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In prison for decades, one juvenile lifer’s quest for redemption

MACOMB CORRECTIONAL FACILITY - As Bosie Smith sat in a prison visiting area, nothing lit up his face like the subject of his rescue dogs.

“All the way around, that was one of the things that drove me to the program, that I would be able to make a difference in their lives. My story is their story.”

A few years ago, Smith was one of a few inmates selected to take part in a greyhound rescue program at Lakeland Correctional Facility southeast of Kalamazoo. In his two-plus years with the program, he took 24-hour care of greyhounds – refugees of the dog track; training and socializing them so they could be adopted by approved families. His work with the animals won praise from the warden herself.

The dogs often came to him skittish, fearful, nervous around strangers. When they left after 90 days, they were ready for the outside world.

“That really touched me. It was very rewarding,” Smith said.

“I had some sadness when they left. But I knew they were going to a loving family.”

Now housed at Macomb Correctional Facility northeast of Detroit, Smith, 41, talked earlier this month about what seems like a transformed life in the decades he's been in prison. Whether he remains there the rest of his life remains to be seen.

He is among 218 men and women in Michigan prisons that prosecutors are trying to keep behind bars for life for crimes they committed as juveniles. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in January that states must reconsider all such sentences, and uphold mandatory life only in “rare” cases.

Related: “Michigan prosecutors defying U.S. Supreme Court on ‘juvenile lifers’”

Smith says that when he looks back at the person he was more than two decades ago it’s almost as if he doesn't know that person. At 5-foot-6 and about 150 pounds, wearing glasses below a shaved head, Smith spoke in soft, measured, tones.

“Two lives were lost that night – his and mine,” Smith said.

Late in the evening of April 13, 1992, Smith, then 16, went to a house in Ypsilanti where he got into an argument in the basement with 23-year-old Kenneth Campbell. Witnesses said Campbell repeatedly hit Smith on the head with a milk crate before they were separated.

Smith left, returning a few minutes later with a steak knife. The pair fought outside the house as at one point, according to testimony, Campbell pulled Smith's jacket over his head. Smith lashed out with the knife at Campbell's chest. An autopsy found the knife had pierced Campbell's heart. He died at a local hospital less than three hours later.

Smith's lawyer argued that Smith was trying to defend himself. But the jury found that Smith's decision to return with a knife constituted premeditation.

At sentencing, Circuit Court Judge William Ager expressed regret that he had only two options under the law: give Smith a relatively short sentence in the juvenile court system, or sentence him to life without parole as an adult.

“I wish I had some type of options because of the sentence that's mandatory under a conviction for first-degree murder,” the judge lamented. “I truly wish that it was a sentence of, for instance, armed robbery: any number of years up to life. But I don't have that option.”

Washtenaw County Prosecutor Brian Mackie declined comment on the specifics of the Smith case or why he filed a petition to keep Smith in prison the rest of his life given the Supreme Court’s directive that such actions be rare. Of seven juvenile life cases in his jurisdiction, Mackie filed a request for courts to re-sentence four to life without parole.

“It's best left in the courtroom,” Mackie said of his efforts to block early release for most of the juvenile lifers.

Mackie added that his office spent months reviewing these cases, consulting with the families of victims, as well as reviewing the facts of the original case and the behavior of each inmate since they were imprisoned.

“All of these are tough. Lots and lots of factors were taken into account,” Mackie said.

Before Smith was originally sentenced, a letter from the victim's mother, Rosie Smith, was read in court. It asked that Smith be put away for life.

“I loved my son with all my heart,” it read. “I want justice to be done. I want him to pay for this crime he committed. This was my only born son and he took him away. Just throw away the key.”

But Bosie Smith's lawyer, Ann Arbor-based David O'Brien, argues that Mackie's decision to seek renewed life without parole for Smith ignores the very factors the Supreme Court's says should now be taken into account: The impulsive nature of minors, their family environment – and evidence of their rehabilitation while in prison.

In an earlier decision in 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court noted that mandatory life without parole for a juvenile ignores the limitations of the adolescent brain “and its hallmark features — among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences. It prevents taking into account the family and home environment that surrounds him — and from which he cannot usually extricate himself — no matter how brutal or dysfunctional.”

Both decisions underline that it is the rare juvenile offender who shows such “irreparable corruption” that they are beyond any rehabilitation and must be kept in prison for life.

O'Brien said that Smith is the opposite of that.

“In a situation for decades where he had no hope he would ever be released, he has taken advantage of every opportunity to rehabilitate himself,” he said. “He has done as well as he possibly could given the circumstances he's in.”

In a 2013 court filing for Smith, his attorneys noted that he “grew up in a house surrounded by drugs. His mother never held a legitimate job, choosing instead to sell crack, heroin, and pills out of her home. She used the house as a 'shooting gallery' i.e. a place where her clients for a fee could come and get high.”

“His mother only cooked when she felt like it and often left him to fend for himself for meals. When money was tight, Bosie's mother would send him and his younger sister, Pebbles, to the local Forbes beg for money that she would then use to buy cigarettes and alcohol...He was regularly beaten by his mother when she was drunk or high, using her fists, a belt and even an extension cord.”

Once in prison, Smith told Bridge, he began to understand he was the only one who could alter the path of his life.

“I started to realize the person I want to be. I had to continue making that happen.”

In 1999, he received a perfect score in a Michigan Department of Corrections evaluation of his work as a math tutor at the Michigan Reformatory in Ionia.

“Mr. Smith's assistance was extremely helpful,” someone wrote at the bottom of his form. “Any task asked of Mr. Smith was handled very competently and responsibly. Mr. Smith was always willing to perform small tasks as well as big tasks.”

Subsequent evaluations for his work in a prison kitchen and performing general cleaning duties were equally effusive. “Smith has been a very good worker. Always does what you ask. Always willing to do extra,” said one.

In 2012, Carol Howes, the former warden at Lakeland, wrote a letter on behalf of Smith.

“During his incarceration at Lakeland, Mr. Smith involved himself in every chance for rehabilitation,” she wrote - including more than two years with the greyhound rescue program.

“Mr Smith also involved himself in another self improvement effort called Chance for Life. This program was run by volunteers from the Detroit area and prisoners took classes in Critical Thinking, Substance Abuse, Mentoring or Parenting, and Conflict Resolution. Mr. Smith was one of the few prisoners who actually thrived in the program and became a role model for other prisoners.”

Of his time with the Warden's Forum – a group of prisoners elected by other inmates to meet with the warden monthly to resolve concerns and problems – Howes wrote that Smith “was a tremendous asset” and role model.

“It would be an injustice,” the warden wrote, “not to consider him for resentencing and possible release at this time.”

As the years tick by, Smith said he realizes the outcome of his fate is out of his hands. Yet he is optimistic. “I've always had hope,” he said. “I just believe at the end of the day what I become as a man, as a person, will speak for itself.

“It'll be alright.”

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