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Sentenced To Life As Juveniles, St. Louis Men See Freedom After Decades In Prison

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Egan O'Keefe/Provided by the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center
Christopher Polk celebrates just after walking out of prison a free man on Sept. 14. He served 27 years after being convicted of committing murder as a 17-year-old.

On Sept. 14, Christopher Polk did something he thought would never be possible: He walked out of prison a free man.

Now 43, Polk was 17 when St. Louis prosecutors accused him of being part of an armed robbery that left one man dead and another wounded. It took four trials (one hung jury and two mistrials), but he was convicted of first-degree murder, armed criminal action, four counts of first-degree robbery and two counts of assault. He was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

But well over a decade later, in 2012, came a sea change in how the criminal justice system treats youthful offenders like Polk. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that sentencing juveniles to a mandatory life sentence without parole is cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of the Eighth Amendment.

In its decision, the court relied on expert testimony demonstrating that the brains of children and teenagers are different than those of adults. Their lack of maturity can lead to “recklessness, impulsivity and heedless risk-taking.” And beyond that, the court wrote in Miller vs. Alabama, a young person’s character is less fixed, and his actions are “less likely to be evidence of irretrievable depravity.”

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Provided by the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center
Christopher Polk, left, with his brother James in 1995, just before he was sent to prison for murder.

Four years later, in a different case, the Supreme Court ruled that the precedent must be retroactive. It said juveniles sentenced to life without the possibility of parole must receive “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release,” contingent upon demonstrating “maturity and rehabilitation.”

Missouri law changed soon after, mandating parole hearings for Polk and the other 97 young men who’d been sentenced to life before the Miller decision changed the rules. But even then, for Polk, freedom felt like an impossible dream.

The Missouri Parole Board continued to act much as it always had. It held hearings heavily stacked against the chance of release, with incarcerated men making their case not permitted to bring witnesses or even hear the testimony of those who opposed their release. Many men who’d been sentenced as juveniles were denied parole simply on the basis of the horrible crimes they’d committed, court records show — without consideration of whether they’d changed. After 20 hearings, only two men had been granted release.

It took a class-action lawsuit to force the parole board to implement changes that took into account the Miller ruling. U.S. District Judge Nanette K. Laughrey issued her ruling in favor of the former juvenile offenders in August 2019. One year and one month later, Christopher Polk became the first person to be released on parole after a hearing using the protocols outlined in Laughrey’s order.

When Polk was sent away in 1993, he had just an eighth grade education and no work experience. He’d grown up in the St. Louis’ Hamilton Heights neighborhood, then the center of the city’s crack epidemic. His father was a drug addict; his mother was overwhelmed by health problems. The last day he remembers attending school is a day a classmate was shot in a second-floor hallway.

Polk has now spent two months as a much older man in a vastly changed St. Louis.

He explained on St. Louis on the Air that it’s been incredible, but also strange, to face the world after 27 years being locked away.

“Technology has advanced so much,” he said. “It’s the way of the world today. Everything revolves around this phone. I had to do some adjusting.”

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Egan O'Keefe/Provided by the MacArthur Justice Center
Attorney Amy Breihan celebrates the release of her client Kevin Bradshaw. Breihan has been representing Bradshaw, who was sentenced to life in prison without parole as a teenager, since 2012.

Polk had an unusual ally in his bid for freedom: Robert Cramer. Cramer’s brother Dante is the man Polk was convicted of killing. But Cramer said he had a cousin serving in prison with Polk who urged him to seek him out. The men began talking by phone, a series of conversations limited by the prison’s 20-minute allotment to inmates. But they soon forged a friendship.

Cramer, who lives in Iowa, ultimately chose to drive to Missouri to speak at Polk’s parole hearing. He said his Christian faith compelled him to forgive his brother’s killer.

Beyond that, Cramer understood that he could have ended up in the same place. “I grew up in the same environment as Christopher Polk,” he said. “I was probably three decisions away from being where he was at the time. I will never condone what he did, but I understand at the time he was a juvenile, the environment, everything around him, I understood, because I grew up in that.”

He added: “I hope I am an example that God is real, that forgiveness is real, and that condemnation is not ours to give, especially when it comes to the youth and people who make bad youthful decisions. I believe that forgiveness and humility is one of God’s greatest gifts.”

Amy Breihan and Megan Crane, attorneys and co-directors of the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center in St. Louis, won the class-action suit on behalf of the Missouri men sentenced to life without parole prior to Miller’s reforms. They have continued to represent the individuals in it as they seek freedom, which includes 40 men from St. Louis. Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt has filed an appeal, and a hearing is set for Nov. 23.

Breihan said that could undo the changes ordered by Judge Laughrey. Schmitt’s office declined comment, citing pending litigation.

“The parole board is trying to say that considering someone for parole is enough, even if it’s a remote chance, even if it’s an arbitrary decision, even if they ignore youth,” she said. “And that just wholly ignores a well-established line of Supreme Court precedent. It ignores all the data that shows the very low risk to reoffend that juvenile lifers present.”

Breihan first became involved with the issue of juvenile offenders when she was assigned to represent Kevin Bradshaw in 2012, soon after the Supreme Court’s Miller decision. Bradshaw did 34 years in Missouri prisons before being released one week after Christopher Polk. He also shared his experiences on St. Louis on the Air.

The show included an interview conducted two weeks ago with Sidney Roberts, who has spent more than three decades behind bars for killing a man in a fistfight at 17. Roberts is now awaiting release in February.

Since the class-action lawsuit against the Missouri Parole Board, six men sentenced as juveniles have been released on parole; another 13 have been granted upcoming release dates.

Roberts spoke from prison about how he found purpose in lockup, how he was able to take responsibility for killing a man and how he learned to forgive his father for abusing his mother.

News he’d been given a parole date “didn’t really hit me at first, and then it came rushing in,” he said. And now, time seems to be moving “at a snail’s pace” as he waits to go home.

“But I’m ready,” he said.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske joined St. Louis Public Radio as host of St. Louis on the Air in July 2019. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.

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