By Carla Crowder, Executive Director and Scott Fuqua, Staff Attorney
Jerry Boatwright spent 34 years in an Alabama prison for a burglary conviction. He was supposed to die there. Instead, he’s home just in time to become the primary caregiver for his ailing brother, Randy.
Jerry, 64, has always been a hard worker. At Holman prison, he worked in the sewing plant, earning praise from correctional officers. He did woodworking on the side, creating intricate pieces that he sold to support himself. No matter how hard he worked or how old he became, a life without parole sentence meant he had no hope of ever being released to the brothers he left behind, or as Jerry put it, “I didn’t have a prayer in the world of ever getting out.”
Scott Fuqua, Appleseed’s staff attorney, began investigating Jerry’s case and learned his most serious offense was a burglary at a Pinson residence in which the only person injured was Jerry. He was shot in the shoulder and had to be airlifted to UAB hospital when the homeowner returned and found Jerry inside his house. At the time of Jerry’s conviction in the 1980s, life without parole was the only available sentence because he had a series of prior convictions for minor offenses. But over three decades, Alabama’s laws have changed, and so has Jerry.
“Requiring Mr. Boatwright to remain in prison until his death for a crime that he would almost certainly not be sentenced to more than 20 years for today would represent a considerable miscarriage of justice,” Appleseed argued in his post-conviction petition. Jefferson County District Attorney Danny Carr agreed, and did not oppose release. On September 27, Appleseed attorneys traveled to Holman to collect Jerry and bring him home.
Less than two months following his release, Jerry Boatwright has become invaluable to his family, who always wanted him home, but had no idea how much they also needed him.
“His coming home could not have come at a better time,” said Amber Melvin, Jerry’s niece and Randy Boatwright’s daughter.
Building a ramp and building a life
Immediately after release, Jerry settled in with Randy, 63, in a rural area of Blount County. Their other brother, Dennis Boatwright, was nearby, and connected Jerry with an area pastor in need of a handyman. The pastor put Jerry to work, painting fences and a barn, cutting trees and bushes, even planting flowers. Jerry loved the work, the independence, the pocket money, and the opportunity to help an 80-year-old pastor with long-neglected chores.
Appleseed’s Reentry Case Manager Kathleen Henderson made sure he acquired identification and connected him with doctors to help manage the persistent medical needs that most formerly incarcerated people have. Then, less than a month after Jerry’s release, Randy suffered a health crisis and was rushed to the emergency room. For days he was barely conscious. Family members struggled to try to figure out the best options for his care. They wanted him home, and not in a nursing home. But with most of the family employed full time, who would look after Randy back home?
Jerry would. “If he had not come home, we did not know what we were going to do,” Amber shared. “It’s been such a blessing.”
Jerry’s story is one more example of a truth that we have watched unfold over and over again at Appleseed. People who have been incarcerated, often for decades, deserve a second chance to prove themselves. When given that chance, they become assets to their families and communities. Jerry is the 15th person originally sentenced to life without parole freed by Appleseed’s legal work. Our clients give back in a range of ways, as truck drivers, auto shop workers, re-entry specialists, forklift drivers, barbers. Two clients help out in a faith-based program that mails books to prisoners. They have found purpose in a world that once gave up on them.
For Jerry, it started with the ramp.
His family got to work, building a sturdy ramp and deck so Randy could get easily in and out of the home in a wheelchair or on a walker. They freshened up the place with curtains and a new rug. They agreed home was the best place for him, and they were right. Under Jerry’s care, Randy has improved dramatically. He’s talking, smiling, and eating again. He can walk and shower without assistance. “He is doing so wonderful,” Jerry said earlier this week. Jerry is still very much needed to help fix meals and make sure Randy takes his medications.
Dennis Boatwright, is moving into a mobile home nearby, bringing the long separated brothers together again to lean on each other and grow old together. “The Lord has blessed me at every turn,” said Jerry, a comment that might seem incongruous coming from a man who spent more than three decades behind bars. Yet Jerry is determined to live a life of hope and gratitude after so many years in the bleak despair of a death-in-prison sentence.
He’s been to a Halloween Festival, a Covered Bridge Festival, and he’s discovered thrift store shopping for many of the necessities required to live life outside of prison.
Appleseed’s holistic approach to freedom
For more than a year before his release, Appleseed’s Scott Fuqua was in frequent contact with Jerry. And case manager Kathleen Henderson has been guiding his re-entry for the last two months.
“One of the things that struck me about Jerry has always been that, despite spending over three decades in prison, he was so grateful and patient as we worked on his case.” Scott said. “When I first met Jerry at Holman Prison in the summer of 2022, he was at a pretty low point and had resigned himself that he might never be released.”
Despite decades of exemplary behavior and being someone the staff members at the prison placed great trust in, it appeared that Alabama’s draconian laws would require Jerry to remain incarcerated for the rest of his days. Over the course of the next year, Scott got to know Jerry well, talking to him on the phone on a weekly basis, and saw the powerful impact that hope can have on someone trapped in prison, even a prison as dreadful as Holman, where most buildings have been condemned. “The knowledge we were working on his behalf and the hope of eventually having his freedom restored made such a tremendous difference,” Scott said.
Jerry even went out of his way to help his friend and fellow Appleseed client, Larry Garrett, as his case made its way through the legal process. Jerry was instrumental in helping keep Larry’s case moving forward as he helped Scott stay in close contact with Larry and obtain all the documentation we needed for his case. No one was happier for Larry when he was released the week of Christmas, 2022 than Jerry. Two days after picking up Larry at Holman, Scott drove back to Holman to visit Jerry. Facing the prospect of spending his 34th Christmas in prison, it would have been easy for Jerry to be sad about his own situation after his friend of so many years had left. Instead, Jerry was excited to present handmade Christmas cards for the Appleseed staff. He expressed how thrilled he was that his friend was spending Christmas with his family and thankful that he had a reason to hope that he might be spending his last Christmas locked behind bars.
Thankfully Jerry’s hope came to fruition and he will be spending both Thanksgiving and Christmas this year with his family.
Jerry loves to cook, has a voracious appetite, and is always willing to try new foods. But for all of his exuberance, he was timid about returning to the place where he had made mistakes as a young man.
“When I met Jerry, he was very unsure of the type of reception he would receive and he was very emotional. He worried that he would not be accepted, at least beyond his family,” recalled Appleseed’s Kathleen Henderson. “Jerry is a devout Christian and wanted to attend church. He feared the congregation wouldn’t want a “criminal” (his words not mine) among them. So Jerry took our advice and was open with his pastor and his family. Since then, he has become a very self-assured man. The privilege that I feel, being able to watch Jerry blossom into a more confident and capable individual is unmatched.”
Welcome home, Jerry!