how soon is now?

A little before noon I had an unexpected surprise. The phone rang and a familiar sonorous voice asked for me. I said “This is he,” and he said, “This is Bill Kurtis.”

Bill Kurtis, as you may know, is the well-known American television journalist, producer, narrator, and host of A&E crime and news documentary shows including Investigative Reports, American Justice, and Cold Case Files. He is the former anchor of the CBS Morning News, and was the longtime anchor at WBBM-TV, the CBS affiliate in Chicago.

In the course of doing some background research, I had contacted his production company expecting to hear back from an intern or, at most, a producer. I had not expected, even in my wildest imaginings, to hear from The Man himself.

We had a pleasant conversation, and he asked me to add him to the Diary’s subscriber list and to send him a detailed description of the work of The Redemption Project. I also took the opportunity to share with him my experience of observing Derek as he watched “Blood Brothers,” an American Justice episode about the King Brothers that Bill’s company produced.

“Watching ‘Blood Brothers’ was the first time Derek had ever seen his story through the eyes of someone else. He had never even read about the crime because it was not allowed in prison,” I said. I told Bill that I watched Derek, not the video, through the whole program. I told him I was sure Derek’s reaction was sincere and true.

“What was it?” Bill asked.

“Derek couldn’t believe that kid on the screen was him. It was as if the boy on the screen was a completely different person.”

Within two or three weeks of Derek’s arrival here after his prison release, my cassette of “Blood Brothers” appeared on top of the television set as part of a small stack of films Derek had heard about but had never seen. Derek said that lots of inmates and staff at the prison told him they’d seen him on American Justice, and he always pretended to know what they were talking about. But he didn’t really know. It was a bluff, a way of showing no weakness that someone could exploit and use against him.

So Derek was curious. He was very curious. But as the stack of films was watched and re-shelved, eventually “Blood Brothers” was the last one remaining. It must have sat unwatched on top of the TV for a month. I never pushed the issue. I never said a thing.

After we’d sat side-by-side at the computer and watched PBS Frontline’s “When Kids Get Life” (a profoundly disquieting experience for Derek, by the way), Derek resolutely announced: “Okay, I’ve put it off long enough. The time is now. We’re going to watch “Blood Brothers.”

When a Pensacola detective was interviewed on the screen, Derek exclaimed, “Yeah, and you were caught lying on the stand!”

He sat silent for a long time, his eyes riveted on the screen. And then at a key part of the story he exclaimed,  “Aw, man, this is so screwed up!”, shaking his head in disbelief. “I can’t believe that was me. I would never do that today!”

Derek seemed to be disoriented by what he was experiencing. I could tell he remembered being at the center of the events he was watching, and yet there was a jarring disconnect at work. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

“I am shocked,” he said at the end of the program, “as shocked as anybody.”

“Was the program accurate?” I asked him. “Yes, but I still can’t believe it,” he said. “I feel like a person who has been grazed in the forehead by a bullet,” Derek said. “I could be in prison right now for the rest of my life, or dead.” (He must have still been thinking of those JLWOP kids in Colorado.)  “But instead I’m here, outside the prison gates.” There was gratitude in his voice. His fate had been nudged to the good by just a hair’s width.

Afterwards we took a long hike over some nearby hills and mountains and he walked yards ahead of me, absorbed in thought, still getting his head around it.

For me it was a dramatic illustration of what we are always talking about, repeatedly, almost ad nauseum. Kids’ brains are not fully developed until they reach their mid-20s. That boy on the screen literally was a different person than the young man who was living with me.

In pursuing its continuing vendetta against Alex, the State of Florida is persecuting the wrong victim. They are only persecuting an outer shell. Inside the shell today’s Alex, too, is a different person from the 12-year-old who was manipulated into a terrible deed. He and Derek are not unique.

Yesterday I was reading the diary entries of Nathan Ybanez at www.concreteechoes.com. Nathan is serving life-without-parole in Colorado’s Sterling Prison for killing his abusive mother at age 16. He is 29 now. He has grown up in prison and, aside from the outer shell which he compares to a cardboard box that is kept empty by the bleakness of his circumstances, Nathan is no longer the same person who committed the crime.

Yet (his empty-box analogy notwithstanding) Nathan is a remarkable, gifted young man. He is full of good. In the crucible of prison Nathan has, in my opinion, transformed himself into a Living National Treasure.

Yet the State of Colorado continues to inflict upon him a string of cruel punishments that have long since lost any meaning except that such a state has no moral right to rule and should be dissolved.

In the days since the release of the West Memphis Three, my colleagues and I have spoken often about how important it is for people who are in the public eye to embrace our causes. In this culture, if a cause cannot achieve prominence in the public mind, it may as well not exist at all.

I hope Bill Kurtis reads the Diary and is moved to give our kids’ causes greater visibility with his audience. I hope he’ll help us bring about a transformation of public consciousness that will result in a mindful, more compassionate, and just society.

This change must happen soon. It cannot wait. Our kids are not growing younger.


Groove of the Day 

Listen to The Smiths performing “How Soon Is Now?”


6 Responses to “how soon is now?”

  1. 1 matt
    August 30, 2011 at 6:03 pm

    Seems like a very positive interaction with Bill Kurtis, but what facinated me was your description of Derek King watching the video and then digesting what he had seen. It’s not the same as watching old family movies/videos and exchanging loving comments and jabs, but must have been a rather surreal experience. Proof again that LWOP for juveniles totally ignores the human developmental process and the ability to adapt and change.

  2. 2 Jeanne
    August 30, 2011 at 7:21 pm

    I hope Mr. Kurtis realizes the enormous aid he would provide to the justice system by possibly airing a show that promotes the truth about children and adolescents in the prison system.

    There is a common sense method that has been ignored when dealing with our young people in the criminal system. Some of these children committed crimes due to abuse, which always baffled me because if your living a life of violence, your naturally going to protect yourself with violence but who is protecting you? If your neglected and have no adult supervision (which is very common today) your likely going to make unwise choices. If a young person is not supervised by a person with a good moral background, that youth will like take an interest in people that are taking an interest in them. This often can be a poor peer group, family members within the criminal system already, and gangs. If your brain is underdeveloped and you have little life experience, your prone to act (or react) as your peers do. If your brain is underdeveloped and you live in a poor environment, studies prove that your not going to have the means to hold back your aggression and bad choices will be made. A person’s biological and environmental background is a dominant factor that plays an enormous part of “why” youths commit crimes in the first place.

    I also think it is very important to make it clear that these laws that prompted the LWOP for children was started due to the gang violence quite some years ago. We have learned a great deal about the human brain since then. So much that the Supreme Court also banned executing anyone under the age of 18 years-old due to the significant facts about brain development. This in itself should have prompted a re-evaluation of the sentencing guidelines that we have in place for “children” 10 years and older.

    Derek is example that a good support system with rehabilitation as the focus, along with the fact that brain development is a occurring until our mid-twenties, is part of a statistic that should be re-evaluated. It seems absurd that children are receiving sentences as long, if not longer and adults with fully developed brains.

    Equally important is the fact, as you have seen in the Jordan Brown case in Pennsylvania, that exposing a child this young to the public is violating that child’s chance to a fair trial. Clearly, what was done in Pennsylvania, should be an indicator that the system needs re-developed. How many young people lost their chance to have their cases sent to juvenile court because they were forced to plead guilty? How many are innocent? If it happens to adults, it is happening to children as well. This is very serious.

    Furthermore, if the state has the right to place a child in a prison with a LWOP sentence, there should be laws in order that require our public offices, our schools teachers, our juvenile centers, to provide these children with an understanding of the law and the punishment for breaking that law in the first place. Did you ever think of how strange it is to place a child in prison for life, when they do not even understand the laws? Do we not also refrain from aggression with the knowledge of what will happen to us if we do not?

    More than anything, I think a good look at “juvenile rehabilitation” vs. an adult prison setting should be prompted as “humane” not a “free ride”. There are young people being raped and many that commit suicide in adult settings and the public closes their eyes to this reality thinking they are where they should be, with no real understanding of what really is going on here. We should be better than this.

  3. 3 Wolfgang
    August 31, 2011 at 2:25 am

    The more public those children cases get the better it is.
    Derek and Alex are showing that children can be rehabilitated, and that there should be a fair chance for each child even if the child does a horrible crime. Fact is in each of this cases something or someone was leading to the deed, there is all way’s a story in the background, a story that sometimes doesn’t get into the public because the media is only interested in the sensational foreground story like “12 year old could be the youngest to face LWOP” that is what people like to see or to read.

  4. 4 Dan
    September 7, 2011 at 5:39 pm


    Thought this might interest you:

    Appeals court allows life sentences for juveniles:


    • September 7, 2011 at 11:01 pm

      I encourage readers not to become too discouraged by this court ruling. The circumstances of this crime make it a poor test case for the issue of whether juveniles should be sentenced to life-without-parole for murder. For some, like these offenders, a “living death sentence” can be arguably justified. For most–especially kids who have been severely and repeatedly abused by the adults who should be nurturing and protecting their kids–it cannot.

  5. 6 Gloria
    September 8, 2011 at 2:59 am

    International Law regarding children

    (a) No child shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Neither capital punishment nor life imprisonment without possibility of release shall be imposed for offences committed by persons below eighteen years of age;

    (b) No child shall be deprived of his or her liberty unlawfully or arbitrarily. The arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child shall be in conformity with the law and shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time;

    (c) Every child deprived of liberty shall be treated with humanity and respect for the inherent dignity of the human person, and in a manner which takes into account the needs of persons of his or her age. In particular, every child deprived of liberty shall be separated from adults unless it is considered in the child’s best interest not to do so and shall have the right to maintain contact with his or her family through correspondence and visits, save in exceptional circumstances;

    (d) Every child deprived of his or her liberty shall have the right to prompt access to legal and other appropriate assistance, as well as the right to challenge the legality of the deprivation of his or her liberty before a court or other competent, independent and impartial authority, and to a prompt decision on any such action


    It is important to call the State Attorney’s office to ask that the adult charges be dropped. Cristian’s case needs to be handled in juvenile court! The SA number to call is 904 630-2400. Please call!

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