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A Life Sentence Couldn’t Defeat Their Love. Now They’re Working To Change The System That Kept Them Apart.

Taewon Wilson and Candace Chavez-Wilson are part of a growing movement to end life without possibility of parole and other harsh sentences.

(Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow. Photo by Adnan Khan.)

When they met at a Los Angeles high school in 1989, Taewon Wilson and Candace Chavez felt an irresistible attraction. 

Taewon was a star athlete (soon to be ranked the third-best high school quarterback in the nation), and quiet and respectful. Candace was feisty, sweet at first, then maybe a bit bossy. They were both 15, and a study in contrasts: tall, lanky dude with a short, curvy chick; he calm and cool-headed, with a penchant for leaning back relaxed in his chair, she driven by passion, a ball of frenetic energy even when at rest. “I’m the Tasmanian devil, spinning around,” Candace said, looking back on that time. “And he’s Zen master of calmness.”

The two dated on and off during their teenage years, infatuated one moment, breaking up the next. By the time they graduated, they were off again. Taewon says the breakups came from his own deep insecurities, and Candace was exhausted from the pendulum perpetually swinging. But sporadic hookups kept the fire alive. They continued to feel an insatiable pull, boats unmoored but inevitably crashing back together.

By the time Taewon turned 20 on Feb. 6, 1994, they were off again. He planned to celebrate the milestone with friends. A few hours in, he says his friend Adrion showed up at his apartment. Adrion told Taewon that their other friend, Duane, needed a ride to the party, and asked Taewon to come with him to Duane’s house. 

But when they pulled up, Taewon realized Duane wasn’t there. Adrion took out a gun, saying he was going to kill Duane’s mom. Taewon remembered a few weeks before when Duane, fed up after years of abuse, said he wanted her dead. At the time, Taewon shrugged the comment off, chalking it up to normal teenage angst.

At the house, Taewon tried to talk Adrion out of it, but Adrion went into the mother’s bedroom. Taewon heard a gunshot, went inside, and saw Duane’s mother “still, she was lying still.” When questioned by police months later, he recalled he “saw a hole in her face. … I was just shocked. I was just standing there. I’m like oh my God.” He says he froze, then bolted. “I didn’t know what to do. I just wanted it to be behind me,” he remembered.

Taewon hid for a few days, in churches and mosques. He was finally arrested that July, and eventually charged with murder in the first degree. During his evidentiary hearing in 1995, he was surprised to see Candace. They hadn’t spoken for months, but she says she and her family had been questioned. Since the two had been so tightly entwined in high school, and since Candace was also close friends with Duane, the prosecutor and cops thought she might know something.

All she knew was that she was mad: about the high school breakups, then that her family was dragged through the mess. Taewon wasn’t the sole object of her ire: She was upset with the justice system, too, after being threatened with a bench warrant if she failed to appear in court, and when Taewon was portrayed as a murderer despite only being at the scene. She said she knew that “the person I had loved and been intimately in love with would not have murdered anyone, ever. Nothing made any sense to me.”

Taewon was later sentenced to life without possibility of parole (LWOP), since the murder included a “special circumstance” of financial gain. (Duane had given Adrion part of his mother’s life insurance policy after the crime, and the police suspected that Taewon got some, too.)

Taewon says he didn’t make any money off the killing. He says he didn’t help to plan it. He says he hadn’t even been in the room when it happened. But none of that mattered; as far as the law was concerned, Taewon had virtually pulled the trigger. Now, he was being told he’d never see the outside world again. He expected that meant he’d never see Candace, either. 

Years later, Candace would reflect deeply on the injustice at the heart of Taewon’s sentencing. She would wonder how the system could be so brutal toward someone who had barely been involved in a crime. She would know in her bones that it wasn’t right.

That day, though, when Taewon tried to meet her eyes in the courtroom, Candace just looked down. 

After Taewon was sentenced, Candace tried her best to move on. She got married, enrolled in college classes, had a son. But she wrestled with substance use that had started in her teenage years, a struggle that heightened after a much-needed but painful divorce. She was still mad at Taewon, too.

During his first years in prison, Taewon did his best not to bother her. “She wanted nothing to do with me,” he says.

But he couldn’t resist a few letters. Every couple of years, he tried sending a note to a different address. No reply. He finally used a Salvation Army program that rekindles old connections. 

In 2010, about 15 years after she last saw him, Candace received a letter. In it, Taewon apologized: for all the breakups, for putting her through police investigations. He wanted to show her what was under the “mask of machismo” he wore in his youth. Though he didn’t tell her yet, he knew his heart still belonged to her.

She took a year to reply, then did, vexed. This was part of the Candace he knew: never flatly accepting anything, always pushing for more. Taewon heard her out, understood her anger. The tension cooled a bit, but she was still unsure. “I had to explain to her, I might sound the same, I might act the same, but internally, spiritually, and mentally I’m totally different,” he says. He had gone to self-help groups, leaning on the five pillars of Islam as a guide, which helped him lead a quiet and sober life and stay out of trouble in prison. 

Over time, distrust eased through the gentle, steady medium that letter writing provides. Candace was still cautious, but believed that Taewon had received too harsh a sentence. “I knew [the victim] had been shot once, but all these people had been involved,” she says. “How could five people pull one trigger?” 

Candace gradually told Taewon about the harder bits of her life, and the lighter ones, too—her beloved son, her career goals. Taewon encouraged her to finally finish her college degree. In a way, the conversations began to feel “almost like therapy,” she says. “I could just really open up.”  

Another year of letter writing went by before the visits started. First a weekend here or there, then nearly every weekend. “Nothing was said, it just happened organically,” Taewon says. “I think finally kissing again seals the deal, right?” It became clear that her heart belonged to him, too. “I really feel, down to the core of my being, like there’s been this strong connection since we were 15,” she says. “We’re uniquely independent individuals, but we also complete each other.”

A few more years, hundreds more visits, thousands of phone calls. On Aug. 5, 2016, 27 years after they met, Candace and Taewon married at the California State Prison in Lancaster. 

The ceremony was officiated by a chaplain in the prison visiting room, Candace and Taewon writing their own vows. She wore a traditional South Korean hanbok to honor his heritage—his mother is South Korean, his father African American. Candace accented the green and white flowy dress, flowers embroidered at the bottom, with bright coral shoes. He was in his usual prison uniform—Candace later beautified their wedding shot by artfully changing Taewon into a white shirt and black jeans. In the photo, they’re both grinning wildly, their cheeks pushed up high with happiness.

A few months after they married, Taewon and Candace learned that other LWOP prisoners at Lancaster were applying for commutation, a process by which sentences can be changed by the governor. Through the prison grapevine, Taewon heard that Governor Jerry Brown was more likely to consider requests than most—but that door was quickly closing, with Brown’s term ending in about a year. Given that it can take months to put an application together, and then months or years for it to be considered, he had to act fast. (As it happened, LWOP was signed into California law when Brown was governor in the late ’70s.)

For prisoners serving LWOP, a commutation doesn’t necessarily mean freedom, but it does mean a chance in front of the Parole Board.“If you don’t buy a ticket,” Taewon says, “you’re not going to win the lottery.”

Candace and Taewon scrambled. There was no guidebook. “It’s not like [the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation] is just going to give you a list of everyone commuted and say, ‘Hey, go talk to these guys,’” Taewon says. They had to become their own dream team, reading up on the law and learning best practices for commutation applications. 

He got as much information as he could from others applying on the inside. But thanks to Candace’s  determined nature—“people always say I’m on a mission,” she says—and being on the outside, Candace led the charge. She became part of a network of family members of LWOP prisoners who shared tips and offered support. In the process, she found a community. “There’s an empathy and a compassion there,” she says. “Everyone gets it.” 

She also reached out to another prisoner whose sentence had recently been  commuted. They met for coffee, Candace with a notepad in hand. “I was like, ‘How?! How did you do it? What are the steps you have to take?’” And she revisited Taewon’s trial and sentencing hearing, read through court transcripts, and contacted his co-defendants, who said he didn’t know what was going to happen the night of the murder. 

The process was radically educative for Candace, who was seeing the human effect of harsh sentencing laws ushered in under tough-on-crime reforms. How could simply being at the scene of a crime, and then not going to the cops, land someone in jail for life? “I was raised to trust and believe cops and detectives, and I was led to trust that they are in a position of authority, so why did they portray Taewon as the murderer? …. Looking back I am sickened and disgusted by the case, by the public defenders, the detectives, the prosecutors. The truth did not matter, what mattered was convincing a jury.” Fueled by confusion, anger, and frustration, she stayed up late “learning everything I possibly could.” 

The primary goal was still for Taewon to come home, but the objective had also broadened. Both individually and as a couple, they wanted to support others applying for commutation, helping prisoners navigate the murky, bureaucratic maze of forms, language, and contacts in order to have the best shot. “Whole prisons are unaware of this situation,” explains Taewon. “They don’t know anything about it.” He estimates that only 10 percent of people even file for commutation. “People become pessimistic, they think: ‘It’s a waste of my time to file for this thing.’”

For Taewon’s application, the two spent months collecting testimonials about his nature and record. He was part of a special program for “model inmates” at Lancaster and had agreed to regular drug tests and self-help and educational classes, and refused to be part of a gang. He only had one citation during his years inside; it was for canoodling with Candace in the visiting room.

 In May 2017, he finally turned his application in.

They waited for six months. Nothing. Taewon filed another application, “just in case.” 

Another year went by. “I was losing hope,” he says. “And my wife was like, ‘No, we’ve got to file another one.’” (Privately, Candace says, she thought, “We’re screwed.”)

As a last-ditch effort, on Aug. 6, 2018, Candace went in person to Governor Brown’s office in Sacramento, putting Taewon’s papers into a “really pretty file” and delivering it directly to the mailroom staff. “That dynamic of us as a team—we needed that here,” she says.

Another few months. Nothing. Summer turned to fall.

Then, on Oct. 26, 2018, four months before Brown left office, the governor’s team interviewed Taewon, offering a glimmer of hope. Still, Thanksgiving, a typical day for announcing commutations, came and went. Candace was getting desperate, wrote every lawyer she knew, begging them to take his case. No one bit.

On Dec. 23, 2018, Candace went to visit Taewon at Lancaster. She wanted to see him before Christmas, since she’d be spending the holiday with her family. With just weeks left in Brown’s term, she figured it was probably too late for a commutation. They’d have to give it another go once Brown’s successor, Gavin Newsom, came into office. 

Candace waited outside the prison visiting room for three hours, told by the guard that Taewon was detained. She thought maybe he was sick, hurt, or worse. Finally, he emerged. She begged him to tell her what was going on. He quickly took her out to the courtyard. 

There, he started crying. “I’ve received a commutation,” he told her. 

In December 2019, a year later, after going in front of the parole board and dealing with more layers of administration, Taewon was released from prison. He had been inside nearly 26 years. 

Because he had a life sentence, Taewon was required to spend his first six months of freedom in transitional housing. Taewon hunkered down in a three-story place with 10 other guys in East Los Angeles. At first, Candace says, he seemed unsettled, the routine he’d developed in prison “thrown out the window.” But soon, he filled his days with Zoom classes, working toward finishing his associate’s degree (he has a 4.0). He says he loves psychology, sociology, child development, “just stuff that helps me understand how I became who I am.” 

They saw each other as often as they could during the transition phase, with Taewon allowed to spend most of his days, and all of his weekends, outside the transitional house. Then coronavirus hit, and restrictions tightened. Candace had gotten a new job in the Bay Area, and when she went down to Los Angeles for her stepfather’s funeral in late May, Taewon could only pick her up and drop her off at the airport, but he wasn’t allowed to attend the service. 

Then the pandemic threw up another barrier to their reunion. Taewon’s parole officer told him a transfer up north to Candace would be indefinitely delayed—maybe a month, maybe two or three—because of the shelter-in-place order. The two were already tired of the endless waiting. In June, Taewon said that this time in limbo was especially hard on Candace, who “fought so hard to get me out. For us, those who are incarcerated, we have to build a sense of strength that comes from being patient. But for our loved ones like my wife and family it is really agonizing not knowing what is going to happen.” 

At the time, Candace thought he was struggling, too. “Since he’s been released, I’ve noticed a heaviness, or a sadness.” She began to cry. “I don’t know if he thinks he’s worthy. I think it’s like, ‘Well, if I deserve this, then did I deserve that sentence, too?’”

Their dreams kept them going. After he finishes classes, Taewon plans to take the LSAT and apply for law school. He wants to follow in the footsteps of the lawyer who helped him navigate the parole board, a man who was also incarcerated and now focuses on criminal law.

They’re also part of a growing movement across the state to end life without possibility of parole and other harsh sentences, led by organizations like the Ella Baker Center, where Candace works as the human resources and operations manager, as well as Families United to End LWOP, which was founded by family members of prisoners and advocates seeking to change sentencing laws. Now that Taewon is out, he’s joining the calls and webinars that Candace has been on for years.“It’s like a two-for-one,” she says. “Everyone knows one of us will show up.” He’s already been to Sacramento to meet with Governor Newsom’s team twice. 

Taewon and Candace still support others applying for commutation; they estimate they’ve helped at least half a dozen prisoners through the process. Taewon says this support is essential. “I would not be sitting here right now without the tremendous efforts that [Candace] put in. For my file to even be seen,” he says, estimating that 80 percent of those who get out have some sort of support.  

She feels an equal gratitude for him, and for all they’ve learned together. “I don’t think I’d be where I am if he’d not been in my life,” she says. “He pushes me to be a better person, and I’m grateful.”  

Still, she’s been a bit nervous about him finally coming home. When Taewon was in prison, there wasn’t time to fight about bills or responsibilities, for him to get annoyed with her hot-headedness, or her to be frustrated by his reserved nature. As his release date approached, Candace wondered: “What if I irritate him? What if I’m impatient? What if we get on each other’s nerves?” Once he was in transitional housing, she began to relax during their weekends together, but some of the questions remained.

Now they are finally able to find out. At the beginning of August, over seven months after he was released from prison, Taewon was given permission to move to Walnut Creek, California, where Candace had found an apartment for them. She flew down to Southern California to pick him up. On a Sunday morning, they drove north, starting at dawn, arriving in the Bay Area in time to watch the sunset. It was the first time they could just be together, unhurried, without worrying about rushing back to the transitional home, without meticulously planning when they would next see each other. They’ve desired this slowness and are excited to carve out the patterns so many long-term couples worry will throw them into monotony: arguing over who takes out the garbage, deciding what to watch on TV, making breakfast, sleeping in the same bed, cuddling, hanging out with Candace’s son. They want to let the days unfold unhurried, knowing another one will come, unimpeded. 

Although Candace was nervous about the transition, Taewon worried less. “There’s nothing that really bothers me now,” he says. “And especially given a second chance, I don’t take life for granted. I don’t want to waste a thought or a moment in a negative zone.” Immediately upon arriving in Walnut Creek, he started unpacking and looking for a job, stunned by the town’s beauty and grateful that Candace “found a great place for us to live our lives more freely.” A few weeks later, he found a job. He just started work with a San Francisco branch of Five Keys, which supports formerly incarcerated persons after they are released.

His main goal has always been simple. “I just want to live a normal life together, under the same roof. Just her and I.”