Gary Gately says Kenneth Carl Crawford, convicted of murdering two people at 15, is sustained by friendship and hope in the U.S. Supreme Court.
April 5, 2015 1:14 PM
Kenneth Carl Crawford III, with Keith and Cindy Sanford.
By Gary Gately
The boy loved to walk in the woods.
He savored the gurgle of the creek, the bird song, the wind rustling the leaves in the trees high overhead. It seems a faraway place to him now that he’s a man.
Kenneth Carl Crawford III, now 31, returns to that woods behind his childhood home in Oklahoma, but only in his mind — the only way the Greene County inmate can go back now, perhaps the only way he’ll ever go there again.
His only hope for freedom is the U.S. Supreme Court.
In 2012, the court ruled that it is unconstitutional for a juvenile convicted of murder to receive a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole. Last month, the court agreed to take up the question of whether that ruling should be applied retroactively; that is, to previously decided cases such as Crawford’s.
If the Supreme Court decides Miller should be applied retroactively, Crawford, a convicted double-murderer housed at the State Correctional Institution Greene, is is one of about 500 “juvenile lifers” in Pennsylvania and some 2,100 nationwide who could receive sentence reviews. Depending on the state, they could still be sentenced to life without parole, to life with parole eligibility after a specified number of years, or be released, likely for time served, said Emily Keller, a staff attorney at the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia.
Crawford has at least two supporters praying for him.
• • •
About five years ago, after a storm, Crawford noticed leaves had blown over the prison’s high electric fences.
“It had been a long time since I had touched a part of a tree, let alone held a piece of it in my hands,” he wrote in his journal.
He kept looking at the leaf, mesmerized, nostalgic. He took it to his cell and ultimately painted on it a scene that could have come from the woods he remembered. Ever since, he’s been painting wildlife scenes — painting them superbly — on leaves.
Cindy Sanford never will forget the first time she saw them. In 2009, she was managing an art co-op in Berwick, Columbia County, when a woodcarver whose friend had been Crawford’s cellmate brought in some of the leaves.
Ms. Sanford, now 56, recalls gasping at their beauty: a newborn fawn, a woodpecker peeking out of a hole in a tree, a cougar looking like it could leap off the leaf. But when she learned that the artist was a felon serving a life sentence, she wanted to keep her distance.
“I’ve always been a big believer in law and order, and at that time, I’m not thinking there’s anything redeeming about him,” she said. “For a long while, I was very suspicious of him and didn’t believe anything he said.”
Whatever her doubts, Crawford’s paintings kept arriving and selling at her co-op. Then the business closed, and Ms. Sanford all but forgot about him.
In 2010, she got a Christmas card from him, followed by a polite letter. She sent him a Christmas card. Crawford kept writing and sent a few photos of himself. Ms. Sanford saw a boyish-looking man with close-cropped brown hair and sad, translucent blue eyes.
Her skepticism softened. A pivotal moment came when he declined an offer of money for art supplies. Soon after, he asked in a letter whether Ms. Sanford and her husband, Keith, would visit him.
They agreed to drive nearly five hours across the state from their home, figuring they would spend maybe two hours at the prison. They ended up staying for the entire six-hour visiting period. They’ve since visited Crawford twice a month and speak with him on the phone almost daily. They hope for a day when they can take him into their home.
• • •
In the 2012 case, known as Miller v. Alabama, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that mandatory life without parole for juvenile killers violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
The court did not decide whether to apply Miller retroactively, and lower federal and state courts have been divided. In October 2013, for example, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled 4-3 against applying Miller to previously decided cases in the commonwealth. At the time, that dashed any hope of resentencing hearings for Crawford and the state’s other juvenile lifers.
Now, with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to review a Louisiana case involving a juvenile lifer, hope has returned.
“I think, with Miller, the court was essentially recognizing that people are worth more than the worst moment in their life and certainly that kids can be reformed,” said Crawford’s lawyer, Sara Jacobson, a professor at Temple University’s Beasley School of Law in Philadelphia. “It’s just a tragedy that so many people who have been sentenced to life without parole as juveniles don’t have the opportunity for courts to even look at their cases, to look to see whether they’ve been reformed."
• • •
In July 1999, Crawford, then 15, was hitchhiking with an 18-year-old fellow drifter and carnival worker, David Lee Hanley. They had a chance meeting with Diana Lynn Algar, 39, and her friend Jose Julian Molina, 33, who were beaten and shot and their bodies left in Ms. Algar’s campground trailer in Luzerne County.
Hanley, who pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree murder in August 2000, is serving life without parole at State Correctional Institution Smithfield in Huntingdon County. An adult at the time of the killings, he is not affected by the Supreme Court’s decision to review juvenile lifers.
In January 2001, a jury convicted Crawford of two counts of first-degree murder, for which he received the mandatory sentence of life without parole. Crawford testified that he drove the getaway car but did not kill either victim.
While the Sanfords view Crawford as deserving mercy, Robert Algar Jr., who was Ms. Algar’s husband, does not. He said Crawford never should be released from prison.
“They get out, I take care of them. That’s how I feel about it, really,” said Mr. Algar, a transportation dispatcher who lives in Scranton, Lackawanna County.
• • •
On a frigid, gray February day, the Sanfords entered the prison visiting room, and Crawford, a big smile on his face, rushed to hug them.
“It definitely feels like I got a family now,” Crawford said. “It’s better than any family I had.”
His alcoholic father beat him, his brother and two sisters in drunken rages and often left them alone in their trailer with no electricity or heat and little food. His mother ran off with a boyfriend to work the carnival circuit when he was 5.
Ms. Sanford recently tracked down Crawford’s mother and asked her to get in touch with him or at least send a Christmas card. She did neither.
When Crawford was 9, child-welfare workers removed him and his siblings from their father’s custody — and promised the children their lives would be much better with foster parents. They were not. Crawford recalled one 400-pound foster father who forced the children to scratch and bathe his legs because he could not reach them.
When he was 10 and wetting the bed, Crawford’s foster mother screamed and ordered him to strip naked and lie on a towel on the floor. As other children in the home laughed, she put a diaper on him and made him wear it to school the next day. He wet the bed again, and she forced him to sleep in the bathtub.
Crawford ran away from his last foster home as a 12-year-old, lied about his age and became a nomadic carnival worker.
He’s quick to say that he doesn’t blame anybody for the circumstances that led to the double homicide. “I made the choices,” he said.
He earned his GED in prison and takes correspondence courses through Hobe Sound Bible College in southeastern Florida. He’s a voracious reader and relishes beating the Sanfords at Bananagrams.
“That’s my son,” Ms. Sanford said. “I would never think of letting him go, never.”
Crawford keeps painting wildlife scenes, now sold at a Lycoming County gallery. And Ms. Sanford dreams of a day he’ll be able to walk once more in woods far beyond the high walls of the prison.
Ms. Sanford says she has forgiven Crawford and knows God has forgiven him too.
“I believe in a God who forgives us, if you approach him and you’re remorseful,” she said. “God loves us all. There’s no saints on this Earth. I believe God loves him as much as he loves me.”
Gary Gately (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, a publication of the Center for Sustainable Journalism at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. A longer version of this story is at jjie.org.
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