It was a late summer morning when Robert “Fat Daddy” Taylor woke up, smoked two blunts, and decided to turn himself in. He’d been on the run for four days, and it seemed that everywhere he went in and around the 7 Mile neighborhood on the east side of Detroit, there were photos of him in stores, and people quick to call the police, to claim the $1,000 reward for finding him.
“The streets talk,” Taylor told me recently. “Everybody was telling me, ‘Yo, Fats, man, those boys trying to get you.’ I couldn’t go nowhere. [The police] was everywhere.”
Taylor was not afraid — after all, he was only a person of interest, not a suspect, in a murder that had taken place 15 days earlier, and he knew he had not committed the crime. Still, he was only 16, so he decided to seek the counsel of John McCoy, a 40-something-year-old neighborhood friend. McCoy assured Taylor that the police could not charge him, so Taylor continued walking along East Jefferson Avenue and made his way to the Beaubien police station. He was too young to conceive that this would essentially be his last day of freedom, that this simple act would lead to an arrest, then a life without parole sentence for a crime he insists he did not commit.
“I was 16 years old. I was still a young boy, still a puppy in the hood running reckless,” said Taylor, who is currently incarcerated at the Chippewa Correctional Facility in Kincheloe, Michigan, about 30 miles south of the Canadian border. “But [white people] see a person from the gutter, the ghetto, coming over there and killing one of theirs. There was no way they was ever going to let me go home.”
Taylor’s was a high-profile case. Prosecutors argued that on August 9, 2009, he and his co-defendant, Ihab Masalmani, who was then 17, robbed 21-year-old Matthew Landry after abducting him from an Eastpointe, Michigan, Quiznos restaurant. Masalmani then killed Landry in a burnt-out building in Detroit while, prosecutors said, Taylor stood by. In November 2010 and February 2011, Masalmani and Taylor were first sentenced to mandatory life without parole, a sentence that at the time was legal for minors.
In June 2012, the Supreme Court decided Miller v. Alabama and banned the use of mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles; in January 2016, the Court decided in Montgomery v. Louisiana that the Miller ruling is retroactive, so even those who were sentenced as minors before 2012 are eligible for resentencing. Under Miller, judges can still sentence minors to life without parole as long as mitigating factors — the child’s age, home environment, extent of participation in the crime, and potential for rehabilitation — are considered. In the Miller ruling, Justice Elena Kagan wrote that given “children’s diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change,” life without parole sentences for minors should be “uncommon.” The Miller majority further states:
Although we do not foreclose a sentencer’s ability to make that judgment [life without parole] in homicide cases, we require it to take into account how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison … just as the chronological age of a minor is itself a relevant mitigating factor of great weight, so must the background and mental and emotional development of a youthful defendant be duly considered in assessing his culpability.
But in some states, judges are still giving juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) sentences on a fairly frequent basis. According to data collected by Phillips Black, a nonprofit law firm, 84 percent of all JLWOP sentences given between June 2012 and May 2015 were given in just four states: Louisiana, California, Florida, and Michigan. While Florida and California had the highest numbers — 28 and 26 JLWOP sentences respectively — Louisiana (21) and Michigan (17) had the highest numbers per capita. In these four states, some judges are using the very mitigating factors that are meant to be an argument against a life sentence as evidence that these juveniles cannot be rehabilitated, and should spend the rest of their lives in prison.
That’s exactly what happened to Taylor and Masalmani. In the fall of 2014, Judge Diane Druzinski of the Macomb County Circuit Court heard the mitigating factors in Taylor’s and Masalmani’s cases. Both were again sentenced to life without parole in January 2015.
The United States is the only country in the world that routinely sentences children to life in prison without parole, and, according to estimates from nonprofits and advocacy groups, there are between 2,300 and 2,500 people serving life without parole for crimes committed when they were minors. Two-thirds of those were sentenced in just five states: Louisiana, California, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. Ninety-seven percent of them are male, according to figures from the Sentencing Project, and 60 percent are black.
There are between 2,300 and 2,500 people serving life without parole for crimes committed when they were minors.
Although these young people have been charged and convicted of heinous crimes, advocates argue that they should not be sentenced to life in prison, because they can be rehabilitated and should not pay such a stiff penalty for crimes committed when they weren’t mature enough to truly understand the ramifications.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, teenagers and young adults often act impulsively, without much consideration for consequences, because in teens “the parts of the brain involved in emotional responses are fully online, or even more active than in adults, while the parts of the brain involved in keeping emotional, impulsive responses in check are still reaching maturity.” The frontal cortex, the area of the brain that controls reasoning and decision-making, does not reach full development until around age 25, which is in part why the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the American Bar Association, and other organizations have issued statements opposing JLWOP sentences, because they do not believe children should be held morally culpable in the same way adults are.
This does not mean, however, that minors should not take responsibility and face consequences for their actions. “This is about review, this isn’t guaranteeing that people will be released,” said Jody Kent Lavy, director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. “We’re advocating for periodic reviews to see whether they’ve changed and are prepared to be resentenced or come before a parole board and be released. We know that the vast majority of these young people age out of criminal behavior once they’ve matured and the brain stops developing at around age 25 and believe it is an appropriate time to check in on them and determine whether they can be released and returned to their communities as productive members of society.”
The other issue that plays a part in almost all JLWOP cases is childhood trauma. According to the Sentencing Project, 79 percent of minors sentenced to life without parole witnessed violence in their homes, and almost 50 percent experienced physical abuse. Eighteen percent were not living with a close adult relative at the time they were incarcerated, and were homeless, or living with friends or in group homes.
The details of Taylor’s childhood came out in court during his mitigation hearing. Taylor grew up primarily in 7 Mile, a neighborhood of stark contrasts: Nicely kept homes with baskets of pink flowers and wind chimes and American flags on front porches sit opposite defeated houses with shattered windows, vines enveloping their facades, and trees growing through them. It’s a neighborhood where gunshots, drugs, and death were a regular part of life.
Though Detroit police statistics show that the homicide rate has fallen from a high of 55 homicides per 100,000 residents in 2012 to 43 per 100,000 residents last year, Detroit as a whole is consistently ranked one of the most violent cities in the country.
During an interview at the prison, Taylor told me that he got his first gun, a 38-caliber revolver, when he was 12, and was shot in the back when he was 14.
We were seated at the back of the visiting room, farthest from the wall of windows that let in a stream of light from the late-afternoon sun. Taylor pulled up the sleeve of his blue and white button-down shirt to reveal a tattoo of the grim reaper on his left arm, which he got because, he said: “I felt like he was always hanging out over my neighborhood.”
Taylor’s father has been in prison for most of his life. His mother had her first child at 13 and raised Taylor and his five siblings primarily alone. Court documents state that Taylor grew up in an “unstable and unsafe” environment:
Wayne County neglect records reflected Robert’s mother had a long history of instability, that she often left the children without food and proper supervision. … There were previous complaints alleging physical neglect and physical abuse. Robert’s older brother, Demetrius Taylor … reported his mother was beaten by her boyfriends in front of the children and that on one occasion she was beaten with a pistol, her neck was broken and that her boyfriend attempted to set fire to the house when she and the children were at home.
“It was traumatizing, and it was scary,” Taylor said of his home environment. He was speaking in a low voice — he said he’s always been soft spoken, but was trying his best to ensure that the corrections officer at the other end of the visiting room wouldn’t hear. He said he didn’t want people to think ill of his mother. “There was no love there. I didn’t never feel like it was my home, even though I was living there.”
Taylor said that when he was 11, his mother pointed a gun at his head as a joke during an argument over a pair of sneakers. He left home and lived on his own, bouncing from one friend’s house to another.
Taylor is small — at the time of his arrest, he was only about 5-foot-6 and still had remnants of the early childhood pudginess that had earned him the name “Fat Daddy” from his grandmother. He often hung out with older men with whom he felt protected. Many were involved in criminal activity.
“This is what led me [to prison],” said Taylor. “This is what led to me hanging around people who I shouldn’t never have been around. I’m 12, 13 years old, and they thinking I’m like 20 because I’m out all night. This is what led me here — not having a stable condition at my house.”
Taylor’s mother, Rhonda, said that she has never owned a gun and would certainly never have pointed one at her son’s head. She said that while she struggled to raise her children pretty much on her own, working multiple jobs and having to move houses several times, she provided a stable environment for them. The children did sometimes stay at friends’ homes, but, she said, it was only for short periods of time.
“At some point, boys act out. So, when they get into it with they parents they want to storm out,” Rhonda said. “If I feel one of my kids disrespecting me, you got to leave. You got to do something with yourself because I’m not about to sit here and accept that from any of my kids in terms of disrespecting me.”
When Taylor was 12, he was charged with larceny for stealing a phone. He claims he didn’t steal the phone, but took the rap for a 17-year-old friend who had told him that since he was 12, he would only serve two or three months in a juvenile facility. Instead, he spent just over a year at various juvenile detention facilities. He was allowed to go home for periodic visits, but said his mother would pick him up, drop him off at home, and leave.
After Taylor was released, he continued to essentially live on his own. He said that while it was fairly easy to find places to sleep at night, it was still hard for him to fend for himself at such a young age. “It was actually kind of scary, man, not knowing when the next time you going to go eat or whatever, but I made a way.”
Though Taylor’s attorney, Jonathan Simon, used the unfortunate facts of Taylor’s life to ask the court for leniency, as stipulated in Miller, Judge Druzinski suggested they were proof that Taylor was unlikely to change. “The difficulty of defendant’s upbringing is the only factor which could be said to weigh in favor of an indeterminate sentence,” she ruled, “but this factor also suggests that defendant’s prospects for rehabilitation are minimal.”
The prosecutor, William Cataldo, implied during the mitigation hearing that Taylor needed to be in prison, where his life would have some order, as opposed to on the streets, where it had been so chaotic. When an expert witness, a counselor named Kathleen Schaefer, said that Taylor had matured, and that she could see that change from his level of introspection, Cataldo replied: “And this interview is taking place when he is in a structured environment, being told where to be, what to do, when to eat, and how to behave. That’s what prison is, isn’t it? … You haven’t met him when he’s out on the street having to live on his own and making his own way.”
The other issue in Taylor’s case as it pertains to the mitigating factors outlined in the Miller ruling was his level of involvement in the crime. Masalmani was the primary suspect, but prosecutors said that Taylor had been a lookout when Landry was abducted, and was with Masalmani from the time they left the Quiznos until the murder at 14711 Maddelein St. Taylor maintains that although he was present when Landry was kidnapped, he had no idea that Masalmani was going to rob and then shoot Landry, and was not in the house when Landry was killed.
It was sweltering that August afternoon — at 94 degrees, it was the hottest day that year — and Taylor and Masalmani rode their bikes to a nearby pool to swim. They didn’t have the money to pay the entrance fee and went to Quiznos at around 2:30 p.m. to get some water.
As they exited the Quiznos, according to Taylor, Masalmani told him to tackle Landry so that they could get his keys and steal his car. Taylor says he was more focused on fixing the chain on his bike, which had slipped, so when Landry came out, it was Masalmani who wrestled with Landry and forced him into the green Honda Accord.
“[Masalmani] got to doing his thing with the victim, but I did not put my hands on this guy, I did not carjack this guy, I did not take him from point A to point B,” said Taylor. “But I was dumb as hell; I jumped in the vehicle and we went back to the city.”
An eyewitness confirmed that it was Masalmani, not Taylor, who attacked Landry, but said that Taylor appeared to be the lookout. During the trial, a detective testified that on the day that Taylor turned himself in, he admitted that he had been the lookout; Taylor denies having done so.
Taylor said that as Masalmani drove back to Detroit, Landry seemed relatively calm as he sat in the passenger seat. He was listening to music and smoking cigarettes. Taylor was concerned, however. Masalmani was known to be erratic, and appeared to be on edge, as if he were high on drugs. Taylor also noticed that Masalmani had a gun sticking out of the waist of his pants. Taylor said that he sat quietly in the back seat.
Taylor said that it was not unusual to see Landry, a middle-class white man, being driven around the predominantly poor and African-American east side of Detroit by two young men of color. (Taylor is African-American and Masalmani is originally from the Middle East.) “Dope fiends come through that neck of the woods all the time and give little homeboys they cars to drive while they be smoking,” said Taylor. “So that’s not nothing un-normal that they ain’t never saw before. It was no reason for people to be like, ‘What’s going on?’”
The story of what happened once Landry, Masalmani, and Taylor got to 7 Mile varies. During the trial, Michael Sadur, who was incarcerated with Taylor in the maximum security unit at the Macomb County jail, testified that Taylor had confessed to him: “He said after they put [Landry] in the car, Ihab pulled out … a 40 caliber. And he drove away, heading to Detroit. … Mr. Landry was, he was like nausea, sick, smoking back to back, because he knew what time it was. They told him what time it was.” Sadur said Taylor told him that they had driven Landry directly to the abandoned house, where Masalmani then shot him. “[Taylor] said Ihab really didn’t care. He just turned around like nothing happened, and walk away. And told Taylor: ‘Come on. Let’s go spend some money or something.’”
Fredrick Singletone, an admitted crack addict, testified that he saw Taylor, Masalmani, and Landry at around 10 p.m. in a drug den at the corner of Maddelein and Monarch, where he was smoking crack. He said that Masalmani gave him money to purchase more crack, and that Taylor and Landry sat quietly on the sofa while everyone else got high.
Taylor and Masalmani maintain that they were never in that house, which is just steps away from the property where Landry’s body was found, and Taylor believes both Sadur and Singletone, who was also incarcerated at the time he testified, were coerced by law enforcement officials to make up their accounts, in return for reduced sentences. Sadur and Singletone, in their trial testimony, both denied they had made such a deal.
Taylor told me that he, Masalmani, and Landry drove the 3 miles directly from Eastpointe to 7 Mile, and when they got to Maddelein Street, Masalmani parked the car, and the three got out. Taylor was more at ease now that he was back in his neighborhood, and he talked with friends while Masalmani and Landry walked into 14711 Maddelein St. Taylor said he wasn’t keeping track of time, but Masalmani returned some time later, alone.
Until the late 19th century, the U.S. did not have an established juvenile justice system, and courts essentially treated children as adults. Then, the “child saver” movement advocated for a new system of criminal justice for children that would evaluate each individual child, and rehabilitate him in a home-like environment rather than simply punishing him. Robin Walker Sterling, a professor at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law, argues that this new system was designed for white children. Black children continued to be lynched and otherwise punished more harshly then their white counterparts. “In other words,” she writes in a paper, “black children were black before they were children, and were therefore exempt from the presumption that they were amenable to rehabilitation.”
In the 1990s, the notion of the “superpredator” — mainly black youth who were portrayed by the media and politicians as running wild, terrorizing law-abiding citizens — led to states moving minors into adult courts and giving them harsher sentences, including life without parole. Princeton political scientist John J. DiIulio warned that these superpredators were: “born of abject ‘moral poverty’ … it is the poverty of growing up surrounded by deviant, delinquent, and criminal adults in chaotic, dysfunctional, fatherless, Godless, and jobless settings where drug abuse and child abuse are twins, and self-respecting young men literally aspire to get away with murder.”
The fear was that without drastic methods, the number of violent crimes by minors would continue to rise. In 1996, first lady Hillary Clinton gave a speech in support of the 1994 Violent Crime Control Act, which provided for 100,000 new police officers, $9.7 billion in funding for prisons, and $6.1 billion in funding for prevention programs. She described these superpredator children as having: “No conscience, no empathy; we can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel.” (After being confronted by a protestor at a February 2016 presidential campaign event, Clinton apologized for this comment.)
While juvenile violent crime did increase at the beginning of the 1990s, it began to fall in the mid-1990s and reached record lows in the early 2000s. The superpredator theory was debunked, but many of the harsh juvenile sentences remained in place.
When Miller was decided in 2012, 28 states and the federal government had mandatory JLWOP and 15 allowed for discretionary JLWOP. Since Miller, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas, West Virginia, Wyoming, Vermont, and Utah have abolished JLWOP entirely.
The superpredator theory was debunked, but many of the harsh juvenile sentences remained in place.
In Michigan and in eight other states, 17-year-olds are still automatically tried as adults. (In recent months, both Michigan and Louisiana have taken up bills that would mandate the prosecution of 17-year-olds as minors.) Michigan law also imposes the same penalty on both those who actually commit homicides as well as on accessories, which is how many minors end up with JLWOP sentences. “We have this extremely broad homicide law which says aiding and abetting, felony murder, and premeditated first degree are all treated exactly the same,” said Deborah LaBelle, director of the ACLU’s Juvenile Life Without Parole Initiative.
LaBelle also said that the harsh sentencing practices mean that many judges are using mitigating factors against minors: “Instead of them seeing these matters as mitigating circumstances, the judges appear to be doing the exact opposite of what the Supreme Court said,” she said. “One, you don’t blame the child for this, these are mitigating circumstances, and two, you are not a prophet. You cannot tell at the front end whether or not a child can be rehabilitated down the line.”
When Juwan Wickware was sentenced in the murder of a pizza delivery man in Flint, Michigan, that occurred when Wickware was 16, the judge used the hardships Wickware had experienced against him. Wickware was not the shooter, but received a life without parole sentence in August 2013, and was the first minor to be sentenced to life without parole in Michigan after Miller.
Like Taylor, Wickware moved frequently as a child and his mother had to raise him alone because his father was incarcerated. He and his siblings were removed from their home by child protective services at a time when their mother was unemployed and did not have a permanent home. When he was 14, Wickware, who was deemed functionally illiterate during his mitigation hearing, was suspended from school for 120 days. He started hanging out on the streets with older gang members and, because he was small for his age — just 5-foot-5 and slight — he felt he needed a gun to protect himself.
At the sentencing, Judge Archie Hayman said of Wickware: “I think his family failed him first. And I think, secondly, the school may have failed him. And then I think, thirdly, possibly society as a whole has failed him to some extent. … I think his family life has been chaotic; it’s been unstable. I think it unfortunately has put him in a position where he is not socially developed and lacks the social skills to be in society.”
But Wickware changed in prison. The boy who was reading at a third-grade level when he went into prison earned his GED. He has worked on curbing his anger, and doesn’t swear as much as he used to. He was eventually resentenced, but his earliest release date is March 28, 2042.
“When I first came [to prison], my goal was to get myself right. Every day I wake up, I have to have an accomplishment,” he said during an interview at the St. Louis Correctional Facility. “I’m stronger now. I’m a man now. It’s over for all that kid stuff.”
One of the things that struck people most during Ihab Masalmani’s trial was his behavior and apparent lack of remorse. He laughed at times and spat on the floor. Even his own attorney described him as “feral.” Back then, Masalmani’s lawyers insisted that he had not killed Landry. Now, Masalmani, who is serving his life sentence at the G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility, about 40 miles south of Lansing, says that he did commit the murder, and that Taylor did not know that he was going to kill Landry and was not present when he did.
From just his voice alone, Masalmani seems to be easygoing, self-assured. He is matter of fact about everything, from the details of the crime to those of his tumultuous childhood.
He told me during a phone interview that he is telling the truth now because he has done some soul searching in prison, and has been reading books on emotional intelligence and psychology in order to better understand himself. “By me learning what I’m learning now is really what led to me feeling like it’s injustice on my co-defendant’s behalf to be locked up for something that he didn’t even do and had no conspiracy to doing,” Masalmani said. “I feel like the system railroaded both of us, but he got it the worst for the simple fact that he’s sitting in here for something he didn’t participate in or had no knowledge of what it was leading to.”
When Masalmani was 8, his mother sent him and his sister by themselves from Lebanon to Florida. The children were held in an immigration detention center and when they were released, went to live with an uncle, who Masalmani said sexually abused his sister. His sister was eventually deported, and Masalmani moved from one foster home to another. In one home, according to court documents, his foster mother used marijuana and had sex in his presence. Masalmani told me that he struggled in school, in part because he didn’t speak English when he came to the U.S.
Masalmani said he told Taylor to tackle Landry as he exited the Quiznos, so that they could steal his car. But, he said, “[Taylor] never went through with that. Everything else that happened after that was something that I was coming up with as it went along. [Taylor] just played along. He just was there. He didn’t know that I was going to do that to that man — drive to a vacant house and kill him. He didn’t know none of that.”
Masalmani said that even though he showed Landry his gun, he was able to put him at ease. “I made everybody feel as though everything was going to be OK,” he said. “I’m assuming Matt Landry thought that too. I’m telling him like, ‘We’re just going to use this car and give it back to you and let you go.’”
But as he drove, Masalmani realized that he could not just let Landry go, as he had seen his and Taylor’s faces, and would likely report them to the police. Masalmani did not tell Taylor what he was thinking, and was making decisions moment to moment. Though Taylor maintains he was never left alone with Landry, Masalmani said that he left Taylor and Landry in the car when he went to an ATM to withdraw money using Landry’s debit card. Then, he drove to the burnt-out house on Maddelein Street. The three men got out of the car. Masalmani said that he told Taylor to go back to the car while he went inside with Landry. There, he made Landry turn, and shot him in the back of the head.
This is the image that haunts Matthew Landry’s mother, Doreen. “The image of them walking Matthew from one house into another house, putting him on his knees, putting a gun to the back of his head, shooting him, is an image that wakes me up in the middle of the night in a panic,” she said, right after Masalmani and Taylor were resentenced. “I have to live with that. That’s my life sentence. And there’s nothing that’s going to lighten that for me, so why should their sentence be lightened?”
Jody Robinson, president of the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Murderers, believes that victims’ families need the closure that comes with a life without parole sentence, even in the cases of minors. Without it, families are forced to relive the horror of their loved ones’ murders with each parole hearing. “When you’re talking about having a loved one ripped from you, you go in there and you’re seeking justice,” said Robinson, whose brother James was killed by a teen in 1990. “A life without parole sentence ensures that when you walk out of court, once you’re through the appeals process, you can put this behind you, at least the legal aspect of it, and you can work on your life, and healing.”
Judges are elected in Michigan, and advocates say they feel pressure from victims’ families and the public to give the harshest sentences possible, particularly in high-profile cases.
Judge Fred Mester sat on the Oakland County, Michigan, bench for 27 years, and during that time sentenced juveniles to life without parole. “I was caught up in the same idea that you do the crime, you do the time,” Mester told me. “That is, if you do an adult crime — that is a physical assault, a sexual assault, or murder — that you must do the time of whatever the maximum sentence would be.” Mester takes issue, however, with the way sentencing guidelines changed in the 1970s and 1980s, with a move from individual justice — “You look at the victim, you look at the crime, you look at the defendant, and come up with what you believe would be a fair sentence” — to mandatory sentences that left judges with few options.
Judges feel pressure from victims’ families and the public to give the harshest sentences possible, particularly in high-profile cases.
Such was the case with Jennifer Pruitt, whom Mester sentenced to life without parole in 1993 for a crime committed when she was 16. Mester had two options — he could have had Pruitt tried as a juvenile, which meant she would have been held just until her 21st birthday if found guilty, or he could have had her tried as an adult, facing a mandatory life sentence. Even though Pruitt had not been the one to actually commit the murder, Mester felt that incarcerating her for just a few years as a juvenile would have been too lenient.
After hearing about the sexual abuse Pruitt suffered in prison, and also seeing how she had matured, and was acting as a mentor and advocate for other women, Mester has now become an advocate himself, pushing for judges to follow the Miller guidelines and return the focus to “individual justice and rehabilitation.”
The problem is that many judges are still giving life without parole sentences because they’re simply used to handing out mandatory life sentences for certain crimes. “As a judge you become so used to these violent acts and you think the best way, or the only way, is ‘I have to keep you away from the rest of society, not even to punish, but to protect those people who aren’t criminals,’” said Judge Stephen Borrello, of the Michigan Court of Appeals, in a recent phone interview.
The other issue is that although it’s been almost four years since the Miller ruling, some judges, prosecutors, and even public defenders don’t know about Miller. Advocates say that because minors facing life without parole sentences have been transferred to adult courts, they are sometimes assigned public defenders who do not know much about adolescent brain development, the details of Miller, and the need or requirements for a mitigation hearing.
But the biggest issue is rehabilitation. Even if judges see potential for rehabilitation, there is no guarantee that minors will receive the counseling, education, and other services they need in prison in order to truly change. “It’s very rare that we see people who are actually rehabilitated by the prison system,” said Borrello. “The only thing we know how to do, that we’re really good at, is locking them up. It costs a lot of money to actually rehabilitate somebody. It costs a lot of money to give somebody an education.”
Both Taylor and Masalmani say that they haven’t had access to adequate psychosocial services in prison. Taylor has tried to take a number of classes, including a violent offenders program, “Cage Your Rage,” and a substance abuse course, even though he says he doesn’t have a substance abuse problem. He is on waiting lists for these courses that are two to three years long.
“They have to put those guys in them classes with shorter out dates or out dates period. They put them in there first,” Taylor said. “So the only thing for me to do while I’m in here is get in trouble. So I got to be strong enough to remain focused on getting up out of here because I’m set up for failure.”
Taylor did not show much emotion either time the judge delivered his life without parole sentence. But inside, he told me, he felt “every feeling in the world except happy. I was mad. I was angry, frustrated. I was actually angry at myself. I was angry at my attorney.” Taylor believes his case was mishandled from beginning to end. When he turned himself in, he was questioned without the presence of an adult relative or a lawyer. Detective Steven Sellers testified that they could not find Taylor’s mother. Taylor told me he was scared and said things out of fear that were later used against him. Detective Sellers confirmed that during the interrogation he told Taylor that he would never see daylight again and he would be imprisoned for life if he didn’t cooperate. Both Taylor and his mother say that his initial attorney, Louis Zaidan, fell asleep numerous times during the trial. Zaidan did not respond to requests for an interview.
But the biggest injustice for Taylor is that he is in prison for a crime that Masalmani has admitted to, and has said Taylor knew nothing about. Taylor believes that the truth is irrelevant to the prosecutor and judge, because they were focused solely on getting a conviction. He also feels that because Masalmani was the main suspect, no one, including his lawyer, really paid much attention to what was happening in his case. “The case is not really about me. It’s about him,” says Taylor. “I was just a string-along. They don’t really care about me.”
Masalmani’s confession had little impact.
During Masalmani’s resentencing hearing, his attorney, Valerie Newman, presented his confession to the court as evidence that he had matured in prison, but also in the hopes that it would lessen Taylor’s sentence. Judge Druzinski and the prosecutor declined requests for an interview, but given that Taylor and Masalmani were both resentenced to life, it appears that Masalmani’s confession had little impact.
“Judges are focusing on the crime, and that’s not what Miller is about,” says Newman. “These are all bad crimes. We know that. What we’re doing is looking at whether or not someone is irreparably corrupt, or whether they have potential for rehabilitation.”
When he was initially sentenced, Taylor apologized to Landry’s family, not as an admission of guilt, but because “[Landry] lost his life for something that was not necessary.” Taylor’s mother also expressed her condolences to the Landry family.
Masalmani has also wanted to reach out to the Landrys, though he says his words and actions would do little to ease their pain, but his lawyer has advised him not to. Newman also wanted to contact the Landry family as well, after Masalmani’s hearing. “I’m a big believer in restorative justice and I think these folks have got to be in tremendous pain, and sitting through that hearing had to have been tremendously difficult,” she said. “I just wanted to let them know that I feel their pain. Criminal defense attorneys are not heartless people. I would like them to understand that this is in no way meant as a disservice to Matt Landry’s life.”
For now, Taylor and Masalmani are appealing their resentencing, but there is also a case, People v. Skinner, which could affect theirs and other Michigan JLWOP cases.
In August 2015, Judge Borrello heard the appeal of Tia Skinner, who was sentenced to life without parole for a crime committed when she was 17. He ruled that based on the Sixth Amendment, a jury, not the judge, should determine whether a minor’s crime is evidence of “irreparable corruption” warranting a life without parole sentence. The case is now with the Michigan Supreme Court.
Taylor is hopeful that he will one day be released. He says that it isn’t that he’s oblivious to reality, just that what you put your mind to is what manifests, so he doesn’t like to focus too much on the fact that he is currently in prison for the rest of his life. Still, he doesn’t tell people that he thinks that one day he’ll be released. “Having hope is a sign of weakness,” he said. “I got a lot of time. You don’t want to be soft in here.”
Taylor sticks to himself, to stay out of trouble, and spends much of his time listening to and writing music. When he is released from prison, he plans to leave Michigan, perhaps go to Florida, perhaps New York, to pursue his music career. He hopes to be a successful rapper.
“There is nothing, nothing, that can bring me down. Nothing can stop me from having hope of anything that I’m putting my mind into. Nothing,” he said. “I don’t care if you tell me no a million times. I’m going to still be like, yeah, whatever. They got to bury me with that.”
This article was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.