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Where Addolfo's story took him

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Editor’s Note: Yesterday, we brought you the first part in the story of a young man named Addolfo Davis. Addolfo was 5 feet tall, 100 pounds and had barely turned 14 when he and two others were arrested for murder. He’d been mixed up in gangs for years before that. Today, Linda Paul continues Addolfo’s story—how he came to be charged as an adult, how his case moved through the courts. And how he landed in prison for life with no chance of parole.

Related: Addolfo Davis’ Story

For years before he was arrested at 14 for murder, Addolfo Davis had spent much of his days, and nights, on the streets. His mother was hooked on drugs.

DAVIS: She dint’ care ‘bout nothing I did. I went to school dirty, she didn’t care, as long as she got that check once a month.

Addolfo’s mother eventually lost custody of him and Addolfo gravitated to what he now calls the false “family” of his gang. In October 1990, he says older gang members ordered him to go with them to the stash house of a rival gang member. Four men were shot that night and two them died.

Addolfo and his attorneys insist he didn’t fire a gun. But under what’s called accountability theory, you’re accountable if you help plan or carry out a crime. No one knows for sure if the jury convicted on that basis or if they thought Addolfo Davis really did commit murder that day. What is certain is that when police brought Addolfo in for questioning, the adult they had there to watch over his rights was his biological mother. This is the mother the state had ruled unfit to be his legal guardian.

DAVIS: My mom’s like: ‘Man, sign them papers so we can go home.’ And as soon as I signed it, I ain’t seen the street since.

Addolfo’s mother later testified that the night he was arrested, she was high on drugs, and that she had also been drinking. The police testified that Addolfo’s mother was sober, that they read him his Miranda rights, and it was 14 year old Addolfo who chose to talk.

OTTENFELD: I don’t believe most 14 year olds have the sophistication to understand the abstract idea that you don’t have to answer the police officers’ questions.

Lisa Ottenfeld is an attorney who represented Addolfo on appeal.

OTTENFELD: If an authority figure, a police officer, asks you a question, you don’t appreciate that you can just say, ‘I don’t want to talk to you.’

“Not so,” says prosecuting attorney David O’Connor. Put it in perspective, he says. You’ve got to consider a person’s past contacts with police:

O’CONNOR: So yeah, if you’re taking a child from Winnetka and that 14 year old is being brought into the criminal justice system, they probably wouldn’t have a clue. But when you’re committing armed robberies at the age of 10? You’re not some young, naïve babe in the woods that doesn’t have a clue about the criminal justice system.

It may come as a surprise to you that it’s perfectly legal for the police department to question a 14 year old about murder without an attorney present. All that’s required is that the police make a good faith effort to find a family member or legal guardian, plus a youth officer. And if they can’t find a family member? Then just a youth officer will do. Mark Kusatsky was Addolfo’s public defender.

KUSATSKY: It is a travesty. When you consider somebody who may not be of the most educated and has had the most advantages. The results that can flow from it, are tragic.

The police statement Addolfo signed was very damaging at trial. But he claims that he didn’t understand what was in it. Tests he was given after the crime back him up. They show that his academic performance was at a 2nd grade level. He and his mother could barely read or write. So detectives wrote out a statement and then read it to Addolfo. They allowed him to make corrections, but he claims he had no idea that he could be charged as an adult for his alleged crimes or that a conviction could land him in prison for life. At trial, Addolfo’s defense attorney asked the youth officer if Addolfo had ever been told that he could be charged as an adult.

The youth officer answered no. I asked David O’Connor, the prosecutor at Addolfo’s trial: “Wouldn’t it have been sensible for the police to hold off questioning until an attorney could be there?”

O’CONNOR: I mean it depends on your objective. Ok? Police are there to try to solve crime. They want the truth. They want the facts. They want individuals who will be forthcoming and tell them what happened. To wait for an attorney, for the attorney to tell them to invoke his constitutional rights, that’s not furthering the objectives of the police. So I guess it comes down to what your perspective is.

The legal proceeding that probably most condemned Addolfo Davis to a life in prison is something called a “transfer hearing.” That’s when a motion is filed with a juvenile judge asking to have a youngster transferred to adult court. At the transfer hearing the probation officer testified that Addolfo was quote: “a very sick child.”

Because of the violent nature of the crime, he said Addolfo was a threat both to himself and to the community. He recommended that Addolfo be in custody and have supervision beyond the time he became an adult.

MINER: I don’t know if he understood that what he was doing was basically saying that Addolfo should spend the rest of his life in prison.

Beth Miner represented Addolfo at his transfer hearing. What the probation officer didn’t understand, she thinks, is that if Addolfo was found guilty in adult court, the judge’s hands would be tied. He’d be required to give him a sentence of life without parole. That’s because of tough mandatory sentencing laws passed in the late 1970s to calm fears about crime rates.

MINER: The law didn’t provide for any other avenue other than for him to get natural life. And something needs to be done about that.

Miner says the judge, whom she respected very much, would not allow her to ask the probation officer if he understood that if Addolfo was found guilty in adult court, he would spend the rest of his life in prison.

MINER: That question I was not permitted to ask and he was not able to give his opinion.

Michael Rogers was the prosecutor at the transfer hearing. He says it was an experienced judge who ultimately decided to transfer Addolfo to adult court. That judge, Rogers said, had to decide if society’s interest in being protected outweighed the importance of Addolfo getting rehabilitative services through the juvenile court. In Addolfo Davis, Rogers says, the judge was dealing with a dangerous criminal.

ROGERS: This kid went through life with no check valve. Nothing stopped him. When he decided he was gonna do something, he did it. He’s the kinda kid that society had a right to be protected from. And, Addolfo Davis, by the time he was 14, was lookin’ to kill people.

I tried to talk to the judge for Addolfo’s transfer hearing, but was told that he’s ill. Court records show that he acknowledged that in some ways Addolfo quote: “Fell through the cracks.” Lisa Ottenfeld, who represented Addolfo on appeal, thinks young people need to be treated differently than adults. Their capacity for change and to reform, she says, is huge.

OTTENFELD: Ya know, I understand the need for society to be protected and to keep Addolfo off the street until he reached the age where he could appreciate that. But that could have been done without natural life.

DAVIS: So how you gonna get the pictures out? Addolfo Davis is examining my digital camera, trying to figure out how this new technology works.

DAVIS: Man, I’m scared. He says he’s wondering how he’d get along if he ever does get out of prison.

DAVIS: Cuz, I’m like, gonna be a dummy. How do I do this, how do I do that? I’m gonna have to have someone with me everywhere I go to point out everything for me.

It shows he has hope of getting out some day. Which is more than he had in his early years of prison. Back then he was still in his gang and felt he had to fight anyone who slighted him, inmates or guards.

DAVIS: Honestly, I just gave up. Anything anyone said to me or I felt you wronged me, I’ll fight, I’ll kick on the door, I’ll set fires.

Addolfo was sent to TAMS, Illinois’ maximum security prison. For five years he lived in segregation, meaning he was in his cell 23 hours per day, 7 days per week. But he says the strangest thing about TAMS.

DAVIS: I thank God I went to TAMS cuz TAMS help me out, man. |

It was the beginning of what he sees as his turn-around.

DAVIS: I got around a lot of good, older guys. I was the youngest guy on their wing, so they took me up under they wing. And like man: ‘Shorty man, it ain’t over man. I done seen people go home. You just gotta be strong.’

It wasn’t only the inmates who encouraged him. Staff too. He says some of the officers and nurses were kind to him. Would check in on him daily, ask how he was doing. And some of the counselors.

DAVIS: They like, man, ‘what is you doin’ in jail?’ And I’m like, ‘I’m tryin’ to figure that out too’ But uh, I know I made bad decisions, choices that I made. But I’m not no murderer.

Addolfo says he truly feels bad about the lives that were lost that night. But at the same time, he feels that he too has been wronged.

DAVIS: It hurts me everyday that I’m here for somethin’ someone else did & they just figure, cuz I was with them, I was a part of it. But that’s not the case. So I’m gonna fight.

Part of that fight comes through self -improvement. He’s divorced himself, he says, from the gangs. He found a correspondence course and earned a high school diploma last August. Most of his days are spent reading and writing, the very things he used to hate so much when everyone was chasing him to go to school.

DAVIS: So when I get frustrated, I just start writin’ poems now. So I wrote so many poems about my emotions about my mom and my father, well, it’s like, stacked up.

At one point in our conversation, Addolfo and I stopped talking about his case in particular and got to talking in general about how young people can lose track of their lives.

DAVIS: All you got is the gang, and the people that you think loves you and care for you. You know what I’m sayin? So when someone say something like: ‘Man, I need you to go beat dude up, or shoot dude,’ they feel that they have to do that cuz this guy has took care of me for my life, he ain’t gonna steer me wrong. And then they don’t realize ‘til they in prison - like damn man, they don’t really love me. They ain’t did nothing for me. It was just a false reality that I thought they loved me. But in reality they didn’t.

By the time Addolfo Davis got to his trial, the wider context of his life was barely discussed. And the jury did convict him. All these years later, the extraordinary steps that brought him to adult court in the first place are now only minor footnotes in yellowed papers buried deep in court files.

Meanwhile, Addolfo himself sits in a 10 by 6 cell with an endless amount of time to write his poetry and to refine his theories about how the lives of young people can go awry. He’s been locked up since he was 14. Today he’s 31. And as things stand now, he’ll spend the rest of his days in prison.

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