Free at Last
At age 21, Ronald McKeithen was sentenced to life without parole under Alabama’s merciless “three strikes” law. He devoted decades behind bars to art, learning, and service. Appleseed took on his case in 2020 and won his release.
Ronald McKeithen describes what it was like to leave prison after 37 years in his guest blog post.
In 1984, Ronald McKeithen was convicted of first-degree robbery for a convenience store hold-up in Birmingham. There were no physical injuries or shots fired, but several hundred dollars was taken. The judge had no choice but to sentence Ronald to spend the rest of his life in prison; life without parole was mandatory under Alabama’s Habitual Felony Offender Act (HFOA) because Ronald had three nonviolent property crimes in his past, two stemming from a single incident.
The State of Alabama gave up on Ronald McKeithen, but he did not give up on himself. He earned a GED, then tutored others. He became a licensed barber, then cut hair to support himself in prison. He became an artist, a poet, led book clubs and a debate program. Altogether, he completed more than 110 classes and programs ranging from drug treatment to commercial foods to Vipassana meditation. “You do not have the luxury of being unproductive if you are in prison trying to get out,” he recently remarked.
Professors at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and others who volunteered at Donaldson Correctional Facility realized Ronald had gifts that needed to be shared beyond prison walls. Journalist Beth Shelburne highlighted his case as an example of the glaring injustices created by the HFOA. Yet when Ronald reached out to Appleseed, he had not spoken with a lawyer in 35 years. We took on his case this summer.
Ronald McKeithen had much more than new lawyers fighting for him. Ultimately, the victims in his case and Jefferson County District Attorney Danny Carr supported his petition for release. Jefferson County Circuit Judge Shanta Owens granted the petition. On December 16, 2020, Ronald emerged from Donaldson Correctional Facility to the welcoming embrace of a community dedicated to ensuring this remarkable man reaches his potential after 37 years of incarceration. Now 58, he dreams of attending UAB, of creating a greeting card business with his artwork, and of mentoring young people struggling with the same issues he struggled with so long ago.
Below are the reflections from the cross-section of people who made Ronald’s freedom possible and are supporting him as he creates a new life.
Journalist Beth Shelburne from Birmingham was among the supporters who gathered outside Donaldson prison to greet Ronald as he was released after 37 years of incarceration for robbery. Beth wrote extensively about Ronald’s case and Alabama’s draconian Habitual Felony Offender Law. She was a tireless advocate and connected him with Appleseed lawyers, which eventually led to his freedom.
Appleseed Executive Director Carla Crowder, who represented Ronald in his post conviction proceedings, greets him as he leaves Donaldson prison with a few belongings and art supplies. When Appleseed first began working with Ronald in the summer of 2020, it had been 35 years since he had spoken with a lawyer.
The first weekend of his release, Ronald enjoyed an Atlanta Falcons game, courtesy of the Offender Alumni Association. The National Football League’s Inspire Change program also provided critical support to Alabama Appleseed in our efforts to challenge the Habitual Felony Offender Act.
Ronald pursued countless educational and rehabilitative opportunities during his incarceration, from barbering to meditation to poetry and debate. He also discovered an incredible talent for art. Here is a small sample of his work. Already, his drawings have been featured on greeting cards and he is exploring ways to use this talent to help support himself.