This fall, a group of students at CUNY’s Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism spent weeks interviewing and examining the records of five men who have spent decades in New York’s state prisons and are now seeking release.
Each of the five high-profile prisoners are African-Americans from New York City who were convicted of violent crimes that included murder and attempted murder. All committed their first crimes as teenagers. All are now in late middle age, ranging from 48 to 61.
Collectively, they have been behind bars for 155 years, and under their current sentences, they are due to remain locked up for decades more. Some may likely die in prison. Each has also sought to express remorse for the crimes that sent them to prison and have tried to apply that regret to their daily lives.
They have mentored younger men who remind them of themselves; hosted and tutored school children from their old neighborhoods; formed support groups for fathers whose children know them only in their prison greens, and raised funds for gun buyback programs. Between them, they’ve accumulated eight college degrees. “You’ve got to say ‘I’m sorry’ in the way that you live,” says one of the men.
While acknowledging their wrongs, each are now asking to be allowed to go home to rebuild their lives and rejoin loved ones. Four are seeking clemency, the awesome power allotted to the governor to temper justice with mercy. Another faces a parole hearing this spring, hoping not to be denied an eighth time. The victim in that case, a police officer, opposes his release. Victims in the other crimes, all of which occurred decades ago, could not be reached. All of the men are represented by students and attorneys from CUNY’s School of Law, which operates a clinic to assist those seeking relief from long terms in prison. These are their stories.
Richard “Lee” Chalk
On March 9, 1988, Richard “Lee” Chalk, then 30, drove a tan Chevrolet with five men from Brooklyn to Albany, to rob drug dealers at a stash house.
Chalk had supplied the guns for the crime. But he waited in the car as the others headed into the row house in the city’s Arbor Hill neighborhood. Inside, the robbery soon turned deadly. George Mosely and William Paterson were murdered.
As they fled, Chalk and his accomplices were arrested on I-87. The crime became a local media sensation. Details were broadcast nonstop. The media dubbed them “The Brooklyn Six.”
At trial, a judge named Joseph Harris, known for his harsh sentences, excoriated Chalk.
“You were a part of a murder team that came up from Brooklyn to rob and commit burglary,” he said. “You knew exactly what was going to be happening up here.”
He sentenced Chalk to 71 ⅔ years to life on charges of robbery and 2nd degree murder. It meant Chalk would not be eligible for parole until he turned 101.
In prison, he was filled with rage at what he viewed as an excessive sentence. But his anger eventually dissipated.
“I wasn’t getting anywhere; I wasn’t being productive. Nothing good was coming, it wasn’t worthy, it had no substance,” Chalk says. “I realized it would be more beneficial for everyone to do better for other people, instead of just destroying stuff.”
In time, he accepted his own responsibility for his involvement in the deaths of George Mosely and William Paterson (efforts to reach their families were not successful).
“I could never get back what I lost and I can never give back what I took,” Chalk says now.
Thirty-one years later, in Green Haven Correctional Facility, Chalk is viewed as an “old timer” for his many years behind bars. Both employees and those who are incarcerated rely on him for help and guidance. He resides on the prison’s “Honor Block,” where he’s able to move around the prison freely and prepare his own food. Skilled at working with his hands from a young age, Lee is a maintenance worker throughout the prison, fixing whatever is broken.
He also mends people. Adept at legal research, he has aided several prisoners reduce their sentences. Helping others, he says now, is the best way to show remorse for what happened in 1988.
Today, after more than three decades in state prison, Chalk is seeking freedom, asking Governor Cuomo for executive clemency. Last December, Cuomo granted clemency to two of Chalk’s accomplices, Roy Bolus and Alphonse Riley-James. If allowed, Chalk would go home to Brooklyn, to join a sister, Geanie, who is battling lung cancer.
“He went to prison a man, but in prison he’s become a better man,” Geanie says of her brother.
“I don’t know if I’ll get clemency, I know that I might die in here,” says Chalk. “I can’t change what happened. I can only do better. Sorry is not enough, but all I can do is let my actions show who I am now is not who I was in the past.”
By Jeffery Harrell and Brenda León
Holding a gun made 15-year-old Paul Clark feel like a bigger man, he remembers. He was a slightly-built kid—5’4” and 118 pounds. The weapon commanded the respect of others on the street. Clark insists never intended to use it. But then he did, and a 17-year-old named Keith Thomas was killed.
Clark was 18 in August 1980 when he shot Thomas twice after a fight at a block party near his Brooklyn home, resulting in a 33 ⅓ year prison sentence. It took years for Clark to acknowledge his guilt and remorse, writing a letter of apology to the Thomas family. “It’s a decision I regret for the rest of my life,” he said.
But three years after he was sent to an upstate prison, Clark was brought to Brooklyn to stand trial for a different crime, the attempted robbery and murder of a taxi driver. He was stunned by the accusation by a police detective and a single witness.
“The only thing I know from that crime is what I learned at trial,” says Clark, who still maintains his innocence today. The judge called him a “baby-faced killer” and added 25 years to Clark’s prison sentence, for a total of 58 years.
“I didn’t have any hope,” Clark said, confronted with the possibility that he may die in prison.
Defeated by the trial result, Clark began fighting and drug dealing. Clark estimates he’s spent nine years in solitary confinement because of his misbehavior. While in solitary, he read the Bible, using it as a distraction. Slowly, the words took on great meaning.
At the same time in 2000, Clark met the woman who would become his wife in the visitor’s room. “I wanted something different for my life,” Clark said.
Clark began taking advantage of prison programs and volunteered in the hospital, helping sick patients. In the prison church, Clark became an elder, counseling young men and praying daily. “I used to tell God, even if you're not going to let me out, I'm going to serve you from this day on,” Clark said.
A recently released friend told Clark he would find someone to look into the second case. Through his friend’s efforts, Clark learned that the detective who had led the investigation against him had been convicted of a stunning set of murders. Detective Steven Caracappa, along with another rogue cop, was found to have carried out hits for the mafia. Caracappa died in federal prison in 2017.
Clark hoped the information would help set him on the path to freedom. But a judge threw out his appeal in 2017.
Clark is now 57 years old and has served 39 years of his sentence. This year, Clark asked for clemency to be granted by the governor in another attempt to gain his freedom.
“Even in here, I could be a better person, whether I will get out and not,” Clark said.
By Annie Todd and Stephanie Chukwuma
While watching the news in his cell in Great Meadow Correctional Facility, Bruce Bryant was overcome by the sight of a grieving mother, whose 10-year-old daughter had been killed by a stray bullet.
It was 2008. Bryant, who is serving a 37 ½ to life sentence for murder, felt a weight on his chest. The crime was eerily similar to his own. And he saw an opportunity to start making amends.
Bryant, 50, was convicted of the murder of 11-year-old Travis Lilley in June 1996. Bryant maintains he never fired a weapon that day in 1993. But he recognizes that his lifestyle as a young person — he started dealing drugs when he was 14 — contributed to an environment in which a stray bullet could take a young life. And for that reason, he’s spent most of his 25 years in prison working to help young people.
He convinced a prison superintendent to let him create an option for prisoners to donate to a gun buyback program in Albany. In two weeks, Bryant had raised $322.
“You don’t have to pick up a gun and shoot a person to be responsible for a life,” he says.
With at least 12 more years on his sentence, Bryant is now asking the governor for early release, with the hope that he can continue his work outside of prison walls.
“On my watch, I don’t want to ever see another young person die,” he says.
On October 30th, 1993, a 23-year-old Bryant was in Jamaica, Queens, when he ran into fellow drug dealer Michael Sterling. As the men were catching up, Sterling saw a man across the street who had robbed him the day before.
The man and his friends started shooting at Sterling, Bryant says. Sterling returned fire. That’s when Bryant says he ran.
He says he didn’t see the stray bullets shatter the window of the beauty salon across the street. He didn’t see Travis Lilley or Lilley’s uncle as he held the boy’s lifeless body and sobbed, sitting on shards of glass.
But in 1996, Bryant was found guilty of murder. Justice Robert McGann told him at his sentencing, “I hope you never have access to decent, innocent people again.”
In prison, he went from being angry to wanting to help others. With help from nonprofit Children of Promise, Bryant published a journal for children with incarcerated parents. He started a program called “Mentoring Beyond The Walls,” which connected formerly incarcerated youth with currently incarcerated men.
Hany Massoud, cofounder of Justice by the Pen, an organization that helps youth engage with social justice issues, has partnered with Bryant on several projects.
“He would be running several nonprofit organizations if he was out of prison right now,” Massoud says.
“Saying sorry is not good enough,” says Bryant, who has earned an Associate’s and a Bachelor’s degree behind bars. “You got to say I’m sorry in the way that you live. I would hope that my lifestyle would reflect my deepest apologies.”
By Rachel Rippetoe and Sean Sanders
George Hill never imagined himself being on stage. He is tall and soft-spoken, and has a slight stutter that makes him self-conscious about public speaking. But when one of his friends at Sing Sing Correctional facility was unable to play his role in the prison’s production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, he asked Hill to fill in for him.
Hill was surprised at his ability in front of an audience. Since then, he’s performed several other roles. Acting, he says, helped with self-esteem. “That was the moment I said, ‘OK, I can do something else now.”
Hill’s toughest speaking roles are appearances before a state panel of parole commissioners. He has had seven parole hearings. Each time he is asked to recount the crime that sent him to prison.
Hill was 19 years old when he was convicted of attempted murder of a uniformed police officer in Brooklyn. He was carrying a gun when police began following the car in which he was riding. Hill fled and hid behind a hedge. When the officer approached, he opened fire. Hill insists that his goal was to get away, not to harm anyone. But Patrolman Paul Freitas was badly injured, struck in the head, abdomen and leg.
After Hill turned himself in, he received a prison sentence of 20 years to life. But as in many cases involving law enforcement victims, he has served long beyond his minimum. He is now 47 and has already been behind bars for 28 years. One reason is the vehement opposition of police unions. “Anyone who intentionally kills or attempts to kill a uniformed police officer in the performance of his or her duty, forfeits his right to freedom,” a spokesman for the Police Benevolent Association said in a statement. Freitas did not respond to requests for comment.
In prison, Hill began applying himself. He obtained three degrees including a Master’s in professional studies. He tutors others seeking their GED, and leads a support group for those trying to be better parents. He remains closely connected with his 28 nieces and nephews, many of whom he’s never met outside a prison waiting room.
In April, Hill will face his eighth parole hearing. His message, he says, has been the same each time: That he is not that same reckless teenager he was at the time of his crime. That if released, he would go home to a large, loving family. That he would take up the task of trying to reach troubled young men before they make wrong decisions like his own that send them to prison. That while the facts of his crime can never change, he long ago committed to making changes within himself. One of them has been his views of men like Officer Freitas.
“I see them all as human beings,” he says. “Whether they’re police officers or corrections officers, they’ll always deserve that respect I didn’t give them when I was younger.”
By Maria Robins-Somerville and Hannah Miller
When Lance Sessoms was a boy, his father worked as a cook at the Brooklyn House of Detention, the soaring city jail on Atlantic Avenue. He’d ride with his dad when he went to pick up his paycheck. “He would leave me in the car, and say, ‘Don’t you ever let me catch you inside this place,’” Sessoms recalled.
There seemed little reason to worry. Sessoms was happy being his father’s sidekick and his favorite older brother’s shadow. His dream was to become a clothing designer. When he won admission into a competitive high school, he believed he was on his way.
But tragedy altered his course. His father walked out on the family. Battling mental illness, the brother he adored jumped to his death from the roof of their Brooklyn building. Sessoms dropped out of school. On the streets, friends boasting stacks of cash and guns impressed him. At 16, he was in prison for armed robbery, the first of three convictions.
In 1988, at age 22, the path he’d chosen turned deadly. He found himself in an Albany row house, holding a gun on two drug dealers he was helping to rob. When they vowed retaliation, he shot and killed them.
More than three decades later, it is a scene he relives with horror and regret. At 54, serving a sentence of 75 years to life behind the walls of Sing Sing Correctional Facility, he knows he has turned his own life around. He has a degree in psychology, a stack of certificates from self-improvement programs he has completed, and the love of a wife, three children, and seven grandkids. Most rewardingly, he has become an effective mentor to those who remind him of his younger self, encouraging them to pursue their own degrees and stay out of trouble.
“I tell the men, ‘Don’t mess with the guards. They didn’t put you in here,’” Sessoms says. “’You put yourself in here.’”
For men like Ronald Jervis, who was serving his own sentence for murder, Sessoms’s nagging encouragement became a life preserver. “He always made me feel like I could do it,” said Jervis, who won release thanks to the appeal he filed at Sessoms’s urging.
But Sessoms knows there is no reprieve for those he killed. “On days when I am lonely and I miss my family, when my limp is heavier, I think of John Mosley and William Patterson,” he says of his victims. “Their families can’t even come and visit them. I’m the lucky one and I’m locked up.”
Under his sentence, he would be 97 years old before becoming eligible for parole. Clemency is likely his only chance to avoid dying behind bars. Last December, Cuomo granted clemency to two of his accomplices, Roy Bolus and Alphonse Riley-James.
“I’m different from 22 years old,” says Sessoms. “I am trying to be consistent with my actions and my words.”
By Rosemary Misdary and Trone Dowd