights Violation

Click here to visit the Abolish Life Without Parole Sentences for Children in the USA blog that contains a wealth of information about why imposing these deplorable sentences on children constitute human rights violations.

The Convention On the Rights of the Child (CRC) prohibits the imposition of the death penalty and life without parole sentences on children. One hundred ninety-two nations have ratified the treaty.

We are shamefully the only country in the world that is imposing life without parole sentences on children. Educating people about the enormous body of evidence that supports the need to abolish these sentences is very important.

In the process people will be equipped with the knowledge to encourage legislators across the nation to join the rest of the civilized world and condemn this inhumane practice.

Sentencing Children to Die in Prison

The practice of sentencing juvenile offenders to die in prison by imposing life without parole (LWOP) has been abolished by the vast majority of countries in the world, yet thousands of children are serving the sentences in prisons across the United States, according to a new report from the USF School of Law's Center for Law and Global Justice.

With at least 2,381 children sentenced to life without the possibility of parole in the United States, and seven such cases in Israel, the two countries are the only remaining nations continuing to impose the sentence, which violates international law.

"The sentence violates customary law binding all nations, and is prohibited by the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. This is the harshest sentence that can be given short of execution," said Michelle Leighton, director of human rights programs for the USF Center for Law and Global Justice.

The juvenile death penalty was eliminated in the United States in 2005 by the Supreme Court's ruling in Roper v. Simmons. In that decision, the court cited a brief authored by USF Law Professor Connie de la Vega, director of the Frank C. Newman International Human Rights Law Clinic, which pointed out that most countries prohibit the execution of criminals who were under 18 at the time of their crime.

"By clarifying the law and facts surrounding the use of life sentences without parole for juvenile offenders, this new report highlights how alone the United States is as a violator of the prohibition against such sentences," said de la Vega, who co-authored the report with Leighton. "Documentation of the abuse is but the first step in remedying that violation. We hope that it helps to mobilize shame in the international community as well as in the United States so that steps can be taken to stop it."

The center's report, the most comprehensive of its kind, is the next step in bringing the United States into compliance with international law guiding juvenile justice. The authors hope the report will raise awareness of the issue among the United Nations, individual governments, and the general public.

The report already made an impact on juvenile justice in Tanzania, which had been listed with the United States and Israel as a country with LWOP for juveniles. But in September, with help from Professor Nick Imparato of USF's School of Business and Management, Leighton met with the Tanzanian Ambassador to the United Nations and other officials and prevailed upon them to review the case of the one juvenile offender said to be serving a LWOP sentence and to agree to bring the country's laws into compliance with the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. 

"I believe our meetings with Tanzanian officials were successful in raising the case to the highest levels of the government, including the president and minister of justice. Our meetings and exchanges with these officials, including the Ambassador to the United Nations, give us every reason to believe that the country will follow through with the commitment of the presidency to review the one child's sentence and otherwise prevent a term of life without parole," Leighton said.

According to the report, children of color in the United States are 10 times more likely to receive life without parole than white child offenders. In some states, including California, the rate is 20 to 1. California lawmakers in January will consider a bill that would abolish the practice. The California Supreme Court is also considering the case of a 14-year-old boy who is the youngest person ever to be given the LWOP sentence for a crime involving no physical injury to the victim.


Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Contact Michigan Gov. Granholm to Free Efrén Paredes, Jr.


We are asking people to please send e-mails, faxes, and letters to the Governor's office expressing your support for Efrén's release. Now that Efrén's public hearing is over we are urging our supporters to please send messages of support from all over the world appealing to the Governor of the State of Michigan to please grant Efrén's commutation request. Efrén's life is hanging in the balance right now and he desperately needs all the support he can receive at this very critical time.

At the end of this message you will find a sample letter you can copy and paste into e-mails or faxes you would like to send the Governor to express your support. The only modification you need to make is to the information at the end of the letter that reflects who it is addressed from. You can, of course, add more things if you wish. The letter is only intended to assist you frame a letter of your own. You can use the entire letter or only use parts of it. The decision is yours.

Two Sample Form Letters You Can Use

Click here to download a support letter you can use to copy, ask people to sign, and mail to the Governor's office. You are encouraged to copy as many letters as you can and get as many signed and mailed as possible. Asking people to sign a support letter in front of you and mailing it yourself is more effective than leaving a blank letter with someone and waiting for them to sign and mail it on their own. This is a very busy time of the year and people are understandably focused on other things.

You can mail the letters in groups of 10 or 20 at a time to defray postage costs. The letters do not have to be mailed individually. When you send large groups of letters please e-mail the TIME Committee a brief note informing them how many letters you sent and from what geographic location so they can have an idea where letters are being mailed from and how often.

Fill Out Governor's Online Opinion Form

If you would like to fill out the Governor's online opinion form you can do so by clicking on the following link:,1607,7-168-21995-65331--,00.html

In the box labeled "Issue" please insert "Efrén Paredes, Jr. Commutation Request." Underneath that box click the option "For" and then copy and paste the sample letter that appears on the next page into the "Message"section.

Leave Phone Message for Governor

If you would like to leave a telephone message for the Governor you can do so by calling one of the available phone numbers: 517-373-3400 or 517-335-7858 (Constituent Services).

If you choose to call either of the listed phone numbers you are urged to tell them you are calling to express your support for the "pending commutation request of Efren Paredes, Jr. #203116." Please leave your contact information as well and ask that your support for the commutation go on record.

Send Fax Message to Governor

If you would like to copy and paste the message and send it as a fax you can do so by faxing it to the Governor's fax number which is: 517-335-6863.

Sample Letter to the Governor

Date of Letter

Governor Jennifer M. Granholm
P.O. Box 30013
Lansing, Michigan 48909

RE: Commutation Request of Efrén Paredes, Jr. #203116

Dear Governor Granholm:

I am writing to join the chorus of hundreds of others across the state who have expressed their full support for the release of Efrén Paredes, Jr. #203116.

Efrén has been imprisoned since age 15 and is now 35-years-old. He has a stable home to be released to, employment opportunities awaiting him, and strong support from family and friends.

I strongly believe that Efrén will be a very productive member of society and would pose no danger to anyone if released. It is my prayer that you will grant Efrén's commutation request when it arrives in your office.


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