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Tampa man’s crimes as youth yield ‘15 to Life,’ a documentary

When Kenneth Young was 14, his mother’s crack dealer told him he’d kill her unless the boy agreed to help him rob people.

Young gave in. They got caught. And at 15, Young was sentenced as an adult to 30 years in prison. Now 29 and locked in the Charlotte Correctional Institution, he is looking at a release date of 2030.

His cousin Ernest Young feels partly responsible. The boy had never gotten into trouble when Ernest, 13 years older, was around to help out as a father figure. But when Ernest had kids of his own, he grew apart from Kenneth.

“I didn’t close the door on him and say stay away,” said Ernest, 42, of Tampa, a warehouse coordinator for the Tribune. “But maybe he felt that was the case because he used to come to me with problems. But still, he shouldn’t still be in prison. I think people would be mad if they knew how long he’ll be there.”

They’ll have a chance to judge for themselves.

Kenneth Young’s story will be featured in the documentary “15 to Life: Kenneth’s Story,” premiering on PBS at 10 p.m. Aug. 4 and streaming online Aug. 5 to Sept. 4 at www.pbs.org/pov/15tolife .

The film explores whether children should have to spend their formative years in prison even if they prove they are no danger to society, whether rehabilitation should take precedence over punishment among juveniles, and whether young offenders truly understand the consequences of their actions.

“By focusing on Kenneth’s story, I hoped to find the answers,” said Nadine Pequeneza, director of “15 to Life.”

She chose Young as her subject, she said, because of the circumstances surrounding his crime, conviction and rehabilitation.

Young’s father died when he was an infant, and he was raised by his mother, Stephanie, with his half sister in the poor neighborhoods northwest of Fowler Avenue and Interstate 275 nicknamed Suitcase City for their transient population.

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It was 2000 when 24-year-old drug dealer Jacques Bethea threatened to kill Young’s mother over a debt.

Victims testified in court that Young beat them and threatened their lives. The violence never escalated to gunfire. One victim, Jennifer Norman, says in the documentary that Young at one point prevented Bethea from raping her.

At 15, Young was tried as an adult and given four life sentences without parole. Bethea received one life sentence without parole.

Young’s sentence was appealed and declared unconstitutional. He was resentenced to 30 years.

His attorney, Paolo Annino, who also runs the Children in Prison Project at Florida State University, said Young should be freed immediately. He has served enough time already, Annino said, and is rehabilitated.

Young had no previous criminal record, Annino said. He was a kid who thought crime was the only way to protect his mother and has since been a model inmate, earning education certificates, learning the barbering trade and helping older inmates. His only trouble in prison was forgetting to make his bed one Saturday.

“He is not a danger,” Annino said.

Young did not respond to a request from the Tribune for an interview. His attorney said he is dealing with personal issues.

“He wasn’t a bad person when he committed the crime, but a kid caught in bad situation,” said his cousin Ernest. “And he has bettered himself. How is it fair to lock him up for most of his life for something he did as a kid?”

Hillsborough Circuit Judge J. Rogers Padgett sentenced Young to life. He has since admitted he did not realize at the time that Young wasn’t eligible for parole. Contacted by the Tribune, Padgett declined to comment.

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In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to sentence minors to life without parole for offenses other than homicide. Attorney Annino said Young’s case was among those that led to the ruling.

The decision was based on Eighth Amendment prohibitions against excessive fines and bail and cruel and unusual punishment. The court found that juveniles are different than adults in their brain development. Juvenile sentencing guidelines, the court ruled, must offer the offender the chance to demonstrate rehabilitation while imprisoned.

All juveniles, nationwide, serving life without parole for cases other than homicide were ordered resentenced.

Annino interpreted the Supreme Court decision to mean rehabilitation would be considered by the judge at Young’s resentencing. He was confident Young’s effort to improve his life in prison would earn him immediate release with time served.

At the rehearing in 2011, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Daniel Sleet said he believed Young indeed had been rehabilitated but interpreted the Supreme Court decision differently than Annino. The judge did not consider rehabilitation in deciding on a new sentence.

Sleet did not respond to a request for comment.

At Kenneth’s resentencing trial, one of the robbery victims, Sandra Christopher, of Tampa, testified she did not want him to be released.

“I’m not ready to have him walking around where I live,” Christopher said during court testimony shown in “15 to Life.” “And I’m not moving.”

Norman, the woman Kenneth saved from rape, said in the documentary she forgives him and sent him a letter thanking him for preventing her situation from being worse.

“Rehabilitation should have been factored in,” Annino said.

In another Florida case, two years later, a judge in Jacksonville did consider rehabilitation. The judge freed Lavon Butler from the life sentence he had received in 1988 when, at age 16, he stole a car and shot and wounded a sheriff’s deputy.

Butler had even attempted a prison escape three years after his imprisonment. But then he decided to better himself. He earned education certificates and stayed out of trouble.

The deputy whom Butler shot has forgiven him and advocated for his early release.

He was resentenced to time he already had served, 25 years, and released.

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In an interview with the Tribune, Butler said his life goal now is to prove the judge made the right decision. He said he hopes his example inspires other courts to give more second chances.

“We all make mistakes, but we also grow and change directions,” Butler said. “That boy who made those decisions is long gone.”

In April, the Florida Legislature unanimously passed a measure making this approach the law of the land. Florida House Bill 7035 says juveniles who commit offenses other than homicide who are sentenced to 20 years or more are eligible for resentencing after 20 years.

Rehabilitation must be weighed as a factor.

But the law is not retroactive; it applies only to crimes committed after July 1. This raised questions for the Florida Supreme Court, which has asked lawyers involved in juvenile sentencing cases to submit briefs on how the new law might affect old cases.

Meantime, Young has until October to file a petition with a federal court arguing that rehabilitation should have been considered in his resentencing.

He also has the option of asking the governor for clemency.

“I doubt that would ever happen,” said Eric Schab, a law fellow working with Annino. “The Supreme Court discussed how the possibility of clemency wasn’t a suitable remedy for juveniles sentenced to life without parole.”

But there is precedent in other states.

Sean Ahshee Taylor committed a gang-related murder as a 17-year-old in Denver and was sentenced to life without parole. While in prison he received an education and mentored inmates who wanted to better their lives. In 2011, he sent a letter to then-Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter seeking a reduced sentence based on his rehabilitation. His request was granted. Today, the 43-year-old Taylor works as a mentor and case manager for Denver’s Second Chance Center, helping former prisoners readjust to society.

“I’m a lucky man,” Taylor said in an interview. “And I am making the most of my second chance by helping others.”

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Taylor said he didn’t mean to kill anyone. He shot into a house where rival gang members were hiding but said he was aiming at a lamp. He just wanted to look cool. When he learned that night someone had died, he turned himself in.

“I was stupid and can never take it back.” Taylor said. “But I was a kid. I don’t think all kids should be punished for life.”

Taylor was featured in a documentary called “Lost for Life” that explores whether juveniles who commit murder can be rehabilitated. The film is available on iTunes.

Director Joshua Rofe said Taylor proves the answer is yes.

“Some people are capable of change,” Rofe said.

Rofe is familiar with Young. He interviewed him for his documentary but cut him from the film once he decided to focus on juvenile killers.

“He was the sweetest guy,” Rofe said. “I felt awful for him. An adult threatened his mom. He had no one to turn to, so he did what he thought he had to do to protect her. People need to put themselves in his shoes.”

Still, Rofe expected to hear Young is still behind bars.

“Florida is too strict,” he said. “Its history proves that.”

Before the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision, 77 of the 109 juveniles in the U.S. sentenced to life without parole for crimes other than homicide were in Florida.

It was the only state that gave sentences of life without parole for the crimes of burglary, battery and carjacking.

Rofe said “15 to Life” might spark a movement to free Kenneth through clemency.

“There is a power in cinema,” said Jean-Richard Bodon, who teaches documentary filmmaking at Sam Houston State University in Texas. “Documentaries have been known to sway public opinion, and the public has then been known to sway the leaders.”

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The sentiment is shared by Eamonn Bowles, CEO of Magnolia Pictures, owned by business magnate Mark Cuban and considered a foremost distributor of documentaries. Its titles include “Control Room,” “Square Grouper: The Godfathers of Ganja,” and “Blackfish,” the 2013 documentary taking Sea World to task for showcasing orcas.

“If a film makes a compelling argument that a person has been wronged, then there is a chance it can be righted,” Bowles said. “It is not one of our films, but look at ‘Thin Blue Line’ for an example.”

The documentary blamed a wrongful conviction on a corrupt justice system in Dallas County, Texas. The prisoner was freed.

Young is guilty. He has admitted so time and time again. He knows he hurt people physically and emotionally.

But he wants to show he is a different person today, a man who understands consequences.

“At that time I was young, naive, easy to be persuaded,” he says in the documentary “15 to Life.” “I was a child.”

Pequeneza had all juvenile offenders in mind when she made “15 to Life.”

“I want this film to encourage discussion on our courts’ treatment of children,” she said. “We still give kids virtual life sentences by locking them away for multiple decades even after they prove they are not the same child who committed the crime. The focus on children should be rehabilitation, not punishment.”

Whenever Young does go free, he has a place to stay with cousin Ernest.

“My oldest son looks a bit like Kenneth,” Ernest Young said. “I’d love to see them side by side.”

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