Life After Murder: Five Men in Search of RedemptionLife After Murder: Five Men in Search of Redemption by Nancy Mullane
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I began reading this book with trepidation. I hated “digesting” the stupid, senseless acts that had landed these five guys in prison for life with possibility of parole. Most were murders committed during the course of another crime (e.g., a home invasion robbery, fleeing from a convenience store robbery, etc.). One was particularly brutal (kicking a guy in the head who’d already been robbed and was lying on the ground bleeding). In only one of the five cases could I sort of understand the guy’s motivation and feel somewhat forgiving (he was chasing after his wife’s drug dealer who, along with her, had stolen the man’s car—this after he’d moved, changed jobs, etc. to try and get her clean).

But by the end of the book, I felt grudging respect for these men, along with an equal measure of empathy. They had come so far, and gone through so much, both in prison and out. Each exhibited a work ethic, a capacity for introspection, a belief in God, a desire to seize each moment of what life has to offer. Each wanted to help others avoid the mistakes they had made, and were willing to lay bare to the world who they are and what they’d done in order to accomplish this. And they exhibited these traits irrespective of race or the economic circumstances in which they found themselves following a hard-won release. I have to say, these guys displayed more character, grit and determination than many of the fools we encounter in our everyday lives, and probably have more to offer the world. Precisely because of the crimes they had committed and the decades spent in prison pondering what they had done, they had a deeper, clearer understanding of life’s preciousness along with a longing to make the most of it. Corny as it sounds, I felt honored to be given this glimpse into their lives, and to get to know them in this small way.

As you might imagine, in most cases employment is a huge challenge following release from prison. I believe this is the reason so many parolees commit new crimes—it is nearly impossible to find legitimate employment if you have a prison record. Two of these guys were lucky enough to have maintained long-standing contacts on the outside, or to have family members who could offer a job. Another one or two had girlfriends to pick up the slack. In a couple of cases, the men eventually started their own businesses after finding it impossible to find or maintain employment. In a couple of others, they worked with at-risk youth, sometimes carpooling 100 miles to far-flung locales. But in every single case, there was no loitering or daytime television; hands and feet were in constant motion—painting, gardening, repairing, building, etc., whether for pay or not.

This is not to say that all murderers can be rehabilitated. The real question posed by this book is, if a murderer demonstrates that he has completely turned his life around, should he be let out after serving the determinate part of his sentence? Or should he live out his remaining years behind bars? Unbeknownst to me, the governor has the final say on this matter, and after the Willie Horton case in Massachusetts (the one that derailed Michael Dukakis’ chances for the presidency in 1988), there is no political “upside” to a governor paroling a prisoner, even after the parole board has recommended a prisoner for release. If the original sentence allows for the possibility of parole, and a prisoner has demonstrated to an extremely exacting parole board that he has met the requirements for release, it seems to me unconstitutional for a governor to have the right to second-guess both the original jury and the parole board. I also think it is cruel and inhuman to find a lifer eligible for parole after he’s served, say, a 25-year sentence, then make him wait another 150 days only to take that away, and to repeat this nearly futile process every few years, over and over again. If you’re going to keep a guy in jail for life, then sentence him to life without the possibility of parole in the first place. To create false hope time and again is plain rotten and has no bearing on the original crime or its punishment.

As for the underlying issue of whether to parole or not: On the one hand, these men killed people. Their victims don't get a second chance after 15 or 20 or 25 years. The families and friends of the deceased don’t get another chance, either—their loved one is gone forever. Is it not fair that the person responsible for taking a human life pay a commensurate price? But on the other hand—and this is where it gets tricky—if a certain proportion of convicted killers have turned themselves around to where they probably have more to offer society than your average joe in the way of wisdom, compassion, and a desire to serve and contribute, are we really better off housing them in prison for the rest of their natural lives (to the tune of $50,000 to $100,000 of yearly taxpayer dollars), or trying to re-integrate them into society? This is a moral question I think we must ask ourselves. To me, it boils down to whether, as a society, we want to be forgiving or retributive.

On a more mundane note, I gave this book three stars because the writing was mostly dry and there were too many extraneous parts that could have been cut. For those reasons, I found it to be a tough read, but I hung in there to get to the crux of these important issues regarding incarceration, and because I came to feel a connection to these men and wanted to see how their stories turned out. Nancy Mullane eventually gets her point across, and by the end of the book got me to the point where I felt the same kinship to these five men as she did. For that reason, I would say it is a worthwhile read.

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