Starting over

2 held for decades for crimes as juveniles savor freedom

WILMINGTON, Del. — It’s just blocks from the house Earl Rice Jr. left behind as a teenager to the places he remembers. But after more than four decades in prison, he has ground to cover.

He heads to the park where he and his brothers used to go sledding.

“For 43 years I’m behind a wall or some kind of a fence with guard towers,” he said. “I can imagine what Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong and them felt like going to the moon, because that’s what it seems like. I’m on a different planet!”

Rice, jailed at 17 for a purse-snatching that took a woman’s life, is 61 now. He’s among a few dozen inmates — sentenced to life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles — who’ve been released since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled such mandatory sentences are cruel and unusual.

When Rice walked out of a Pennsylvania prison last September, his fiancee was waiting at the gate.

Others, though, have confronted less welcoming realities.

When John Hall, now 67, was freed from a Michigan prison in February after nearly 50 years, he had no family to greet him. His lawyer and volunteers brought him to his first home — a Detroit rescue mission. He had $1.37, a tiny TV and a photo album filled with faded newspaper clippings and pictures of himself in boxing trunks, from his fighting days as “Kid Hall.”

“I don’t think you can find anyone who really can describe how it feels to be free … but I’m always thinking about my future and sleeping in the streets and not having a chance to even get in the fight for the life that I want,” Hall said then. “The world has moved past me.”

In the weeks since, Hall has joined Rice in embracing a truth the Supreme Court never addressed.

Juvenile offenders can take responsibility for their crimes. Judges and parole boards can assess how they have changed. But to make it at 60-something in a world that has tossed aside most of what you once knew, it takes something more.

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By 17, Rice had spent a year in a juvenile detention facility; he had a history of break-ins and stealing cars.

In 1973, he and another teen left a party in West Chester, Pennsylvania, and spotted 62-year-old Ola Danenberg. After Rice grabbed her purse, she fell to the ground, hit her head and died. He was charged with murder.

At 17, Hall was a petty thief and truant. In 1967, he and a friend accosted Albert Hoffman, 73, at a Detroit bus stop, dragged him into an alley, then beat and robbed him. Hoffman, a World War I veteran, died of his injuries. The friend never was arrested, but Hall was convicted of murder. He still remembers the judge’s words at sentencing: “You’re unfit, you’re a throwaway, you’re a predator and you should be put away for the rest of your life.”

Back in Wilmington, Rice moved in with his father. His first weekend back, five generations of family gathered at a cookout. It had been more than 40 years since a judge allowed Rice to hold his newborn daughter after his conviction. Now, as music floated over the grass, Crystal Twyman approached her father.

“I’ve never danced with my daddy before,” she said.

The day Hall was released, he shared a FaceTime call with his stepsister in Georgia.

“This is just like Star Trek!” he said, grinning at the face he hadn’t seen in 34 years. But anxiety set in.

Soon, though, his confidence steadied. He moved into a halfway house and in April, a friend drove him to see his 81-year-old stepsister.

In May, Hall moved to Georgia. He plans to take some classes and get acquainted with his family. He’d like to counsel teens, too.

“A man’s life was lost. That’s what I don’t forget,” he said. “That’s why I want to contribute, so maybe I can prevent one of those youngsters from going out there and doing what I did — or even thinking about it.”