No Second Chances

By Jamaal Abdul-Alim
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 38 | Posted Feb. 20, 2009

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Some juvenile offenders will never again see the light of day after they enter this facility in Indiana County. (Penn DOC)

HARRISBURG -- Their brains are not mature. They deserve a second chance. No other country punishes them as severely as we do in the United States.

Such were the arguments put forth on behalf of "juvenile lifers" this week during a Senate committee hearing on whether Pennsylvania should continue its policy of throwing away the key when it comes to locking up juvenile offenders convicted of murder -- no matter how large or small a role they may have played in the crime.

Pennsylvania currently leads the nation in the number of "juvenile lifers," with 444  of the nation's approximately 2,300 inmates currently sentenced to die in prison for crimes they committed as minors, according to figures provided at the hearing convened by State Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Stewart Greenleaf (R-Willow Grove).

To those who view Pennsylvania's mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles convicted of first- or second-degree murder as unfair, the hearing represented another chance to vocalize their views and call for the end of a policy and practice they say is as peculiar as it is perverse.

But to the survivors of homicide victims, the prospect of giving juvenile lifers a mandatory shot at release was an unsettling one that prompted several of them to recount the horrific details of their loved ones' deaths in order to underscore the pain inflicted by their killers.

"I want everyone here to stop and think what it's like to wake up and a family member is not there because they were brutally murdered," said Jodi Dotts, whose 15-year-old daughter, Kimberly, was hung and brutally beaten in Clearfield on Mother's Day 1998 by a group that included several teenagers.

Like other relatives of homicide victims, Dotts scoffed at the notion of "second chances" for juvenile killers.

"My daughter didn't have a second chance," Dotts said. "I'm here to make sure these juveniles don't get released."

But not all juvenile lifers are actual killers, and some are first-time offenders -- factors that advocates say should be considered when they are punished for their crimes.

They include Pennsylvania inmates such as Stacey Torrance, 34, who spoke at the hearing from a state prison via video teleconferencing equipment. Torrance was convicted of murder at age 14 for his role in a Philadelphia robbery in which the victim was ultimately killed by other co-actors hours after Torrance had left the scene, according to Torrance and published reports.

"I didn't know there were going to be weapons involved," Torrance testified on TV monitors in the Senate hearing room that did not show his face. "I didn't know someone was going to be hurt."

Torrance, who says he lives with guilt and shame over the death of the robbery victim, 16-year-old Alex Porter, says changing the state's policy to allow parole for juvenile lifers doesn't mean "outright release."

"Parole could be denied," Torrance said. But life without parole, he said, is a "death-in-prison" sentence."

Other inmates, such as Erik Van Zant, 35, generated less sympathy once the details of their crimes were made known.

Van Zant, who has been in prison since 14, initially impressed some in the audience when he detailed his work helping to steer younger inmates clear of a life of crime.

But Edward F. McCann, Jr., chief of the homicide division of the Philadelphia District Attorney's office, said Van Zant's work in prison is laudable, but his crime was so horrific that his release would raises serious public safety concerns.

"He says 21 years is enough," McCann said of Van Zant, who had testified that he is not the same individual today that he was when he was 14. "But tell that to the family of the victim," McCann said, detailing how Van Zant sexually assaulted his victim with a shower rod and then threw her down the steps.

"We're gonna take chances that the perpetrator of such a savage act is fit to walk among us again?" McCann said.

Many speakers lauded Roper v. Simmons, the U.S. Supreme Court that banned the execution of juveniles because juveniles are deemed less culpable than adults.

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COMMENTS

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1. James said... on Sep 23, 2008 at 12:36PM

“I'm sure plenty of people in other countries would be happy to defend their own barbaric systems of punishment, too: stoning to death, cutting off hands, public rape and execution, hanging, etc. Why should Americans be any different? If we want to consider ourselves better or more modern than those third-world societies, then we must purge ourselves of such barbaric punishments meant only to seek revenge for the victim, rather than doing what is best for our (supposedly modern and enlightened) society.”

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2. jep said... on Sep 24, 2008 at 08:09AM

“Why is the disparity between convicted white offended and convicted black offenders always brought up like its automatically a get out of jail free card?! I am black and I understand that there is racism built into the judicial system, but how about instead of reducing the sentences of these offenders, we encourage black men not to engage in a life of crime!! Stop playing victim and take responsibility for your actions, you know what the judicial system is like, and you know that the laws are out to get you....stop being stupid!!!”

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3. Tauheedah said... on Sep 24, 2008 at 07:53PM

“Many people are misunderstanding the issue, The Juvenile lifers are not asking for everyone to be let out. They are asking that it be based on a merit system. In regards to the VanZant case, which I know just as well as Mccann, there is more to that story then what he told. The reason he spoke of Mr. Vanzant is because, Mr. Vanzant represents what some people are saying is not possible of juvenile lifers..."rehabilitation". The fact is, that this child now a man, could go through all that he has gone throw, from being born on heroine, adoption, being biracial and other issues as well as committing murder and still be able to be productive, positive, influential and remorseful, this proves that the PA judicial system is flawed and McCann just doesn't want to except or admit to that. One thing that our society should be concerned with is accountability, not punishment. As, someone said in a the hearing Manson is eligible for parole so why shouldn't a child be eligible. Many of these children have dealt with physical, emotional, drug and sexual abuse. Where were the adults to protect them? Make these kids accountable and save the taxpayers millions of dollars in wasteful spending. It cost between $30,000- $80,000 a year to keep someon in jail. If person convicted of these types of crimes are less likely to offend, why are we continuing to house them, when they can be productive in socity? Make them pay their debt to society by getting up every morning and working, teaching, developing and rebuilding in their community.”

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4. concerned said... on Sep 25, 2008 at 05:46AM

“This situation is awful on both sides..But we still can't cover up the FACT that we are talking about kids! We can't keep going around treating some kids as kids and others not as kids, "that makes no sense what so ever"! When police make a bust for human trafficking involving minors (18 and under) yes, these kids are protected under the law because they are minors, they are reconized as children, or if a teacher has sex with one of her or his students (18 and under) these kids are reconized as minors, sex offenders have to be registered for assaulting minors (18 and under) he is not allowed to be so many feet around minors (18 and under), it's illegal to sale a minor (18 and under) cigarattes or alcohal, it's illegal to keep a minor out of school, etc.etc. We have all these laws put in place because we do reconize 18 and under is a minor. But, when it comes to that minor committing a crime that same minor is "FORCED" to be something he or she is clearly not (an adult)! These kids are FORCED to go through the adult court and prison system and we pretend that these kids actually know their rights and the law?? Most adults don't know their rights or the laws!! No matter what the circumstance is every person with common sense knows a human being is a minor until the age of 18, we throw people in prisons if they don't reconize that fact!! A minor (18 and under) is a minor no matter how much you try to justify FORCING the kid to be something they are not. We need to start making sense when it comes to our laws concerning minors!! Yes, some of these kids have done something terrible BUT, they are still minors and need to be protected according to our laws!!!!!! Our lawmakers need to quit making up rules as they go along! A MINOR IS A MINOR nothing more, nothing less!!!!”

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5. Child from Churchill Lane said... on Jun 15, 2009 at 03:24AM

“I would like to make a comment to #3.Tauheedah, Eric is not rehabilitated & never will be. He is a danger to society & should not be let out! Many people are afraid of him.I know Eric, we grew up together, he came to my house often & I went to his house & played with him & his brother, and they went to my parties. Nobody treated him differently for being adopted or biracial, there were other families of mixed race on the street, and we were not poor families either, we were working middle class families. Instead of Eric giving you the bull you want to hear make Eric take accountability for his actions. Are you going to take him into your home and sleep at night, if you do make sure you hide the butterknives & shower rods & anything else he could use to rape & torture you & your family as your dying & all for some cash & a car he liked. Did you know that wasn't the first time he went after his neighbor for her car? Do you even know her name? It was Margaret Boyle.”

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6. Tauheedah said... on Aug 5, 2009 at 11:33PM

“Hello Child From Churchhill lane. I am fully aware of the information in your post and quite a bit more. How do you know he is not and has not been rehabilitated? When was the last time you spoke or wrote him? To answer your question, I do believe that he has excepted accountibility. I work with many JLs around the country. Moving forward, if you would like a more convincing answer to your question, you should visit or write him, Your statement is based on past history. Mr. Vanzant also contacted the victim's family, and wrote a letter expressing his remorse and why he did what he did. I am sorry for your loss and hopefully after our conversation you will be open nd feel less pain. This issue is not an easy one and with respect this is not to take away from the victims or their families. It is to find justice in a flawed system.”

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7. washington hs 1988 said... on Dec 7, 2009 at 08:52PM

“I knew Eric and his brother, also. He was an awful person then, but it sounds like he is better now. That just proves how well the system works. When he was free, he was violent and evil. Since he has been caged, he is functioning well. It sounds to me like Erik is the poster child for life with no parole. Keep him and all like him where they belong... away from a civilized society, regardless of age or race. BTW, Erik is biracial, but neither of the races were black. (Info for those of you who are blinded by being militant instead of civilized.)”

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8. Tauheedah said... on Dec 10, 2009 at 11:47PM

“Washingtonhs1988, nothing in your post is true. For a person to be civilized in prison means that he/she had that instinct in them all along. You have such hatred in your tone. Apparnetly you do not know him, or the facts of his case. Erik was chosen out of 2500 other juvenile lifers by the Senator's staff to speak about this issue. It isn't about being caged, race, nor is it about Erik. It is about having the right support around you. This issue affects children who some have committed murder and some who did not and how they accepted accountability for their actions. Leaving a child in prison for life is an injustice. Parole eligibility does not guarantee parole. Juveniles, now women and men would still have to face a board. Did you know that in PA there is no minimum age 4 JLWOP! Oh and far as his nationality, because there is one human race; I know what it is b/c I got his records for him! BTW, you should do ra little research, so you can be informed, ignorance destroys socities!”

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9. MICA said... on Dec 14, 2009 at 12:28AM

“Who is this Erik guy and why is he the topic. We are talking about kids, some who have committed murder and some who have not; seving this life sentence. i didnt know that some of these kids didnt even know that a murder was gonna happen but b/c they were with the person who did they got Life. that is crazy, who came up with that? We have adults murders not getting that kind of sentence. What can we do to change this. Some of these kids may deserve a life sentence, but not all of them. Do these kids ever get paroled?”

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10. fight for the juvenile lifers said... on Jan 18, 2010 at 12:56PM

“vote for SB 399 CA and HB 1994 PA”

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11. Anonymous said... on Mar 5, 2010 at 09:50AM

“he is inocent and i think id kill them if they did that to me”

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12. Cindy said... on Mar 20, 2010 at 11:32PM

“when are they going to decide on the florida supreme court juvenile lifers case? Oh, who are you talking about?”

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13. washington hs 1988 said... on Apr 23, 2010 at 01:30PM

“Tauheedah, idealism is beautiful. I'm sorry to hear that yours is being wasted. Are you seriously in belief that no other cause in the planet is more worthy of yours than Van Zant? I am much more familiar with this story than you are aware, why do you think that I check up on it so frequently? For you to be so pious as to evaluate my ignorance is humorous. Why do you think that so many Judges and juries sentence as they do? Why have the many appeals been denied? It must just be our evil system, right?”

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14. juvenilelifersupporter said... on May 24, 2010 at 10:51PM

“what about the supreme court decision?”

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15. steve c said... on Jun 5, 2010 at 11:00PM

“i remember eric to come up to liberty football feild were he had friends and love to play the game he was young and stupid and i think he paid his debt to society i no what he did is not forgiveable .but being inprison that long he desreve another chance .but watch reall carful to make sure he change and is ready to get a job and get back to soceity andjoin the working feild. if it was your son you would want him to have a second chance even i no the victim family don't believe that.put him on house arrest make him work and join the work force and keep a good eye on him.”

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16. Spirit Wind said... on Jun 6, 2010 at 11:26PM

“With the new US supreme court case decision, some juvenile lifers will get a second chance..”

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17. Steven K said... on Aug 14, 2010 at 09:47PM

“i guess they decided not to let those animals out Good!”

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18. irememberhim said... on Oct 10, 2010 at 02:45PM

“i often think of erik, bc at one point in my life, when i was only about 15, i was goin thru an abusive relationship that at the time, was too darn young or whatever u want to call it too get myself out of....THE only person who stuck up for me and volunteered to confront my abuser was erik...now im not sayin he is innocent or even deserves any type of freedom, but, maybe someone should spk to the victims family and get their opinion.....ive often wonder about erik or if he remembered me, but had no way of getting in contact with him.....i do hope, that whatever is supposed to unfold in this universe....does.....karma is a m f'er, but, forgiving someone, giving them the chance somehow to prove they have changed, other then maybe total freedom, goes a long way also.”

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19. Response to Irememberhim said... on Oct 12, 2010 at 08:06PM

“Hi I have a contact if you would like to get in touch with him.”

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20. Anonymous said... on Dec 15, 2010 at 06:47PM

“We knew him well from the neighborhood, the store where I worked and because he went to school with my son.
Eric may have been adopted but, so was his brother.
He showed signs of a serious disorder from a very young age.
Eric was very cruel to animals.
He lied, not pathologically but, to tell you what you wanted to hear.
My son and a friend were held at gunpoint, from a neighbor, because of something Eric did; until the neighbor found out the truth.
Another neighbor went to his parents, when he was around 12 and told them, "If you do not do something, Eric is going to kill someone."
Probably because he was adopted, his parents (who were wonderful people who set wonderful examples) over compensated Eric. However, I do not believe they aided him. It was innate for sure.
The term "Bad Seed" is because they DO exist. Sorry Eric, but it's true.”

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21. GW High 1997 said... on Dec 27, 2010 at 08:12PM

“Anonymous said please send Eric a letter. It is easy to write information about someone when it can not be verified. Please identify yourself and either write him or go see him. Why are you so reluctant to reach out to him, but willing to post an anonymous email? Why is it ok to bad mouth someone or maybe even make things up about someone you do not even know. Are you certified in any medical field? Have you corresponded with him; follwed his story? Why are you talking sbout something he did as a child. And you believe that he had good parents, when was the last time you reached out to them and how would they feel knowing you are writing stuff about there son and them??? Please be resonsibile with your post, this site is not about ERIC; it is about Juvenile lifers!”

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22. EFS1991 said... on Dec 27, 2010 at 08:21PM

“The devil loves to write contradictive lies about people they dont know to prove a point! This happened allegedly over 25 years ago. What do you have to say about Erik the man today?”

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23. morrell park said... on Jan 19, 2011 at 02:46PM

“u think he will ever get out of prison”

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24. Free Giovanni Reed said... on Jan 22, 2011 at 10:05PM

“Giovanni Reed should be free”

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25. Chole said... on Jan 22, 2011 at 10:11PM


Why the disparity between the sentencing of similar crimes of white and black children? Why arent we protecting these children from older criminals who prey on these kids? What about the children who kill their abuser?

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26. alex cus said... on Apr 4, 2011 at 10:14AM

“stacy torrence should never get out not good for him or no one he new what was up.”

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27. alex cus said... on Apr 4, 2011 at 11:17AM

“Alex has been goon for a long time to. He was a kid to he did not try to kill him self they killed him. they could have robb him and let him go but they didnt so why should they be let go!!!”

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28. reply to Alx cus said said... on Apr 6, 2011 at 09:01PM

“If i am correct Stacey, didnt know anything about what was going on and what was going to happen. The perpetrators told the courts that and they still locked up an innocent kid (Stacey); that isn't justice!”

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29. Alex Baby Sister said... on Aug 24, 2011 at 11:48PM

“The year 1988 when I was 8 yrs old, my brother, my best friend, Alexander Porter says to me " I will always protect and watch over you"., but he didn't tell me that one day someone will come take his life and he will no longer be able to say "I Love you" "Good morning" "Have a good day in school" "today is our day together" "Congratulation" "I'm so proud of you" "I'll see you tomorrow"....”

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30. Anonymous said... on Aug 17, 2012 at 03:41PM

“erik was a very strong athletic kid, good looking and very smart...he did not have a prob getting girlfriend's that's for sure. i remember his mom even helped out at our school and was very sweet. it was recess and i still remember him taking my arm and swinging me around and round it hurt and i wanted him to stop! he was rough, but i do not know him today..i do know first hand drug's def, alter the mind for my brother has since passed from an overdose and was a complete diff. person when he did'nt use. i can't imagine the fear m. boyle suffered god rest her soul...erik took a life.”

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31. gw high 1997 said... on Nov 13, 2012 at 10:50PM

“hi Anonymous
why did he choose M. Boyle]s house to break into? what happened because she wasnt homeat first? What did he tell you?”

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32. gw high 1997 said... on Nov 19, 2012 at 09:06PM

“washington hs 1988
how do u know what his race is??? we (including erik) just found out a few years ago?? You need to check ur facts; bc ur talk about his race is wrong!!!
It is negligent to post false information about anyone regardless of what they may have or have done!”

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33. alex cuz said... on Jan 7, 2013 at 07:46PM

“Alex did not deserve what happen to him but stacey he should be on the row for what he did he knew what was going to happen that ship he trying to kick bullshit”

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34. Anonymous said... on Dec 19, 2013 at 07:31PM

“to whomever said they have the contact info for erik, could you please list it here!
I am the anonymous who posted the comment above regarding my abusive relationship...thank you!!”

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35. Anonymous said... on Jan 11, 2014 at 10:44PM

“Anyone have the contact. From Erik I know he is at greaterrford. My buddy works there he said he is. A very calm guy minds his. Own business”

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36. Morrell park said... on Jan 11, 2014 at 10:49PM

“I wonder if he will ever get out of prison I heard he never got in trouble has no write ups and also talks to young kids”

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37. Anonymous said... on May 25, 2014 at 11:56PM

“Anyone have Erik contact information”

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38. To Anonymous said... on Jul 6, 2014 at 09:30PM

“Call graterford get Erik's inmate number n send him a letter.”

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