The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

I locked up a teen for a gruesome crime. More than 20 years later, we became friends.

Karen McKinney with Joseph Herrera, a former gang member who she prosecuted when he was 19, resulting in a life sentence. The two became friends in 2019 after he was released. (Heather Brown)

I am the daughter of Holocaust survivors who never spoke of their miraculous survival after facing unimaginable cruelty. Yet the result of their trauma — a deep fear of other people — informed their every parenting decision.

During Nazi occupation, my mother hid her school diploma in her bra with the hope that someday she could finish her education. She survived by tutoring the people who concealed her in their barn, which convinced her that education saved her life. As a mother, she relentlessly pushed my brothers and me to earn postgraduate degrees.

After graduating from law school, I found my home in the Philadelphia district attorney’s office handling court cases from the city’s toughest neighborhoods. Being a warrior for the underdog, for the victim of crimes, was my inheritance and my calling. It confirmed what I had been taught at home: People are bad. My goal was to impart this same knowledge to judges and juries.

I moved to California, and eventually joined another DA’s office, where my hard, cynical view fueled my promotions. It had not yet occurred to me that a career locking up people who committed crimes was the descendant of my parents’ tragic losses.

In 1998, I filed an attempted murder charge against Joseph Herrera, a 19-year-old gang member who stabbed another gang member multiple times with the clear intent to kill. The stabbing came after a perceived disrespect that demanded payback, and it was Joseph’s ticket to gang respect and leadership. As he fled, leaving the victim bleeding on the street, he yelled his gang’s name.

The public defender begged for a plea, arguing her client was only 19 and had “simply made a bad decision.” But my sworn duty was to protect the public. I did not care a whit about Joseph, a gang member with his bloody knife. I read rap sheets as some people read menus. I knew full well how rare it is that anyone changes. I was the avenger whose mission it was to put this predator in prison and throw away the key.

During Joseph’s trial, he lied with surprising bravado, but I did not buy it and made sure the jury didn’t, either. At sentencing, I argued he was a dangerous man, and that he attacked his victim in the most personal of ways, a blade. Joseph had shown no remorse, offered us only lies, and so he deserved to be locked away forever. The judge agreed and gave him a life sentence, plus five years and four months, to be exact. As the bailiff took him away, his mother wept while I averted my eyes and packed my trial bag. I had to start another trial.

Kids were fighting in school. Dads began patrolling campus, and the violence stopped.

Over the next 20 years, I raised two children and buried both parents. In 2017, my office sent me to a parole hearing for Joseph. To prepare, I read a history of his life and performance in prison. A lifetime had gone by. He was now 38 — the same age I was when I tried his case. My daughter was now near the age Joseph was when he committed his crime. I was more aware of the mistakes teenagers make that change lives in an instant. Joseph was born in a jail because both his parents were in and out of jail, drug addicted and in gangs. He had been kidnapped for ransom when he was 5 years old by his mother’s drug associates.

In maximum security prison, he continued his crime spree, getting involved in riots and stabbings and rising in rank in the Mexican criminal underworld. But in 2008, there was a sudden change. Joseph chose to “disassociate” himself — announce to the prison that he no longer affiliated with any gang. This is a highly dangerous undertaking, considered disrespectful to “the work” one must do in jail for one’s gang. By 2013, there were multiple letters of praise from jail staff.

As I arrived at the prison, the next day it struck me that it resembled a concentration camp with windowless walls and barbed wire fences. Inside was equally lifeless and barren: no art, no photographs, no humanity. The guards had blank faces. The parole board looked jaded.

When Joseph was led into the room, I was surprised by this more mature version of the teen I recalled. Although he had the same boyish face, his neck revealed a huge tattoo of his gang’s name. His muscled arms were similarly sleeved. He did a double-take when he saw me. Here was his one moment to be considered for release and staring him in the face was the woman who put him there.

The board grilled Joseph. Did he intend to kill his victim? Why did he continue to violate institutional rules? Why should they believe he would ever be law-abiding?

He was self-effacing, allowing himself to be splayed open, unvarnished and raw. As a child, violence was normalized. He saw his father stabbed. No one had noticed when he struggled in school. Ashamed, he gained attention as a disrupter and eventually a gang leader. I was impressed that never once did he use his past as an excuse for his crime; he merely explained the course of his life, owning his choices. They asked if he enjoyed the power in the gang; he candidly replied, “Yes, sir.” I thought about power: the police, DAs, judges and the grim faces across from me. Who doesn’t love power?

Fighting tears, he spoke about when he was kidnapped as a child. He looked at me. I nodded to him to keep going. He said he knew then that no one would protect him, including his own mother. Gangs were protection. Gang “respect” conferred self-esteem. Our eyes locked. I felt a moment of compassion.

When asked for my remarks, I was torn. I was expected by my office to object to his release. But just as I had once defended the underdog victimized by crime, I was now inwardly rooting for Joseph, who was an underdog in a different way. I no longer wanted to judge a human who never had the choices I was so lucky to be afforded. I wanted Joseph to have a chance.

A family hid their Bible in an attic as Nazis invaded. Almost 80 years later, it was reunited with the family’s heirs.

I tried to speak directly to Joseph but was admonished not to speak to “the inmate.” I gave a statement applauding the extraordinary work he had undertaken. I underscored that I knew he would get out of prison soon but ultimately questioned the timing of release that day, given how recent his changes manifested.

The board members appeared to have made up their mind before we started, denied parole, closed files and packed up for the day. But I was not ready to say goodbye. I asked Joseph’s lawyer if he wanted to talk. In a private room we spoke, and I was nervous he would resent me — see me as his enemy. But instead he thanked me for coming. His kindness touched me. In his incarceration, he appeared to have fully accepted himself and his mistakes. He adopted a new skin.

I assured him he had a lot to give back. He could become a gang expert or advise teens on the perils of gangs. He could consult Hollywood about prison life. He could become a lawyer. His whole face lit up with hope. I suddenly wanted him to have the great gift of belief in himself, the same great gift my parents gave me.

Joseph got out of prison at his next hearing, in 2019, when the parole board voted in his favor, despite his life sentence. We have been in touch almost monthly. During the pandemic, we Facetimed to rehearse a public talk he gave to a parole symposium. He explained our friendship as acceptance of responsibility. He said “The DA did not put me in jail. I put myself there.” I respect Joseph because, just like my parents, he had thrived even after being deprived of freedom and hope. He survived profound suffering and reinvented himself.

Joseph is now married, working full time, and he just got promoted to supervisor. During our most recent call, he was locking the doors to the million-dollar company where he works. “Can you believe I’m entrusted to lock these doors!?” “Yes, Joseph, I can.” Now he has this kind of power: no knives and all the keys.

When Joseph and I speak, we have conversations about the meaning of life and our own personal choices. He’s the guy who gets stuck in traffic and isn’t triggered; he is grateful to be on a freeway.

Joseph has taught me a lot of things in these conversations, but most importantly, he has showed me people can change — and he’s helping me unlock my judgmental story of the world.

Karen McKinney is working on a memoir about how being the daughter of Holocaust survivors guided her life and career. Licensed in three states, she practiced as both a public defender and a prosecutor.

Read more:

Police posted a photo of a man they say stole diapers from Walmart. Strangers across the country came to his defense.

She’s a medical student. Her mom is a custodian at the hospital where she trained.

His mom died in 1975. He spent decades trying to find her car and buy it back.

Have a story for Inspired Life? Here’s how to submit.