By Rahsaan Thomas
Incarcerated men impacted by California’s “Use a gun and you’re done” law sat down to discuss its effects inside the San Quentin News room with Producer Michael Bott and reporter Stephen Stock of NBC We Investigate scheduled to be aired Feb. 26 at 11 p.m. and Feb. 29 at p.m.
“We deal out punishment instead of fixing problems in society,” said Bott.
He became interested in doing a story about gun enhancement after learning that a 16-year-old kid was sentenced to life for a drive-by shooting where the victim was not critically injured.
Under California Penal Code 12022.53, using a gun to commit a crime earns a mandatory extra 10 years, 20 extra years if the weapon is fired, and an additional 25-to-life if someone receives great bodily injury or dies.
Panel members included Ferrari Moody, Demond Lewis, Antoine Watie, Emile DeWeaver, David Le, Phoeun You, Fanon Figgers, Anthony Ammons and Miguel Quezada. They expressed their opinions about the law.
Moody killed David Thomas, who had just beaten him up. He was sentenced to 15 to life for second degree murder, with an extra 25 to life for using a gun that resulted in someone’s death. He hasn’t had any serious rule violations during his 13 years of imprisonment, and he has become a youth minister.
Other panel members, Demond Lewis, Antoine Watie, Emile DeWeaver and Miguel Quezada expressed similar opinions.
“The gun enhancement laws are the new ‘life without the possibility of parole,’” said Lewis, who received 109 years for shooting a man in the leg.
Lewis received multiple punishments for the single offense under the three strikes law (45 years), gun enhancement (25), ex-felon with a gun (25) and prior prison term laws (14), he says.
One of the problems our panel stressed is that the law disregards mitigating circumstances.
“I think there is a different level of culpability, of intent,” said Watie. “I don’t think someone who kills and rapes a little girl should receive the same life without the possibility of parole as someone who committed a crime with the intent of protecting his family.”
Watie was convicted of manslaughter for acting in imperfect self-defense against his stepfather, who had just beaten up his mother. Watie went to retrieve his little brother and sister from the abusive man’s home. Watie fired the fatal shot when his stepfather came at him with what turned out to be something made of wood.
Normally, only a 10-year gun enhancement applies to manslaughter, but because the shot went through a screen door, Watie received the 25 to life gun enhancement attached to the crime of shooting into an inhabited dwelling for a total of 36-years-to life, according to the published Appellant Court’s decision.
No one on the panel sees the law as deterring gun violence.
“I felt in the environment I was raised, it was safer to have a gun than be caught in the streets without my gun,” said Moody.
Watie said, “I used the gun to remove my little brother and sister from a dangerous situation; no law would change that.”
|“The gun enhancement laws are the new‘life without the possibility of parole’ ”|
Quezada added, “In my community, there were no laws, other than to survive.”
The discussion turned next to better solutions.
“The law isn’t working,” said DeWeaver. “The better solution is to repeal the law. It is ineffective; it contributes to the money we don’t have for our schools; it’s breaking the taxpayer bank, and it’s not making the public any safer. Nothing is a better alternative than the gun law.”
“We won’t find the roots of criminality in gun stores. You find them in neighborhoods that feel like they are under siege by law enforcement. You find them in schools where 13-year-olds are treated like criminals and then shamed when they grow up and become criminals. You find them in houses without fathers because their dads are serving 109 years to life because they got in a fight and shot a guy in the leg.”
Quezada added, “A lot of root causes of crime in these communities are poverty, lack of education and resources. Allocating the appropriate funds to go into these communities, provide jobs and opportunities other than jail would be a solution.”
Watie said, “I needed education on how to handle emotions, how to handle anger and hurt feelings. If I’m educated on how to deal with these emotions, I wouldn’t have gone over there.”
Lewis commented, “There were years of stuff that led up to that day. The whole thing is stability and normalcy in the house. I grew up in a house that wasn’t stable. As a kid, you shouldn’t have to worry about being able to eat or if there is gonna be a fight. When you’re a kid in adult situations, you always overanalyze situations. I would have all the answers to my problems and yours if I could tell you what a kid is supposed to do in an adult situation.”
Moody added, “It starts in the household. The fabric of whole household broke down. Women raising young men on their own. We raise each other. We learn from each other. We need to get back to a place where we are back in a family structure.”
Watie said, “It’s the culture that shapes the need to carry a gun. If you weren’t flashy, you wouldn’t need a gun. We turned this thing into a fad. Since I’m insignificant, I click up, so I can be seen. We need to change the culture.”
The panel ended the conversation with advice for their younger selves.
“I would tell young Emile, you are right, life is unjust,” said DeWeaver. “Life is messed up and racism is real, but the way you are going about dealing with the injustices isn’t helping you or solving the injustices. If you don’t like the way this world is, I can show you how to change it.”
Quezada said, “I think the generic answer is stay in school and listen to your parents. I would tell the kids to understand who you aren’t. We get so caught up in who we think we should be, or what other people tell us to be, we don’t take the time to understand who we don’t want to be.”
Moody would tell his young self, “not to allow current conditions to dictate future outcomes.”