Before asking for Bruce Pearson’s freedom, we sought input from the victim in his 1994 robbery. She was relieved to learn he had turned his life around and happy to support his release. As she put it: “people change over time, so if someone has done well in prison, why wouldn’t you give them a second chance?”
By Scott Fuqua, Appleseed Staff Attorney
For more than a year, Appleseed had been investigating Bruce Pearson’s case as part of our Second Chance work. We visited Bruce at St. Clair Correctional Facility and were both struck by what an optimistic, outgoing, and kind person he is despite having spent decades in prison with no reason to believe he would ever be released. Bruce’s story was unique, but also similar in many ways to our other clients who were condemned to die in prison.
In the grips of addiction, Bruce pretended to have a gun in his pocket to rob a convenience store. Due to his three prior felonies, Alabama’s draconian habitual offender law required him to be sentenced to life without parole. Despite having no hope of ever being released, he managed to turn his life around in prison. He kicked his addiction and became a positive person who tried to help those around him suffering through the harsh reality of life in prison.
By late spring, one hurdle remained in filing Bruce’s case – victim outreach. How would the victim feel about him being released? Prior to filing a petition asking the Court to resentence Bruce, we needed to contact the person who was working at the convenience store the night of the robbery. Being the victim of a robbery is a traumatic experience so we try to speak with victims in every case to learn how the crime impacted them and whether they would be opposed to the client being released.
The former convenience store clerk’s name is Jennifer Rice. We were able to find a few possible addresses for her so in early April, Carla Crowder and I set out from the office to knock on doors. The first address we stopped by had a family who had recently moved in that had never heard of Jennifer. The second address was an abandoned home so we moved on to the third address on our list. There was a car in the driveway when we arrived so we thought we might be in luck. We rang the doorbell and within a few seconds, we heard a woman say hello through the Ring doorbell’s speaker. At first, she seemed understandably hesitant as few people are excited by the unexpected arrival of attorneys on their doorstep. She explained that she was actually at work and speaking to us through the doorbell’s app on her phone. Jennifer confirmed we had the right address and that she recalled the night she was robbed while working at the gas station. After explaining that we had reviewed Bruce’s case and found that he had done well in prison for 27 years, Jennifer told us she would be happy to support him getting a second chance.
The next day I drove to meet with her at the hospital where she works as a nurse. As we talked about Bruce’s case, she explained that she had been praying for years for someone to have sympathy for her son who had been in prison for 17 years for a crime that occurred when he was still a senior in high school. Then out of the blue, Carla and I showed up on her doorstep to talk about giving someone the same type of second chance she hopes her son will have one day. She said she felt her prayers had been answered and God was giving her the opportunity to help someone. The robbery that had occurred in 1994 was a scary moment in her life, but she said she harbored no ill will towards Bruce. She was happy to hear he had turned his life around in prison. Jennifer explained that she strongly believes “people change over time, so if someone has done well in prison, why wouldn’t you give them a second chance?”
Jennifer illustrates something we frequently see in our work. The victims of crimes are often residents of economically disadvantaged areas who have been touched by the criminal justice system in negative ways. Jennifer explained that her son is a smart person who has the potential to be a productive member of society, but because he had the misfortune of being around the wrong people when a serious crime occurred, he was thrown away just as his life should have been starting. We talked about resources that are available to formerly incarcerated people and how Appleseed may be able to assist in her son’s transition to freedom when he finishes his sentence in a few years.
In Jefferson County, we are fortunate to have a District Attorney who is willing to review select older cases and consider
whether they have earned a second chance through good behavior in prison. After reviewing all of the facts and speaking with Jennifer, District Attorney Danny Carr supported our effort to give Bruce a second chance. The ultimate decision rests with the judge who has jurisdiction over the case. Once again, Jefferson County residents are lucky to have judges who are concerned about both public safety and whether justice is served by requiring people to remain in prison until death in cases with no physical injury. With the victim and the District Attorney both in favor of Bruce being released, Judge Michael Streety granted our petition and Bruce was resentenced to time served.
Before we even initiated this process, we got to know Bruce through prison visits and through information passed along by Richard Storm, another attorney who worked on his case. We learned that Bruce was a light in a very dark place. He told me how finding a positive mindset and his faith were the keys to turning around his life. He took substance abuse classes and beat his addiction despite living in a prison where drugs were even more readily available than they are on the street. Rather than despair over receiving a sentence that required him to remain in prison until death, Bruce set about becoming a leader and peacemaker. When fights erupted, Bruce would wade into the fray and try to prevent bloodshed. He told me about one incident where he was able to grab an improvised knife out of a person’s hand before he could use it to stab another inmate. His dream was to be released so that he could carry his recovery into the free world where he could find ways to use his life experience to have a positive impact on others.
On April 21st, I drove Meghan McLeroy, an Appleseed intern who worked on his case, Appleseed Community Organizer Dana Sweeney, and our Reentry Coordinator Ronald McKeithen to St. Clair Correctional Facility to pick up Bruce. In a testament to how much respect he had earned among prison staff, several ADOC employees gave him a hug as he walked out the prison’s front door. It’s hard to describe the feeling of watching someone who was condemned to die in prison walk out as a free person. Each time I have picked up a client on their release day, it’s been the best day of my legal career.
Bruce’s brother, sister, and brother in-law were waiting for him when we arrived back at the office. After a heartwarming reunion, we went to lunch and then on to Shepherd’s Fold, a reentry ministry that assists formerly incarcerated people with their transition out of prison. One of the best moments of the day was when one of our other clients, John Coleman, was reunited with Bruce. John and Bruce were close friends after serving many years together at St. Clair. When John was suffering from kidney failure and on dialysis, Bruce worked as an orderly who helped nurse him back to health. The emotional scene made me think of the closing moments of the “Shawshank Redemption” when Red and Andy were reunited.
Freedom has suited Bruce extremely well. The day after his release, I had a call from a number I didn’t recognize. Unbeknownst to me, our Reentry Case Manager, Kathleen Henderson, was ahead of the game and had already gotten Bruce a phone. When I answered, Bruce quickly explained that his brother had picked him up first thing that morning and they were at a park. “Scott, can you believe these squirrels and these birds?!” The sense of unmitigated joy in his voice was something to which words can’t really do justice.
Bruce’s favorite refrain when I talk to him now is “I’m ready.” While he is excited to move forward with this life, he explained that, “If I pass away today, I’ll be happy that I’m free from prison, drugs, hate, and disappointment.” Everyone on our team has encouraged him to take his time as he transitions back to freedom, but he is eager to find a job and opportunities to help others.
Thanks to Jennifer’s support along with District Attorney Carr and Judge Streety’s belief in second chances, Bruce is going to have the opportunity to not only be a productive member of society, but someone who gives back to our community. Like all of our other clients released to date, Bruce’s story is an inspiration and a reminder that there are countless other incarcerated persons still inside our prisons who fit the same profile as Bruce and are deserving of a second chance.