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CREDIT ALL THIS TO GOD”by Sharon Rondeau
(Nov. 2, 2019) —In Part 1 and Part 2 of this title, former Tennessee inmate Andrew Ewing detailed his quarter-century of incarceration under the “felony murder” statute, sometimes referred to as a “rule” or “doctrine,” which implicates those not responsible for committing murder to harsh penalties if they were at the scene of the crime or otherwise found to have been associated with the perpetrator(s).
Ewing, who was released on lifetime parole in July, faults President Bill Clinton for having signed a crime bill which encouraged and rewarded states for meting out longer sentences to individuals involved in violent crime, including by means of the “felony murder” doctrine.
In 2015, as Clinton’s wife sought the Democratic presidential nomination, the former president told a gathering of NAACP members of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, “I signed a bill that made the problem worse.”
According to Justia.com:
The felony murder rule is a rule that allows a defendant to be charged with first-degree murder for a killing that occurs during a dangerous felony, even if the defendant is not the killer. The felony murder rule applies only to those crimes that are considered “inherently dangerous,” as the rationale underlying the felony murder rule is that certain crimes are so dangerous that society wants to deter individuals from engaging in them altogether. Thus, when a person participates in an inherently dangerous crime, he or she may be held responsible for the fatal consequences of that crime, even if someone else caused the actual death.
The felony murder rule is an exception to the normal rules of homicide. Normally, a defendant can be convicted of murder only if a prosecutor shows that the defendant acted with the intent to kill or with a reckless indifference to human life. Under the felony murder rule, however, a defendant can be convicted of murder even if the defendant did not act with intent or a reckless indifference; the prosecution must show only that the defendant participated in a felony where fatalities occurred.
As we related in Part 1, Ewing was released after serving longer than his 25-year sentence, a situation his sister, Sharen Rooks, has investigated on behalf of many Tennessee inmates and wishes to see changed through community activism to bring about greater public awareness.
From inmate letters received beginning in 2016, The Post & Email learned that some Tennessee inmates have remained incarcerated well beyond their parole dates, with one serving “double” the amount of time spelled out in his plea agreement.
In May, Rooks brought to our attention a federal lawsuit in which 14 inmate plaintiffs claimed that their civil and constitutional rights were violated by the Board of Parole’s haphazard granting or declining of parole. The plaintiffs further state that as many as “25,000” Tennessee inmates are similarly situated.
Ewing, too, emphasized that the State of Tennessee does not utilize a standard formula when considering inmates for parole. “What we need is truth in sentencing, where it’s set up so that when you go to prison, you know exactly what day you’re getting out,” he told us. “…they don’t have that in Tennessee.”
Ewing has joined the Nashville-based “Men of Valor,” a Christian organization founded in 1997 by a former inmate and Vietnam War veteran whose goal is to reduce recidivism. “Nationally, 70% of men released from prison will return. However, through Bible-based programming, aftercare/re-entry services, and the involvement of committed staff and volunteers, Men of Valor’s success rate beats both national and statewide statistics. In fact, for men who complete Men of Valor’s 6-month program inside the prison and 12-month program outside the prison, the recidivism rate is below 15%,” the website reports.
Ewing added that he hopes to someday meet with Gov. Bill Lee, whose campaign platform included criminal-justice reform, to discuss the arbitrary granting or denying of parole by the state’s Board of Parole.
Recently The Post & Email published an update on the story of Timothy Aaron Baxter, who was granted parole in August of this year but then mandated to take a drug-rehab class lasting between nine months and a year. According to Baxter’s parents, no mention was made of the course requirement last year when their son was considered favorably for parole by the same officer who reconsidered, and granted, parole this past summer.
Moreover, the attorney representing Baxter wrote a letter to the Board of Parole claiming a prison officer admitted to having made a “clerical error” when she designated Baxter for the class. In the September 24, letter, the attorney wrote that not only had Baxter not used drugs since 2001, but also that “There is no justification for keeping Mr. Baxter in prison one more day. If he needed some type of rehab program it should have been brought-up in the past decade he has been confined in prison. Mr. Baxter has been subjected to arbitrary enforcement of the rules and policies governing parole…”
Ewing told us that he supports President Trump’s “First Step Act of 2018” with the intent of reducing recidivism, increasing federal-inmate employment, broadening opportunities for inmates to participate in vocational training and to move to “prerelease custody” if appropriate.
Continuing from Part 2, Ewing told us, “I love politics and understand how it works, because I was forced into it through being in prison and working on my case. If my memory serves me correctly, they’ve been talking about this on the campaign trail and what the Bill Clinton statute did to our community and country. So I think what President Trump is doing — I support it; I’m all in on it.”
The P&E: Some years ago I interviewed a Monroe County, TN resident whose relative received 18 years in prison because “the judge believed he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Mr. Ewing: I’m well aware of cases like that. If you explain a scenario to me about a case, I would not be surprised because I’ve heard them all, witnessed them all, and been acquainted with quite a few cases. I’m not advocating that the country should be allowed to run rampant. We have to have laws to be governed, but they should be fair and reasonable. We need a common-sense statute; we don’t need a statute that people write and don’t understand how the prison system works.
I have staff members to this day now who are trying to get me to come back and work within the prison system. The whole time I was incarcerated I had only two write-ups, and those were in 1996. That’s a testament to who I am and the type of person I was in prison. Even now, I’m out on parole, but you know how often I have to report in?
The P&E: Usually it’s twice a month, isn’t it?
Mr. Ewing: Yes, but for me, it’s twice a year. That’s a testament to my character and how I follow the rules and how I was a law-abiding prisoner. I always believe in following the guidelines. As you get to know me and you dissect my life and my case, you’ll get a little clearer idea of who I am and what I am, because if you’re going to be an advocate for prison reform and want to use my situation as a stepping-stone, it’s important that you have all the facts, all the information on my character and down to people who are connected to me.
Even as I speak to you right now, I have staff members calling and checking on me – nurses, doctors, COs, lieutenants, and all of them. They’re calling me to this day and checking on me.
The P&E: Is that because they have to?
Mr. Ewing: They want to. They’re rooting for me. That’s how much support I have.
The P&E: Obviously you were a model prisoner.
Mr. Ewing: Ma’am, I’m can tell you now, if I needed a place to live, there’s probably at least 70% of the staff who would let me come and live with them. So God’s been good to me, and I want to make this clear, too: I think going to prison was the best thing that ever happened to me even though I don’t agree with the sentence that they gave me. When I was young, I was little hard-headed. I didn’t listen to my father and mother. I was raised right. My going to prison wasn’t a reflection on my upbringing; I was raised right; I was raised up in the church.
I left the country; they brought me to the city, and I got exposed to some bad elements of the city. When you’re young and naÏve, you’re impressionable. Now I’m grown. Before you know it, I got running with the wrong crowd and the next thing you know, I was in trouble. What prison did for me was it helped me grow up and develop into the man you’re listening to today.
So I thank God for that, although at the end of the day, the amount of time I did is what I don’t agree with. I can’t change what happened to me, but I can change what happens to the people coming behind me. I have two sons 30 years old, and I have a grandson who’s five years old and another who’s a year old. I don’t want to see any more children go through what I went through, whether they’re white, Hispanic, African-American…however, if they do make a mistake, let the law be just and fair.
The P&E: The law is supposed to be the same for everyone, no matter who you are, what you look like, or what your financial situation is.
Mr. Ewing: Correct.
The P&E: There’s been a lot of discussion about changing Tennessee’s 51-year rule for first-degree murder.
Mr. Ewing: I get phone calls from prisoners – there are four who have my phone number – and these guys that I will represent about deserving a second chance. When I left there, the majority of these guys were crying. I get letters to this day, and some of these guys are in situations that I know are unfair, and I know they’ve changed, but they’ve been in prison for 30 and 40-some years. That’s just unfathomable.
There’s another guy who’s been up for parole on a drug charge at least two or three times, and this is a non-violent case. It’s an endless cycle that is going on in this country and the State of Tennessee. Hopefully this-here could be the prelude to some change being made, because at the end of the day, I don’t want to make this about me. I don’t want the focus on me. I have no problem with you-all using my case as the platform, because I’m in God’s hands; that’s how I feel about my situation.
So whatever I need to do to help anybody, I’m all for it. Hopefully you can assist me and all of us in this area.
The P&E: It seems the people of Tennessee are literally crying out for a change in the state’s very punitive system.
Mr. Ewing: Yes, ma’am. So I’m at peace and thank God that I got a chance to talk to you today.
The P&E: I can tell that when you were in prison, you did a tremendous amount of reading.
Mr. Ewing: Yes, ma’am, I did, and I believe in setting goals in life and having a purpose. I always felt that my thoughts are my destiny. They only had my body; they never had my spirit and my heart. I never allowed them to classify me as a convict. I’m not a convict, nor a prisoner or inmate; I’m first a child of God. I’m a father, I’m a son, I’m a brother-in-law, and I’m a grandfather. That’s my title. So whatever title they gave me, I refused to accept it.
In society, it’s more of a psychological thing, and everyone who came in contact with me, both while I was in prison and out of prison, said, “You don’t act like you’ve been locked up that long.” And the wardens who have come in contact with me since I’ve been out have said, “I can’t believe you spent that much time there because don’t act or carry yourself like it,” so I credit all this to God.
Andrew Ewing, Board of Parole, crime and punishment, First Step Act, incarceration, Men of Valor, sentencing laws, Tennessee, Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994