After seeing and hearing his victim at trial, Jason Samuel knew in his heart that he needed to come clean and be honest—both with himself and everyone else.
“My crime was so senseless,” Samuels recently told SQ News. “I felt so sorry for what I did.”
What he did was shoot peace officer Tom Morgan in the neck in 1997.
“Once I was convicted, it didn’t matter anymore. I mean, why lie about it?” Samuels said. “What good would all those lies do me now?
“I realized I needed to be real, be honest. It’s the only way to become a productive member of society.”
As a misguided 15-year- old running in the streets of Bakersfield,Ca, Samuel had made himself a tragic promise: if the police ever tried to arrest him, he vowed to never go down without a fight. He’d shoot to kill, if necessary.
“My mindset back then, I was suicidal and homicidal— I didn’t care,” Samuel said. “I felt like I had no purpose in life.
“If I died a legend, a hero from the hood—I was cool with that.”
Two years later, he fulfilled his personal oath. Chased and cornered by Morgan after running into a backyard, Samuels attacked the officer. Morgan went to draw his gun, and Samuels shot him with the derringer he always carried.
Samuel argued throughout his trial that the gun had discharged accidentally as a result of the physical struggle with Morgan. He testified that he never intended to shoot Morgan.
“I was trying to lie my way out of trouble,” Samuel said. Morgan, severely injured and barely able to speak, took the witness stand to confront Samuels and tell the jury his version of events. Samuel was found guilty for the at- tempted murder of a police officer.
Christy Morgan, Tom’s wife, spoke at Samuel’s sentencing. She wanted to express her pain and outrage at the devastating effects Tom’s injuries had on their lives.
“That’s when I started praying for the man—for both of them,” Samuel said. “I knew what I did was wrong.”
As the years behind bars went by, Samuel said his thoughts never strayed too far from the impact of his crime and the harm he brought to the Morgans and his community. He educated himself, earned a GED, renewed his faith in God and eventually came to San Quentin to take part in all its positive rehabilitative programs.
Samuel credits SQ’s Restorative Justice program with helping him see the big picture. He became involved in SQUIRES (San Quentin Utilization of Inmate Resources and Experiences), completed KidCAT’s First Step curriculum and became a KidCAT member.
He went to his first parole board hearing in January 2016, almost 20 years after committing his crime.
“I knew if I went in there (the parole board) with a bullsh– story, I’m never going to get out of prison,” Samuel said. “The right thing to do—the only thing to do—was just come from my heart.”
Morgan was there at that first board hearing, too. He wanted to tell them that Samuel should never be granted parole.
“That’s when the real miracle happened,” Samuels recalled.
Samuel explained to the parole board the true intent of his actions. He told them exactly how he’d lied at trial, hoping to get out of trouble. More importantly, he wanted to show them the quality of the man he’d now become.
The parole board decided Samuel was not suitable for parole.
Tom Morgan noticed Samuel’s change more than anyone else. Between that first hearing and Samuel’s next board hearing in 2017, Morgan gave a lot of thought about the boy who shot him—versus the honest man who now wanted the parole board to know the truth.
Morgan did not come to Samuel’s 2017 hearing in person, but instead participated via phone and told the board he no longer opposed Samuel’s release.
“Tom spoke highly of me. It meant a lot to him that I’d accepted accountability and that I understood the damage I caused his family,” Samuel said. “Tom realized I’m not the same person that shot him—he understood my story about growing up.”
The board still denied Samuel’s again.
But listening to him speak to the board, Morgan decided they might both benefit from opening a line of communication. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation directed Morgan to contact Victim Offender Dialogue (VOD), the organization that helps victims and offenders reconcile together to enable healing and restorative justice.
Through VOD, Samuel and Morgan began exchanging letters, getting to know one another.
“Tom said he’d already forgiven me for what I did, and now he was willing to come up here and give me as much insight as he could,” Samuel said.
The date was set for March 11, 2018; Morgan would meet with Samuel face-to-face, in prison.
Christy Morgan didn’t want anything to do with Samuel, nor did she want to be involved with VOD.
“For the last 21 years, I have viewed Jason as a monster,” Christy Morgan said in 2018. “He had tried to kill my husband, and I was afraid of him.”
But as Tom and Jason began to build a friendship through their letters, Christy rethought her opinion of Samuel. She wrote to him herself through VOD, and he wrote back.
Christy decided to be there on March 11 to support her husband and see Samuel with her own eyes.
Van Jones of CNN also wanted to be there. Samuel and Morgan’s story would become part of a filmed series about restorative justice and the healing power behind the VOD process.
“Walking into the San Quentin visiting room to meet Tom, I was nervous and in disbelief,” Samuel said. “The man I tried to kill 21 years ago was standing there right across from me.”
The two men—victim and offender—reached out to embrace each other for the first time.
“All the guilt and shame inside me, I immediately began to sob,” Samuel said. “I couldn’t believe how blessed I was to have Tom here to comfort me.
“To feel all that love from someone you’ve done harm to—I know that’s God at work right there. It has to be.”
Morgan and Samuel sat down to speak together as friends. Samuel opened up about his life in prison and all the rehabilitative hurdles he’d overcome.
At the end of that first VOD session, Samuel was surprised to hear that Christy Morgan had something to say to him.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “Maybe she wanted to slap me—but instead she gave me a big hug.”
Christy wrote about the experience: “I was able to witness a VOD with my husband and Jason,” she said. “Jason was humble and apologetic.
He hugged Tom and cried. This was when I knew he was not a monster, but a changed man.
Samuel and the Morgans would have two more VODs together. The second VOD in July 2018 focused on the impact of the crime on Christy.
“Thank you for really listening to my story,” she wrote to Samuel afterward. “I am excited about the changes occurring in my life. I am so much happier—and for no particular reason. I am more joyful, optimistic and carefree. Tom and I have both noticed the difference in me. I have you to thank for a lot of my change.”
Having moved past dis- cussing the crime’s impact, Samuel and the Morgans sat together at their third and final VOD in February 2019. It was an opportunity to just hang out as friends.
Tom and Christy promised to be at his next parole board hearing in person—to advocate for his release, and they kept that promise.
The board granted Samuel parole suitability on March 12, 2019.
According to Christy Morgan, “The 17-year old boy who went into prison with nothing is coming out of prison ready to be a responsible and productive citizen.”