Changing our culture of justice

On March 11, 2021, after twenty-five years of incarceration for a murder committed in a drug bust gone bad, Travis Ray ComesLast appeared before the Washington State Clemency and Pardons Board to ask for early release. Just 20 years old when convicted in 1996, he’d been sentenced to fifty-one years. I learned of his hearing in advance from friend, filmmaker, and advocate Heather Dew Oaksen. In 2012 Heather and her production team completed Minor Differences, a film that follows Travis and four other juvenile offenders over a span of eighteen years and illustrates the unraveling of their lives. She has maintained contact with each of them since then.

Travis Ray ComesLast, clips from Minor Differences, 2012

On March 1 this year, Heather wrote friends and supporters of the film to tell us about Travis’s hearing and to invite us to attend. “I can confirm without reservation,” she wrote,

 …that Travis ComesLast, now 45 years old, has grown into a man of integrity, generosity, and compassion. He is worthy of our trust. This moment is the “second chance” we advocated for in our film. To show that the community is pulling for him, I am trying to get as many people as possible to attend the hearing via Zoom. Just showing up will strengthen Travis’s case. if you can participate, please let me know and I will send you the Zoom link.

In turn and with Heather’s blessing, I reached out to friends of my own, telling a little of Travis’s story and extending Heather’s invitation. I relayed Heather’s clips about Travis from Minor Differences, and I included a trailer for the film as a whole. The introduction to the trailer tells a lot about the film and the young men it profiles:

What do a thief, kidnapper, two murderers, and a heroin addict have in common with your child, brother, father? Take away the labels and you’ll find these imprisoned teenagers are an awful lot like people you know. Minor Differences introduces the five in maximum security lock-up. We meet them again 18 years later. Oaksen did not set out to establish long-term relationships with these jailed teens. But they won her heart and she won their trust.

A letter from Travis to the clemency board, delivered before the hearing, was attached to Heather’s invitation to attend the online proceedings. He wrote, “I am no longer the same person who committed the crimes I did 24 years ago.” He expressed sorrow for what he’d done and added, “Changing my life was a way of showing remorse, taking responsibility, and making amends. I have always believed ‘sorry’ means nothing if you don’t do anything to make sure it never happens again.” He described how he came to be the organizer of a Native American circle and Pow Wow in a private prison in Arizona. Though not mentioned in his letter though clear in the film, his leadership there gained strength from the spiritual and cultural roots of his Assinibois-Hunkpapa/Lakota-Sioux cultural roots. His letter described the way he continued to use the organizing skills developed in Arizona when he was moved to a correction center in Spokane. He wrote of his increasing commitment to search for ways to change the culture of rehabilitation. He also wrote, “Family is the focus of all I do!”  The center of family for Travis is his wife Debra (also known as Dolly), whom he met while in an Arizona prison, and his seven-year-old nephew Armando, who has been in his and Debra’s custody since 2015.

By the time of the hearing, I learned from Heather that Travis would be well represented by attendees at his hearing. On the morning of March 11, I signed in early to Washington State’s Zoom network. I was one of over ninety people who attended in support. The hearing was filled with inspiration and strong arguments on Travis’s behalf alongside stories of devastating sadness. My admiration for Travis and for the man he has become grew enormously. I also grieved for the victim’s wife and daughter after hearing their stories, and I feared they hadn’t had support to heal. I was troubled by some of the assumptions made and questions posed by clemency board members, and in the end I blamed much of this tragedy on the meaning of justice in our culture. At the end of the hearing, in a decision that felt perfunctory, Travis’s appeal was denied.

On March 12, the day after the hearing, Heather, who had testified well on Travis’s behalf the day before, wrote to all of us who had contacted her.

Many of you who viewed the hearing know by now that Travis was denied clemency. A huge disappointment but honestly not unexpected for a murder case. Very few petitioners in fact even get a clemency hearing so obviously there is merit to his petition. That said, news of a positive opinion from the Washington State Supreme Court has just broken making re-sentencing available to certain youth under the age of 21, raising it from age 18. Travis had been 20. We remain hopeful.

Team Travis😊is regrouping to assess the most effective path to freedom for Travis going forward. So, our work is not finished. We deeply appreciated your standing with us during the hearing, and sincerely hope you will stick with us!  We need you and your ideas in our advocacy efforts; the time is right to promote healing over retribution.

Several days later, Travis asked Heather to pass along his own appreciation to all who supported him by showing up virtually for his hearing. Here are some of his words:

PILAMAYA‼️from TRAVIS COMESLAST

First I would like to thank each and every one of you from the bottom of my heart! Learning so many tuned in to support me was very overwhelming, I am truly honored for the love and support. Though yesterday’s decision was disappointing, I am thankful that I had the opportunity. I am a firm believer everything happens for a reason and I hope if anything that yesterday’s hearing allowed the daughter of the victim to begin to heal… Sadly, it was the first time she was able to express her loss in such a way. I have lived with the shame and guilt of the pain and suffering I caused everyone from both sides, for that I am truly sorry and I apologize!

I am in good spirits, not at all worried for I know God has a plan. I will continue to work to find ways to better myself regardless of what the future has in store! I am committed to not let prison define me, I will make the best of my time in prison to make a difference even when nobody sees it! In the coming weeks I will be facilitating a new White Bison 12 Step class and finding new ways to engage those around me to be more proactive in hopes they find change. I have amazing people fighting for me and we will not give up fighting for my freedom! I’m not worried and I have no doubts! The prayers, the love, the support… things are far from over!!

In a phone call with Heather a few days later I was invited to join “Team Travis” and felt honored to accept.

One spark of hope for Travis lies in the Washington State Supreme Court’s ruling in what’s known as the Monschke Case, mentioned by Heather and decided on March 11, the day of Travis’s hearing. In it, the Court considered separate life-without-parole sentences given to two men for murders committed years ago when they were 19 and 20. The ruling stated, “Modern social science, our precedent, and a long history of arbitrary line drawing have all shown that no clear line exists between childhood and adulthood,” and that courts “must consider the mitigating qualities of youth.” The ruling barred mandatory sentences of life without parole for anyone under the age of 21, raising it from the previous ceiling of 18. The court also ordered that both defendants receive a new sentencing hearing. This ruling could put pressure on the state to confront the past and to review other existing sentences.

The day of these two Washington State decisions marked an opening up of my understanding of what real justice might be, an understanding that was already shifting and scrambled by events of the past several years. What I’ve learned since that day in March – from Heather and Team Travis, as well as from friends and research of my own – gives me hope, hope not only for Travis and the victim’s family but for the possibility of changing the culture of justice embedded in our country. I know already that changing it will be a long slow slog, but I’m starting to see what’s behind Heather’s conviction that “the time is right to promote healing over retribution.” I’ll continue to reach out for, absorb, and act on ideas and experiences that I’m sure will force me to rearrange assumptions about myself and the world that I didn’t know I had but that have come along with the life I’ve lived so far. This kind of rearranging feels familiar, and I know I’m only at the beginning.

NOTES


3 Comments

  1. Thank you, Anne, for taking on this responsibility and for sharing it with us. This case is emblematic of so much of what is wrong with our current justice system. It is good to know there are people working to change this, one case at a time, and in a larger sense as well. Education and awareness is the first step. Accepting that “There, but for fortune, go I” is a good next step towards empathy.

  2. Thank you for this, Anne. And Heather. Opening hearts and minds may help to heal this troubled time.

  3. The tides ebb and flow with forces so enormous and far away that I can feel helpless at waters edge or in the moon’s light and force. This story does shed light on tide from long ago which may change. I hope so. So many things are about time and it is about time we looked a justice for those vulnerable because of age or a moment of human failure. A moment should not define a life.

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