Michelle Benjamin was one of society’s throwaways when she killed a New Orleans tourist in Treme during what police said was a botched 1994 robbery.
A 16-year-old product of the Lafitte housing development, a teenage mom raised by another teen mom when she wasn’t on the streets, Benjamin was sentenced to life without parole.
Her mother’s death several years ago left her with few intimates on the outside. Yet on Monday more than a dozen supporters packed a Louisiana Parole Board hearing on her behalf.
An unlikely coalition of church members and sex-worker advocates said she deserved a second chance. Empowered by a sea change in attitudes toward juvenile lifers in recent years, the board agreed, voting to grant parole.
The room erupted in applause and tears of relief. Benjamin, all 4 feet, 9 inches of her, jumped up to hug the crowd around her.
Now 41, she is set to be freed within months. Benjamin is one of two "lifers" from New Orleans who were convicted as juveniles to be granted release this month. Both releases came over the objection of the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office.
Last week, 42-year-old Herman Tureaud, who was 15 when he fatally shot another boy on the grounds of O. Perry Walker High School in Algiers, also won parole.
Debbie Boguille, a Franklin Avenue Baptist Church prison ministry volunteer who has become a kind of surrogate mother to Benjamin, said the soon-to-be-free woman will have to lean heavily on her network of supporters upon release.
“She grew up in prison,” said Boguille. “She’s 41 years old, but she’s still a kid. I think when a 16-year-old goes into prison, a whole lot stops.”
Life on the streets
At the recent parole hearings for Benjamin and Tureaud, Orleans Parish prosecutors faced off against advocates who said juvenile lifers should be evaluated on the basis of their growth behind bars instead of crimes they committed decades ago.
Benjamin’s supporters also asked the board to consider the rough upbringing that preceded Benjamin’s fatal shooting of 25-year-old German serviceman Martin Hecker.
“You have to look back at her life. What led her to that point?” said Boguille. “Come to find out, she didn’t have a great upbringing.”
Benjamin’s mother was 19 when she was born, according to Majeeda Snead, a law professor at Loyola University. Her absent father was an alcoholic.
Snead said that Benjamin often missed school while her mother worked, and she fell in with a crowd of older kids. When Benjamin was 14, a man who was 19 years older gave her a house in exchange for sex. When Benjamin got pregnant, he kicked her out.
Benjamin’s son had not yet begun walking when she was arrested.
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Hecker was a German serviceman training at a U.S. Army base in Alabama. He was discovered mortally wounded at about 4 a.m. on May 1, 1994, near St. Philip and Marais streets in Treme. He had been shot after a night of partying in the French Quarter.
Chanda DeSilva, then 19, first told police she had been trying to lead Hecker to safety when an unknown assailant robbed and killed him. But DeSilva soon changed her story and implicated Benjamin, whom she knew as “Cocoa.”
Benjamin told the cops that she and DeSilva were having a beer in the Quarter when Hecker approached and offered to walk them home. According to a court summary of her interrogation, Hecker told Benjamin “his wife was in Germany ... and that he was looking for a ‘date.’ ”
DeSilva said Benjamin tried to rob Hecker on the walk through Treme. Benjamin claimed Hecker pulled out a gun as they were walking. The weapon, which police traced to a New Orleans store, went off during a struggle between them, Benjamin said.
DeSilva was convicted of manslaughter at a jury trial. Benjamin was convicted of second-degree murder by then-Criminal District Court Judge Calvin Johnson.
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The judge handed Benjamin a mandatory sentence of life without parole. But in 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that people who had been sentenced to life for crimes committed as juveniles should be given at least a chance at eventual release.
Justice Elena Kagan said neuroscience and common sense showed that children make rash decisions, have a hard time assessing consequences and are thus less deserving of harsh punishments than adults.
Boguille said her faith and her personal experiences fueled her belief in second chances. “We all make mistakes,” she said.
Following the high court’s mandate, Criminal District Court Judge Keva Landrum-Johnson resentenced Benjamin to life with the possibility of parole in 2016.
Under Louisiana law, that meant she still had to win over the Parole Board.
Trying to be strong
Boguille, a longtime volunteer for her church’s prison ministry, met Benjamin in 2012 and soon became a mentor through the Strength for Today program.
Benjamin was a handful at first, Boguille said. Benjamin seemed to be testing her to see if she would stick around. She was guarded about her emotions.
“She’s a little bitty person in stature, so she always tries to be strong,” Boguille said.
Over time, Benjamin opened up: about her ache over the son she didn’t raise, about her traumatic upbringing and about the killing of Hecker.
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The two women also connected over the fact that Boguille had a child when she was just 14.
Though it once seemed she would never be released, Benjamin worked to improve herself anyhow. In the early 2000s, when she was denied entry to GED classes because of her life sentence, she sued and won admission to the classes.
Benjamin also participated in the prison's hospice program, at first seeing it as a way of giving back for the life she took. Eventually she came to love the work itself, Boguille said.
As Benjamin’s parole hearing approached, she gained a new group of supporters on the outside. Advocates from Women With a Vision heard about her upbringing and the circumstances of her crime.
‘Think about race’
Women With a Vision provides services to women who have lived and worked on the streets. Its members saw in Benjamin an echo of Cyntoia Brown, a 16-year-old from Tennessee who was given a life sentence after killing a man who had paid her for sex.
“We know the systems aren’t fair. She is someone who I feel, as a society, we failed her,” said Deon Haywood, the group’s executive director.
Brown and Benjamin are both black and grew up poor. Haywood said she couldn’t imagine Benjamin’s fate happening to someone more privileged.
“We can’t help but think about race when it comes to this. Black girls and black women are often kind of thrown away,” she said.
Tennessee’s governor granted Brown clemency in January after a national outcry. Benjamin went before the Parole Board with less fanfare, but about a dozen women showed up to support her.
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Prosecutors could not find any of Hecker’s family members in Germany. But they argued that given the seriousness of the crime, Benjamin should stay locked up.
Snead, Benjamin’s lawyer, said that every killing is serious. She asked the board to consider instead the decades Benjamin had already spent in prison.
Benjamin herself apologized for killing Hecker. She said that not a day passes that she doesn’t think of what she did.
Board members Sheryl Ranatza, Brennan Kelsey and Keith Jones voted unanimously to release her.
Boguille, Benjamin’s mentor, said she was as thrilled as the other women in the room. But she is also mindful that Benjamin will face steep challenges on the outside.
When she’s released, likely in May, Benjamin plans to work at Sister Hearts, a thrift store in St. Bernard Parish that provides work and shelter to the formerly incarcerated. She hopes to eventually become a nurse’s aide, continuing the work she did in prison, Boguille said.
Troubled teen to trusty
The other juvenile lifer from New Orleans to win release this month killed a classmate at an Algiers high school.
Herman Tureaud said he brought a gun to O. Perry Walker High School that day because of fights between neighborhood groups. On the morning of March 31, 1992, two groups of boys were exchanging words, investigators said. Tureaud pulled out a gun and fired one shot into the head of Jomo Kenyatta-Joseph, 15.
Prosecutors said it wasn’t even clear if Kenyatta-Joseph was part of the dispute.
Kenyatta-Joseph’s brother was nearby. His father, former math teacher Safiyyullah Yusuf, heard the news as he stood in front of a chalkboard at another school.
“He’s still having nightmares. I still have nightmares,” Yusuf said. “I had to stop teaching school.”
Less than 36 hours after his release from prison, Steve Perkins sat in front of a class of law students, giving them advice.
Tureaud, who was prosecuted under the name Tureau, received life without parole, mandatory at the time. But after a series of hearings, Criminal District Court Judge Darryl Derbigny in August declared him parole-eligible.
After spending most of his life in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, Tureaud went before the Parole Board on Feb. 5. His supporters said in a legal brief that since his arrest, he’s gone from “a troubled teen to a Class A trusty.”
Tureaud has maintained a spotless disciplinary record since 2004, earned a certificate in pastoral studies and ministered to youths at Catholic retreats.
That wasn’t enough for prosecutors.
“Our opposition was based upon the heinous nature of his crime, the age of his young victim, and the choices Mr. Tureau made in becoming part of the Cutthroat Posse, a street gang that terrorized parts of New Orleans in the 1990s,” said Ken Daley, a spokesman for the District Attorney’s Office.
Tureaud’s attorney, LSU law professor Robert Lancaster, said the prosecutors missed the point.
“If you always focused on how bad the crime was, you would never recognize how someone has changed and matured and rehabilitated,” he said. “It was a very tragic and horrific, senseless crime, but Herman in 2019 at 42 years old is not Herman at 15.”
Board members Pearl Wise, Jim Wise and Alvin Roche voted unanimously for release.
At the hearing, Tureaud gave his first apology to Kenyatta-Joseph’s family. Lancaster said Louisiana law prohibits convicts from contacting victims’ families directly.
“I am so very sorry with every fiber of my being and have felt this way, so I have tried to do what is right in prison before there was a possibility of a second chance,” Tureaud said in a prepared version of his statement.
Yusuf wasn’t swayed.
“I don’t know what’s in the man’s heart,” Yusuf said last week. “All those people up there talking about how good (Tureaud) was — that still don’t bring my child back.”
Tureaud walked out of Angola on Thursday.