‘Life After Murder’ by Nancy Mullane
When Phillip Seiler went job-hunting in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2010, he had plenty of experience to flaunt to construction companies. He knew his way around a plumber’s wrench and was adept at carpentry. For the previous two years, he’d worked steadily for a plumbing company in Sacramento and had a stellar recommendation from the owner. Still, no one would hire him.
Oh, yeah, there was one other thing: Seiler killed a man in 1988 and spent 20 years in prison.
Seiler is one of five murderers Mullane tracks as they come up for parole and struggle to find life, love and employment on the outside. Their crimes were awful; their childhoods were complicated, even tragic; and their lives were soaked in drugs and alcohol. Seiler killed a drug dealer and gang leader he suspected of sleeping with his wife and encouraging her methamphetamine addiction: He shot the dealer in the chest with a sawed-off shotgun. Donald Cronk took to robbery to support his cocaine addiction. During one robbery attempt, he was suprised by his intended victim and was shot three times. While sprawled on the floor, he fired through his coat pocket and killed the other man.
All five murderers Mullane profiles served 20 or more years. They were young, some even teenagers, when they committed their horrible crimes, and, while in prison, they all worked with dedication to prove to a skeptical parole board that they had evolved into responsible, nonthreatening men.
“Life After Murder” provides a revealing glimpse into the prison system in California, where even if the parole board recommends an inmate’s release, the governor has the authority to overrule the decision. Mullane’s murderers all were deemed worthy of parole only to have their freedom snatched away at least once by a governor aiming to look tough on crime.
Mullane, a radio reporter whose work has been heard on NPR and Public Radio International’s “This American Life,” builds a convincing case for a reexamination of parole policies for reformed inmates. She shows that a reconsideration is not only humane but economic — a lifer costs state and federal governments between $30,000 and $100,000 a year. Between 1977 and 2011, California inmates serving life with the possibility of parole saw their average time served expand from 10.5 years to 31 years, according to data Mullane provides. “So few are getting out, most lifers will die in prison,” Bill Sessa, press spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, tells Mullane.
If longer lockups are motivated by a fear that California murderers let out onto the streets will kill again, that concern is misplaced. Mullane points out that of the 1,000 killers who were sentenced to life with the possibility of parole and were released in the past 21 years, “not one has committed murder again. Zero.”
The California inmates’ tales have relevance in Maryland and Oklahoma, where the governors also have the power to reverse parole board recommendations. Mullane notes that few Maryland lifers with the possibility of parole ever walk free again: Between 1995 and 2007, 13 were paroled, and since 2007, none, according to her data.
As Seiler’s job search highlights, those who do make it out face staggering hurdles in restarting their lives. The perceptions of tense neighbors and wary employers are nearly immovable, giving truth to Oscar Wilde’s quip that “the cruelty of a prison sentence starts when you come out.” Seiler got his first job out of prison only because his pre-murder employer had seen promise in him and agreed to take him back after he’d served his time. He finally got work in the Bay Area with a construction company owned by two brothers who, Seiler said, “took a chance on me and I won’t let them down.”
Often the parolees get set up through family ties or programs affiliated with the criminal justice system. Jesse Reed served nearly 25 years for fatally shooting a man during a robbery. Today he works for a program aimed at turning around the lives of criminal juveniles. Once an inmate of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, he comes and goes at the institution’s facilities, proudly flashing his official photo ID. “Now the same people who treated me like an animal are treating me like an equal,” he tells Mullane. “They said, ‘Please, sir,’ and ‘Thank you, sir.’ It’s amazing.”
Stepping back into society after decades behind bars can be exhilarating — and jarring. Mullane almost always has her recorder running and captures moments of startled reentry with vivid detail. When Seiler first arrives at his parents’ home, he stands out front surveying the world. “Wow,” he marvels. “Sidewalks. I forgot about sidewalks. They’re so cool. You can just walk down sidewalks in front of people’s houses and it’s okay. I used to ride my bike around, and I forgot about sidewalks. They don’t have sidewalks in prison.”
But joy is tempered by the restrictions of parole. The smallest infraction could destroy 20 years of walking the line and slam a parolee back in jail. For Reed, that means keeping his unpredictable brothers out of his car and avoiding patrolmen. “My family just don’t get it,” he frets. “I’m on parole. If something happens, they get a little sentence. If I go back, I’ll probably never get out again.”
A common theme threads through the book: These are changed men worthy of a shot at redemption. Before ultimately winning his freedom, Reed was denied parole by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2009 after the board recommended his release. He tells Mullane that Schwarzenegger might have felt different about him if only he’d met him face to face rather than just shuffled through the pages of his file. “He could see me,” Reed said, “and see that I’m not the same person I was twenty-four years ago. That I have grown and I can be a productive member of society.”
Steven Levingston is nonfiction editor of The Washington Post.
LIFE AFTER MURDER Five Men in Search of Redemption By Nancy Mullane PublicAffairs. 366 pp. $26.99