A Story of Racial Bias, the Absence of Mercy, and a Death in PrisonNovember 21, 2016

Forty-five years after Phillip Chance traveled from his home in Detroit, Michigan, to visit family in rural Choctaw, Alabama, he died last week in an Alabama prison.

During that visit in 1971, 15-year-old Phillip Chance and his older brother went with their cousin to a local convenience store, where their cousin robbed and killed the store clerk. Phillip cooperated with the police and told them where his cousin hid the stolen money, but the Alabama prosecutors claimed Phillip and his brother helped plan the robbery and charged all three black teenagers with the murder of the white clerk. Phillip's lawyer advised him to plead guilty and assured Phillip he would get out of prison in a year based on good behavior. Phillip pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life imprisonment with parole.

Phillip was sent to an adult prison, where he was such an exemplary inmate that he earned his way from a maximum-security prison to a work-release program, where he was assigned to drive a Department of Corrections van. In 1981, despite his excellent behavior and trustworthiness, the Alabama parole board denied Mr. Chance parole, asserting that he was a threat to the community. A few days later, Mr. Chance walked away from the work-release program and escaped to his family's home in Michigan.  

The State of Alabama pressured Michigan to return Mr. Chance for prosecution, but Michigan's Republican governor granted Mr. Chance asylum and subsequent governors refused to extradite him because they recognized he was a victim of racial injustice and had been railroaded. As Alabama officials fought to have him extradited over the next 15 years, Mr. Chance got a job, married, had two daughters, and was admired by many.

In 1996, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered Michigan to extradite Mr. Chance to Alabama. In a separate opinion, Judge Nathaniel Jones expressed distress about returning Mr. Chance "to a jurisdiction and prison system with a wretched history and, even more distressing, a present demeanor violative of international standards on the treatment of all prisoners." Alabama had recently brought back the chain gang and was punishing prisoners by shackling them for as long as seven hours to the chest-high horizontal bars called the "hitching post."

Judge Jones compared Mr. Chance's case with that of Haywood Patterson, one of the "Scottsboro Boys" who was wrongfully charged, convicted, and sentenced because he was black. Like Mr. Chance, Mr. Patterson escaped from an Alabama prison and was granted asylum by the governor of Michigan. Judge Jones wrote, "I shudder to think what would have happened to Patterson had he been returned to Alabama." Judge Jones concluded:

If South Africa can sign a new democratic Constitution and Pakistan can take steps toward a ban on flogging, surely, the state of Alabama, in the United States of America, can learn from its lamentable past and embrace modest principles of human rights. I hope so, for the sake of Philip Chance.

Three years after he was extradited back to Alabama, Mr. Chance went up for parole. At the hearing, the parole board considered that Mr. Chance was 15 years old at the time of the offense and that he was not the person who killed the victim. With the support of Chairwoman Gladys Riddle and parole board member Johnny Johnson, the board granted parole. Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor immediately condemned the parole board's decision, and Governor Don Siegelman, who had the power to appoint parole board members and designate the board chair, called on the board to reverse its decision, writing:

It is without reservation that I object to the parole of a convicted killer who was extradited from Michigan to Alabama at a cost to taxpayers of more than $200,000.  Why did we go to the trouble of seeing that justice was served only to let this man go free just three years after his return to this state?  

The parole board promptly rescinded Mr. Chance's parole. Governor Siegelman replaced Gladys Riddle as chair of the parole board. Mr. Siegelman is currently serving a seven-year sentence for felony corruption charges.

Mr. Chance came up for parole multiple times over the next two decades and each time his parole was denied despite his immaculate record. During his 30 years in prison, Mr. Chance earned his GED and a degree in theology and he never received a disciplinary or even a citation. Earlier this year, his supporters told the parole board that Mr. Chance was suffering from life-threatening health problems that made it difficult for him to walk. His family appealed for compassionate release, writing that he had suffered several heart attacks, a quadruple bypass heart surgery, diabetes, high blood pressure, a stroke, as well as kidney failure. The parole board denied his request for parole and delayed his next parole hearing for five years.

Mr. Chance attempted to obtain a medical furlough through a state program that was designed to save money by releasing sick inmates who pose no risk to public safety. The Alabama Department of Corrections refused to allow Mr. Chance to be furloughed to Michigan, where his daughters could provide care for him. Instead, amidst complaints about inadequate medical care, Mr. Chance recently was taken to an outside hospital for treatment, but he was not allowed to stay despite medical records indicating he required hospitalization.

Last week, Mr. Chance died in prison. He was 59.