Adolfo Davis of Chicago was sentenced to life in prison with no chance for parole for a crime committed when he was 14. Tomorrow, in a process little known by the public, Adolfo’s advocates will step before the Illinois Prisoner Review Board to make his case for clemency. This is the story of what brought him to that place.
At Stateville, a maximum security prison in Joliet, Illinois, I’m meeting again with Adolfo Davis, who surprises me a little. He’s more self-assured and optimistic than I remember.
DAVIS: I see miracles still happen behind these walls. So, I’m grateful that I’m able to reach out to kids and show them they reality, before they end up where I’m at, so…
A lot has happened in Adolfo’s past four years. With plenty of outside help, he’s been able to put together a book of poetry, take an introductory college-level course, mentor a couple of at-risk kids by phone and, mount a plea for clemency.
A number of public figures have written letters to the governor in support of his bid for forgiveness and freedom, Judge Abner Mikva, State Representative Esther Golar and Cardinal Francis George, just to name a few.
Adolfo reads one letter that stands out for him:
DAVIS: It says ‘Dear Governor Pat Quinn: I write to you as a surviving victim in a case to request and support clemency for Adolfo Davis…
This is a letter written by Lamont Baxter. Baxter’s testimony was very damaging at trial because it said that on the night of the crime all the offenders talked about who was going to live and who was going to die.
But last year Baxter signed an affidavit saying that Adolfo Davis was not part of that conversation. Tomorrow morning he’s scheduled to testify on Adolfo Davis’ behalf.
DAVIS: I remember Adolfo Davis as a scared little boy. Looking back, I don’t even think Adolfo understood his role in the crime…
Davis says thank God, his lawyers were able to find Lamont Baxter.
DAVIS: I’m not never sittin’ here sayin’ I’m an innocent guy, that my case should be thrown out. That’s not what I’m saying. I was told to be a lookout for a robbery, and like I said, I hurt every day that somebody’s life got tooken. But if I would have known somebody’s life would have got tooken, I wouldn’t have been there, at all.
Lamont Baxter’s letter has not swayed Alan Spellberg, supervisor of the Criminal Appeals Division for the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office. His office has filed an objection to Adolfo Davis’ clemency appeal. They say he was criminally culpable.. and properly sentenced.
SPELLBERG: He wasn’t simply a young 14 year old who was tricked into participating, and acted only as a look-out. He was a leader of this crime. And because of that, he was properly sentenced to natural life.
Jill Stevens is coaxing her half-blind and arthritic cocker spaniel, Maci, back into the car. Maci has a lot of spirit and most days helps Stevens at her job as a therapist in private practise.
I had asked Jill to drive me past the Tamms Supermax Prison, where Adolfo Davis was sent for various disciplinary infractions early in his prison years. But security cut that idea short.
INTERCOM : Advise her that they need to leave grounds.. And that picture they can keep— if it was only the sign.
So now we’re parked on the outskirts of the prison complex ..
STEVENS: We’re like fugitives from justice sitting over here on this side road
For the four years or so that Adolfo Davis was at Tamms, Jill Stevens was his therapist.
Some of the cases she encountered there, still haunt her.
STEVENS: There are things that I’ve learned, that I will never forget from there. Images you know, that you get when you’re reading about certain crimes.
But for all those gruesome crimes that give her nightmares, all those offenders have one important thing, she says, that Adolfo does not.
STEVENS: And the fact that these people who… just reading about what they did has sort of scarred me for life.. they all have out dates. And Adolfo doesn’t.
Back then Stevens carefully reviewed Adolfo Davis’s master file, as she did for all her clients. She came across reports of a very young Adolfo with gang involvement and someone who was repeatedly in trouble with the law.
In the same period, she found documentation of Adolfo banging his head against the wall until it bled, burning himself with cigarettes, jumping off the upper levels of buildings, bed-wetting, and suffering from nightmares, severe insomnia and hallucinations. Adolfo also frequently skipped school.
When he was 10 years old, the Department of Children and Family Services started getting involved with some counseling for Adolfo and other services for the family. But in Stevens’ view, it wasn’t nearly enough.
STEVENS: It’s so sad to me that this is somebody who.. yeah, he slipped through the cracks of that family… and they were big cracks. Then he slipped through the cracks of social services… and juvenile justice systems.
Adolfo’s mother was a crack addict who mostly ignored him. And though his grandmother Fannie loved him dearly, she was stretched thin, taking care of a bed-ridden husband, her mentally disabled son, and a bevy of other grandchildren who were also living at Adolfo’s house.
One report said that Adolfo’s home was quite chaotic with poor supervision, poor parenting, an unsanitary living environment and that Adolfo was offered a poor nutritional diet with “sporadic meal preparation.”
Four years ago Adolfo told me about his first arrest, at 10 years old
DAVIS: That’s when I caught my first robbery. I was hungry. I was pumpin’ gas and wasn’t nobody coming, wanting me to pump their gas. So I saw this little girl and I was like, I snatched the bag from her and go buy me something to eat. So, that was the first time I went to the Audy Home.
When he was 13 years old, about 8 months before the crime, both a social worker on the case and Adolfo’s probation officer asked DCFS to remove Adolfo from his home.
STEVENS: His probation officer, I believe it was, clearly stated in those documents that he needed a structured setting.
But it wasn’t until seven months later and about five weeks before the crime, that DCFS finally acted on that request and became Adolfo Davis’ guardian—or substitute parent.
He wasn’t placed in the sort of residential, structured setting that the probation officer & social worker had stressed that he needed. A few days before the crime, he was placed in a crammed, disorderly emergency shelter where kids could apparently come and go, and that’s exactly what he did. Adolfo ran away.
STEVENS: (SIGH ) It uh, you know. If it had worked the way it was supposed to work? Adolfo wouldn’t have even been there.
At the crime scene, she means.
Eventually Adolfo was placed in a structured setting. He stayed at the Audy Home or juvenile detention center during his trial and in the period leading up to it. Most kids hated the Audy Home, but not Adolfo.
DAVIS: I ate on time, 3 times a day. I got snacks. I had clothes. I had my own room.
Once Adolfo Davis was removed from the unstable circumstances of his home, over time, he started to do better in this structured setting.
By the time he was sentenced, the Audy Home staff was documenting progress:
Adolfo has done well. He is described as a model prisoner by his supervisor…. According to personnel, Adolfo is one of the best students in his class… and does all assignments.
Jill Stevens looks back today and thinks that Adolfo Davis was given a raw deal, especially because, she says, there’s no evidence that he actually killed anyone that night.
So she’s hoping that tomorrow’s clemency hearing will be some sort of a corrective to a court proceeding that in her mind, went astray.
STEVENS: I can’t really myself picture anybody in a position to go for clemency that would be any better… you know would have a stronger case.
MONREAL: This is my office. I’ll turn off my music right now.
PAUL: What kinda music is that ?
MONREAL: It’s uh, pop rock, in Spanish.
Adam Monreal, chairman of the Illinois Prisoner Review Board, is giving me a little tour.
MONREAL: This is our file room. There are over probably 300,000 files in this room.
You mighta heard that gasp. That was me, because this room is really quite a sight, with bulging folders crammed onto shelves from floor to ceiling.
MONREAL: Like many state entities, we are still stuck on paper. We’re looking to digitalize. And part of that digitalization is including the clemency petitions.
The governor’s office is helping with that. And helping in another way too.
Governor Quinn has been trying to catch up on a huge backlog of unanswered clemency requests. Unanswered because Governor Blagojevich didn’t pay too much attention to requests for clemency. Which today he may regret, but that’s a whole separate story.
In the past two years Governor Quinn has plowed through almost 1,400 clemency requests — mostly for pardons, which is official forgiveness for a crime. Plus expungement requests, which, if granted, allow people to lawfully start down the path of clearing their criminal records, making it easier to find a job.
MONREAL: Of all the petitions that are filed, this governor has… the ones that he has sought to review, he’s granted, I think about 43 percent.
There’s a type of clemency relief however that the governor has granted sparingly: commutation of sentence for those who are in prison.
And that’s what Adolfo Davis is after. In addition to official forgiveness for his crime, he’s asking for his sentence to be reduced to time served.
Through a Freedom of Information request, WBEZ found that in 2010 there were 181 requests for commutation of sentence and in 2011 there were 160 requests. I asked Mr. Monreal how many commutations of sentence the governor granted during those years.
MONREAL: He granted what, two? It’s a very small percentage out of the hundreds that are filed.
So. The numbers are not with Adolfo Davis. Governor Quinn grants very few commutations of sentence. Next to none. Probably in part because it’s considered a politically risky thing to do.
Adolfo Davis’ best hope for freedom might be if the U.S. Supreme Court rules this summer that life without parole sentences for 14 year olds are cruel and unusual punishment.
Or the top court may rule that mandatory sentences for 14 year olds in murder cases are cruel and unusual.
It’s just such a mandatory sentence that landed Adolfo Davis in prison for life. There was no room for a judge to consider mitigating circumstances in Adolfo Davis’ case, as he explains:
DAVIS: And that’s the reason why so much is being talked about the statute now is because you ain’t giving the judge the discretion to evaluate you and say no, he don’t deserve no natural life.
The clemency hearing for Adolfo Davis will take place tomorrow morning. And by evening, members of the Illinois Prison Review Board will vote to decide on their confidential recommendation to the governor.
Governor Quinn will then make a decision in this case months from now, years from now, or, as he could with any case – he may let this one sit, and not make a decision at all.