Can a murderer ever be redeemed? That's the question journalist Nancy Mullane takes on in her new book, Life After Murder: Five Men in Search of Redemption. Over the past few years, Mullane has made dozens of trips to California's San Quentin prison to interview men locked up for committing the most heinous crimes.
Yet in the peculiarities of the penal system, even life sentences can run out, and sometimes convicted murderers are paroled. But what kind of life can they make after decades behind bars? Can a murderer get a fresh start in life when he has blood on his hands?
NPR's Scott Simon talks with Mullane and Jesse Reed, one of the men profiled in Mullane's book. Reed was convicted of first-degree murder in 1985 and sentenced to 27 years to life. He is now out on parole.
Nancy Mullane, on her first meeting with convicted murderers at San Quentin
"I was put in this small room to wait, and the door opened, and four men who had committed murder walked in the room and sat with me, alone. There were no guards, and I thought: These men committed murder. ... My impressions at the time were: If someone commits a murder, we keep them behind the walls because if they have access to people on the outside, they will want to kill again — and I assumed in my mind that they would want to kill me.
"Instead of that happening, they reached out their hands and gave me their names and asked me who I was, and that was the beginning of a question: What is change? What is redemption for someone who commits the most horrible of all crimes?"
Jesse Reed, on the crime he committed
"At the time I was using drugs, and one event led to another, and out on a quest to find money for more drugs, I end up taking someone's life. ... What happened was I did point a gun at Mr. [Joseph] Bates and demanded his money ... I ended up shooting him. That was not my intention, however it was something that did happen. ...
"A lot of times when people are involved in this type of lifestyle and behavior they are afraid ... and at the time I happened to be afraid, I was nervous. When you're nervous, you're not really thinking clear. Things happen and sometimes they're really bad."
Reed on how he's changed since he was sent to prison as a teenager
"Today I'm an individual who decided that he wanted to change. Change comes from within. It's just having a desire to be better."
Mullane on the recidivism rate for convicted murderers
"In California, from 1990 until May 31, 2011, about 1,000 individuals who were serving sentences of first or second degree murder were paroled from California prisoners. Of that 1,000, zero have committed another murder. And if you look at the national statistics as well, in one decade, from 2000 to 2010, 57,000 people who committed a murder offense were released from state or federal prisons — 57,000. And with the lowest recidivism rate — about 1.6 percent."
Mullane on Jack Henry Abbott — who was released from prison and then stabbed a man to death within a month — and why some people don't want to take the chance of letting murderers out on parole
"I completely understand that. But I also think that I wasn't seeing the Abbotts. I was seeing human beings who were self-reflective, that had examined who they were, that were steady on their feet. ... I had no idea who people who commit murder become."
Reed, on the meaning of redemption
"What is redemption? What does redemption look like? Redemption is being given another chance. Trying to recapture who you really are."