Friday, May 29, 2009

My Friend Efren

Jason Argonaut has always claimed that my Facebook friends are somehow not real.

My Internet imagination run amok.

My pretend world pixilated.

That was far from true last year when a group of us greeted the Wheels of Justice Tour that rolled through Lansing and East Lansing.  Arriving on the bus were my four newest FB friends, Ceylon, Leah, Dan and Bill.  We met at New Aladdin’s Restaurant in the Frandor Shopping Center.  At the dinner table were approximately 25 people, many of whom were invited via FB.  Realizing this, I counted the number of my FB books sitting with me at the time:  Eighteen.  Eighteen live, breathing, laughing, eating FB friends.  If Jason could have seen me then.

It is special moments like the one at New Aladdin’s when my mind drifts – as it did that day – to one FB friend who is never present.  He is never at any gathering.  No Thanksgiving Day dinner at my house. No Christmas celebrations.  No time or place, day or night, is my friend ever physically present.  But he is real – very real and ever-present.  

Let me tell you about my friend Efren Paredes, Jr.

A Rogue’s Gallery Plus One

One night in early March 1989 in St. Joseph, Michigan, the grocery store manager at Vineland Foods was murdered and the store robbed.  Five suspects quickly emerged in the police investigation.  Four of the suspects were named in a phone tip received by the police.  The phone tip, it turned out later, was made by the father of a fifth suspect.  The suspects were composed of a 15-year-old Latino honor roll student – Efren – and the others a rogue’s gallery of thugs affiliated with the grocery store.  Facing charges that could easily lead to life sentences, who do you think the thugs fingered – with constantly changing and conflicting stories – as the trigger man, or boy?  Your American pedigree is confirmed if you guessed the 15-year-old Latino honor roll student.

The prosecutor did not hesitate to prosecute Efren to the fullest extent of the law with all the trimmings of American-style justice:  A whirlwind trial, flavored with sensational coverage in the local media; totally circumstantial evidence, a chunk of it supplied by the plea-bargained thugs; a tainted jury foreman; an unbalanced legal system in a community known – then and now – to be tainted with racial overtones, and…well, fellow American, you can probably fill in other aspects of the story.  I encourage you to read the jaw-dropping details of the case here.  Ann Rule could not have written a more twisted true-crime tale than this.

Twenty Years Later

It’s been twenty years. Efren sits in prison, where he grew up. He self-educated himself in prison and has a commanding intellect.  He has led an exemplary life in prison and is well- respected, to the point that even prison officials support his release (a very rare stance for prison officials).  He is supported by respected wrongful-conviction experts and by many others across the country. Effectively, Efren has never been in trouble – before his trial or after his trial.  

During the last 20 years, two of the murder participants were released from prison in 2005.  One served only 6 months in a juvenile correctional facility.  The other suspect was not charged at all. Finally, two of these criminals later committed other unrelated crimes.

At a parole hearing in December 2008, the former prosecutor of the case admitted to be without a good explanation for Efren's motivation for committing the murder, guessing it was a “thrill kill.”  Law enforcement officials decorated this weak theory with words from some rap lyrics purportedly found in Efren's school locker.  The circumstantial evidence is even thinner now than it was 20 years ago.

The Keys of Justice

Michigan continues to be a state that convicts juveniles – a vast majority of them minorities – and locks them up and throws away the key.  There is no hope for rehabilitation, no hope for redemption. And, if you did not commit the crime, almost no hope for justice.

The Michigan State Legislature is currently considering House Bills 4518 and 4594-4596, which would end the practice of throwing way the keys on juvenile offenders.  Opponents of these bills are currently painting a false and mis-leading – not to mention, desperate – campaign claiming these bills will give violent criminals an easy get-out-of-jail card.  Don't believe it.  The bills give juveniles convicted of crimes eligibility for a parole hearing after serving more than 15 years.  Eligibility for a parole hearing is far from a free pass.  I encourage you to read the bill summaries here and to contact your State Rep and State Senator in supporting these bills.       

Finally, the keys of Justice are also held by Governor Jennifer Granholm.  She has the power to commute sentences and to grant pardons.  I've personally gotten to know Efren and I know, like some many people inside and outside of the prison system, that he is no threat to society -- never was and never has been.  Please join me in contacting Governor Granholm by phone, email, or letter, in respectfully asking for justice for my friend, Efren.   

-- Rico Thomas Rico

This is the first in a new series. A Friday Facebook Friends profile will be posted on my blog every Friday. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think you should know that the 'rogue's gallery' you refer to were mostly middle-class, preppie High School bullies, not street thugs.

Guys like Steve Miller and such, they were mean, middle-class bullies who tormented and abused kids who were smaller than they were.

Efren was a friend of theirs, he hung out with them. They ran together like a gang and bullied a bunch of the other kids very severely.

Efren put on a nice smile for the teachers, but he was not a super-nice kid, and participated continually in this culture of bullying.

I support Efren's cause, as I think it's wrong to try a 15-year-old as an adult, and I believe everyone deserves a second chance, particularly children who have had no opportunity to grow meaningfully in the world and learn life's many important lessons. He should be given a second chance.

But this whole thing about how innocent he was, I believe, is a deliberate mischaracterization - he was part of that crowd, not an innocent victim of them, and he behaved like an evil hallway badass, not a nicey-nice, do-no-wrong perfect angel of a kid.

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