Adolfo Davis said he’s been having a hard time sleeping since he got out of prison last week.
“I don’t want to wake up and feel like I’m still in prison, and this [was] all a dream,” Davis said. “Because I had good dreams before [about being free] when I was incarcerated. It seemed real. Then I woke up and I was still in prison.”
Davis spent 29 years behind bars. Now that he’s out, Davis wants to use his experience to work with Chicago kids who are in the same position he was: young and on the precipice of serious trouble.
Davis was 14 when he was arrested for taking part in a robbery in which two people were murdered. He was tried as an adult, and when he was convicted Illinois’ sentencing guidelines required life in prison without the possibility of parole.
“I take full responsibility for my participation and my actions that took somebody’s life. And I live with that every day,” Davis said. “But I believe that if the law would have allowed my judge to give me less time than natural life he would have.”
Two decades after Davis was sentenced, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life sentences for juveniles constituted cruel and unusual punishment, because the sentences did not take into account the fact that children’s brains are still developing.
The ruling meant that kids could no longer be given mandatory life sentences, but the court didn’t make clear what should happen to people who had already been given those sentences.
Davis was the test case in Illinois to see if the decision would be applied retroactively. When Davis won the right for a new sentencing hearing, it opened the door for about 80 other people in Illinois who had been given mandatory life sentences as juveniles.
In 2015 Davis was taken from Stateville prison to Cook County Judge Angela Petrone’s courtroom, where Davis’ attorneys argued that Davis was a small, misguided kid when he was “peer pressured” into taking part in a crime he didn’t know would turn deadly, and that he had reformed during his 24 years behind bars.
Cook County Assistant State’s Attorney Jim McKay countered that Davis was a cold-blooded killer who maintained his gang ties throughout his time in prison.
Prosecutors said Davis was an active participant in the planning of the crime, as well as in the shooting and killing.
After a marathon hearing that lasted until 10 at night, Petrone gave Davis a new sentence, but it was not the triumph Davis had been hoping for. Petrone used her discretion to give him another life sentence.
"This sentence is necessary to deter others. It is necessary to protect the public from harm. The defendant's acts showed an aggression and callous disregard for human life far beyond his tender age of 14," the judge said in issuing the sentence.
Davis said when that ruling came down, it felt like a “nightmare.”
But two years later, Davis’ defense team struck a deal with prosecutors under Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx to reduce his sentence, paving the way for his release last Monday.
“Some of us do deserve a chance and can be productive citizens out here, and they don't, they don't give us the opportunity and we have to fight for it,” Davis said of people like him, who were locked up for life for crimes they committed as kids.
Father David Kelly, executive director of the Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation, has known Davis since Davis was 14.
He met him while doing ministry work at the Cook County juvenile jail. He described Davis as “so small and so young” when he met him. He said they developed a bond that’s lasted nearly 30 years.
“For me, he's just a young man that got caught up in all this kind of extreme sentencing [and] juveniles being tried as adults,” Kelly said.
Kelly’s ministry helps people when they get out of prison and he said his team had been “scurrying around to make sure we're ready to support [Davis] in every way we can.”
Kelly said so far, Davis is doing “great.”
“I tell him, I tell everybody who comes out that, you know, just take it slow, have some patience. You know, don't try to run before you can walk in the sense of getting everything in place, give yourself some time,” Kelly said.
Once Davis is settled in, Kelly said he expects him to use his experience to talk with young people in Chicago and convince them to not follow the path he did.
Davis believes his experience of being locked up as a child will help him connect with young people being pulled into gangs and crime.
“Since I've been gone since I was 14, I have a better story to tell because I was so young and they are young as well,” Davis said. “Most people that get out of prison went to prison in their 20s or something. So the young’uns are like ‘man, come on I’m not trying to hear that.’”
Davis co-authored a book in prison, called The Rehabilitation of an Urban Terrorist as part of his effort to reach young people in trouble.
Now that he’s out, he said he’s excited to talk with young people face to face.
“I’ll be able to talk to them and get them off of drugs and start taking steps to become a better person,” Davis said. “Then once you help them with that you can say ’OK, let's take a step back from the gangs. Let's put down the guns.’”
Davis said that kind of outreach and counseling is not being offered to nearly enough kids in trouble, especially not from those in power.
“Right now they don’t do that. They say ‘look, I'm going to put you in jail and think that that’s going to work,’” Davis said, before adding, “No, no.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the age at which Davis was sentenced. He was 16.