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Sentenced to Life Without Parole at 17 and Denied Freedom at 52

Richard Kinder thought he would die in an Alabama prison until the Supreme Court ruled mandatory juvenile life without parole unconstitutional. But last year, despite a judge concluding there was “uncontradicted evidence” that Kinder had worked to rehabilitate himself, the state parole board refused him release.

Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow. Photo from Getty Images.

On the night of Oct. 20, 1983, Kathy Bedsole had a date with her boyfriend, Chuck Leonard. It was nearly Halloween, and the pair, both 16, were planning to go to a haunted house in Trussville, a town northeast of their homes in Birmingham, Alabama. Leonard picked up Bedsole at 9 p.m. Before she left, her father, Anthony Bedsole, gave her $40. She was going to a football game with friends the next day, and he wanted to make sure she had cash to pay for her ticket and food. 

On the east side of Birmingham, David Duren and Richard Kinder had devised a plan for the night: They were going to rob something or someone. In need of cash to buy marijuana, Duren, who was four years older than 17-year-old Kinder, suggested that they rob a Mrs. Winner’s fast food restaurant. Kinder was in.

Duren had a different idea, though, as they came upon an Oldsmobile sitting on the side of the road. Duren told Kinder that they would steal the car and any occupants would go into the trunk. Duren, who was armed with a gun, and Kinder, who was holding a knife, approached the window of the car; Leonard and Bedsole were inside. Unable to find the haunted house, and with Bedsole’s 11 p.m. curfew approaching, the couple had turned back for Birmingham. 

Duren ordered them to get into the trunk. He and Kinder then drove the Oldsmobile to the Mrs. Winner’s drive-through. When the cashier saw Duren flash his gun at the window, she screamed that the restaurant was being robbed. Spooked, Duren and Kinder sped away. “We had to get rid of them because they seen us and identified us,” Kinder later recalled of Duren’s next words to him, referring to Bedsole and Leonard. Kinder protested; the pair wouldn’t be able to identify them, he said, and he and Duren should just leave them in the trunk. Kinder later recalled that Duren told him he wouldn’t shoot Bedsole because she hadn’t seen him. Following Duren’s instructions, Kinder then proceeded to tie the pair up with a rope and remove the $40 from Bedsole’s purse. He got back into the car and started the ignition. Five shots rang out. “You didn’t shoot them, did you?” Kinder remembered asking.

Kinder and Duren were arrested that night and charged with capital murder. Bedsole had died, while Leonard survived and made his way to a nearby porch. A woman, seeing Leonard, alerted police. 

Jefferson County Juvenile Court Judge Sandra Storm transferred Kinder to adult criminal court, where then-Jefferson County District Attorney John DeCarlo sought the death penalty for both men. He was running for election at the time of the 1984 trial, on a tough-on-crime platform. At the end of an emotional trial, the jury recommended that Kinder be sentenced to die. 

Alabama law at that time allowed a judge to overrule the jury’s recommendation, a practice abolished in 2017. Many judges used that authority to overrule life sentences and send people to death row. But Judge James Hard, citing testimony from Leonard, Duren, and Kinder, determined that Kinder had played a minor role in the killing. Lead investigator Detective Eddie White was of the same opinion; he testified that Kinder was telling the truth about his role in the crime. Hard overruled the jury’s recommendation, and sentenced him to life without the possibility of parole—the only alternative punishment available under state law. 

Duren, on the other hand, received the death penalty and was executed in 2000. In an affidavit, Duren’s attorney said that for years after the crime, until his death, Duren maintained that none of the plans for that night were made by Kinder. He said he never told Kinder he was going to shoot Bedsole and Leonard.

Like 2,800 other people in the United States, sentenced as children to life without parole, Kinder was facing death in prison. Then, in a series of landmark decisions, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that children must be sentenced differently. 

In its 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama, the court held that juvenile life without parole sentences were unconstitutional, except for rare circumstances. To support her opinion, Justice Elena Kagan cited Graham v. Florida—another juvenile life without parole case—writing that each state “must provide ‘some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.’” Four years later, the court ruled in Montgomery v. Louisiana that its decision in Miller applied retroactively, to cases before 2012. Kinder would have a chance at freedom. 

At a July 2017 resentencing hearing—33 years since Kinder’s sentencing—Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Teresa Pulliam heard from Kinder and other witnesses. He had gotten clean, they said, earned his college degree, and moved into the prison’s faith-based honors dorm. He had married a volunteer he met at the Jefferson County Jail while he awaited trial. In his years at St. Clair Correctional Facility, he had one minor disciplinary infraction. “I hope the victims of my crime will find it in their hearts to forgive me,” he said, reading a letter he had written. “I know that must be a very difficult thing to do.” 

If there’s anyone that deserves parole, it’s this kid.

Richard Jaffe Kinder’s attorney

Bedsole’s father Anthony and her sister, Susan Harris, testified that they wanted Kinder to stay in prison for the rest of his life. In an interview with The Appeal, Anthony said the investigating officers told him shortly after the crime occurred that Kinder had pushed Duren into shooting his daughter and Leonard, a narrative later refuted in court testimony and affidavits. “Deep down I thought that was wrong that the Supreme Court said to retry him,” he said of Kinder’s resentencing. “We thought it was over and we were trying to live our lives.”

But Pulliam determined that there was “uncontradicted evidence” that Kinder had worked to better himself, even while believing that he would spend the rest of his life at St. Clair. “A ‘potential for rehabilitation’ has been clearly proven here,” she wrote in her July 2017 order. 

Now eligible for parole, Kinder, then 52, appeared before the board a year later. Board members heard the story of Kinder’s transformation, as Pulliam had. If he were granted release, Kinder planned to go live with his wife in her home outside Huntsville. He hoped to get a job with a moving company. 

Once again, Anthony Bedsole said he wanted Kinder to stay in prison. So did Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall. In a letter to the board, Marshall wrote, “An early release would defeat the retribution purposes of the State’s penal system and would undermine the overall goal of incarceration.” 

The parole board denied Kinder’s application on the spot. Alabama does not require the board to issue a written decision explaining itself. Kinder’s attorney, Richard Jaffe, who also represented him at his capital murder trial in 1984, was distraught. “If there’s anyone that deserves parole, it’s this kid,” he told The Appeal. “It’s an unbelievable story of redemption.”

Richard Kinder was born in San Antonio, Texas, in 1966. His parents separated soon after, he wrote in a letter he read at his resentencing hearing. His stepfather, who worked for a carnival, moved Kinder and his six siblings across the country, living in tents. By the time he reached high school, Kinder had moved more than nine times. His stepfather was abusive and though his mother worked to provide for her kids, she had a short temper. At one point, Kinder remembered, she told him that she wished he had never been born. 

Eventually, his mother and stepfather separated and the family moved to Childersburg, Alabama, roughly 35 miles southeast of Birmingham. He started drinking alcohol at age 13, the same age at which he was sexually assaulted for the first time. He didn’t tell anyone. “I didn’t really have anyone to tell anyway,” he wrote.

Kinder looked up to his older brother, who would use him as a lookout while he burglarized houses. But Kinder got caught, and, as was the custom in rural counties at the time, the juvenile court committed him to the Department of Youth Services. Upon his release, Kinder worked at Mrs. Winners, the same fast food restaurant that he and Duren eventually attempted to rob. 

Richard Kinder at age 17
Richard Kinder, 17, at his 1984 capital murder trial. Courtesy of Richard Jaffe

In 1984, Duren moved into the apartment where Kinder was living. Kinder admired him and soon, he started skipping work to spend his day smoking marijuana with him. “I was a follower, whom was always seeking the approval and acceptance of others,” Kinder wrote in a letter to The Appeal. Judge Storm, who had made the decision to try Kinder as an adult, noticed this characteristic. In an affidavit supporting his resentencing, she wrote, “Kinder was a person of low self esteem, who grew up impoverished with no father or male role model in his life and was a follower, not a leader.” (Kinder’s attorney, Jaffe, said that Storm, who died last year, told him on several occasions that her decision to try him as an adult would become the only one that haunted her in her 35 years on the bench.)

Kinder was 19 when he arrived at St. Clair. The facility is widely known as Alabama’s most violent prison, where violence and sexual assault are rampant. At first, Kinder focused on avoiding being raped or stabbed. He refused to be someone’s “prison wife,” he wrote in the resentencing hearing letter, so he was slashed across the neck as he slept. He continued to use drugs, mostly smoking marijuana, but sometimes he would take pills. “I hated myself for what I did to be in prison,” he wrote to The Appeal. “As I began to grow up, I grew really tired of the way I was living. I wanted to be a better person and I wanted to live a better life.”

He started to immerse himself in his studies and earned two GEDs, one of them in trades. He signed up for furnishing refinishing and continued as a student aide once he earned his certificate. In 1993, Kinder made a decision to quit using drugs and enrolled in the prison’s drug rehabilitation program. He graduated 18 months later. “It had changed my life,” he wrote to The Appeal. “I was free from drugs and didn’t hate myself anymore.” Over the next quarter-century, Kinder’s resume continued to grow. He earned an associate’s degree, tutored prisoners trying to earn GEDs, and started a job as an account clerk that earned him a steady paycheck. “I’ve done everything I can to be a better person than I was when I committed my crimes at the age of 17,” wrote Kinder. “I did it because I needed to live with myself. I’m proud of who I am today and I’m proud of my accomplishments.”

A juvenile lifer’s chance at release depends less on rehabilitation and more on where he or she calls home. Unlike courts, which are bound by a set of legal criteria, parole boards vary from state to state, and decisions are much more arbitrary. 

Of the 521 people released since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that people sentenced to life without parole as children must be given a chance at freedom, most are concentrated in several states. In Pennsylvania, to date, 190 of the 533 people eligible for resentencing have been released, according to the Juvenile Law Center. Louisiana has also had some success: Thirty-five of its 310 juvenile lifers have been freed, while others are awaiting resentencing hearings, Kerry Myers of the Louisiana Parole Project told The Appeal. In Michigan, 95 of its 363 prisoners sentenced as children have been released, though prosecutors have sought to have more than half of them live the rest of their lives in prison. 

A juvenile lifer’s chance at release depends less on rehabilitation and more on where he or she calls home.

Other states have made release nearly impossible. Maryland’s parole board has denied release to everyone who has come before it. In Wisconsin, fewer than six of 120 people sentenced to life without parole as children have been granted release. The American Civil Liberties Union filed lawsuits against both states, alleging they were not giving people the meaningful chance at parole ordered by the Supreme Court. In Missouri, 85 percent of juvenile lifers have been denied parole, and none who were approved have been released. The state is now facing a lawsuit challenging the board’s policies. 

Data from the Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth shows 1,931 people in the U.S. have been resentenced or had their sentences changed since 2012, and fewer than 75 people have received life without parole sentences again. While the majority of those resentenced have become parole eligible, there is no publicly available data on how many of those people have been denied parole. 

Kristen Bell, a law professor at the University of Oregon who is an expert in parole for juvenile cases, told The Appeal that the parole board’s unpredictability has a lot to do with its weak construction. “What’s difficult about the parole process is that it was not designed for determining whether someone who got locked up at 14 should die in prison or not. It’s too much weight for that system to really bear.”

In Alabama, at least 68 people were sentenced to life without parole as children, according to a list provided to The Appeal by the state attorney general’s office. The Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles did not respond to requests for data on how many people sentenced to life without parole as children have appeared before the board and the outcomes of their hearings.

Evan Miller, whose case sparked the 2012 landmark Supreme Court ruling that bans mandatory life without parole for children, is still waiting for his chance at release in Lawrence County, Alabama. Miller was 14 when he hit his neighbor, Cole Cannon, with a baseball bat, put a sheet over his head, and set his house on fire, leaving him to die. In 2006, he was tried as an adult and sentenced to spend the rest of his life incarcerated. Miller was just one of 73 children his age in the U.S. to receive that sentence. 

Attorneys from the Equal Justice Initiative argued that Miller’s age meant that his brain was underdeveloped, and because of that, he lacked the ability to exercise the same control over his behavior as an adult. In a filing with the Supreme Court, they wrote that “young teenage judgment is handicapped in nearly every conceivable way.”

In a brief supporting Miller’s case, the American Psychological Association argued, “Because of their developmental immaturity, adolescents are more susceptible than adults to the negative influences of their environment, and their actions are shaped directly by family and peers in ways that adults’ are not. … Sentencing such an immature and less culpable juvenile to spend his entire adult life in prison, notwithstanding the likelihood that ‘[m]aturity can lead to … remorse, renewal, and rehabilitation,’ is grossly disproportionate punishment.”

After denying Kinder release in 2018, the parole board ordered that he wait five years, the maximum time between appearances, until he petitions for release again. He will be 57. While the board will occasionally consider a prisoner’s case earlier, recent actions by Alabama’s governor and legislature have made Kinder’s chance at an earlier hearing unlikely. 

In October 2018, Governor Kay Ivey issued a moratorium on early parole, after the parole board released a man who then murdered three people. (The man had not been released early, however.) In step with Ivey, state lawmakers passed a bill in May that tightens restrictions on the parole board and makes previous guidelines into law. For people convicted of murder, they must serve 85 percent of their total sentence, or at least 15 years to be eligible for parole. The bill, signed into law in June, also requires that one board member has at least 10 years of law enforcement experience, and gives the attorney general the power to reverse a parole approval if he or she isn’t notified of a hearing on time. 

Additionally, the law grants the governor authority to select the board’s executive director; Ivey has appointed former Attorney General Charles Graddick to the post. Graddick, known as “Lock ’em up Charlie,” said during his 1978 campaign that he welcomed the chance to “fry ’em till their eyes pop out and blue and yellow smoke pours from their ears,” referring to his planned prosecution of death penalty cases.  

As of April 2019, the average number of approved parole applications in Alabama has dropped 62 percent.

Although the law will not go into effect until September, prisoners are already feeling the consequences of Ivey’s moratorium: Just 92 people were granted parole in October, the month it was enacted, according to statistics from the Alabama Department of Corrections. As of April 2019, the average number of approved parole applications in Alabama has dropped 62 percent. In the seven months prior to the moratorium, an average of 331 were approved each month; 128 were approved from October to April, the last month for which statistics are available. No one has been considered for early parole. 

The parole board did not respond to The Appeal’s requests for comment. 

State Senator Cam Ward, who sponsored the bill that tightens parole board rules, told The Appeal that there was “no accountability” for the parole board. He said that, according to Shelby County District Attorney Jill Lee’s office, there were at least 12 cases in his district in which someone released early on parole committed a violent crime. Lee’s office did not immediately return The Appeal’s request for comment. 

Ward also pointed to a recent murder, committed by a man convicted of manslaughter charges who was on probation, though not released early. It is a true balancing act because I believe just stopping all paroles would be terrible and do a great deal of harm to our corrections system,” he wrote in an email to The Appeal. “But the high profile stories on cases like this generates a lot of outrage around the state and makes it very hard to pass more criminal justice reform measures.”

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, of the 1,005 Alabama prisoners paroled between January and June 2016, just 22 were back in prison in 2018 for committing a violent offense. Ten of those offenses were burglaries with “little violent element.” 

Ebony Howard, a senior supervising attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, was critical of the new parole regulations. “If a person goes into prison when they are 17 years old,” she told The Appeal, “and figures out a way to change themselves for the better in Alabama’s prisons, which have the largest homicide rate in the country, instead of becoming an actual hardened criminal, an unnecessary barrier to parole is just ridiculous.”

Anthony Bedsole, Kathy Bedsole’s father, told The Appeal that he couldn’t envision a situation in which he would support Kinder getting out of prison. “If he’s released, then so be it. But my family will continue to oppose him.” 

Kinder doesn’t blame them. “They have a right to those feelings,” he wrote. “They were really hurt by my actions.”  

If the parole board does rule in his favor, Kinder says he will live a simple life of working, worshipping, and community service. He has been incarcerated for the entirety of his 25-year marriage and is eager to spend time with his wife as a free man. It’s a life that was inconceivable to Kinder for decades. But even now, he wonders: “Do I really have a significant chance of release that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled I am to have?”