In 1993, Louis Gibson was arrested at age 17 for murder and sentenced to life without any chance of parole.
Today, Gibson, 41, is a model inmate, one of a select few living at the Louisiana State Police Inmate Barracks in Baton Rouge, where he does maintenance on State Police aircraft.
Until recently, it seemed he would die in prison. He was convicted of killing another teenager, a friend he’d grown up with.
But two bills passed through the Louisiana Senate and House could give Gibson and about 300 other "juvenile lifers" a chance at parole.
First, though, legislators must resolve differences between the House and Senate versions of Senate Bill 16, sponsored by Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge.
The Senate version promises parole eligibility for juvenile lifers after 25 years; the House version offers it after 30.
The Senate version would bar all future juvenile life-without-parole sentences, while the House version would bar such sentences for juvenile defendants convicted of second-degree murder, who made up 92 percent of recent defendants.
Both the parole eligibility and revised sentencing guidelines were recommended by a task force convened by Gov. John Bel Edwards in an effort to fight crime in smarter, more cost-effective ways.
If enacted, the law will “mark a substantial win for Louisiana and for the country,” said Jody Kent Lavy, executive director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, a national advocacy group.
For the state’s 300 or so juvenile lifers, the true test of the bill will be whether it allows more than a few dozen of them to be released. Still, the legislation could be a big step for Louisiana, which has flown in the face of U.S. Supreme Court rulings about mandatory life sentences for juveniles.
'Cruel and unusual'?
At night, in his prison bed, Gibson replays in his mind what happened that night 24 years ago.
He wishes he’d never driven with an older pal to a New Orleans hip-hop hotspot called the End Zone. They arrived around midnight. By 1:30 a.m., his friend Latrone Davis, 19, was dead.
It seemed like an all-too-common story of young men turning to guns over small disagreements. But years later, the insights of those involved help to illuminate Senate Bill 16 by examining not only senseless violence but also poverty, punishment and forgiveness.
The legislation that became Senate Bill 16 was first broached in Capitol hallways in 2012, after the Supreme Court ruled that laws requiring life-without-parole sentences for juveniles violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishment.”
Although Louisiana soon eliminated mandatory life-without-parole sentencing for juveniles, it allowed judges to impose the sentence after a hearing to consider mitigating factors related to the defendant’s young age and upbringing.
Statewide, 75 percent of the juveniles who have had those hearings since 2012 have ended up going to prison for life. So the sentence still looks nearly automatic, said Professor Katherine Mattes, who directs the Criminal Law Clinic at Tulane University's law school.
That runs contrary to the Supreme Court’s declaration that these sentences should become “rare” and “uncommon,” Mattes said. “Seventy-five percent is not uncommon. Seventy-five percent is not rare,” she said. “We’re putting ourselves in the cross-hairs of the Supreme Court again.”
Two years ago, researchers with Phillips Black, a public-interest law firm in St. Louis, found that Louisiana was one of five states responsible for the “vast majority” of juveniles in the U.S. serving life sentences. Because of that history, the effect of the Louisiana legislation will ripple far beyond Baton Rouge, Kent Lavy said.
Already sentenced juvenile lifers like Gibson have been waiting for Louisiana to act for more than a year, since the Supreme Court ruled in Montgomery v. Louisiana that states must offer them a “meaningful opportunity” for release.
Henry Montgomery, the plaintiff in that case, has been a prisoner at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola since 1970. Claitor was a toddler when Montgomery was convicted not far from his district, he told a Senate committee.
To Claitor, the directive in Montgomery’s case seemed both clear and personal. “This is a mandate from the Supreme Court saying, ‘Fix it,’ ” he told his colleagues.
If Senate Bill 16 becomes law, no prisoners will be automatically released. However, juvenile lifers will be able to earn a parole hearing if they meet certain behavioral and educational criteria and have served the required time, 25 or 30 years.
The bill’s behavioral and educational requirements may present a hurdle for many. According to a preliminary estimate by the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections, 72 inmates sentenced to life as juveniles have served enough time to get a hearing, but fewer than 20 percent of them meet the other requirements.
Claitor’s bill prompted hours of emotionally charged testimony in the House and Senate committees that oversee criminal justice. Tearful family members testified about teenagers who had brutally murdered grandmothers, young children and parents. A sheriff’s deputy described his shock at a particularly grisly crime perpetrated by a teen.
“It’s difficult. Lives are torn apart; people are dead,” Claitor said somberly after hearing the testimony.
Dr. Kiana Andrew, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Tulane University School of Medicine, told the Senate committee that, until their brains are fully formed at about age 24, young adults are like cars that cannot stop.
“The brakes aren’t even there yet,” Andrew testified. “They’re more impulsive, are more likely to be involved in risky, dangerous behavior. They really do not think before acting.”
This relatively new body of science is central to the recent series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions re-examining juvenile sentencing.
In 2012, Justice Elena Kagan quoted a 2005 decision as she emphasized “the great difficulty … of distinguishing at this early age between ‘the juvenile offender whose crime reflects unfortunate and yet transient immaturity, and the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.’ ”
“How can anyone see into a crystal ball and know what a child will be like in 20 or 30 years?” asked Aaron Clark-Rizzio, who heads up the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, which includes a better-known legal arm, the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana. “Even those who have caused harm have a tremendous ability to mature and change, something we see every day as juvenile public defenders.”
Childhood of hunger, abuse
Dozens of certificates and honors earned in prison point to Louis Gibson having changed since he pulled the trigger that night. And he feels deep remorse. “Latrone and I were friends,” he said. “We were not enemies. We were just following street protocol that night.”
Since he was a boy, Gibson had to hustle for his dinner. At first, he carried bags for customers leaving the Venus Gardens Grocery in Central City, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Then he’d buy some sandwich meat and bread to take home for him, his little brother and their two sisters.
“Whatever I got at the store, that’s what we ate,” he recalled recently.
Neighbors from that time remember feeding the children and seeing little Louis using safety pins to hold tattered shoes together.
“We went through a lot, as far as my mom being on drugs and on the streets,” said Cha-Chi Gibson, 40, his younger sister. “Louis actually took the role of being our daddy.”
Their older sister, Zabrine Gibson Priestley, now 42 and a minister living in Texas, was molested at a young age and gave birth at 13. “I think that it’s only by the grace of God that we survived,” she said.
Cha-Chi Gibson, a security guard, has worked in private security and sheriff’s offices for the past 16 years. “I’m on the other side of the law,” she said, explaining how she watched her brother negotiate high-poverty, high-crime neighborhoods in Central City and near the Orleans Parish Criminal District Courthouse.
“I’m not trying to defend what happened,” she said. “But there wasn’t no opportunities around there. We didn’t even have playgrounds. We stayed down the street from the jailhouse. And everybody that I know that went to jail, they went there because they were in the streets, trying to survive.”
As Gibson got older, he tap-danced and shined shoes in the French Quarter.
He recalled how, when he was a student at John W. Hoffman Elementary School, a teacher named Mrs. Gabriel asked students to write about someone they admired.
Louis, who was a good student, wrote about how he admired what he had achieved. He got an A. Several years later, when he ran into his teacher, she remembered the essay. He was the only student of hers to ever take that tack, she told him.
His essay may have been well-crafted, but it wasn’t true. “In actuality, I wanted to be like the neighborhood drug dealer,” he said. “But I didn’t want to write that in my paper.” In his everyday world, working for that dealer seemed like his only chance for economic stability.
Pulling the trigger
Within a few years, Gibson had become a small-time drug dealer who hung out with a group of other teens on Gravier Street. Several blocks away on Palmyra Street, another group of teenage drug-sellers hung out, including his junior-high classmate Terrance King. Socially, the two groups traveled as one.
“If we went to a party, we all went together. We grew up together from 2 or 3 years old to 15 and 16. We knew the same people and we went to the same schools,” said King, now a 40-year-old theology student living in Atlanta.
Recently, because of Senate Bill 16, King has found himself recalling their tumultuous childhoods. “When I reflect on our time in junior high, I see Louis’ face, but I cannot hear any words. That’s how reserved he was,” King said.
The night of the fatal shooting, King sat next to the car’s driver, his friend Latrone Davis. Another car of friends followed in near-gridlock traffic near the popular bar, which sat in a desolate corner near a railroad and highway overpass.
At first, everyone was cordial, King said. Davis honked the horn and hollered as Gibson stood nearby, outside a Popeyes chicken franchise. Others yelled out the car's window, “Hey, Louis. How you doing, Louis?”
But earlier, someone had told Gibson that Davis and the others in his car were armed and prepared to kill him. Terrified, he aimed his gun and pulled the trigger.
As bullets flew, King raised his left arm to shield his face and caught a bullet in the wrist. Next to him, Davis was hit by seven bullets that tore up his chest. Two other friends were also wounded.
The shooting had all the hallmarks of impulsive, adolescent thinking. Even the hard line typically drawn between victims and perpetrators can seem senseless when teens hurt those around them, who are often friends and peers. So, after a few years of not talking, King and Gibson made amends.
Now, King hopes to see Gibson released. “Not so much because he was a juvenile, but because of his character,” King said. “And because when I look at the bigger picture of what happened, I feel like I was part of the injury. I was part of what went wrong with all of us.”
After the shooting, Cha-Chi Gibson, who was then 16, knocked on a nearby door and talked with Latrone Davis’ mother. “That little girl came to me and cried,” said Linda Davis Williams, now 61. She appreciated the apology, though some people thought she shouldn’t have allowed Cha-Chi in her house.
“But they were all friends. That’s the worst part about it,” said Williams, who worked as a cook and fed many in the neighborhood, including the Gibson children.
Williams mourned hard for a few years. “Latrone was my first-born. And he was so pretty,” she said. “Big, 6-foot 4. He was calm, a peacemaker, and he was protective of us.”
Though it seems morbid to her now, she questioned Latrone’s friends about his dying moments: “Tell me what he said. Did he cry? Was he in pain? Did he call out for his mother?”
She stopped eating and became terrified about the safety of her other children. She’d walk them to school each morning and wait for them at the end of the day. And she was angry, so angry.
But over the years, her feelings softened. “I never thought I’d say this. But I think it’s time to let Louis go,” she said. “He was a child. He made a mistake. But no matter how long they keep him, it’s not going to bring Latrone back.
“If you get a chance to talk to Louis, please tell him I’ve forgiven him years ago,” Williams said. “If I can do anything to get him out, I will do that. Please, please let him go, with my blessings.”
The story is a partnership among the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, a national news site that covers the issue daily; The Lens, a nonprofit, in-depth newsroom in New Orleans; and The Advocate, a daily newspaper serving Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Louisiana.