I was 19 years old when this happened. A college student, with a small startup business, and no criminal record. My girlfriend was three months pregnant with our son who is now 16 years old. I had plans of going to the Air Force. At that moment in my life the sky was literally the limit. The path and trajectory I had charted for myself and my family made what happened that much more tragic and devastating.
On the night of May 18, 2005, I was giving my friend/ex roommate/business partner a ride to his recreational league basketball game. On the way there he got a call from his sons mother saying there were going to be some problems with some guys whenever he got to the gym. A few minutes later we arrived at the gym and a fight ensued. From my point of view, it looked to me that my friend was losing the fight, so I decided to break it up to stop the embarrassment and help my friend save face. I pushed the guy away from my friend and before I could get my hands back down I started taking punches from both sides. I got backed up against a wall, took a shot to jaw that made my legs give out, and in the midst of getting jumped, I fired three shots from the gun I had in my back pocket. Ultimately, I killed one person and injured two others. I fled the scene and was arrested a few hours later, after a routine traffic stop. Unlike the Kyle Rittenhouse's and Steven Jones' of the world, my understanding of the criminal justice system and the environment I came from said under no circumstances do you tell on yourself. And no matter the excuse or justification for your actions, EVERYTHING you say will be used against you. And if apprehended, you are guilty until proven innocent. Which is what initially led me to flee the scene and later, to lie to the detectives who interrogated me, two things which, looking back in hindsight considering what I could have and should have done, I regret doing.
My case is the answer to a very provocative debate in our society right now over the question, with regards to crime and punishment: what if he was black? Over the last 16 years there has been an obvious societal shift in regards to what self-defense looks like. The problem is that it has only favored a select segment of society. Social justice advocates and protesters alike have been arguing the disparate and disproportionate treatment of people of color in comparison to our white counterparts for many years. It's disheartening when we look on the news and see another white person get a slap on the wrist, a reprimand so to speak, for something we know deep in our souls would have resulted in prosecution to the highest extent of the law had they been black or brown. At this point the ''If that had been a black person...'' argument doesn't need anymore quantitative data to support it. It demands real action to correct the instances where it was obvious and most apparent, and it needs safeguards and policies put in place to ensure and protect peoples rights to Equality and Justice.
My case shows how in Arizona, under the same exact laws, a young black man can use deadly force in what he believes is self-defense and a similarly situated young white man can do the same thing, yet their cases will have drastically different outcomes. My case speaks to the heart of the conversation around Equal Justice. Sadly, I'm another example of what, in fact, actually happens if ''he's'' black. I tracked the case of Steven Jones aka ''The NAU Shooter'' from the second it hit the news. I told myself if his case ends with a plea bargain, less severe charges, concurrent sentences or a lighter sentence than mine, the courts have to review my case. Being that I had already exhausted all of my appeals, I knew my only chance at exposing this grave injustice was if I could highlight how I was done wrong. Fear and pain are subjective feelings, so I am in no way suggesting his claim of self-defense is invalid. To the contrary, I'm saying no two people share the same fear or pain thresholds, so we can't definitively say his actions were unreasonable. Hence why the State gave him a plea for manslaughter and three counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Ultimately, Steven was sentenced to four concurrent terms totaling 6 years in prison, a fraction of what I received. I am not advocating for him to receive more time either, I'm simply saying that in the interests of fairness, justice, and equality don't treat him how you treated me, treat me how you treated him. Because with all the eery similarities in our cases, the obvious differences were the color of our skin and the money we come from. Which in the court of law shouldn't be a determining factor for how a defendant gets treated.
I was charged with First Degree Murder, two counts of Attempted First Degree Murder and Three counts of Aggravated Assault with a deadly weapon. The charges were later amended for trial to Second Degree Murder, one count of Attempted Murder, and three counts of Aggravated Assault with a deadly weapon. You can read the full story and the break down of the case on my blog: https://fellowshipwithpeter.wordpress.com/
The State of Arizona, under then County Attorney, Barbara LaWall, railroaded me. Plain and simple. I couldn't afford an attorney so I was appointed a public defender. Although I had never been in trouble before, not even as a juvenile, I was never offered a plea. The State forced me to go to trial. Not to mention, my bail was set at One Million Dollars. After the legislature, under then Governor Janet Napolitano, changed the self-defense law a year after my arrest, my case became one of first impression in the State of Arizona and I was used like a guinea pig.
The State's argument was that I used too much force compared to what was being used against me, and that because I provoked the situation by supposedly ''cheapshotting'' one of the victims causing the other two victims to ''react'', which they presented no evidence to support, I therefore couldn't claim self-defense. My trial lasted six days, and most of the State's witnesses, some of whom were also friends of the victims, testified that I didn't provoke the situation. Some of the witnesses even testified to seeing me being punched on by two different individuals. The jury reached a guilty verdict after being instructed incorrectly as to who the burden of proof would fall on for my case of self-defense.
It's somewhat of a given that there is no way a jury trial in America can go off without a hitch. There's usually one issue, or a technicality, buried in the weeds somewhere that warrants a conviction being overturned and the case reversed, but it's like looking for a needle in a haystack. My case is replete with issues that put the integrity of the conviction in serious question from juror misconduct, to important pieces of evidence mysteriously being unavailable, to laws being erroneously misapplied, to prosecutorial misconduct and conflicts of interest which I wasn't made aware of until years later.
At sentencing, I begged the judge to let me be the exception to the rule, but instead she made an example out of me. The judge abused her discretion. She used my mitigating circumstances against me. Everything about my case shows that it was ahead of its time. Even at the sentencing stage, there was a moment where the ends of justice and the purposes behind sentencing and corrections could have still been met. As society is now catching on to the ''Restorative Justice'' initiatives, 14 years ago, at the victim's family's request, I met with the decedants family outside of the courtroom, and had one of the hardest conversations of my life. However, at sentencing, an attempt to bring about some truth, healing, reconciliation, unity and some semblance of closure was disregarded with just a wave of the hand. I was disproportionately and excessively sentenced to three consecutive terms totaling 34 years, although this was all one incident and one case number. Last year I completed the first flat (day-for-day) sentence of 16 years for 2nd Degree Murder. Had I been sentenced to concurrent sentences, which is the norm in situations where there are multiple charges stemming from one incident and case number (i.e., Steven Jones), I would have been going home last May, after 16 calendar years. But going home is just a relative expression because after my sentence is complete I still have to go to an ICE detention facility and wait to see an immigration judge to determine if I will be deported back to Mozambique or not. I haven't been back to Mozambique since I left at the age of four, and I don't speak Portuguese, the national language.
At this point it's not about justice, it's about mercy. How did railroading me meet the ends of justice? Resentencing me to concurrent sentences says to the community that as a system you're willing to take an honest look at the indiscretions of past offices and where there are obvious miscarriages of justice, you hold yourselves accountable and do the right thing. It says that as a system you are here to serve the people first and therefore you cannot be above reproach. It says that as the County Attorney you are appropriately using your discretion and exercising your authority to take the blindfold off of Lady Justice and see the people who have been worst affected by a system that touts fairness, justice, impartiality, and equality as its founding principles. It says that as a State, your approach to criminal justice is relevant to the times and consistent with the true intentions of sentencing and corrections. That you are conscious of the shift in societies attitude toward different points of law, and accept that the new stance should have always been the stance, wherefore corrective measures must be taken. That you see the disparities in how people of color are treated from arrest to sentencing, and you are taking the bold steps to remedy it. It says that as a State you are a proponent of Equal Justice. It says that as a system you aren't so jaded that you've become cynical and resigned yourself to inaction. It says that you believe people shouldn't just be locked away for exorbitant numbers of years because you have the capacity to recognize the intrinsic redemptive qualities of humanity. It says that as a State, and an Office, you are a proponent of second chances. You made an example out of me once, now this time do it again, but make it right. My freedom can spark a different conversation and create a better and different narrative about the Arizona Criminal Justice System.