WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) — It’s just blocks from the house Earl Rice Jr. left behind as a teenager to the places he remembers. But after more than four decades in prison, he has ground to cover.
He heads to the park where he and his brothers used to go sledding. “For 43 years I’m behind a wall or some kind of a fence with guard towers,” he says. “I can imagine what Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong and them felt like going to the moon, because that’s what it seems like. I’m on a different planet!”
Rice, jailed at 17 for a purse-snatching that took a woman’s life, is 61 now. He’s among a few dozen inmates — sentenced to life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles — who’ve been released since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled such mandatory sentences are cruel and unusual.
When Rice walked out of a Pennsylvania prison last September, his fiancee was waiting at the gate.
Others, though, have confronted less welcoming realities.
When John Hall, now 67, was freed from a Michigan prison in February after nearly 50 years, he had no family to greet him.
His lawyer and volunteers brought him to his first home — a Detroit rescue mission.
He had $1.37, a tiny TV and a photo album filled with faded newspaper clippings and pictures of himself in boxing trunks, from his fighting days as “Kid Hall.”
“I don’t think you can find anyone who really can describe how it feels to be free … but I’m always thinking about my future and sleeping in the streets and not having a chance to even get in the fight for the life that I want,” Hall said then. “The world has moved past me.”
In the weeks since, Hall has joined Rice in embracing a truth the Supreme Court never addressed.
Juvenile offenders can take responsibility for their crimes. Judges and parole boards can assess how they have changed.
But to make it at 60-something in a world that has tossed aside most of what you once knew, it takes something more.
By 17, Rice had spent a year in a juvenile detention facility; he had a history of break-ins and stealing cars.
In 1973, he and another teen left a party in West Chester, Pa, and spotted 62-year-old Ola Danenberg.
After Rice grabbed her purse, she fell to the ground, hit her head and died. He was charged with murder.
At 17, Hall was a petty thief and truant. In 1967, he and a friend accosted Albert Hoffman, 73, at a Detroit bus stop, dragged him into an alley, then beat and robbed him.
Hoffman, a World War I veteran, died of his injuries.
The friend was never arrested, but Hall was convicted of murder.
He still remembers the judge’s words at sentencing: “You’re unfit, you’re a throwaway, you’re a predator and you should be put away for the rest of your life.”
Both men struggled early in prison.
Two inmates stabbed Hall in the neck.
“If they had let me go two weeks after I was there, I would have never ever done anything wrong again, because that’s when you realize it’s for real,” he says.
On Rice’s first day, he pummeled an inmate who called him “fresh meat.” More than a decade passed before he accepted responsibility for Danenberg’s death.
When his appeals ran out, he blamed his lawyer for giving up. It was a turning point.
“It’s not that I’m quitting and throwing your life away. You did that when you grabbed Mrs. Danenberg’s purse,” the lawyer wrote, according to Rice.
“He was dead on,” Rice says. He cared for dying inmates in the prison hospice, spoke to at-risk teens and took vocational classes.
His siblings and parents, a daughter born to a former girlfriend and her children visited regularly, as did Doreen St. John, Rice’s girlfriend in middle school. They married in prison, divorced, and now plan to marry again.
“I fell back in love with him, just seeing him, being with him,” she says.
Hall had few visitors. He didn’t want to lean on his family. His mother, a housekeeper, visited periodically before her death in 1983.
But her words kept him going: “As long as there’s life, there’s hope,” she told him. “You’ve got a chance.”
Hall earned an associate college degree, dreamed of freedom and befriended new inmates, savoring every detail they provided about life outside.
Back in Wilmington, Rice moved in with his father. His first weekend back, five generations of family gathered at a cookout. It had been more than 40 years since a judge allowed Rice to hold his newborn daughter after his conviction.
Now, as music floated over the grass, Crystal Twyman approached her father.
“I’ve never danced with my daddy before,” she said.
The day Hall was released, he shared a FaceTime call with his stepsister in Georgia. “This is just like Star Trek!” he said, grinning at the face he hadn’t seen in 34 years.
But anxiety set in. In Detroit, Hall was alarmed when he heard gunshots at 2 a.m. Seeing homeless people, he worried constantly about becoming one.
Soon, though, his confidence steadied. He moved into a halfway house and in April, a friend drove him to see his 81-year-old stepsister.
He wanted a quick trip so he wouldn’t burden his family. But Hall found his pictures on his stepsister’s wall.
Generations of family he didn’t even know embraced him, calling him “Uncle John.”
His sister wanted him to stay, but he declined. Back in Detroit, he reconsidered.
“I want to live like a grown man lives in a free society,” he says. “But it got to be too much for me in a world that I’m already behind in.”
In May, Hall moved to Georgia. He plans to take some classes and get acquainted with his family. He’d like to counsel teens, too.
“A man’s life was lost. That’s what I don’t forget,” he says. “That’s why I want to contribute, so maybe I can prevent one of those youngsters from going out there and doing what I did — or even thinking about it.”