The world had changed since Michael Lewis was incarcerated in 1997. As he stood in a hotel lobby following his release from Macon Transitional Facility last month his eyes darted across the room. The flat-screen TVs. The ability to pay a bill with the tap of a phone.
“All of it is new to me,” the 40-year-old said. “It’s a surreal experience.”
Lewis, who is known as Little B, was released from prison on Sept. 27 after serving 26 years for a murder in Atlanta. Indicted at 13, he was one of the first and youngest kids in the state to be tried as an adult under SB440, a newly passed law meant to throw the book at juveniles who commit violent crimes. It was assumed by many that he would never come home.
But then he did.
His release brings to the spotlight a moment of Georgia’s — and the nation’s — criminal justice history that has since been called out for its punitive approach towards young people because it failed to take into account the brain science that sets kids and adults apart.
It also, however, serves as a reminder of how little the state has evolved since this epoch.
Lewis didn’t come home because of legislative changes. Rather his release was driven by the love of one individual — activist Elaine Brown — who refused to let him be forgotten.
“I was so used to people coming in and out of my life, even when I was 11 and 12 years old, but she made me a promise,” said Lewis. “She said, ‘I’m going to be here. I’m going to see you out.’ And she did that.”
It’s a dynamic that is special but also limited in its scope and rare. A point that juvenile advocates say is critical to make.
“Little B’s story is back in the news, because of this change in his circumstances,” said Melissa Carter, the executive director of the Barton Child Law and Policy Center at Emory University. “It doesn’t reflect any change in our legal or policy framework that put him there.”
Just because Lewis was one of the first and most memorable cases utilizing SB440, Carter said his release shouldn’t be seen as a closing of a chapter.
An AJC review of juveniles serving time in the Georgia Department of Corrections underscores this fact. While the state saw a dip during COVID-19, the numbers have again begun to rise. In September, 45 juveniles were being held in Georgia’s prisons, according to state data. In the last two decades, the number of teenagers 17 and younger held has varied from as low as 18 to as high as 122.
“All of the laws that put him in prison for all this time are still very much in place,” said Carter.
Lewis wasn’t just a poster child for SB440, his case became a blueprint.
‘We Lost Him’
The idea of Georgia getting tougher on juvenile offenders was first introduced by Gov. Zell Miller at his January 1994 State of the State.
That day Miller outlined new crime legislation requiring children as young as 13 to be prosecuted as adults in Superior Court if they committed certain violent crimes like rape, murder, and aggravated battery. If convicted they would serve time in an adult facility.
“I want to modernize our juvenile justice system to crack down on those young punks who commit violent crimes,” Miller said.
Three years later the application of this new law would become front-and-center news.
In January 1997, 23-year-old Darrell Woods was fatally shot while sitting in a parked car outside of a convenience store in Atlanta’s Vine City around 11 p.m. on a Saturday night. His wife was inside. His two young children were in the back seat.
One of the dozens of tragic and needless homicides in the city during that period, the case took on outsized prominence when its suspect came to light. That February, Lewis, a small 13-year-old, was indicted. Fulton County’s newly elected prosecutor, Paul Howard — the state’s first Black district attorney — promised that the case would “be treated just as any adult case would.”
“I don’t see a child. I look over there and see a killer — a cold-blooded killer,” Assistant State Attorney Suzy Ockleberry said during the November trial.
The AJC’s attempts to reach Woods’ family members via phone and text were unsuccessful.
Lewis’ defense at the time maintained the teen had been set up by older relatives who didn’t think the law would come down hard on a child.
This, however, would have been hard to gather in 1997.
From the outset of the trial, Lewis was fighting an uphill battle. News stories in the AJC and other outlets quoted public officials and others using words like “thug” and “skunk” to describe the teen.
“He was the victim of a new law, and the victim of the way the media told the story,” said Karen Baynes-Dunning, a former associate judge with Fulton County Juvenile Court.
Brown, who moved to Atlanta in 1996, remembers being horrified by the villainization of this one little boy.
The former chairperson of the Black Panther Party began to dig beyond the headlines. What Brown found was less scary and more tragic.
As she wrote in a much-criticized AJC op-ed in June 1997, Lewis came from a troubled family, he stopped going to school at age 11, and he had no permanent home. The entire system — schools, the courts, child protective services — had failed him.
These failures are also why Brown, and other supporters of Lewis, maintain that his innocence — which they believe wholeheartedly in — shouldn’t be the only focus. Regardless of what happened that night, they say, Lewis should not have been discarded the way he was.
The case was an example of the destruction caused by senseless gun violence. There was the young victim and his family — still reeling from the unnecessary slaying. And then there was the tragedy of the young defendant: Lewis.
“He was just this little kid that we didn’t take care of as a community,” said Baynes-Dunning. “We lost him. And then we blamed him for it.”
Growing up in Prison
In November 1997 a jury deliberated for 90 minutes and found Lewis guilty of malice murder. He was sentenced as an adult to life.
At the time, prisoners with life sentences became parole-eligible after 14 years. It was presumed, however, that Lewis would serve a much longer sentence.
“It’s hard to know what 14 years in prison will do to someone,” a spokesperson for the State Board of Pardons and Paroles said at the time. “It’s hard to know whether (Lewis) will be able to come out in 14 years. He’s going to be growing up in prison.”
Howard, for his part, vowed that Lewis would never go free.
That fall, the state sent Lewis, then 14, to Lee Arrendale State Prison in northeast Georgia.
Lewis and others under the age of 17 were isolated from the adult prisoners, a GDC spokeswoman said in 1997. According to Lewis, while the kids slept in a different dormitory all other activities — meals, classes, time in the yard — were mixed.
In his first year, he witnessed rapes and a fatal stabbing.
“I told him ‘You’re gonna have to defend yourself. That’s just the reality. Nobody’s coming to get you. The guards are not going to do anything for you,’” said Brown.
Lewis acknowledges he struggled at first. A 2003 AJC article noted he had over 70 citations.
But something shifted, according to Lewis, about 10 years in. He matured. He grew up. He began to understand his sentence was for real. In 2009 he got his GED. He also read Brown’s book “The Condemnation of Little B.”
“I finally read the book of why I’m in prison and then I started understanding the political aspects of what led me to prison,” said Lewis.
Throughout this time, Brown — who Lewis began calling mom — made sure the case wasn’t forgotten. In addition to writing Lewis’s story, she raised money for attorneys.
“Every single method of relief in Georgia we tried to pursue,” said Patrice Fulcher, Lewis’s defense co-counsel at the 1997 trial, who has since publicly stated Lewis received ineffective counsel at the original trial.
The team, according to Fulcher, was starting conversations with Fulton County DA’s Integrity Unit when out of the blue in 2022 they learned Lewis had been tentatively paroled.
Steve Hayes, a spokesperson for the State Board of Pardons and Paroles, said the board takes several things into account when making decisions such as facts of the crime, age at the time of the crime, and “risk of reoffending.” In a statement to the AJC he pointed to Lewis’s evolution since 1997.
“During Lewis’ 26 years in prison, he completed various programs, including work release, and engaged in positive institutional conduct giving the Board confidence that he would be successful upon release,” Hayes wrote in an email, adding the board had denied Lewis parole in 2011, 2016 and 2020.
Uneven Justice in Georgia
While many criminal justice advocates contacted by the AJC expressed happiness over the news of Lewis’s release, they were careful not to draw any big-picture conclusions.
“Whatever the story of Little B galvanized by way of reaction, it had zero effect on the policy response,” said Carter, explaining that while the “juvenile super-predator” theory of the 90s has since been debunked, many of the statutes — and mindsets — it produced still dictate Georgia’s criminal justice system.
In addition to SB440 still being in place, when Gov. Nathan Deal passed juvenile justice reforms nearly decade ago, the focus, according to Carter, was on low and mid-level offenders. The state still views violent juvenile offenders as adults and treats them just as harshly, she said.
An AJC investigation published last month found Georgia has seen a 100% increase in its number of juvenile lifers — young people, under 18, sentenced as adults to life without parole — since 2012 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the sentence was unconstitutional for children and should be reserved for the rarest of cases. The state accounts for over a quarter of the nation’s new juvenile lifers during this period, with 81% being Black and largely poor, like Lewis.
Advocates fear the pendulum is swinging back toward the tough-on-crime rhetoric that ushered in SB440. They point to Gov. Kemp’s recent “Gang Bill,” which imposes a five-year mandatory prison sentence for gang-related offenses. The legislation comes after Georgia, and the rest of the nation, saw an increase in crime during the pandemic.
The realities underscore, according to advocates, how uneven Georgia’s criminal justice system remains.
A lot comes down to whether someone has money to afford a good lawyer or other means to navigate the system, according to Baynes-Dunning, who said Lewis came home in large part because he had an advocate like Brown.
“How many of our young people get caught up in systems and these laws because they don’t have anybody?” she asked.
This lack of a larger systemic shift is part of what made the news — the release — so stunning for Brown.
There hadn’t been a steady drumbeat of policy changes. There had been no large announcement of a new direction. Rather, in 2022 — over a decade after Lewis first became parole-eligible — they suddenly learned the parole board granted Lewis tentative parole, subject to his completion of the GDC Work Release Program. Just as unexpectedly, they got word last month that a parole certificate was issued and Lewis would be released three weeks later.
The day before his release, Brown ran errands. She bought Lewis clothes for their flight — his first ever — to the San Francisco Bay Area, where she had set up a job for him working at a non-profit she runs. She made plans for a party in his honor. She distracted herself from the intensity of this moment she had spent nearly three decades working tirelessly for and now felt almost speechless by.
“It’s hard for me to believe that this is happening,” she said.
The next day, as Lewis stood next to her, finally outside of the prison walls, Brown beamed.
“You look like a movie star,” she said, as Lewis sat for reporters’ questions.
It was the first time he was telling his own story as a free man, fully in control of the narrative.
“I didn’t fully understand the magnitude of what was going on until later on during my incarceration,” Lewis said, speaking of how much he had grown in the intervening years. “Back then I couldn’t even tell you the three branches of government.”
As the duo got ready to head to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, Lewis paused. There was an irony he wanted to acknowledge. The trial, prison, the last 26 years — it all connected him to Brown. His trajectory was forever changed as a result.
“I probably wouldn’t have gotten an opportunity to ride a flight had I not met my mom,” he said, looking towards Brown. “Because I was in a horrible environment [before]. But I’m ready for it.”
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