“It’s complicated. There’s a lot of emotional baggage tied to [sharing this story], and to this point, that hasn’t gone away... Other advocates that I’ve met that have been doing this for many years say that it doesn’t go away. So, it’s emotionally draining, but it’s also uplifting in the sense that I feel like I’m doing some good for others that are in the situation that I was in as a child… Our ultimate goal is that we can provide an intervention for young people that come into the justice system, instead of just treating them like adults and sending them away for the rest of their lives, or for a large chunk of their lives.”
Billy Harris is a 46 year-old man who works for a nonprofit organization in St. Louis. When he was 16 years old, he was certified as an adult and sentenced to 30 years in prison for second degree murder. In this interview, Billy talks about his experiences as a boy growing up in a country town in South Carolina, as a youth who spent his formative years in detention centers and prisons with grown men, and as a man who returned to the community after a significant - and crucial - period of time, having been locked up from 1987 to 2002.
Interview with Billy Harris, conducted by Joann Self Selvidge for The Juvenile Project (TJP) on March 03, 2017 at the MacArthur Justice Center in St. Louis, MO.
Joann: Okay. Tell me a little bit about yourself.
Billy: I am Billy Harris, I'm 46 years old. In 1987, I was involved in a murder along with my sister who at the time was 17 years old, I was 16 at the time. This all started when my sister's roommate, which was also a personal friend of mine, was raped by an adult male, a 34 year old. This person, my sister's roommate, was 19 at the time. I've never really told the story from this, I don't know, from this perspective or from the starting point. When I think back on what precipitated that, I think back to earlier in my childhood. I remember, I guess what I think of as my first moral teachings about how to handle situations or conflict resolutions. When I was seven years old, I lived in a little country town in South Carolina, and my closest neighbor was a little black boy. We were friends and there weren't any other neighbors around, so we just instinctively were friends. I spent a lot of time after school playing with him, riding bikes, typical kid stuff.
One afternoon his older brother that lived with him, was probably 20 something, that type of an older brother, took the horn off of my bicycle. I'm sure he thought of it as playing, playing around, but he was being very bullish about it and wouldn't give it back, and was giving me a hard time and harassing me until I got mad. I got on my bike and round home and I told my dad. My dad went into his bedroom, walks out with a pistol in his hand, tells me to get in the car. We proceeded to go back up to my friend's house. My dad confronted the man that had took my bike, or I'm sorry the horn. Luckily there was no real confrontation, the guy said, "Hey I was just playing with him. I was just joking. Here's the horn back." We got in the car and we left. I remember my dad telling me something to the effect of never letting anyone get over on me.
So looking back on that, I believe that's the first real, I don't know, moral compass ... Yeah I don't know really what to call that, but that's where I kind of take it all back to on how I started developing my belief system and what I felt my rights were when it come to defending myself or someone I cared about. When Jennifer was raped, of course she was upset about it, of course. My sister was extremely upset about it. My sister and myself were really close. Ultimately it led to the three of us, along with three other guys, going out to the guy's house and beating him to death.
Joann: What happened after that, when did you interface with the justice system? Did somebody turn themselves in? Did somebody call it in? How was an arrest made?
Billy: Okay. Actually I liked that you asked that, because I believe that what I'm about to tell you really correlates with what today's neuroscience is saying about kids and their development, and the way that they process and think about consequences and things of that nature. At that point in time, I literally had no concept of consequences. I can honestly say, I never thought about the police, any intervention. What ultimately happened the following day, myself and my sister's boyfriend that was also involved, ultimately we needed money for drugs. We smoked marijuana, we drank, we did crack, things of that nature, so we just wanted to party. We went back to the guy's house, me and Brian, went back to the guy's house to rob it while he was laying in the floor dead. At the time we didn't think anything of that. Looking back on it, I see how society thinks that okay when kids commit crimes like this, that they're already callous and that they have no empathy, no remorse.
I guess on the surface that's true, but in reality it's just because of what we had been taught to that part in our life. Again, what moral compass we had been led by. We ended up stealing the guy's credit card, his debit card actually, and tried to use it at the bank ATM. Again, this was 1987, back at the beginning of I guess what we would call the technological revolution. I had no concept of even using a bank or a debit card, and had no idea about cameras in the machine or needing a pin to use the card, things of that nature. Ultimately, the machine kept the card. I was naïve at that point in time, I would say I was so stupid at that point in time that I went around to the teller window and asked for my card back. Told them I was, I named the person that was on the card, and that it was my card. They wanted a social security number to give me the card back, told them I didn't remember it, I would have to go home to get it. Then at that point we left.
It was the following day that the body was found. Apparently, someone at the bank saw the news story. It was a very small town, so any murder was a huge story. They immediately recognized the name and knew that they had video footage, and of course called the police. So Brian and myself were the first two that were arrested.
Joann: What happened after that? Let's see, so y’all were arrested… and processed. You were 16.
Billy: It was a month after my 16th birthday. So, young 16.
Joann: That was here in, was it in St. Louis County?
Billy: That was actually in Newton County in Neosho, Missouri.
Joann: Okay. What did the process look like when you were arrested? Can you kind of tell me like, "Okay the cops came to get me, then we went here, then we went there." What happens when you get arrested in 1987 in that county?
Billy: Well I guess what I specifically remember, and this again goes back to the teachings of my father, and I was taught at an early age that you never tell on anybody, you never snitch. I recall being led to the police car, handcuffed of course. They stormed my house at, I don't know, one or two in the morning. I was asleep at my parents' house. As they were taking me outside and putting me in a police car, I recall my dad asking me, "Who else was involved?" Who could he contact to find out something about what was going on? I just remember me saying, "Why should anybody else get in trouble for this?" Basically I was just taking the old slogan, I was just taking my weight and the next thing I know ... Actually, I remember bits and pieces of that night, but I had actually taken several Valiums before going to bed that night and so I was kind of in and out. My memory of that night is very sketchy, just a couple of places.
I remember first being at the county jail and a lawyer came in to meet with me. The next thing I know I'm transferred to a different city, Joplin was a neighboring city of Neosho, to the juvenile facility so that they could I guess ... Before they certified me they had to take me to juvenile to lock me up, to hold me. I didn't wake up for two days, so I recall getting to the juvenile facility and the first process of them making me strip and how awkward that was for the first time. That's all I remember until two days later, when I woke up, when the lights come on and breakfast was being served. It's a really loud situation. I didn't even realize it had been two days until I asked and they told me that I didn't wake up the previous day.
As far as being in juvie, I didn't have any interaction with anyone else. They kept me completely isolated in my own room. They did give me like an hour out of my cell, I don't know if it was daily or how often that even was, but that was always by myself. Within a couple of weeks they had a certification hearing, certified me as an adult, and immediately transferred me to the adult county jail. For the first couple of weeks they kept me in isolation because of my age in the county jail, so I was in the hole. I was in solitary. After a couple of weeks I had convinced them to put me into another holding cell where Brian, my friend my sister's boyfriend, where he was being held. That started the process of being incarcerated in the county jail and waiting for trial and going through all their processes of preliminaries, and the different hearings, and things of that nature.
Joann: You mentioned that right when they, when you were first arrested you said, "They took me ..." The first place you went you said, "I had talked to an attorney then." When you were arrested did they… Do you know who that attorney was? I mean you had…
Billy: I do.
Joann: Oh. Okay, because I'm just curious because from some of the stories I've heard, that the first person you talk to is somebody called a DJO. But if you had an attorney or if that person... How did you get this attorney so quickly in the process? I'm just curious since someone just came.
Billy: Well I'm sure my folks, they followed us to, the county jail is actually also in the courthouse in Neosho. They didn't take me to the county jail, like upstairs to the actual jail portion, they took me to I guess booking, which was on the same level as the courtrooms. I just remember sitting down in the courtroom and having this lawyer, Ross Rhoades, which was at the time the most prominent attorney in Neosho. Pretty small town again. I'm sure my parents called him on the way or before they left out to meet me at the courthouse and he just showed up. Looking back on it, I guess in my understanding of it today is that he was really just there to protect me from being interviewed by the police at that point in time. There was no DJO interaction. There was no court interaction. Again, it was in the middle of the night, they'd probably come to my house about one so it was two or three in the morning whenever I would've interacted with him.
Joann: He was the first person that you talked to that you told your story to?
Billy: Didn't tell him any story. I wasn't confessing to anything at that point in time, or answering any questions at that point in time.
Joann: Had anybody told you, "Look you don't have to talk to anybody?"
Billy: I don't know. I really don't remember.
Joann: That's striking that you had representation right off the bat. You had somebody protecting you right off the bat.
Billy: But then he never did take my case. He wasn't actually my lawyer.
Joann: Okay. He was just there...
Billy: Out of courtesy I guess for my folks. My dad is, I guess you could call him a prominent businessman if that really... That's really just in the context of how small of a town Neosho was. He was just well known because he owned a muffler shop, and one of two muffler shops in the city, so most people knew him.
Joann: Tell me, you were certified, you were transferred to county jail, and you waited for trial. How long were you in the county jail awaiting trial? How long did it take to ...
Billy: Took about 11 months. We got arrested on February 12th and forgive me I don't remember the actual day, but I know it was in December when I finally took a plea bargain. They had originally charged us all with first-degree murder and I later plead to second-degree murder and took a 35 year sentence. So it was about 11 months in county jail and I spent time in two different counties. I ended up getting a change of venue so I was shipped to a different place, Rolla, Missouri.
Joann: Where did you begin your sentence once you were sentenced?
Billy: Everyone starts in a reception and diagnostics center so I don't really consider that. That was Fulton Reception and Diagnostic Center in Fulton, Missouri. Then I was sent to Missouri Eastern Correctional Center, which is close to here in St. Louis. It's actually in Pacific, Missouri about 30 or 40 miles west. I did my first eight years in MECC.
Joann: Tell me about your daily routine while you were at MECC.
Billy: I don't think I could call it a routine. Definitely not for the first few years, nothing was routine. It took a long time to really assimilate to that life, to that lifestyle, and to the daily routines. I mean yes there were some routines as far as what time you eat, and what time you have yard, and what time you're allowed to shower, and things of that nature where the correctional staff tell you when you can and when you can't. That was routine, but life was anything but routine. I think back on the experience and consider myself lucky to be extremely strong willed, because I was nowhere close to being a tough guy and a fighter. I was put into an environment to where that was the only way to survive without getting taken advantage of, was to fight. Honestly I don't know how I didn't get in more fights than I got into, just protecting myself, standing up for myself.
It was daily stress without even thinking about it. I didn't even realize I was stressed really, but I always had to watch all the way around you every second of the day. Every time you left your cell, you had to be very aware of your surroundings of everyone that walked past you. Also, I had to develop a new vocabulary and even a new way to respond to people, because number one I was young, number two I barely weighed a hundred pounds. In their eyes I was cute, so a lot of people wanted to make me their, I don't know what I would event want to call that. They wanted to make me their punk, right? They wanted to have sex with me and didn't care if I was willing or not, so there was that. If anything, that was the most routine I guess part of life in there, was just staying on your toes and knowing that you always had to be aware.
Joann: You were 16.
Billy: Yes. At that point in time, by the time I got to MECC I was actually 17. My birthday's in January, so I turned 17 in Fulton actually waiting to be transferred to my permanent prison.
Joann: Were you assaulted on a regular basis? Was anybody trying to protect you? How did the kind of social structures work within the prison? I mean you know, you obviously like you said, you were tough, but tell me about kind of how you figured out how to protect yourself.
Billy: How I figured out how to protect myself. I really just went on instinct. I had no frame of reference. I wasn't from a big inner city where I was in the streets and had to fight. Actually I was always a small kid, so I was the one that got picked on in school, and I got beat up after school by the bullies, and things of that nature when I was young. Even today, I don't really know where that comes from.
Joann: Where what comes from?
Billy: Where that mental toughness comes from. The reason I call it mental toughness is like I said, I wasn't going to confront anyone to fight them to get them off of me. I was always in a defensive mode. I don't know, but just the stress of feeling like you might be attacked at anytime. That someone might swing on you at anytime. Yeah, I don't know. It's really hard to put that into context, to really define that for you.
Joann: Could you describe what your worst experience was in those early couple of years?
Billy: My worst experience. This isn't one particular experience, but I guess my worst overall experience in that was that I already knew that I was a gay man. However, I'd come from a place, a society, that again in a small town in Neosho, that sort of thing wasn't acceptable so there wasn't any, in 1987 in that area, there wasn't any out gay people. I never could express that side of myself and had never investigated that side of myself. I just knew. So being put in that environment where it's all males and open showers, and people walking around half clothed all time, that was a really hard situation just because I didn't know how all that fit in into my own life really. I also know I couldn't act on any of that, because if I would have shown that I was gay, then I would've been preyed upon even that much more. At least I did know that, luckily I did know that. So that was probably the worst experience of my whole incarceration, just having to hide that.
Joann: Did anyone on the inside help you?
Billy: Yeah I had a little bit of help. Not immediately. Well I guess one thing that probably helped me, I had a cousin that was locked up, that was in that institution at the time. However, my cousin wasn't viewed, well my cousin was in for rape. That institution happened to be where they housed sex offenders that were at a period of their sentence where they could go through the Missouri sex offender program, which is required before they can get out. So he was already there. That did help a little bit just because he knew people, but he didn't have any clout, any yard clout. He didn't have a good reputation, because the people that would primarily preying on me were people with violent crimes, not people with rapes and molestations, and things of that nature. They viewed that population of the institution as less than and often times they were preyed upon, just because of the nature of their crimes.
It's not always exactly like you see in the movies to where just because you're a sex offender, they're going to beat your ass every day, or take your stuff. It's not really that extreme. It can be in certain situations, but for the most part people do their own thing. They really just prey on what they think is weak, not necessarily on what got you in there. So that helped me a little bit, at least it helped me get some connections and meet some other people on a fairly safe basis, you know what I mean? Then a guy that lived in the same wing as me was around my age, he was just under a year older than me. Was a little tough guy from inner city Kansas City, loved to fight, just the opposite of me basically, took a liking to me and we became friends.
He had been there a year or two already and had some I guess you could call high profile friends. He had one high profile friend, a guy that was notorious in Missouri Department of Corrections for years and years, had been locked up for years and years. He was just known to stab people. He himself had been stabbed 40 some times and it didn't kill him, so that kind of made him a legend, so he had a lot of clout there. That was my friend that I had met, Joe, it was his friend Jack. By Jack having all that clout, Joe could do whatever he wanted to do and nobody would mess with him. Plus Joe was tough and could take care of himself and would fight at the drop of a hat. Joe befriended me, and ultimately Joe and I had a sexual relationship behind closed doors. That was my protection early on.
Joann: You talk about levels of clout, and I'm also curious because you mentioned everything was so chaotic that you didn't kind of have a routine. At what point did you feel, and maybe it was during this time frame, but I mean how long had you been there before you felt like, were you able ever to kind of drop your guard at all? Or was that always with you the whole time you were there?
Billy: Yeah I mean I was able to a little bit. You could never drop your guard completely. I don't care how tough you are in there, because you're just asking for trouble, but yeah. As I grew older, it was just the experience of living there and at a certain point in time, I had been there as long in that particular institution, or at least comparable, to a lot of the people and longer than a lot of the people that were there, five or six years into my sentence by the time I was in my mid 20s. I guess I came to a point to where, and actually this was kind of helped along because Joe, which was my partner, we fought together, we took care of each other, he got locked up in the hole. He got, I don't even remember what happened at that point in time. I think it was just one too many fights and they finally decided to transfer him to a higher level institution.
All of the sudden I was pretty much on my own again. However, I had been there for five, six, seven years, I'm not even sure exactly at that point in time. So I knew my way around so to speak. I just knew how to handle myself and I kind of think of that period, it was like a transition period of where I felt like I became my own man, and became confident in my self, and in my own abilities to take care of myself. I'm sorry I don't know exactly what you asked me, but that's ... I don't know if I answered all of it or not.
Joann: You did. You did.
Billy: That's pretty much ...
Joann: You mentioned that when you first got there because you were a youthful offender, they segregated you in the solitary to protect you. Did they do that at MECC?
Billy: Not at all. No.
Joann: Okay. You went just straight into gen pop?
Joann: But I guess you had turned 17, so technically you were an adult in the state of Missouri.
Billy: Yeah. Yeah. Right.
Joann: When you were first sentenced, what was your sentence and what was your plea bargain? So what was the total time served that you were supposed to serve, and how did parole go, and all of that? What was the agreement?
Billy: The plea bargain was that I would plead guilty to second-degree murder for a sentence of 30 years and plead guilty to a charge of stealing a credit device, which was the card we used at the bank, in exchange for a five year sentence. The two sentences run consecutive, so it was a 35 year sentence.
Joann: How long did you actually spend inside and how did you get out before 35 years?
Billy: I spent 15 calendar years to the day, they actually let me out on February 12th of 2002. That obviously came through parole. I guess a little bit about that process. I was at MECC, as I stated, for my first eight years of my sentence. On that eighth year, I got caught with some marijuana, and of course got locked up in the hole. Got a new case, got a new charge, possession. Even though it was very little amount of marijuana in the institution, any amount whatsoever is a class C felony. Ultimately, I went to court and got another five years for that. They run it concurrent so it didn't really affect my sentence, but I was also transferred to maximum security to MSP, Missouri State Penitentiary.
In a couple of ways it was almost like I started all over again, because first of all people at MSP, a majority of them, have really lengthy sentences. Life sentences, life without parole sentences. A good deal of the population has already been locked up 10, 15, 20, some even 30 years and they don't care. They have a, "I don't care" attitude, they're going to do what they want to do when they want to do it. Nobody there knew me. I did know a few people, I don't want to say nobody, because being in the system for that number of years people get transferred around constantly. If you've been locked up for any amount of time, any number of years, and you get rolled to a different institution, transferred to a different institution, you're bound to know someone there. So I did know some people, but I also was put in a housing unit that I didn't know anybody.
Because it's a maximum security institution, they don't let everybody out on the yard at the same time. They don't let everybody go to the chow hall at the same time. It was very tricky again for me, because there were so many people there that again saw me for the first time, so again they saw me as fresh meat if you will, and were coming after me on that level. I actually spent a good deal of time, I think two months, in the hole when I first got transferred there, which is common if you get a new charge and you get transferred to a different institution. You're going to do some time in the hole before they have to [teem 00:33:35] you to agree to let you out into general population again, that type of thing. Within the first week of being out of the hole, I was in the chow hall one morning for breakfast and the people that I did know, their housing unit didn't get out the same time as mine that day for whatever reason, previously we had.
Someone, a long timer, that had life without parole, that had been locked up for about 20 years already came and sat down at my table and accosted me basically. Asked me who I was with and in prison lingo that means, "Whose punk are you? Whose boy are you?" I just replied, "I'm not with no motherfucker." And he said, "Well now you're with me." So I already knew the game, right? So I just swung on the guy. You just have to, that's when the fight starts. Ultimately I got locked up in the hole again. I did get jumped there in the chow hall. It wasn't just him, as soon as the fight ensued, numerous friends of his came and engaged. Next thing I know I'm in the hole again and under investigation, because I wouldn't tell anything, and you know that type of story. I was the only one that they arrested and that's pretty much what happens. They arrest you in prison too. They put you in cuffs and take you away, throw you in the cell, and close the door.
Because of just the nature of the chow hall and people running around, and what happens when a fight ensues, and even the way that the guards handle it, makes it really hard to always catch the people that are actually involved. I was the only one to get arrested because I was bleeding, my lip was bleeding and my shirt was ripped off of me so I was pretty obvious. Everybody else got away, so that means you set in under investigation. Unless you will tell on somebody, they put you on what they call investigation. It can go on for months, and months, and months. In my case it amounted to about six months in the hole before they finally let me out, because I just wouldn't tell. Eventually, they give in and say, "Okay we're going to put you out back in population."
Now I do know from just the way that the situation unfolded over time that they knew who was involved, because other people talk. At one point in time, they did lock up some other people, and they locked up the person that started the fight with me. I guess you could say I started the fight in a way, but he started a fight with me by accosting me. They lock him up, but of course he wouldn't admit to anything, and I wouldn't tell them that that was who it was. He got out, everybody else got out a good month before I ever did. Well, I don't think it's any coincidence, I think this is part of the system and the way that it works, the DOC in general. When they let me out of the hole, they could've put me in a housing unit with a known friend of mine. That was well established there, that could've been a protector. I guarantee you the investigative team at that institution knew this. Instead of doing that, they put me in a different housing unit in the same wing as the individual that had started this situation in the first place.
So that started a whole nother process. The first day I was in there, he came around. My cell was closed, but it's bars, and he got out for probably work or something. People get out at different times, they don't open all the doors all at once all the time. He already knew I was there and came to my cell and basically told me that it was on again soon as I come out of the cell. I did know somebody else in that wing. I tried to get a knife, thinking it has to escalate to that level to get this guy's attention. He's not going to give up. I had already learned some things about him, that he had been involved in stabbings before, he'd been locked up a long time. This was just part of his game. So I tried to get a knife.
The, I guess, so called friend of mine that was going to bring me a knife never showed up with a knife, so I didn't leave my cell for two days. I was afraid if I went out there, then not only was I going to be confronted by him, but then his friends as well. They already knew I would fight, so this time they would be strapped most likely. They would have knives, they would have weapons. So I stayed in my cell for two days, trying to figure out what to do about this situation. Ultimately, come to the conclusion that it just wasn't worth what the situation was going to turn into, as far as my life was concerned. It wasn't worth killing somebody. I had been locked up long enough that I was starting to realize that this wasn't what I wanted. This wasn't where I was ... I guess, I would say that I had already starting realizing, actually whenever I got the new case, the weed case.
I thought to myself, "Well I was in the hole on that." I'm like, "Dude what are you doing? You know, you're going backwards. You got to this point. You've got another year and you can go up for parole. Probably not going to get it the first time, but now you're definitely not going to get it because you just got a new case." I had already started a thought process of change. I didn't really realize what all that meant at that time. After spending two days in my cell and waiting on somebody to bring me a knife that never came, I finally called a cop, a CO to my cell and told him, "I need to check in." Checking in is protective custody, which in prison is a bad thing. It's looked down upon. It means that you're weak. That was an extremely difficult decision. It really hurt, it really did.
Well I don't think that that, I started to say that was the best thing that could've happened to me, it wasn't that that was the best thing that could've happened to me. I really think of the weed case that I had caught in Pacific as the best thing that ever happened to me, because it began the process of me turning my life around and changing. I went to PC...
Joann: What's PC? Oh, protective...
Billy: Protective custody. Almost immediately started talking to the drug counselor in that unit, started going to his classes. I wasn't smoking weed anymore, I wasn't getting high anymore. I just had I guess turned a page on that, and realized that I don't want to be in here the rest of my life and I have to change me to make that happen. That led to another program that started up just after I had got to that prison called the ITC, Intensive Therapeutic Community. It's a drug and criminality, I guess you could say program, that was written by and run by inmates that had lengthy sentences. The main facilitator had a life and 50 sentence that had been locked up for 30 something years at that point in time and had no expectation of ever getting out. He was just tired of living that lifestyle and had come to a realization that, "Just because I'm in prison doesn't mean that I have to live in that mentality of a criminal."
So these two guys got together and wrote up this program, and got the support of the warden, and you had to be selected to get in this. It wasn't a court mandated type of thing. You had to go through multiple interviews with the staff of the program to even get accepted into it. They would accept 10 people at a time in groups they called phases. There were three phases of the program, so you'd go in as phase one, then after a couple of months go to phase two, and then you'd go to phase three and you would graduate at the end of phase three. It was a six month program. That was really what was instrumental in helping me change who I was, literally. The reason being it kind of approached it from a standpoint that all of our behaviors, and our actions of course are led by our behaviors, but all of those behaviors were learned behaviors. Our actions were really habits for the most part based off of our learned behaviors. Habits can be taught, just like behavior is learned. If it can be learned, it can be unlearned and re-taught.
Literally the ITC program broke down our behavior on a daily basis to the bare essentials and then built it back up showing us the, I guess a good moral value system to replace those habits with and those behaviors with. That's where I started seeing the real change. Let's see, I'm trying to think of how long I had been locked up at that point in time. I can't remember exactly. If you want me to do the math I really can, but I know after I had graduated that program the next time that I went up for parole, after that, I got an out date. Part of it was based on the parole board's view of the program, and the success of the program, and the success of the graduates of the program. At that point in time was a couple years after the program had begun, and no one had been in trouble that had graduated it, no one had gotten anymore drug, dirty urine, any drug cases, anything like that. So it was viewed at that point in time as an extremely successful program, so that definitely helped.
I think what really helped was my realization that I had to take responsibility, full responsibility, for my actions. In the actual murder, there was six of us involved and it was a beating death. Without someone taking credit for, I guess, the blow or even if you could tell what actually killed the person, it's really hard to determine who did what and when, and what caused what exactly. However, I was there that night, so I knew exactly what went down. Ultimately the guy was killed by getting hit in the head with a claw hammer, and that was me. Until that point in time, nobody knew that other than my co-defendants. No one had ever spoke on the fact that that was me in any of their statements or anything of that nature. In fact, my sister actually took credit for doing that in a statement that she gave and consequently was not offered a plea bargain.
She was the only one of the six of us that was not offered a plea bargain, that was forced to go to jury trial based on her statement. She was found guilty of life without, or I'm sorry, she was found guilty of first-degree and was sentenced to life without parole at 17 years old. However, when I went up for parole that time I knew that I had to take full responsibility for my actions and tell them whatever they wanted to know. If I had a chance of gaining their confidence I guess, I don't know what it is that you gain from them for them to let you out. In my last parole hearing I took credit for that and told them that I was the one that hit him in the head with the hammer. That I was the one that ultimately caused his death and that at that point in time I had great remorse for that. That I no longer had the same moral values, belief system, that I did at the time of my crime.
At the time of my crime I felt like my actions were justified. The man was a rapist, he got what he had coming to him, that was my belief system as a 16 year old. An eye for an eye. Trying to think of how old I was to put it into context, but as a 28 year old, 29 year old, when I went for parole that time that was no longer my belief system, no longer my moral values. I realized that I did not have the right to judge that man and to take actions into my own hands. Ultimately I feel like they saw in me that I was a changed person. I was a changed man. I was no longer that 16 year old kid. Ultimately they gave me a two year out date and so in 2002 I come home. 15 years ago, last month.
Joann: How was the reentry?
Billy: Wow. Reentry was challenging. If you think about just the nature of the time, 1987 to 2002, how much changed in the world. Technology wise, everything was different. The way I put that into context is this one little story. I learned how to drive as a kid. I lived in the country, my mom started teaching me how to drive when I was 12 so at 16 I had a license immediately, four days after my birthday type thing. When I got out of prison, I knew I was going to need to drive, but I knew I had to take the test again. I got the book while I was still in prison, you can get the driving test book, so I studied. When I got out I already knew how to take the test, the written test, and I figured I know how to drive, it's like riding a bicycle you never really forget.
Ultimately I got my license just a couple days after I was out. My second week out, I needed a job. My mom let me drive her to work, or she may have drove, I don't know exactly. She gave me her car, I dropped her off at work. I took her car and started driving around, filling out applications looking for a job. Somewhere in the middle of that day I needed gas. Well she had given me some cash, so I had some money. When I pulled up to the gas station to the gas pump, and I got out of the car, and I looked at that gas pump for the first time since 1987 and I didn't know what to do. I had no idea how to make it work. There was somebody on another pump, and I look at them for a second and I thought about asking them, and then I thought, "No. He's going to think I'm an alien. He's going to know I just got out of prison if I ask him how to work this gas pump."
Ultimately I figured it out, but yes reintegration was quite a challenge because I had never done things that adults routinely do out here. Going in as a child, I think I had a savings account when I was a kid but I didn't set it up, you know what I mean? My mom set it up. I didn't really know the process, so I didn't even know how to get a checking account. I guess the biggest part of it was ... You might say, "Well you can just walk in a bank and ask them how to get a checking account." But my thing was I felt like as a 31 year old man, how are people going to look at me when I don't know these things instinctively? I felt like people would automatically know that something was wrong with me, that "You must've just got out of prison. You don't even know how to do anything. How to move around in society." So it was a real challenge. Everything was a real challenge.
Of course, trying to find a job was even a super added challenge because of course I'm on parole. There's no hiding what path my life had taken, and so how do you do a job interview and be forthright and upfront and still have a chance of landing that job? So that was extremely uncomfortable, but at the same time I guess I knew I had to tell them. Really, every time I went in for a job interview I really started it with basically a phrase like, "Okay. Let me tell you about this first, because you're going to need to know this and if I'm not a fit or you there's no sense in either of us wasting each other's time." So I would tell them what my background was and basically like I'm telling you here today, I would tell them the processes I went through and how I was no longer that person. I don't remember exactly how long it took, but it didn't take very long and I had a job. It wasn't much in a little town in Neosho, it paid $7.05 an hour, but I had a job.
I think of it as I kind of got lucky about six months after I was out, I lucked into meeting a man that was in construction. His family owned a construction company and they had just acquired a huge federal contract close to St. Louis in a little town called Lake St. Louis. I don't know if you guys are familiar with it or not, but it's a suburb west of St. Louis. They were willing to hire me, and put me up in a hotel, and pay me cash. They wanted to pay me $12 an hour, to me $12 an hour was a lot of money. So I did, I got permission from my parole officer and I literally moved up to Lake St. Louis and started working on this construction project.
About a month and a half into that project, the owners, which were the guy that hired me, they were his uncles. Because they were a nonunion, out-of-town contractor and St. Louis is such a union run city and area, it was a typical thing that most people were always seeing cities to where there was two entrances to the construction site. One of them was the picketing entrance where the union folks would go and picket you, and those of us that weren't union had to use that entrance. I don't know it was just a weird awkward situation. Ultimately, because they were picketing us that also meant that OSHA was looking at the site and seeing what was really going on in the site. Ultimately, that company was required to pay prevailing wage because this is, I don't know the legalities of everything, but because this is a union area, union wage is prevailing wage.
At that point in time it was about $21 dollars an hour. I was making 12. I knew all of this, I didn't care, because to me it was a new life. It was a fresh start. I didn't have any bills, other than food and tools. I had to buy some tools to work there, but ultimately I didn't have to pay for rent, so I didn't have a lot of expenses so that was good money to me. OSHA could pull anybody off the job site at any time and interview them and they were doing that to some folks. If you told them that you were making $12 an hour, then that would be a violation and they would immediately fine and I don't even know how far it could go. Ultimately, the owners got scared because they didn't know me, but they did know I had just gotten out of prison six months ago. Ultimately they got scared because they didn't know what I might say and they told me I had to leave.
I had $800 cash in my pocket and I called my parole officer and asked her if I could try to make it in St. Louis. I didn't want to go back to Neosho making $7.05 an hour. There wasn't a lot of opportunities in Neosho. I struck out on my own, rented a room in this lady's basement, in a suburb of St. Louis here over in Florissant, Missouri. Spent the next month in a fully furnished room, so I didn't need anything, there was a kitchen down there. Within a week I had a job again, kind of ironically. I think it's ironic. I got a job delivering pharmaceuticals for a logistics company. I did that for about a year and I met a person that I had done time with. We talked and he was doing construction here in the city of St. Louis for a developer. I met his boss, interviewed, told him I had just come from a construction site so he hired me.
I quit doing the delivery, started doing the construction, did that for a couple of years. Figured out that I didn't want to be doing that when I was 50 years old, working in the hot, hottest hot of the summer and the coldest cold of the winter all outside in the elements. Ultimately I enrolled and got accepted in Webster University and there's of course story within that story. Ultimately I graduated four years later with a bachelor's degree in video production. I'm not currently using it. During my time, my college days, I ultimately ... One job allowed me to get into college, it wasn't the construction job, it was going back to work with the logistics company, but as a manger for them. That worked out for almost a year and allowed me to go to school full time and work that job full time as well.
Then one morning, my district manager rolled in, from out of town, and handed me my last paycheck and said, "Okay we're moving this operation to Louisville, Kentucky Monday morning." So this was the Friday afternoon. I went to work Friday morning had a job, Friday afternoon I was jobless but I was still in school. Ultimately, in that process, in that time, I ended up getting a part-time job at an organization, a nonprofit here in St. Louis called St. Louis Effort for AIDS, as their office manager. About a year and a half later I graduated. I didn't have any job prospects in the video realm at that time in the TV industry. Again, St. Louis being highly unionized, I found out after graduation it was going to be extremely difficult to even get in the industry.
I already had a job and when I graduated the executive director told me, "Look, I understand you know this is what you want to do, video, this type of thing. This is what you went to school for and I respect that. If you have a job, I'll support you and write you a good reference if you need it." And whatever. She said, "But, if you don't have a job prospect right now, what I would like to do is extend your current job into a full time position if you will agree to give me a year. And if you will stay in this position for a year, and establish it as a full time position." It was going to be office manager and IT coordinator, because I also did their IT work. They didn't have any, I was their in house IT guy, IT support. I agreed to that and that was ... Well, if you rethink that. So that was nine years ago, but ultimately I've been with them 11 years now, with that organization, St. Louis Effort for AIDS. Still with them.
Joann: Awesome. I'm going to grab this because I dropped it in the process. And here we are. I just have a question about way back in the beginning. Was there ever a possibility that you might not be certified? That you would face that charge in a juvenile system?
Billy: I guess legally there was a chance. I don't think in this situation there was ever that possibility.
Joann: Who actually represented you at trial? You said the guy who came in and kind of stood for you the first night went off and did his thing. How did you get an attorney for your actual proceedings?
Billy: I was assigned a public defender by the courts. My parents didn't have a lot of money. Actually, the first guy that represented me, I guess you could say pro bono, but just basically walked me through the booking the first night. Again, was a prominent attorney and wanted $20,000 to represent me and there was no way they could come up with that kind of money. Again, since my sister was also locked up, my parents were in the situation to where they couldn't in good faith, I guess if you want to call it that, hire one of us an attorney and not the other. There was no way they could afford two attorneys at that rate. They just let us be represented by public defenders. Later on my sister actually did get a paid attorney before she went to trial. Unfortunately, it was only about a month before her trial when she got that attorney on her case and they did not give her a continuance so it really didn't do a lot of good. I don't think he had time to properly prepare and things of that nature. I was represented by a public defender.
Joann: At what point did you actually meet your public [defender], when did they assign the, was it a woman or a man?
Billy: It was a man.
Joann: When did they assign him to you and what point did you actually, when was your first conversation with him?
Billy: I can't recall that all really in the process. I don't know. I mean the first time I can think of meeting him was in the courtroom actually, when I was still in juvenile. They had brought me probably for my preliminary hearing I'm guessing. That would've been the first major hearing. He would've been assigned at that point, but I hadn't met him prior to that, we hadn't conducted any interviews or anything of that nature.
Joann: Was that before or after your certification hearing?
Billy: That would've been before my certification hearing.
Joann: Okay. What kind of a relationship did you have with him? Did you...
Billy: No real relationship. There wasn't a lot of visiting. There was no what I would think of as extra time given by him, which I understand is pretty par for the course in the public defender world. I guess typically they're assigned so many cases that they don't really have enough time to spend on each individual case. A murder case I'm sure takes an extensive amount of time, just by the nature of it. Investigations that need to take place and that sort of thing. Even after the 11 months of being in jail and to the day that I plead guilty, I never felt like I had any relationship with him. I never built any trust with him and never felt like he was trying to gain my trust. It was pretty much procedural.
Joann: Let me see. Okay let me ask this question this way. I don't know, it's really hard. We have a lot of questions about a relationship with the defense attorney, and how you think you could've been well represented, and all of that. Being 16 years old, I can't imagine you, I think about in 1987, or when I was 16 years old what kind of, what that means to a 16 year old. What a good defense attorney would be, and what they would do, and how they would act towards you? I mean...
Billy: I actually, I know you're not exactly asking a question there but...
Joann: I'm not.
Billy: I never really felt like I had a chance of getting off on this charge. I mean I knew I was there, I knew I was guilty, I knew they had evidence. So regardless of me, whether I said anything or not, which I never did give a statement. Never told on myself, so to speak. Other people on my case had given statements and implicated me being there, which was all that was needed.
Billy: So I never really expected that I wasn't going to prison. I just was trying not to get a life sentence. Actually specifically at that point in time, they could still give juveniles the death penalty. Of course, I was charged with first-degree murder so that was my only concern at that time. My only I guess best outcome to me was plea-ing down to second-degree murder, even if it would've been a regular life sentence I probably would've taken it at that point in time. As it turned out, my sister went to trial and got convicted before I had officially accepted my plea bargain. To me, it was basically a no brainer at that point in time whether or not I was going to take the plea or go to trial. It didn't make any sense to go to trial. I felt like if they found a 17 year old girl guilty, they were going to find a boy guilty most definitely.
Joann: Had your attorney advised you to take the plea?
Billy: He did not. I mean I do remember he specifically said, "Look I can't really advise you on this. I can tell you the ramifications of it. The severity of it, but I can also tell you the flip side and what would happen if you go to trial." I remember him suggesting that I talk to my parents and try to come to a decision.
Joann: Did you do that?
Billy: I did. Ultimately, I got almost the same thing from my parents. As you can imagine, it's probably pretty hard to tell your kid, your 16 year old, that it's okay to go to prison for 35 years, right? At the same time, my dad is actually an ex-con as well. He did time when he was younger for an attempted murder, way before I was born so that wasn't a direct effect on me. Other than again his moral teachings of me and the way he thought life should be lived. He never did say, "Take it or don't take it." He did try to give me his best advice and just told me, "Look you're going to have to make your own decision." And supported either decision that I made.
Joann: So you got to make your own decision.
Billy: Well yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
Joann: Do you have questions, is there something? I am going to look quickly.
Speaker 3: What were the outcomes of your other, I guess, four charge partners?
Billy: One of the people, one of the men involved, was actually the only adult. He was 21 years old and he turned state's evidence against my sister in trial. Had agreed to testify against any of us that went to trial. In doing so, took a plea bargain to, I don't even remember exactly what the charge was, but he got five years probation. The girl that got raped plead to second-degree murder and got a life sentence. The other two guys that were involved, my sister's boyfriend Brian that I told you about plead to a similar charge as mine and got a 37 year sentence instead of 35, they gave him 30 and a seven for the same two charges. The other individual involved was named David, a really good friend of the person that had gotten raped, and he was 18 at the time. He got a life sentence pleading to second-degree murder. Just for context, Brian was also 17. I think I told you everyone else's age. I was 16, my sister was 17, Brian was 17, David was 18, Jennifer the person that got raped was 19, and the guy that turned state's evidence was 21.
Joann: And his total sentence was five years?
Billy: Five years probation.
Joann: Five years probation, no time served?
Billy: He never even got locked up in the county jail. They never even detained him. That's our system. The first to tell gets the best deal, right?
Joann: Hmm. Well is there any part of this, is there any part of your story that you want to share with me that we haven't talked about?
Billy: I mean I could tell you things, other things that impacted me as a youth, other traumas that impacted me. I don't really like to use that as part of my story because... Well today, I do youth justice advocacy. I know that, I don't know if a majority is the right word, but I know a lot of people that get involved in the justice system at an early age, have a lot worse traumas than me, come from a lot harsher backgrounds than me, don't have a mother and a father in the household. Lots of things that I feel like are a lot worse than I had it, so I don't think of that as an excuse. So yeah, there's things there, things I've never shared with people. I mean, you know, I don't know. I know I was molested as a child. Actually, I found out when I was locked up with my cousin because of his MSOP, Missouri Sex Offender Program, because of his MSOP participation. Part of the participation in that is that the offenders have to admit all of their transgressions and make amends where they can, and things of that nature.
So he actually come to me, to my cell, and had a conversation with me as part of his MSOP program. Part of what he had to do to get an out date and admitted to me that he and my older stepbrother had started molesting me when I was four years old. I didn't know that until he told me. I did know that my older stepbrother had molested me up until about 10 years old. At that point he was no longer in our house so I don't think it happened after I was 10. Maybe 11, but somewhere around that.
Again, I mean a lot of people have similar stories and so many people have so much worse stories, so it's not an excuse. It's not a reason, it's not ... I mean it is. It is a reason, because I believe that everything that happens to us in our childhood, first and foremost, is not of our own choosing. We don't have a choice over our influences, over the peer pressure, over the guidance that we receive whether it be our family or our friends. Because we're kids, we don't have the life experiences, we don't have the wherewithal to know the real difference between right and wrong I think. People think of that I guess as a process, of knowing the difference between right and wrong, you hear that so much when we're talking about treatment of youth offenders. Well 16, 17, 18, "Well they're old enough to know the difference, they're old enough to know better."
I think back to myself at that age and it's like ... I guess there's a place where you can define that, knowing the difference between right and wrong, to where that applies. Honestly, it doesn't apply because the influences that led me to my beliefs were not my own and I had no choice over those. I had no choice over the environment that I was raised in and no one does.
Joann: Tell me a little bit more about the work that you do now.
Billy: Are you talking about my nonprofit or are you talking about my advocacy work?
Joann: Well you said, "I deal with youth justice work."
Joann: So that work.
Billy: Actually I can tell you honestly I've known for... Like I said, I've been out for 15 years now. I've known for a lot of years, a long time, that I wanted to do something to help the youth. That the system was messed up and was mistreating folks and not looking at the whole picture, the big picture. But I didn't really know how, what that was and what it meant, and I had never met anybody until last year that could get me involved in anything like that. It just never presented itself. Then because of the Montgomery decision, January of 2016, my sister was all of a sudden one of the 84 in Missouri that is eligible for something, we really don't even know what so please don't get me started on that.
But because of her name and she has an attorney at this point, that a lot of people in the juvenile justice circle that are fighting for reform [now 01:16:27]. The campaign for the fair sentencing of youth out of Washington D.C. reached out to him about my sister and ultimately found out about me and asked him to contact me and see if I was interested in talking to them. I did last year. We also had a couple of bills going through, legislature here that would redefine the sentencing guidelines for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder. In Missouri, before these bills that went through last year, the only sentence for a juvenile convicted of first degree murder in the state of Missouri was life without parole. Miller v. Alabama in 2012 rules that mandatory life without parole for a juvenile was unconstitutional, as you know. They asked me if I'd be interested in testifying in front of the House and in front of the Senate in regards to the bills that were going through, and I did. So that's where it started.
I have since been to D.C. and spoke to legislators there as well. I've worked on the break the pipeline campaign here in St. Louis with an organization called MCU, Metropolitan Congregations United. That's where I met Mae Quinn. I am, I guess I'll call it acquainted with, an organization that Mae works with or in conjugation with called FORJ-MO. I hope you're not going to ask me what FORJ-MO stands for, because it's really complicated long name, but it's FORJ-MO. They're working on juvenile justice reform issues in general. Right now they're working on the raise the age campaign, trying to raise the age from 17 to 18 of where an individual charged with a felony would be automatically tried in the adult system. When they asked me to go somewhere and talk and share my story, I always accept whoever it is.
Joann: Awesome. Well yeah, thank you for sharing your story here.
Billy: You're welcome.
Joann: I do want to say ... How have you felt since you've had to start actually sharing your story a lot more publicly? I mean is this something that's only been recently that you've started to kind of be out there, and talking about it, and processing it, and figuring out how to tell it? How has that felt?
Billy: It's complicated. There's a lot of emotional baggage tied to all of that. All I can say to this point that hasn't gone away and I don't know that it ever will. Other advocates that I've met that have been doing this for many years say it doesn't go away. It's emotionally draining, but it's also uplifting in the sense that I feel like I'm doing some good for others that are in the situation that I was in as a child. I know that ultimately what we're all fighting for is an outcome that means they don't have to face the same situations. That they're ultimately treated differently. I mean our ultimate goal is that we can provide an intervention for young people that come into the justice system, instead of just treating them like adults and sending them away for the rest of their lives, or for a large chunk of their lives.
Joann: Well thank you so much.
Billy: You're welcome. My pleasure.
Joann: I'm really glad that you made the time to talk to us today.
Billy: My pleasure.