EJI client Ian Manuel was released from prison this week after being sentenced to die in prison for shooting a woman during a robbery in Tampa, Florida, when he was just 13 years old.
Ian’s lawyer told the 13-year-old to plead guilty and the judge would be lenient, but the judge instead imposed a sentence of life imprisonment without parole. Ian became one of the youngest children condemned to die in prison in the United States.
Because he was a very small boy, state prison officials decided to place Ian in solitary confinement, where he remained for the next 20 years. The extended isolation was extremely challenging, abusive, and destructive.
With few contacts on the outside, Ian reached out to the shooting victim, Debbie Berkovits, to ask for her forgiveness, which she gave. A remarkable relationship emerged in which Ms. Berkovits became a supporter for a reduced sentence for Ian. Courts were nonresponsive.
Ten years ago, EJI took on Ian’s case as part of its effort to end excessive punishment of children. EJI ultimately won major victories in the United States Supreme Court requiring states to resentence children condemned to die in prison and banning life without parole for children like Ian who were convicted of nonhomicides.
After multiple hearings and appeals, Ian was released from prison after 26 years of imprisonment. Ian is a talented writer whose work was featured in Bryan Stevenson’s bestseller, Just Mercy.
At last week’s sentencing hearing, Ian told the court that he and Ms. Berkovits have been “waiting for the justice system to catch up to my remorse and her forgiveness.” On the day of his release, Ian celebrated his freedom by having dinner with Ms. Berkovits and EJI staff. Ms. Berkovits posted on Facebook about sharing Ian’s first meal after his release.
EJI is now supporting Ian’s transition home through our PREP (Post-Release Education and Preparation) program, which was developed specifically for people like Ian who entered prison when they were children.