Claudia Rowe is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist and writer of creative nonfiction who has been published in Mother Jones, The New York Times, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Times, Huffington Post, Yes! and The Stranger, [...]
Growing Up Behind Bars
Jailed for murder at 13, Jimerson talks of lives denied
Willard Jimerson Jr. hadn’t made it out of seventh grade when he was sentenced to 23 years in prison for shooting a 14-year-old girl in the back.
Barely 5 feet tall and, at 13, one of the youngest people in state history to stand trial as an adult, Jimerson sat, his feet dangling beneath the defense table, as he listened to testimony about that night — how he had watched Jamie Lynn Wilson flee a gang of schoolmates and fall to the sidewalk; how he pulled out a gun and fired it as she begged for help.
Locked away since 1994, Jimerson, now 25, remains frozen in early adolescence. He has never driven a car, used e-mail or balanced a checkbook. Though he married last year — to the sister of a fellow inmate — the two have never been intimate, because conjugal visits are not permitted for prisoners who wed while locked up. But for those who enter as children, Jimerson believes, the rule is absurd.
Recent research on the developing brains of young people has led some legal experts to question the tough stand taken toward children such as Jimerson during the 1990s, when conscienceless youth seemed to be killing just for the thrill of it. But cases like his continue to crop up on court dockets.
A 15-year-old accused of bludgeoning his playmate to death three years ago went on trial this week as an adult in Ephrata and faces 26 years in prison if convicted. In May, a judge could decide that a 13-year-old charged with fatally stabbing his grandmother last month be treated similarly. Since 2000, more than 900 juveniles have been sentenced as adults in Washington.
In Jimerson’s case, King County prosecutors, who portrayed the boy as a stunningly cold killer well on his way to becoming a career criminal, remain convinced that justice was served.
But last year a MacArthur Foundation study found that many juveniles — particularly those under 14 — are not competent to stand trial, and the U.S. Supreme Court, citing that research, abolished capital punishment for all offenders under 18.
Back in Seattle, even Wilson’s mother, Carolyn Prentice, winces at the notion of a young man having spent half his life in prison.
From Jimerson’s point of view, the central problem of his sentence is its disregard for child development — the fact that his brain has changed, simply as a function of growing up. He entered prison as a boy-brawler, grew up largely in segregation, then began to scour the Quran for answers about his deeds.
“I was incarcerated six weeks after my 13th birthday,” he said in a telephone interview from the McNeil Island Correctional Facility. “And that person, honestly, does not exist any more.”
Courts were unmoved
For those who recall his boyish demeanor — Jimerson was a tender-looking child — the most immediately notable effect of his time in prison is the physical transformation. The once-scrawny youngster has packed on 90 pounds of muscle — “armor,” he calls it — motivated mainly by his terror of falling prey to other inmates.
“They find out you’re the 13-year-old, and everybody wants to talk to you,” he said. “They know you’re, like, the entertainment.”
Initially, however, Jimerson had little to worry about. After sentencing, the Department of Corrections kept its young charge locked in virtual isolation as officials scrambled to plan his future. One hour a day, he was allowed, alone, into a cinderblock yard.
For Jimerson, growing up behind bars has been, above all, an education in endurance, in thinking constantly about the future. But on March 11, 1994, the night he killed Jamie Wilson as a 25-year-old friend watched, Jimerson was focused only on the thrill of a street fight, the pumping adrenaline of the moment.
Afterward, he showed no remorse. Other kids said he’d bragged about it.
Yet at a maturity hearing, convened to determine whether the child should be handled in the juvenile system or prosecuted as an adult, an evaluating psychologist described Jimerson as an immature, emotionally fragile boy. He felt abandoned by his parents — a mother with a string of convictions for prostitution, a father who’d recently pleaded guilty to possessing rock cocaine — and clung desperately to the grandmother who’d raised him, the doctor said. The treatment-oriented youth system was where Jimerson belonged, she insisted, not the Department of Corrections.
The courts were unmoved. In juvenile, Jimerson could be held only until his 21st birthday.
“Given the seriousness of this crime, eight years was simply not enough,” Dan Satterberg, chief of staff in the King County Prosecutor’s Office, said recently. “Not enough punishment for him, and not enough security for us.”
Jimerson was no first-timer, prosecutors noted. He’d been convicted of theft and assault three times by the age of 12, and his family did little to help his case. They threatened witnesses in court. They screamed at Wilson’s mother. After two days of deliberations in the murder trial, the jury returned its verdict. Only then did the boy begin to cry.
‘It was unbearable’
Incarceration turned out to be more like home than Jimerson had expected. At Maple Lane School, where he was sent to a maximum-security unit at 14, there were crowds of kids from the neighborhood also facing state prison sentences. To prepare, they fought over shower stalls and cafeteria tables. They made urine-and-milk-carton “milkshakes” for throwing at guards — anything to mimic adult-inmate society. By 16, Jimerson was a veteran.
Despite the forced camaraderie, days were shaped mainly by loneliness. When teachers knocked on Jimerson’s cell door to offer help with a social studies text (“Contemporary World Problems”), he always accepted — mostly for the company.
“That’s something you don’t prepare for, isolation and solitude like that,” he said. “At the time, honestly, it felt overwhelming to me. It was unbearable.”
In dreams, Jimerson saw Jamie holding her hands over his body — praying, he thought. But her family, more likely, was cursing him. Carolyn Prentice said her husband, unable to tolerate the trial, spent most of it at the local bar. Within a few years, they divorced. Her five remaining children vented their rage on one another, fighting constantly, and Mark, the eldest, began drinking to incapacity. In 2004, wandering a highway at night, he was hit by a car and killed.
A weary woman, Prentice has spent 10 years trying to understand her daughter’s murder. The girl had disobeyed her, sneaking out of the bedroom window to run with friends hours before Jimerson shot her.
“It was peer pressure,” Prentice said. “She wanted to fit in.”
Both Jimerson and his victim were young, rebellious and heedless of the future. But to King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng, the boy embodied a new class of kids devoid of humanity — “totally without empathy or feelings of right and wrong,” he said at the time.
‘Intent was to have fun’
In a series of recent interviews, Jimerson struggled to explain. “You kind of feel separated — you and the details of the case,” he said. “You know that that happened — ‘OK, that did occur, this did happen’ — but the intent, or the way they’re trying to say it went about — no, that’s not how it went down.”
His understanding of consequence, Jimerson added, was cartoon-like, unreal. He knew a gun could kill, but the true weight of permanence was simply absent. He didn’t want Jamie dead. He had no feelings about her at all. The two had never even met.
“I wasn’t mad or angry or upset with anyone,” he said. “As a kid, you don’t understand the ramifications, that this person is gone for the rest of their life. Your intent is never to harm them. Your intent is not to kill them. Your intent was to have fun.”
Pat Arthur, senior attorney for juvenile justice issues at the National Center for Youth Law in Oakland, Calif., believes sentencing such a youngster to adult time is unconscionable. Without exception, she said, children such as Jimerson are either segregated for their own protection or forced to defend themselves.
“If you aren’t able to fight back in the prison culture, you will end up getting — in the words of prisoners themselves — punked,” Arthur said. “Either way, we’re not giving these children a chance to grow or to change. If it happens at all, it’s only despite what we’re doing.”
During his 12 years in prison, Jimerson has never discussed his crime with a therapist. None has been offered. Questions from a reporter about that night and its aftermath were the first he’d had to answer since being convicted. Often, he blamed his crime on circumstance — a blighted environment and lack of strong role models, a world where running the streets at 13 was normal. Yet he also spoke repeatedly of someday giving his prison-earned high school diploma to Wilson’s mother because her daughter never had a chance to get one. He envisions himself eventually counseling at-risk youth.
“I feel like I have an obligation to live for two people now,” he said. “A life was taken that shouldn’t have been so I’m obligated to make sure that next person does get a chance to live. I don’t want to see nobody else go through this, I really don’t — on both sides.”
There is little possibility that such statements will win Jimerson a significant sentence reduction. Even with time trimmed for good behavior, his earliest possible release date is 2014, when he will be 33.
Meanwhile, he prepares.
On a sunny day last May, Jimerson stood in a cap and gown, his round face beaming as he stood before a class of fellow inmates, about to graduate from the Pierce College prison program. “Do not belong to your circumstances, but rise above them,” he urged other students, before leaving the stage with a certificate in building maintenance.
He’d grabbed at the chance to be class speaker, inviting his father and wife to witness this moment as ersatz valedictorian on the chapel podium.
Afterward, at a punch-and-cookies reception, the prison buddies swarmed with high-fives and cheers. It was not Jimerson they circled like a star, but his father, Willard Sr. — 52 years old, with a lengthy rap sheet and greeted as a celebrity of the streets. The older man rarely visits his son because he dislikes the boat ride to McNeil Island, but now, wearing a black bowler and sunglasses, he drank the attention in. Off to the side, scowling and confused, young Willard waited for his turn in the spotlight.
“My father’s really a character, isn’t he?” he said later, ducking his head shyly.
Jimerson’s evolution from unrepentant hoodlum to aspiring youth worker took place largely in solitary confinement. Between punishments for fighting and earlier sequesters for his own protection, Inmate No. 727804 had racked up more than 17 months in isolation by his 20th birthday. Older inmates locked in their own segregated cells whispered warnings: “Youngster, you don’t want to be like me,” one said.
Letters from his beloved grandmother Florene offered solace. “You’ll be home one of these days, and I can’t wait till you get here,” she’d write.
Reading afforded a sense of escape. At first, the books were pure entertainment. Dean Koontz was a favorite. But Jimerson quickly moved on to Maya Angelou, Alice Walker and Alex Haley. In his mind, he became Malcolm X. He wondered about Islam. He began leafing through the Quran and wrote letters to authors who had moved him.
Interest in Islam grows
One afternoon, while riding an exercise bike in the prison gym, an officer commanded him back to the unit. His case manager wanted a word.
“You need to sit down,” she said, dialing a phone number as 17-year-old Jimerson presented himself. “I’m calling your cousin, Flossie.”
Crisply, she explained: Jimerson’s grandmother had been ill. Now she was dead. Prison officials were arranging for his attendance at her funeral.
“My Grandma? She can’t die,” he recalled saying in his squeaky voice. “She was my only hope — my only reason.” In the administrator’s office, the teenage murderer ducked his head and sobbed.
Six days later, cuffed, shackled and flanked by armed guards, Jimerson rode through his old neighborhood to attend the service at Greater Mount Baker Church. He passed once-empty lots now seeded with Starbucks cafes and video stores. He told his driver to make a turn at the Thriftway, but the Thriftway was gone. At the church, he shuffled toward his grandmother’s coffin, past childhood friends now grown and married, and kissed Florene on the forehead. Afterward, he refused to leave his cell for three days. As soon as he did, Jimerson was fighting again. Then it was back to solitary.
By the time he was 18 and transferred to Washington State Penitentiary at Walla Walla, older inmates — men with names such as “Knowledge” and “X” — were welcoming him into the fold.
But there, in a prison where death row prisoners await execution and few friends would visit, Jimerson’s fledging interest in Islam blossomed. Within a year, he was learning Arabic and tutoring others. Two years after that, Jimerson had earned a transfer to minimum-security McNeil Island, and since 2003, he has taken almost every vocational course available: from janitorial technology to nutrition, computer training and, his current favorite, psychology.
“That’s something I’m really interested in — why people do the things they do,” he said. “Is intelligence a genetic thing or do some people come from intelligence backgrounds?”
Until last month, when officials sanctioned him for inciting a demonstration, he had been a model prisoner for five years.
In his mind, life outside the walls, where most everyone has their own car and moves freely through space, glows like a luminous vision. But his prospects, post-prison, are not bright. When released, Jimerson will be a grown man with a felony murder conviction, minimal education and an estimated $36,000 in court fines.
“It was scary, initially, coming in,” he said. “But I guarantee you it’s going to be just as scary getting out.”
Back in Seattle, Jamie Wilson’s mother also ponders that moment. She lives alone now behind Northgate Mall in a small apartment, where every surface is covered with pictures of family. She thought, with all his apparent changes, that she might like to meet Jimerson some day. He was just a kid, after all, like her daughter who smiles still from a golden frame on a wall near the kitchen.