O.J. Simpson was facing a maximum of 33 years in prison before a parole board in Nevada granted him a parole date and released him in October 2017.
If a native son serves that much time, starting today, he’ll return home in the year 2050. It’s a harsh penalty for a young man who’s convicted and banished from society for damage he inflicts on his community.
In 1984, Patrick Fletcher, now 53, was one of many African American youths. He could have been from in city in America. He came of age in Oakland when drug kingpin Felix Mitchell and his crew ran the streets. He remembers when the Falcon Boys and the AC Mob used Foothill Blvd. and the old East 14th Street as their stomping grounds. “Law enforcement would consider all of them gangs now,” he said.
Memories of the Broadway Hustlers, the 69 VILLE, the Acorn Projects and Sobrante Park are all part of Fletcher’s days gone bye. “Eastmont Mall isn’t a mall anymore,” Fletcher says seriously. The MacArthur-Broadway Mall is also gone. It’s the site of a new Kaiser-Permanente Hospital. “We don’t even have a mall in Oakland.”
As a youngster growing up in Oakland, Fletcher was impressed by the Black Panther Party. “I remember the lunches, the field trips. It seems like they were always there,” he said. “The recreation centers were kind of like a refuge. You were always safe.”
Fletcher attended Lakeview Elementary School, West Lake Junior High School and Castlemont High School. For a short time he was a Castlemont Knight, but he didn’t make it to graduation. He’s a third-generation Oaklander. His grandmother, Lucille Riggins, still alive at 100, was raised in Oakland, too, where she still lives. He proudly says “there’s a news article in the East Bay Times about her,” and stops short of bragging that “my grandfather built the family home on Vermont Street, behind the Grand Lake Theatre near Lake Merritt.”
“According to a RAND analysis, every $1 invested in such [inmate] education generates at least $4 in economic return,” reports Fast Company.
“The state typically spends $71,000 a year to house an inmate. It costs about $5,000 total to help put one [incarcerated] student through community college”, reports Fast Company.
Then drugs arrived. That was more than 33 years ago, before crack cocaine’s devastation would finally take its toll and ravage Oakland and many of its African American neighborhoods. Fletcher was 19 years old. He sold marijuana when it was illegal. “It seems like it was easy to find,” he says.
He didn’t sell anything hard, like crack or heroin. “Those were the machines. You had to be part of a crew to participate in that kind of activity,” Fletcher says with reverence for the city he loves. “Before the drugs came in, Oakland felt like family.”
Then Fletcher disappeared because he killed David Connors in the Acorn housing projects, with a single gun shot to the head on August 16, 1984. He was arrested four days later in West Oakland, and there would be no Dream Team to save him.
“David was actually a friend of mine who had become a threat to me, in my mind,” said Fletcher. After accepting a plea bargain, Fletcher was sentenced to 15 years to life with a two-year gun enhancement and sent to prison in 1986. He’s been incarcerated all these years. He never had a football career, broadcasting and movie roles. His life was nothing like that of a celebrity – far from it. Like so many Black males growing up in America, he couldn’t see opportunities or a productive future. They were squandered before he realized they existed. Unlike O.J., prison is where Fletcher says he turned his life around.
“Tennessee is 17.1 percent Black, but Blacks make up 69 percent of all drug-free school zone offenders…” REASON Magazine, January 2018
He’s known as “Fletch” in prison to those close to him. It’s said that incarceration preserves some men. Fletcher is one of them. At five foot ten and 185 pounds, he doesn’t look 53, but the gray in his curly hair is very telling. He wears a mustache that not surprisingly also has hints of gray. Sometimes he wears reading glasses, but it’s his sunglasses that give him the persona of being cool. Wearing state-issued prison blues, it’s not unusual to see him smiling as he converses with other men in blue on the prison yard where he exercises regularly to maintain his sturdy physique.
Today Fletcher thinks about his son, Michael, who was stabbed to death in San Jose, California in 2014 while visiting friends. Police think it may have been a gang initiation, even though Michael wasn’t in a gang. “My own son was killed,” said Fletcher. “Thirty years later, 18 days apart” from his own victim, Connors (July 29, 2014 and August 16, 1984 respectively).
Fletcher carries a Venn diagram that he drew. He uses overlapping, intersecting circles to illustrate the similarities between the life of Michael and David. It lists their causes of their death and their ages. Both young men had absent fathers. Both died leaving no children. They were young, Black, from Oakland, and their murders – nearly 30 years apart to the day – were unwarranted and senseless. “Michael was my only child,” he says.
“Nervous and reckless,” is what Fletcher says he felt about David’s murder. “For my son, I felt numb and unbelieving.”
By the time his son reached the age of 16, the son had become his own person with his own ideas and principles, Fletcher says. Years of separation only widened the distance between them. “While I’m in prison raising everyone else’s sons who were coming to prison, I couldn’t even be there for my own son,” he said with emotion shown in his voice.
When Fletcher was arrested Jerry Brown was leaving the governor’s office and Ronald Regan was President. AT&T was divesting its holdings after a federal court ruled it had a monopoly on the then-Ma’ Bell telephone system. ATMs were still relatively new, Apple’s Macintosh personal computer had just debuted, the Internet wasn’t commercially viable, and cell phones were the size of bricks. “Pagers were the form of communication for us,” said Fletcher. He owned a Motorola model. But time marched on without him and David Connors. Oakland became gentrified and technology evolved with faster computers, iPods and smart phones while Fletcher remained incarcerated.
The California Department of Corrections was a lot more dangerous in the 1980s when Fletcher arrived. Then, there was no classification system that separated murderers from car thieves and those who committed petty theft. Today the prison system has four-levels arranged from minimum, medium and maximum security prisons. Before rehabilitation became part of the state’s agenda for its prisoners, riots and lockdowns were part of the daily routine; and in some prisons violence is still commonplace. Fletcher has seen his share of the violence. He was stabbed in a riot at the maximum security “New Folsom” prison in Sacramento.
During his decades behind bars, Fletcher has served time in seven prisons, including California Medical Facility; Folsom State Prison; California Correctional Institution – Tehachapi; Corcoran State Prison; California State Prison – Solano, where he spent 18 years; and finally San Quentin State Prison where arrived in 2014.
In the 1980s and 1990s, there was little opportunity for rehabilitation, and few inmates serving life sentences received parole dates from the then-Board of Prison Terms. There was a tacit “no parole policy.” As one former governor held, lifers would leave prison “in a pine box.” It was also made clear in California’s Penal Code: “The Legislature finds and declares that the purpose of imprisonment for crime is punishment.” A life sentence back then meant you were stuck. To date, Fletcher has appeared before the Board four times.
When Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor of California, he added the letter ‘R’ to CDC, which extended the name to read California Department of Corrections and ‘Rehabilitation’ (CDCR). That was more than a decade ago and the state prison system has been struggling ever since to catch up to the addition to its name.
Fletcher earned his GED behind bars where he also learned carpentry, electronics, welding, janitorial work, and driving a forklift. Last year, he completed a Microsoft course and the Prison to Employment Connection workshop that teaches men to write resumes, cover letters, and how to interview. He’s done this in addition to the work he’s done in self-help programs. He now works as a peer health educator teaching other prisoners.
Two weeks before Fletcher committed murder, David Connors was in trouble. “I took David to his mother’s house,” says Fletcher. “He had started using heroin, a drug at the time I knew nothing about. He was sick and I didn’t know what else to do. I told her that he had a drug problem and I left once they stepped out on the patio to talk.” Not understanding addiction, Fletcher says he still tried to help his friend. He said he even stopped Connors from hanging around the area where they sold marijuana.
“The next time I saw Dave, he had a gun pointing at me saying, ‘I ought to kill you.’ I turned in that very moment and walked off,” said Fletcher. “If my legs would have locked up, in my mind, I think he would’ve killed me.”
As a young man, Fletcher said he couldn’t accept disrespect. “You had to be able to show that you have the ability to be strong and respected in the streets,” he said. “I didn’t even own a gun.” That’s when he got one and returned to confront Connors. “Because of the code that dictated you don’t pull a gun on someone unless you were gonna use it, and following other false teachings of the streets, I killed him.”
“At the end of the day, even though these were codes, the thoughts in my mind were amplified by who I thought I was and who I thought he (David) was,” said Fletcher.
There’s still a cycle of violence that’s taking place, Fletcher noted. It’s why his Venn diagram helps him to tie the past with the present. “I’m going to go forward with this, to live for both of them (Michael and David),” he said. Written at the bottom of the diagram it says: “Gone too soon, living for them, walking in my recovery, lifetime sobriety.”
Fletcher says he’s never used hard drugs. The word “sobriety” is used in the context of not living by “the code” of the streets. Instead, he turned back to his early teachings, practicing what he calls values, principles and spirituality. “I didn’t attach myself to value and principles until I matured,” said Fletcher. “By then I was in prison for about 10 years.”
More than three decades later, Fletcher says, “Dave shouldn’t be dead. We were living a lifestyle we both grew up in that we were both a victim of. Now I realize that the values and principles that I have today were the correct ones my family taught.”
“Dave didn’t get a chance to change his life, but I did,” said Fletcher. “People say they’ll die for someone, but what’s wrong with living for them?” Fletcher said.
Fletcher is trying to get David Connors’ obituary to represent him and his son; to show others that violence is real and the cycle that he was once a part of continues but needs to end. To do this, Fletcher has written a letter addressed to the Alameda County Deputy District Attorney, Jill Klinge, who comes to the Board of Parole Hearings to ask questions. “Who else do you write?” Fletcher asked himself.
The letter says, in part: “Although David is deceased, he is constantly in my heart and thoughts. And I have desperately been trying to turn my destructive reckless, cowardly act of killing David and shattering his family’s life into my walking priority and lifetime recovery by living for David daily in my testimony and genuine amends process.”
One of the values Fletcher abandoned in the streets was religion. To restore it, he reached back to his holy teachings. He’s a Baptist. “I attend church, pray, meditate, practice yoga and workout daily,” said Fletcher.
In 2016, Fletcher decided those real values and principles are worth living for, so he got married. He now has a wife and stepdaughter, age 14. “My ultimate challenge dealing with juveniles is my own daughter,” he says with a smile. He didn’t get to raise his own child but he does have experience raising others under less than ideal circumstances.
There may be another David Connors, and 33 years from now, in 2050, there may be another Prodigal Son, like Fletcher. He doesn’t want that to happen again. He’s from “the town,” so he cares about what happens there and hopes to return one day. At 53, he’s wiser. His life, and David’s death, changed a small part of Oakland in the summer of 1984. Not having a Dream Team, he had to go to prison to mature and rediscover the values he lost so long ago in Oakland. O.J. Simpson has been given many chances. Fletcher only wants one. He will appear before the Board a fifth time on January 23, 2018.