Traverse City Record-Eagle

Michigan

July 7, 2014

Man with odd sentence stuck with life in prison

JACKSON, Mich. (AP) — Good conduct makes Leon Echols eligible for a number of jobs in prison: porter, barber, cook. He chooses to be a photographer in the visitor room, taking pictures of other inmates and their families.

"I can see children. I can feel normal," Echols, 43, explained. "I love being able to see families interacting with each other. I'm not an inmate for that moment."

And he could be an inmate forever.

Echols has been a Michigan prisoner nearly 25 years — his entire adult life — for killing a man during a sudden dispute over a car near Detroit. In 1989, Judge Michael Talbot sentenced the 18-year-old to a minimum of 75 years, an astonishing punishment when the guidelines called for a minimum of 10 to 25.

Echols essentially is serving a life sentence. Years of good behavior will shave time, but he'll still have to live to age 83 to file his first application for parole.

"That's the injustice," he said.

In March, the Michigan Supreme Court turned down his personal 40-page appeal for help but noticed the unusual facts. The justices said he could apply to have his sentence shortened by a governor, a difficult process with extremely long odds of success. Justice Michael Cavanagh, however, said Echols deserved more from the state's top court.

"This is an exceptional case in which defendant's sentence is illegal," wrote Cavanagh, who believes a new sentence is appropriate.

University of Michigan law professor Paul Reingold said: "These are the saddest cases because the injustice seems patent, but the avenues for relief are closed off by procedural rules or substantive reservations."

Echols spoke to The Associated Press at the Cotton prison in Jackson. Without making excuses or blaming others, he described his turbulent childhood, the circumstances of the crime and his unrestrained optimism about winning freedom someday and becoming a mentor to young people.

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