Leon Echols, 43, admits to being a “knucklehead” a quarter of a century ago, but says murder wasn’t part of the plan when he sat in the back seat as his buddy haggled over price with the owner of a used car his friend hoped to buy.
But he thinks he’s long since paid the price for a crime he claimed was an act of self-defense, but could keep him in prison until he’s a very old man.
Even the Michigan Supreme Court agrees that the sentence that effectively landed Echols in Michigan’s Cotton prison in Jackson for life agrees the sentence was odd, according to a story by Ed White of The Associated Press, carried by CBS News and dozens of other AP affiliates.
Echols was 18, old enough to vote but a minor in some other important legal respects, at the time.
He claims the owner of the used car, Flery Ivery, “went beserk” and he shot and killed him in self-defense. He was convicted in 1989 of second-degree murder, a crime that carries a sentence of 10 to 25 years in prison, according to Michigan sentencing guidelines at the time.
But Circuit Judge Michael Talbot, in what one Michigan Supreme Court Justice Michael Cavanagh called an abuse of authority, ordered Echols to spend from 75 to 150 years in prison. That means Echols will be 83 before he can apply for parole.
- Do you think Leon Echols has paid for his crime? Should the Michigan Legislature take action that would remove judges' ability to exceed sentencing guidelines?
Talbot’s reasons for the long sentence aren’t completely clear because the trial transcript is unavailable, the AP said.
Humanity for Prisoners Says Echols Isn't Alone in 'Injustice'
Echols’ quest to resolve what he calls “an injustice” has not been swift.
The Michigan Appeals Court affirmed the conviction in 1992 and said Talbot “thoroughly explained his reasons” for the lengthy sentence. Talbot, now an appeals court judge, declined the AP’s request for an interview.
In March, Michigan’s highest court rejected a 40-page appeal for reconsideration of his sentence, but noted the unusual circumstances and said Echols could apply to the governor for commutation – something former Gov. Jennifer Granholm declined to do in 2010 and action current Gov. Rick Snyder has taken only four times since taking office in 2011.
In his dissenting opinion, Cavanagh called the case “exceptional” and Echols’ sentence “illegal.” He thinks Echols should be resentenced.
So does Doug Tjapkes, who founded the Michigan nonprofit group Humanity for Prisoners in 2001 to help his best friend, Maurice Carter, who Tjapkes claimed said served almost three decades for a crime he didn’t commit before his sentence was finally commuted for medical reasons after he contracted Hepatitis and staph infection. Carter died three years after he was released.
Humanity for Prisoners has endured as an advocacy group for prisoners and their families, and Tjapkes wrote in a blog that the AP story may bring long-needed awareness to the plight of prisoners like Echols, who are “serving long, indeterminate sentences and (are) buried and forgotten in Michigan prisons.
Tjapkes believes Echols and other similarly situated inmates have been tossed into a political Catch-22 situation that isn’t easily disentangled.
“Thanks to an opinion by the Michigan attorney general in 1986, these guys are not eligible for parole until they serve their minimum. …” Tjapkes wrote on his blog. “Lifers, on the other hand, after serving ‘x’ number of years in prison, get a crack at the Parole Board every five years.”
Echols won’t be eligible to plea to the Parole Board for another four decades.
Tjapkes said Snyder could easily commute Echols’ sentence.
“But why should he?” Tjapkes wrote. “A commutation would do little to reduce Michigan’s shamefully high prison population, and on the other hand, it definitely could damage his political reputation. Being tough on crime pleases voters.”
Speaking with the AP, University of Michigan law professor Paul Reingold said “injustice seems to be patent” in cases like Echols’, “but the avenues for relief are closed off by procedural rules or substantive reservations.
Echols: 'I've Done My Time'
Echols said in his interview with the AP that he didn’t plan to kill Ivery. Displaying a scar he claims is a reminder of the shooting, Echols claimed Ivery reached for something under the seat and hit him, drawing blood, so he reached for his gun and fired, shooting the victim twice.
“ ... I swear to God I didn’t want that to happen, he said.
Echols has been a model prisoner, making him eligible for a number of jobs inside the walls of the G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility, where he has spent his entire adult life.
He hasn’t given up on the notion that he will walk out of the prison
"It can take the wind out of your sails but I'm not giving up," he told the AP. “Everyone who sees me doesn't equate my sentence with me. This place is for monsters. There are people who need to be here. But me? I've done my time."» Read the full Associated Press story on CBS News.