By Carla Crowder, Executive Director and Scott Fuqua, Staff Attorney

Jerry Boatwright leaving Holman prison on his release date on September 27, 2023 after spending 34 years incarcerated

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.”

Jerry’s intricate woodworking creations

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.

Jerry with his niece Amber

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.

The ramp Jerry built for his brother Randy to access their home

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 with Staff Attorney Scott Fuqua on release day

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!

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

Bruce Pearson exits St. Clair Correctional Facility after serving 27 years in prison.

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. 

Bruce Pearson is welcomed by Appleseed Staff Attorney Scott Fuqua and Reentry Coordinator Ronald McKeithen outside of St. Clair Correctional Facility

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

Bruce Pearson with former Appleseed intern Meghan McLeroy who worked on his case.

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 and John Coleman reunite

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. 

Bruce reunites with his siblings after his release.

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.