a second chance

One of my high school classmates has been incarcerated for the last thirty years. About eight months after we graduated from high school, and when he was just 18.5 years old, BB was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to Life Without Mercy.*

Over the last number of years, my friend Kelly, also a high school classmate, has been advocating on his behalf. Last Monday was his “second-chance hearing” — a plea to change his sentence from institutional imprisonment to house arrest. While Kelly has been keeping me up to date on the case as it progressed, I wasn’t planning to attend the hearing, but then my dad emailed on Sunday. Kelly and her daughter would be flying in from Denver for the hearing, he said. Want to go?

I did not want to go. I had plans to tackle office work that morning, and a two-hour round-trip drive to West Virginia would be an inconvenience to my tidy life. Plus, I don’t know BB. I didn’t really know him back then, either — I was shy and reserved in high school, and terribly insecure, which probably made me appear stand-off-ish to many of my classmates — but I do remember him. I have an image of him dribbling a basketball down the court and flashing his gorgeous smile.

But Kelly would be there! I wanted to support her, and I did want to support BB even though I wasn’t connected to him because I one hundred percent believe in second chances. I knew I was being given an opportunity to show up, to see our judicial system in action, and to stand in solidarity with a person who made a horrible mistake when he was the same age as my own children, and who has been paying for it every day since, but I had a schedule to keep! Back and forth I waffled, my conscience pricking the whole time — because: giving up a Monday morning versus thirty years in a jail cell? Come on, Jennifer! Make your freedom count! — until finally I decided that if I was this conflicted, then it probably meant I should go. So I went.

The hallway outside the courtroom was crowded with people, mostly older folks who were BB’s family members, from what I gathered. There were some police officers, and some spiffily-dressed young guys who looked like attorneys. Kelly introduced me as salutatorian of BB’s class to two older women and one of them quipped, “So what have you been doing with all those smarts?” “Uh, hanging out at home and making cheese,” I answered dryly, which ended up sparking a lively conversation. (Their favorite cheese? Longhorn. I love Longhorn and I’d forgotten all about it!) And then the door opened and BB’s name was called.

I’d never been in court before (except for a driving ticket). It was like another world. Most of us sat on one side of the room. There was a big screen up front for people who were connecting via zoom — a couple other classmates, BB’s attorney, and down in the far right corner was BB himself, sitting in his cell. At the start we could hear the banging and clanging prison sounds, but eventually someone muted him. 

The whole thing was understated, practically dull. The judge fussed about having people on zoom and having to handle a case that originated in another county, and the defense attorney explained the history of the case and why they were bringing it up now. The prosecutor recounted the murder and listed off the reasons why it was important to keep BB in prison. The judge fretted that granting a second chance to one person would open the floodgates, effectively flooding the entire judicial system with people asking for second chances. The defense attorney patiently explained how and why his fears weren’t warranted. 

And then the defense attorney called the single witness, one of the spiffily-dressed men who was sitting two rows in front of us and who explained that he got to know BB in prison because he, too, had committed first-degree murder: straight out of high school, he’d gotten involved in drugs and shot a guy in a deal gone wrong. But in his case, he’d been convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison with mercy. He served 16 years, was released, and was now an assistant pastor of a congregation, married, and with a young child. Calmly and clearly, he spoke about BB’s peace-loving, compassionate character. For the last thirty years, BB had behaved in an exemplary manner, a fact that was never once contradicted, and he pleaded with the judge for BB to be given the same chance to contribute to society as he’d been given.

Listening to him speak, the similarities between the two men were remarkable, similarities which made their differences all the more stark:

1. The witness had been solely responsible for committing murder while BB had participated in a crime led by another person, and 
2. The witness was white and BB was Black. 

The judge watched the video that Kelly had prepared. He said he was impressed that so many people had come out in support of BB — “most of these men have no one,” he said — and then he denied BB a second chance. Thirty years ago, the jury made a decision and so they’d stick to it, he said. Gotta keep things fair, was the gist of it. 

The monitor screen went blank. The judge shuffled papers in preparation for the next case. The tiny woman sitting beside me asked, “The judge ruled against him?” and I nodded. We gathered our things and filed out.

leaving Moorefield

For the rest of that day I felt weird, off-kilter, both heavy and detached. I’d just had a front row seat to narrow-minded, eye-for-an-eye logic and bald-faced racisim. It dawned on me that, in a way, I’d actually just witnessed a murder — a person’s life off-handedly tossed away — but a murder so clean and sterile I almost couldn’t tell it’d just happened. It made me feel dirty.

And I couldn’t stop marveling at how the judge had simply said no. Just. . . no. He hadn’t consulted with his wife, or with his pastor. He hadn’t paused for a minute or two to reflect. He hadn’t spoken a word to BB, or even looked at him, as far as I could see. That a single elderly white man sitting on a platform at the front of a room had the sole power to grant someone life, and yet had chosen not to, sent me spinning. I know court cases are complicated and that there are many legalities to take into consideration, but if those with power, people like me, can’t find it within ourselves and within our systems to give people second chances, then what hope is there? How can we ever expect anyone to grant grace to us when we need it?

a video that Kelly shared with me: a similar situation.

In the week since I drove to the Moorefield Courthouse with my dad, I haven’t thought about BB’s case very much. It could be because I don’t know BB and his case doesn’t affects me personally, but I think my short-term memory stems from something deeper. First, the judicial system is so all-powerful that confronting it feels useless, so why bother? And second, prisoners are an out-of-sight out-of-mind segment of the population. If we can’t see them, they don’t exist. They’re ghosts, the living dead, the forgotten ones. And yet imprisoned people are fully human, and with the same capacity to feel and suffer and change as the rest of us.


If you want to take a small action on BB’s behalf, here’s a simple petition that you can sign.

*The crime happened then; the trial and conviction happened about a year later.

This same time, years previous: the quotidian (12.12.22), just what we needed, second amendment sanctuary, in praise of the local arts, Italian wedding soup, hot chocolate mix, constant vigilance!, sunrise, sunset, my elephant.


  • K Kelly

    thank you for this. I signed the petition. I urge everyone to Listen to Season 3 of the Serial Podcast, which deals with the juvenile justice system. It is heartbreaking.

  • Bonnie J Heiman

    This is so unjust. It makes me sick to see a young man in prison this long for being black and in the wrong place at the wrong time. As I see it BB has repaid the system with 30 years of life. We need to speak up for justice reform or this will continue to happen.

  • Mountaineer

    As I understand, it’s up to states to legislate life sentences, to decide if life sentences be “determinate” or “indeterminate.” Therefore, working with groups advocating the abolishment of determinate life sentences (life without mercy) in WV may be a long-term approach. Some WV legalese: https://www.nacdl.org/mapdata/ExcessiveSentencingProject-WestVirginia. Here is a possible action model: https://www.fuelwop.org/. Finally, Families Against Mandatory Minimums may have resources.

  • Steve Logan

    I was there virtually, and absolutely agree that this was bias and racism determining the denial for a second chance. Shame on Judge Parsons.
    I wrote Governor Jim Justice a clemency letter and mailed it yesterday. Perhaps, more concerned people would believe in restorative Justice could join me in writing your own letters for clemency.

  • Paula

    I was there via video at 6:00 am my time. Once the video feed was cut off from the courtroom,vee got to encourage BB. I encouraged him with tears. Still holding out hope that laws can be changed at a higher level.

    • Jennifer Jo

      Oh, I’m glad, Paula! I kept thinking about him being there all by himself without support after such a devastating verdict, so I am grateful to learn you got to talk to him afterward.

  • gogogadgethands

    HUUUh… Its gutting. I’ve been following along some from here as Kelly shares with me. Like a punch in the gut… Glad you went though. Courts systems are very strange and we got to see that first hand in our kids’ three year case prior to adoption. Its eye opening.

  • zenriddler51gmailcom

    The “justice” system is so unjust. And confronting it is the definition of feeling impotent. A bunch of men who are not omnipotent get together and come up with what they think is a good idea and vote it into law, and it continues to affect millions of people for more years than we can count. And judges get to make decisions like this based on their own feelings and biases at the time the decision is made. It’s a human system and totally fallible.

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