Second of two parts: While state lawmakers weigh legislation that would give some violent teens a chance for rehabilitation, Jeremiah Bourgeois ...
WALLA WALLA — When Jeremiah Bourgeois dreams, the sounds and images are all of prison — the echo of voices down long corridors, the clanging of cell doors, the dark windows of guard towers.
Prison life has become the 28-year-old lifer’s frame of reference, as though the time never existed when he was a talented kid in tap shoes dancing in a toothpaste commercial, living in a white house in West Seattle and going to parochial school.
When Bourgeois was just 14 — still too young to get his learner’s permit, let alone a driver’s license — he fatally shot a mini-mart owner who had testified against his brother in a robbery trial. The crime happened in 1992, during a nationwide wave of gang-related killings that prompted authorities to get tough with violent teens.
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Although Bourgeois’ offenses prior to the shooting were so minor he had never spent one night in juvenile detention, he was charged as an adult with aggravated murder. The state’s most serious crime, it has but two possible sentences: the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole. Bourgeois was sentenced to the latter, spared the death penalty only because of his young age.
Today, as emerging medical studies and research show that the brain does not fully develop until a person is 25, lawmakers here are considering the terms of a bill that would give judges more flexibility in sentencing at least some teens committed as adults of violent crimes such as murder.
But the bill does not speak to aggravated murder, and thus would have no bearing on Bourgeois or 14 other prisoners who were convicted of that crime when they were 17 or younger. Now, as his memories of the outside world dim, Bourgeois and the 14 others wear uniforms, know their Department of Corrections numbers, as well as their own names, and share the same fate: to grow old and die in prison.
Bourgeois was “probably the saddest case I’ve ever had … both for the defendant’s age and the length of the sentence,” said his defense attorney Michael Trickey who is now a King County Superior Court judge.
Memories of the day of the killing and the consequences now fill Bourgeois with anguish and he tries not to think of the possibility of pardon, his only chance of ever being freed.
“Why would the governor risk pardoning someone like me?”
Education and training
At Green Hill School in Chehalis, a maximum-security detention facility for juveniles, those who are to be transferred to adult prison are given the chance to finish high school, take anger-management classes and learn trades. But most of all, they learn to be good prisoners and the benefits of cooperating with the staff.
When Bourgeois went to Green Hill, he was naive and small for his age. At Green Hill he had a room, a roommate and posters on the wall. He took classes.
Everything changed when he was transferred at age 18 to the Clallam Bay Corrections Center, a medium-security prison west of Port Angeles. There were cells, numbing routines and always the threat of violence.
“I almost cry when I think about it,” he said.
A wiry man in prison-issue khaki-shirt and pants, Bourgeois was moved from Clallam Bay to the penitentiary in Walla Walla in May 2001 after assaulting a guard. He makes no apologies, saying only that survival in prison requires trusting no one and never showing weakness.
Bourgeois was born in West Seattle in 1977, the youngest of three children. His mother, a Ugandan immigrant, did clerical work for a health-care company, and his father was a retired machinist.
To his teachers at Our Lady of Guadalupe School in West Seattle, Bourgeois was charming and bright, an excellent student. During summer breaks, he would pick the blackberries that grew wild and help himself to the apples on neighborhood trees. He and his friends would take the bus to the Sears Building on First Avenue South and play Nintendo for hours unsupervised.
Every Saturday, Bourgeois and his sister took dance lessons. Recognizing he had talent, his instructor encouraged him to audition for a Crest toothpaste commercial. He beat out 400 other dancers for a role in the national ad.
Then, when he was 11, his parents divorced. Not long after that, he was kicked out of parochial school. He started hanging out with rough kids, stealing cars and getting into fights. By the time he was 12, he seldom went home and eventually was expelled from middle school.
Terrified that he was following the path of his angry older brother, his mother — who worked long hours to support the family — sent him to an expensive facility for troubled kids in Utah, where he thrived in the highly structured environment, until the medical insurance stopped paying.
Then in 1992 the older brother was charged with robbing the High Point Market in West Seattle and shooting its owner, an Eritrean immigrant who later testified against him at trial. Fewer than four hours after the jury convicted the older brother, 14-year-old Bourgeois walked several blocks to the mini-mart. He put on a white silk scarf to hide his face and then fired three times — avenging what he saw as the wrong done to his brother. The 41-year-old shop owner, Tecle Ghebremichale, died.
Not once did Bourgeois think about the consequences, he said — not for the victim, not for the victim’s family, not for his own future. Nothing went through his head but the mission of the moment.
Public safety top priority
In 1992, when charges were filed against Bourgeois in King County Superior Court, there was no brain-development research. No crusading legislators.
King County Judge Steven Scott, concerned about public safety and uncertain that Bourgeois would be rehabilitated before his 21st birthday, sent the case to adult court for trial. Bourgeois was eventually convicted and, after his time at Green Hill School, became an 18-year-old, 5-foot-6 “newbie” at Clallam Bay.
There, he was awakened every morning at 5:30 when guards shined a flashlight in the cell for the morning count. He learned quickly that survival meant masking any sign of vulnerability, never showing compassion for another and being willing to fight when necessary.
After being assaulted by another inmate early on, he opted to settle it in the moral code of prisoners. He attached a razor blade to a toothbrush handle and waited. He prayed: “Dear God, don’t let him be there this morning because I will have to kill him.”
That particular confrontation did not happen, though enough other incidents did, and he was moved recently to Walla Walla — hard time, and home for the most serious offenders.
It was one more shift from the life he once knew to the controlled world of prison, where violence bubbled beneath a surface as bland as the beige walls of the visitors’ room, the uniforms and the Friday cafeteria special.
He has lived so long now with imposed restrictions, and with a constant threat of harm, that even if he were released, he’s afraid he wouldn’t know how to survive on the outside — how to make normal friendships and hold down a regular job.
As the years go by, his friends and family visit less often. His mother, who has a house in Uganda, is planning to move there.
Any contentment he feels comes from the intellectual challenges of figuring out legal strategies to help other prisoners. Once, while he was in an isolated cell after fighting, he became friends with a man whose face he’d never see, whose full name he’d never know.
They spoke through the vents in the cell, talking into the night about life. Bourgeois knew from his research that he could help the man craft an appeal that would likely reduce his sentence from life to 10 years.
Each in his own cell, they drifted to sleep, Bourgeois satisfied that when he was back in the library, he would find cases to help his friend, who — like Bourgeois — had been in almost half his life, ever since he was 16.
In the morning, he heard voices and then shouts.
“Bacca?” he inquired through the vent.
There was no answer.
Then he saw guards wheel his friend’s body away on a gurney. Bacca had saved the sleeping pills he’d been given for many nights and took them all at once.
Here at Walla Walla, those who die in prison go to Cellblock 9 — a line of graves on the grounds, marked with plain headstones with numbers and no names.
It’s here that Bourgeois believes he is likely to one day rest — a fate that was set many years ago, he said, on a day when he was only 14.
Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or firstname.lastname@example.org