A Lonely Child Finds His Way Out of Abuse and Homelessness, It Lands Him Behind Bars

First in a three-part series on a teenager with a tumultuous childhood sent to die in prison, and where his life would lead. The following narrative was compiled from interviews and court records.

Illustration by Christine Ongjoco

A Lonely Child Finds His Way Out of Abuse and Homelessness, It Lands Him Behind Bars

First in a three-part series on a teenager with a tumultuous childhood sent to die in prison, and where his life would lead. The following narrative was compiled from interviews and court records.

This article is being co-published with The Imprint, a national nonprofit news outlet covering child welfare and youth justice.

On a typical day in 1990, Cordell Miller, then 16, would play basketball, dominoes, or hang out with his friends in his Brooklyn neighborhood. When night came and others went to their respective New York City homes, Miller made his rounds in search of a place to sleep: the hallway, steps and sometimes the roof of a building he could easily sneak into. An abandoned car. At times, he’d ride the subway all night long.

Fleeing the home where court documents show he suffered “extreme physical, emotional, and verbal abuse,” a park bench eventually became his base. Those dire circumstances were duly noted by a neighborhood drug dealer who approached him. He had an opportunity to propose: peddling crack cocaine.

It made sense to Miller at the time. “I felt accepted. I felt a different sense of independence. I had pocket money and didn’t have to steal food,” Miller, now 49, recalled in a series of interviews over several months. His youth and desperation gave him little pause. “At no given time, were consequences in the equation.”

But the impact of his decision would quickly become clear to the young teen. The drug trade took him to Washington, D.C., where within the year, he was convicted of a triple homicide and sentenced to 97 years to life.

At the time, the country was steeped in increasingly unforgiving “tough-on-crime” laws. Mandatory minimums forced judges to impose often out-of-scale penalties, and “truth in sentencing” required more time to be served behind bars, regardless of good behavior.

Now, decades later, developments in adolescent brain science and the success of hard-fought justice movements have changed the prospects for some adults convicted of serious crimes in their youth. They have new opportunities for release through resentencing hearings.

Miller got this second chance in Washington, D.C. The District’s Second Look Amendment Act, which took effect in April 2021, grants incarcerated people who were convicted before age 25 who have served at least 15 years of their sentences the right to petition for reduced sentences. Judges must consider the petitioner’s family and life circumstances at the time of the offense, including any history of abuse, trauma, or involvement in the child welfare system.

In an Oct. 25, 2021, appeals court record, Miller’s court-appointed lawyer noted: “The research is clear that people who have suffered a great deal of trauma in their lives often become destructive, have distorted perspective, and poor self-regulation.”

Early care from the matriarch

Not all young people with deeply troubled backgrounds end up breaking the law, and Miller is the first to admit that as a teenager he was “young, impulsive, and cowardly.” But the abuse, neglect and feelings of abandonment that marked his childhood are impossible to separate from where they led him: Homelessness and life in a series of group homes and later, Cass Residential Center, a juvenile facility in Rensselaerville, New York.

Miller’s first years were immersed in love and safety. He played under the island sun of Kingston, Jamaica in the care of his grandmother Gwendolyn Stamp, whom he called “momma.” Miller’s mother, Janett Johnson, was a teenager when he was born.

He had “brief and sporadic contact” with his father, court records show. “Tragically, before he could establish a relationship with him, his father was shot and killed. This was another violent incident in his life, which surely impressed upon him at some level the tenuousness of life and safety.”

As a small boy, Miller’s days were filled with his grandmother’s bursts of affection. On Sundays, he helped her gather the ingredients for dinners of rice and peas and curried or jerked chicken. At night, he couldn’t fall asleep unless he was resting on his grandmother’s stomach. Those sweet years were short-lived, however.

When he turned 5, Miller’s grandmother left for the United States, promising to send for him later.

His next home would be with his uncle. A young Miller ran through the dirt roads as his uncle packed the car for their long drive to St. Elizabeth, Jamaica. It was during this time, according to court records, that he witnessed the political violence of the late 1970s which led to a state of emergency and hundreds dead—and yet another lifelong scar for Miller.

In an interview, Miller recalled watching Jamaican soldiers “shooting people down the gullies.”

“People were literally getting their heads severed with machetes in the middle of the street,” he said. “It was very violent at the time. I’ll never forget that.”

For two years, he was shuffled between relatives’ homes. Court records show there were caring family members, but one relative who took him in was “emotionally and physically abusive.” She resented having another mouth to feed, and “she would beat him as if she had no care in the world.”

‘A very gentle, loving little boy’

When he later joined his grandmother in Brooklyn, things got better for a time. Their bond was so close he couldn’t imagine it would ever end. But momma would soon fall ill and return to Jamaica.

In 1983, at age 10, Miller said he went to live with his mother for the first time; Johnson and her three young daughters lived in the same neighborhood. He helped out with his little sisters, picking them up from school, boiling hot dogs and crisping slices of bologna. Sometimes he’d stay home from school to babysit while his mom looked for work, he said.

“All that stuff that regular kids used to do?” he recalled. “Nah, not me. I was taking care of my little sisters.”

Johnson made sure her son’s basic needs were met, he said. She bought him clothes and shoes for school. He remembers Christmas and birthday gifts like his first Atari home video game console.

And Miller admits he wasn’t always the perfect kid. He recalled stealing a book of food stamps and a $20 bill from his mom’s purse on occasion. With the funds, he’d go to the arcade or buy candy to share with classmates to win their favor. Still, he did not think his offenses matched the scorn he felt from his mother.

Home life was stressful on multiple fronts. According to court documents, Miller “witnessed his stepfather regularly beat his mother, often punching her in the face.” A Family Investigation Report in Miller’s court file states: “Thirty years later, he still cringes when he talks about them.”

Miller said he felt he could never access his mother’s consideration or tenderness. He describes their relationship as initially “detached and strained,” and eventually, abusive. He recalls being told that he was “ugly, no good, and going to end up in prison.”

In short, “I felt like she hated me,” he said.

Court records show his mother would lock him out of the Brooklyn apartment when he missed curfew and worse. And Miller said his punishments weren’t like an old-fashioned whooping. He reports being beaten with a broomstick and his mother digging her nails into his neck until he bled.

Afraid to go home, he wandered around playgrounds long after all the other children had left. On a few occasions, his neighbor, Roberta Jackson, saw him in the hallway and took him in.

“We didn’t ask too many questions. But we knew we couldn’t leave him in the hallway to sleep,” Jackson said. She took a liking to Miller from the start, even taking him with her to church.

Miller found comfort in Jackson, who was supportive and nurturing. And she loved him in return.

“He was a very loving, very gentle, loving little boy,” Jackson recalled.

‘Playing stupid in class’

School, however, was not a refuge for Miller. He often found himself on the defense. Singled out and bullied for his Carribean accent, he responded by taking on the persona as class clown.

“Playing stupid in class was considered a way to be popular,” Miller said.

He acted out a bit but didn’t get into too much trouble — until seventh grade.
That’s when, walking home from school one day, Miller and a group of boys eyed a schoolmate wearing a then-popular Polo coat, ski hat, and goggles. They beat him up and stole his gear. At the time, Miller said he didn’t process the fact that his victim was a schoolmate, the boy’s mother knew who the assailants were, and he was likely to get caught.

In 1987, he was arrested at 13 for the crime and given probation. Its terms included reporting every weekend to a park in downtown Brooklyn for cleaning duty. Miller showed up the first few weekends, then skipped one, returning a week later. Eventually, he stopped showing up altogether, choosing basketball with his friends instead. At his age, it felt like shirking responsibilities. The law called it a probation violation.

That sent Miller to the custody of New York State Division For Youth, residential programs and eventually a more secure detention facility.

Tina Maschi, a professor at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Social Service, reviewed the events of Miller’s childhood. Maschi, who has studied and worked with youth who have experienced trauma and turned to crime, said she often sees outsized punishments for relatively minor transgressions.

Miller’s first offense of stealing a boy’s winter coat set off a chain of events that should have been handled differently, she said: “That was extreme. Everything was extreme in the way that it was treated.”

Next came institutional abuse. At some facilities Miller was sent to, court filings document abuses that prompted him to flee.

In others, life was not that bad, he said. But even in the better residential facilities, his pattern was consistent: Connect for a while, find something that engaged him or someone who seemed to care—a particular counselor, a cooking class or weekend trips to the movies—and then the nagging feeling of being too restricted and confined. Some programs he completed successfully, even those lasting nine months. Still, he constantly yearned to be connected to his friends, to do teenage things—to be free. So he’d hop a train or a bus, and run back to Brooklyn.

Repeatedly on the run from the Division for Youth, its staff would drive around in a van looking for Miller. They always caught him.

Over a three-year period, the settings Miller was sent to in upstate New York became not so easy to escape: A home in Buffalo and then a locked facility in the remote town of Rensselaerville. The counselors there were comforting, he said. Over nine months he kept up his studies, took culinary classes, worked out in the gym—even earned money through odd jobs.

A group home in Staten Island came next, where he completed 10th grade and started his junior year of high school. He liked this place too, but the longing for his friends back home kicked in yet again.

“This group home was the best place I’d ever been,” Miller said. But he admitted to eventually becoming “very combative” and doing things to get kicked out of the program: “One day, I purposely broke the office window with a basketball.”

During a rare visit from his mom, he begged her to take him home. She reluctantly agreed, and for a while he continued commuting from his home in Brooklyn to school in Staten Island.

Before long, however, Miller started to fall back into his old habits—drinking, smoking marijuana, fighting, hanging out with older kids. He stopped going to school. He was 16 at this point and ready to fight back when his mother threatened violence.

“I saw the fear in her eyes. That was the last straw. She couldn’t take it anymore,” Miller said. “She called the police on me.”

So he fled, again. This is the day the park bench became more than a temporary fix.

He accepted the offer to deal drugs and started hustling around the clock. Miller easily outshined the boys who had homes to return to each night. No one expected him back.

‘You’re gonna end up in trouble’

Like Miller, children who experience abuse and neglect and who are exposed to violence are at increased risk of becoming caught up in the justice system. The outlook is worse for boys, and homelessness exacerbates the issue.

Federal studies show youth who have lived on the streets and have experienced physical abuse are twice as likely to be locked up than their peers, often for survival offenses such as stealing, selling drugs, or sex work.

A 2016 report for the Administration on Children, Youth and Families found that among runaway youth experiencing homelessness in 11 U.S. cities, nearly 44 percent had stayed in a jail, prison, or juvenile detention center. More than three-fourths had at least one interaction with the police at some point in their lives, and nearly 62 percent had been arrested at least once.

Professor Maschi noted another theme she saw in Miller’s life: “A lot of people who have been abused don’t know how to say no, or could easily get persuaded.” She also noted “the manipulation and deception” that can hook young people into lives of crime, especially those who, above all, are seeking love and acceptance.

“So that’s why they’re going to sell the drugs and do whatever they need to do,” Maschi said.

Miller had another trait eyed by the drug dealers in charge—his work ethic and the long hours he put in. Imagining the cash he could bring in, they suggested he go to Washington, D.C., where their enterprise was booming.

“The crew in D.C. was coming back to New York in cool cars, wearing gold rings—I was amazed by this,” Miller said. These boys were his peers. They were once “nobodies,” but had earned an admirable level of respect. “I wanted that. I wanted people to look at me with the same awe.”

Not everyone thought Miller going to Washington, D.C., was a good idea.

“He had a lot of issues at home, but we all did,” said Roxanne Vialva, his childhood girlfriend. “We all had issues, but his was a little more severe to the point where he wasn’t able to go back to the house.”

Vialva, now 49, recalled sitting with Miller on the stairs of their apartment complex until her mother called her inside for the night. He was on his own as a young teen, but often downplayed the severity of his living situation. “It was worse than what he told me. It was bad,” Vialva said. “It got to be too much for him.”

When he told her about his decision to go to D.C., she immediately objected.

“No, I don’t feel good about it,” she recalled telling him. “You’re gonna end up in more trouble than just being homeless.”

But he said he had to go. He’d get himself together and come back for her.

“I practically begged him not to go,” Vialva said. Other friends also encouraged him to stay, she said. He went anyway.

In 1990, Miller arrived in D.C. and quickly became immersed in his new life. There was money, and new friends and associates who embedded him in the cocaine trade. He became entangled in turf warfare, debts owed, and rival threats.

On July 1, 1991, according to court records, 17-year-old Miller and four other people robbed and killed his then-drug supplier and two others.

Within a year of moving to D.C., he was convicted on three counts of first-degree murder while armed and other charges. Unlike his co-defendants, he didn’t take a plea deal and decided to go to trial. He was tried as an adult and sentenced to life in prison.

Arriving at Lorton Reformatory, he didn’t require the highest security level. But Miller had a long prison sentence for his first adult offense. So he said he was housed in the maximum security wing for the first seven years of his sentence, confined to his cell for 23 hours a day.

In part two of this story, being published Feb. 6: Cordell Miller goes to prison and has the opportunity for a rare second chance.

This story was supported by the Alicia Patterson Foundation where Sylvia A. Harvey is a fellow.

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