In 1979, Ricky Olds watched his friend kill a man, then himself got sentenced to life in prison. More than three decades later, the Supreme Court has given him a shot at freedom.
Illustration by Antonio Zeoli
No crime story fulfills our need for justice without a corresponding punishment. That's how wrongs are righted in our moral imaginations. But if the crime and punishment aren't balanced, we're left waiting for an equilibrium that never comes. This is one of those stories.
On October 9, 1979, Thomas Beitler was working the late shift when he used his break to buy cigarettes and a soda. Pittsburgh's Fort Wayne Cigar Store was open 24 hours a day, and the third-generation postal worker arrived there a little after 3:30 AM—almost exactly the same time as 14-year-old Ricky Olds and his friend Todd Allen. Minutes later, Beitler was dead from a gunshot wound. Barely a month after that, Olds and Allen were taken into custody, and neither has left prison since. Thirty-six years have passed, and Olds continues to pay the price for being a barely adolescent kid out too late for his own good.
The two teens had met up by chance that Columbus Day evening. "I was supposed to be staying over at my grandmother's," Olds recalls. "As soon as I walked out my mom's door, he was just there."
The way Olds now describes his relationship with Allen, it sounds like typical adolescent idolatry. "He could play basketball, he was good with the girls... He could dance real good, he knew how to do a lot of things I couldn't do," he says. But in many ways Allen had traveled a much tougher road. He had been shuttled back and forth between Pittsburgh and Detroit—his father was long gone, his abusive stepfather was back in Michigan, and his mother had died two years earlier. At 16, he was all alone.
"I know he had a hard time," Olds recalls. "I used to sneak him in, let him sleep on the floor or in the bed... I would, like, feed him."
The duo crossed the Allegheny River on the Sixth Street Bridge, took a bus to a neighborhood called Homewood, and ran into some older kids. One of them was Allen's brother Larry, whose 18-year-old pal Claude Bonner had a car. The four of them made their way to the Music Bar on Liberty Avenue, but Olds was carded at the door.
Later, when asked at trial what he did while his buddies were in the bar, he testified, "I stood outside."
A few hours after that, Allen and Olds found themselves in front of Doggone Sam's, a hotdog joint on Penn Avenue, where they again bumped into Bonner. He was heading back to the city's North Side, and they hopped in his car for a ride. As they approached their neighborhood, Olds announced he was hungry, and the Cigar Store was the only place open at that time of night.
As the boys got out of the car, Allen said, "I should just rob the joint."
"Yeah, right," Olds replied.
What did he mean by that, his attorney would later ask at trial? "I was being sarcastic... I didn't really believe him," he said on the witness stand, explaining that he thought his friend was joking, because Allen always talked like that. Olds went to the back of the store and got a bag of potato chips; Allen stayed in the front. When Olds returned to the counter, he smiled at the clerk's joke about not spilling anything on the freshly swept floor, and paid for the bag of chips. He then watched Todd Allen follow Beitler, the postal worker, out of the store. "I'll see you later," Allen told Olds.
A few seconds later, Olds did see him—pointing what looked like a gun at the mailman. At Olds's murder trial, this was the key moment emphasized by his defense attorney:
Q: And what did you do or what was your reaction when you saw that?
A: I turned and started to run.
Q: Why did you turn and start to run?
A: Because if it was a gun I didn't even want to be a part of the robbery.
An eyewitness to the shooting, walking up to the Fort Wayne just as shots were fired, recalled seeing only a "colored male and a white male." Ricky Olds was already gone.
Bonner heard the shots too, started the car, and practically ran over Olds, who was flagging him down. Allen wasn't far behind him, and jumped in as well. Bonner related the conversation that followed at trial:
Q: When they got back in the car who said what first?
A: Todd said you made me shoot him, and Ricky said naw, naw. [Todd] said when I pulled the gun out you was supposed to grab the wallet....Then Todd said again you was supposed to grab the wallet when I pulled out the gun.
Q: Then what did Ricky say?
A: He didn't say nothin'. He just kept sayin' naw.
Bonner drove home the long way—"to avoid the police," he later testified—and dropped both boys off less than a block from Olds's house. All they had with them was Olds's bag of chips; Allen had run off without taking his victim's wallet.
When the two teens were arrested for Beitler's murder a month later, the newspapers referred to them as "North Side youths" accused of killing a man from Millvale. This was code—any Pittsburgh reader immediately understood that the kids were black and the victim white. At trial, when the prosecutor asked about the height and weight of the victim, the coroner testified he was a "well-developed, well-nourished white male."
Olds and his mother remember an all-white jury hearing the evidence and taking more than five hours to reach a decision. During deliberations, the foreperson asked whether a third-degree verdict was an option if they found Olds guilty of robbery and conspiracy; she was told that the jury could return any verdict it saw fit. But jurors ultimately did not distinguish between Allen and Olds—each teenager was convicted of second-degree murder.
"There is nothing I can do except to write a letter to the pardon board."
–Judge Samuel Strauss
The case of Ricky Olds is one of thousands getting fresh attention after recent rulings by the United States Supreme Court overhauled America's philosophy of juvenile sentencing. Studies of developing brains have confirmed what every parent already knew: Children are prone to behaving recklessly and with very little thought to the consequences of their actions. Such studies, authored by leading medical and psychological experts and appearing in hundreds of legal opinions, have supported a new, less draconian approach to the incarceration of children.
In 2005, the US Supreme Court banned the death penalty for minors; in 2010, it ruled against mandatory life sentences for juveniles who committed non-homicide offenses; in 2012, it ruled against mandatory life sentences for juveniles under all circumstances; and this past January, it ruled that inmates already serving mandatory sentences should receive new sentencing hearings.
What this means, practically speaking, is that many young people who had previously been condemned to die in prison will now get a second look, and many will have a chance for freedom. The opportunity has prompted a retrospective examination of crimes that occurred decades ago, and of how these lost boys and girls have emerged from their years of incarceration. Ricky Olds is one of them.
He could not have imagined this chance when he was sentenced in 1981. Back then, life without the possibility of parole was mandatory for all felony murder convictions in Pennsylvania. That put Samuel Strauss, the judge who presided over the trial, in something of a bind. He had already imposed such a sentence on Todd Allen, but said he was "uneasy" about giving the same punishment to Olds, a defendant he classified as a "lesser participant" in the crime. Strauss knew he had no choice—the jury had already rendered its verdict. Nonetheless, he asked the district attorney's office to plea bargain for a milder sentence, even though the trial was over and the time for such bargaining had long passed.
District Attorney Robert Colville wasted no time going after the judge. "It's not only unorthodox. It's absurd," he told the Pittsburgh Press at the time. "The jury knew that mandatory life would be imposed if it opted for second-degree murder, and I cannot withdraw a jury conviction... Besides, the standard of life imprisonment in this state is not prison for the rest of your natural life. With good behavior, he could be out in 17 years and maybe far less."
Colville, the elected prosecutor of Allegheny County from 1976 to 1997, should have known better: All life sentences in Pennsylvania since the mid 1970s had been imposed without the possibility of parole. In addition, the judge's instructions to the jury made no mention of the consequences of a second-degree murder verdict.
At the sentencing hearing, the trial prosecutor addressed the judge's concerns: "I know the problems your honor has had with the case and the disparity between the involvement of the perpetrator and the involvement of the accomplice." The prosecutor went on to suggest that the legislature pass a new homicide statute giving the judge more merciful sentencing options, but Strauss was in no mood to be mollified. "That is talking though our hats," the judge replied.
Pointing out that the court had "no leeway as to the disposition that we are compelled to make," Strauss sentenced Olds to "undergo imprisonment for a period of your natural life." He had "hoped that something could have been worked out for this young man," he said, adding:
"I do want the record to note, I know this was a terrible offense, there is no question about it, it was a brutal killing, but this young man was the youngest of three people. It has bothered me... But in any event, there is nothing I can do except to write a letter to the pardon board, which I will do in this matter, suggesting that at the appropriate time he be considered by reason of his age."
Strauss went on to encourage "some of the courageous people in the county" to support this pardon effort.
The Pennsylvania Board of Pardons has no record of such a letter, and since Strauss died in 1995, there is no way to know if he ever wrote it. Letter or not, though, the judge's concern was palpable—in a sentencing transcript that ran a mere seven pages, he made eight references to the fact that Ricky Olds was young. But not once did he actually say how old the child was when he'd been arrested. It's almost if he were embarrassed to sentence a 14-year-old to an entire life inside prison walls.
"It didn't matter that I didn't kill the mailman. It would've almost been better if I had."
Daisy Olds, Ricky's mother, has clear memories of her son as a bright child. "I remember one time I took him for a check-up at the hospital, and he was reading technical words on the signs," she says. "The doctor was surprised he could do it because he was so young." School records back her up: Ricky's IQ placed him in the top 10 percent nationally, and his teachers characterized him as an excellent student who learned rapidly.
"But he was a little bit of a troublemaker," Daisy allows. "He didn't live up to his full potential. He got good marks without even trying. How can I say this? Black kids back then, they got made fun of for being real smart. And Ricky kind of covered up his smartness for a minute."
His grades began deteriorating in seventh grade, and by the next year, Olds was close to flunking out. Socially promoted to ninth grade, his troublemaker side landed him in juvenile court—he got in a street fight that escalated to knives and clubs, he broke a window with a brick, he stole nine dollars from a pretzel shop in the Allegheny Center Mall. Olds's involvement in the juvenile justice system produced an unexpected benefit, though: The juvenile court placed him in an honors program at the local high school, and by all reports he was responding well to the challenge of a difficult curriculum.
Then he got arrested for the last time.
Olds's smarts only took him so far in prison. "When I first got to Western [prison], there was no juvenile wing—I was put in with the adults," he recalls. "The guards were giving me a hard time—'That's the kid that killed the mailman, fuck him.' It didn't matter that I didn't kill the mailman. It would've almost been better if I had. The convicts, they thought the fact I was in prison for what I did was a joke. I didn't fit in to either world."
His behavior in prison reflected this state of limbo. In 1982, when he was 17, he picked up seven violations, mainly for refusing to follow an order, and an additional offense for fighting. His next year was only marginally better, but there were fewer and fewer infractions as time wore on. There was another pattern as well—Olds rarely contested the violations. Instead, he often later pleaded guilty to them, as if he thought the transgressions over and regretted them.
"Lots of times I lost my cool," he says now.
Ricky Olds wasn't yet 20, and couldn't figure out how to fill his interminable days. A prison evaluation report from 1984 is illustrative:
"This individual is relative (sic) calm & somewhat complacent for an inmate with so much time. Highly intelligent, his biggest problem is finding anything to motivate him. Slow to the point of seeming laconic at times. May need to go to an institution where he can further his education."
Most people with Olds's intelligence are in college by that age, or else are out in the world working, learning who they are. He had none of those luxuries. The vast desert of a life entirely contained in institutions stretched before him. He needed to find an oasis, or he wasn't going to make it.
"Life in prison without the possibility of parole gives no chance for fulfillment outside prison walls, no chance for reconciliation with society, no hope."
–Justice Anthony Kennedy
Ricky Olds was hardly the first young teenager to face draconian punishment. In 1944, a black 14-year-old named George Stinney was accused of killing two white girls in the highly segregated town of Alcolu, South Carolina. He was convicted by an all-white jury in a trial that lasted less than three hours, then sentenced to death after ten minutes of deliberations. At five-foot-one and 90 pounds, he was too small for the electric chair. A Bible was used as a booster seat to help kill the boy.
The injustices of Stinney's case were addressed 70 years later, when South Carolina Circuit Judge Carmen Mullen revisited the prosecution and meticulously addressed the various rights Stinney had been denied: No request for a change of venue, no request for a continuance, no investigation, no questioning of the improper jury composition, no cross-examination.
Most troubling of all, perhaps, was that Stinney's life had been taken away from him at a startlingly young age. As Mullen wrote:
"Regardless, the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment and the Fourteenth Amendment's protection of fundamental notions of due process were the same in 1944 as today. Sentencing a 14-year-old to the death penalty constitutes cruel and unusual punishment."
Mullen vacated Stinney's conviction, finding that he had been deprived of virtually every fundamental right that due process demands.
By the time of Mullen's ruling, the US Supreme Court had barred the executions of 15-year-olds (in a 1988 case) and all minors in the landmark 2005 decision of Roper v. Simmons. That opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, directly addressed the fear expressed by some of other justices that children no longer fearing execution might suddenly begin committing murder at a higher rate. "[T]o the extent the juvenile death penalty might have residual deterrent effect, it is worth noting that the punishment of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is itself a severe sanction, in particular for a young person."
The juvenile justice revolution had begun.
But barring the death penalty for juveniles begged another question: If the death penalty for minors was unconstitutional, was life without parole much better? This was presciently forecast in an exchange between the state solicitor for Missouri and Justice Antonin Scalia during the oral argument in Roper:
Solicitor: Well, I... I must assume that if we... if the Court says [juveniles] are immune from the... from capital punishment that someone will come and say they also must be immune from, for example, life without parole.
Justice Scalia: I'm sure that... I'm sure that would follow.
Five years later, the issue of juvenile sentencing was back in the Supreme Court.
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Lawyers who handle the most serious criminal cases in the United States tend to be familiar with the saying "death is different." It emanates from a concurring opinion in the 1972 Furman v. Georgia case that temporarily put a stop to capital punishment, and has appeared in hundreds of subsequent cases as a rationale for applying a different set of rules in death penalty cases from all others.
There is no similar distinction between life without parole and a sentence of 40 years or even a life sentence with parole. Or at least there wasn't until the Supreme Court's next opinion on juvenile sentencing, the 2010 case of Graham v. Florida, which noted that "life in prison without the possibility of parole gives no chance for fulfillment outside prison walls, no chance for reconciliation with society, no hope."
The Graham opinion declared that the state had to provide a juvenile with "some meaningful opportunity for release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation." But there was one caveat: The decision specifically applied only to juveniles who had not committed homicide.
Nonetheless, Ricky Olds sought an appeal based on Graham—after all, he hadn't actually killed anyone, and the ruling applied to all non-homicides. But the Pennsylvania Superior Court, pointing out that Olds had in fact been convicted of second-degree murder, made short shrift of that argument. In a coldly ironic turn, the judge who authored the opinion, Robert Colville, was the same Robert Colville who, as district attorney, had so glibly told the press three decades earlier that Olds could be out in 17 years "and maybe far less."
But at the time there were only about 120 children in the entire country serving a life sentence without parole for a non-homicide, with 2,300 serving the same sentence for murder. The Supreme Court changed the status of the larger group in 2012 with Miller v. Alabama, which introduced a new phrase into the lexicon that paralleled the mantra about capital punishment: "Children are different."
The Court, synthesizing themes from Roper and Graham, drew the conclusion that since children were less culpable than adults, a judge had to consider a juvenile's age before imposing a sentence, especially if it was the harshest sentence a child could receive.
This did not mean that a sentence of life without parole was off the table—rather, that such a sentence would "be uncommon."
For Ricky Olds, the Miller opinion was literally the chance of a lifetime. Indeed, the language of the ruling seemed to have been written with his own case in mind, echoing Judge Strauss's concerns in his original ruling. "Such mandatory penalties [as life without parole], by their nature, preclude a sentencer from taking account of an offender's age and the wealth of characteristics and circumstances attendant to it," the Court ruled. "Under these schemes, every juvenile will receive the same sentence as every other—the 17-year-old and the 14-year-old, the shooter and the accomplice."
There was one other aspect of the Miller opinion that had particular significance for Olds: the Court's decision to reiterate language from the previous Roper and Graham decisions about the "great difficulty... distinguishing at this early age between 'the juvenile offender whose crime reflects unfortunate yet transient immaturity, and the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.'" In other words, it was pretty much impossible to determine with any accuracy what sort of man a 14-year-old boy might become. Was it any easier to evaluate the nature of a 51-year-old man after three and a half decades in prison?
"Like, who could be in jail that long? It's just hard for people to see that."
In 1989, Camp Hill, the aging and overcrowded Pennsylvania prison where Olds had been housed for eight years, essentially burned to the ground during three days of inmate riots. "In the Camp Hill fire, everything I owned burned up: my high school diploma, all my photographs," Olds says. "My grandmother had just visited me and we took pictures, they all burned up."
Olds had not been involved in the riots, but all of the inmates had to be relocated, and he found himself at the legendary federal prison Leavenworth, in Kansas, for the next 18 months. By then he was in his mid 20s, and the world started to open up a bit. "I feel like I grew up when I got to Leavenworth—there were people there who read books and could talk about things beyond the prison," he recalls.
When he returned to Pennsylvania from Leavenworth, he was a grown man, and felt as if he had turned a corner. "On the one hand, there's maturity," Olds says now. "On the other hand... certain things that would have frustrated me then, you know, you expect it." He began taking courses from the University of Pittsburgh in elementary German, Spanish, Italian, biology, and math, even studying literature in a program called the Dramatic Imagination. More recently, he has learned Powerpoint and Word and Excel. One of his many certificates indicates a perfect attendance record for eight years in Navy Seals Aerobics class. He is as busy as life in prison allows him to be.
The disciplinary write-ups have stopped. Olds's last was in 2009, for talking too loud after his team had won a softball championship. Eight years before that, he had been in a dispute with a guard about what he should have done after his belt set off a metal detector. "It was a misunderstanding followed by some poor judgment on my part," he wrote to the prison officials in explanation. In both incidents, he pleaded guilty.
Olds is now closing in on his fourth decade behind bars.
"To these people [other inmates], I'm an old man," he says. "I don't feel that way, but to these people I'm like ancient. And I probably would have felt the same way, like, who could be in jail that long? It's just hard for people to see that."
"I didn't realize how much I'd been holding in. Now there's hope that I can get out—this is the hardest time, just dealing with that hope."
Even after the Miller ruling, courts across the country struggled to decide whether inmates already sentenced to life as juveniles should be given an opportunity to be paroled. Finally, this January, in Montgomery v. Louisiana, Justice Kennedy settled the question once and for all, ruling that all former juvenile offenders must be given the opportunity to show their crime did not reflect "irreparable corruption." If it did not, he wrote, "their hope for some years of life outside prison walls must be restored." Marsha Levick, the co-founder of the Juvenile Law Center and one of the lawyers in the Montgomery case, summed up the evolution of juvenile justice by noting simply that the courts had "recognized the inhumanity of condemning children to die in prison."
Miller and Montgomery make it clear that sentencing children to life without parole should, at the very least, be extremely rare. But determining who falls into that tiny dark category of irreparably corrupted children is no easy trick, and a number of states—including conservative ones like Texas, Wyoming, and Nevada—have abolished the sentence of life without parole for juveniles for all future crimes. Others, while not doing away with the punishment entirely, have taken steps to limit it to only the worst crimes; Pennsylvania has eliminated it for all but intentional, premeditated murders.
But hundreds of children, now grown, still await their fate as states prepare to re-sentence them.
"In some ways, it was easier before Miller came along," Olds says now. "You had a certain bit in the jail, and you just went about your day-to-day. You didn't think about the future. You couldn't. Then Miller happens, and your patience goes out the window. Now everyone is thinking they're getting out. You're thinking about the streets. We never thought it was going to drag out like this. Everything gets on my nerves these days—I didn't realize how much I'd been holding in. Now there's hope that I can get out—this is the hardest time, just dealing with that hope."
His mother, Daisy, can't help thinking about his possible release. The Montgomery ruling has triggered new sentencing hearings for 500 inmates in Pennsylvania, and Olds may find himself in front of a judge before the year is out—a judge with the power to free him.
"I've been praying for that, I've been praying for that all these years," his mother says. "For everything, there is a season. I think it's Ricky's season right now."
Marc Bookman is director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation in Philadelphia.
Illustration by Antonio Zeoli