Rhode Island prison inmate Steven Parkhurst gives his rap, sees the students who should be listening strutting their stuff on one side of the visiting room. Swaggering, holding court. Oh, yeah, Steven thinks. There’s me at their age. Think they’re tough. This ain’t shit. This is a field trip.
The students had come to John J. Moran Medium Security Facility in Cranston as part of a program to influence middle- and high-school kids to make good decisions. Steven wonders, How do you have a class of high schoolers not on the edge of doing something stupid? You don’t.
“Each of you has power,” he tells the students. “You have the power to integrate into society or you have the power to go to prison. Follow a path. Left or right. Turn wrong and you’re building a bridge to prison. And inside you’ll do what you’re told. Oh, yeah, you’ll do what you’re told.”
He notices a redhead boy, maybe 15, 17 years old, not really paying attention.
“Yo, what’s your name?” Steven asks.
Steven feels his stomach drop to the floor. He remembers that night again and again. It’s why he is here decades later, lecturing kids who today are the age he was when he went to prison.
Twenty-six years ago, when he was 17, a jury found Steven Parkhurst guilty of first-degree murder, and several other counts, for the 1992 shooting death of Trevor Ramella, 20, at a party in North Smithfield, Rhode Island. It was the beginning of a crime spree that ended with Steven’s arrest in the Midwest. A judge sentenced him to life imprisonment with the possibility of parole, plus forty-five years to be served consecutively. In 2008, following an appeal, Steven was resentenced to life imprisonment with the possibility of parole, plus twenty years to be served consecutively.
In 2014, Steven was denied parole. At the time, he had completed a bachelor’s degree while in prison; enrolled in an MBA program through Adams State University; trained 14 dogs to serve disabled and deaf people; spoken before hundreds of high-school students about avoiding the mistakes that lead to prison; become a Buddhist; and participated in dozens of self-improvement programs, including victims’ advocacy and anger management. Believing he had been treated unfairly by the parole board, and after more than a quarter-century behind bars, he decided to challenge Rhode Island’s state parole laws.
In a lawsuit he filed last year, Steven argues that the Rhode Island parole board violated his rights and U.S. Supreme Court precedent by not considering his youth as a mitigating factor and failing to offer children who were tried as adults and sentenced to mandatory life terms a “meaningful opportunity” to gain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation. Steven relies on a series of U.S. Supreme Court rulings that declare it unconstitutional to sentence a child to death or to life in prison without a chance of parole. He faults Rhode Island laws for failing to incorporate these constitutionally required protections.
Adults jailed for crimes they committed as children have filed similar lawsuits and won. In February of 2012, the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Michigan represented nine Michigan prisoners who were serving life sentences without possibility of parole for crimes perpetrated when they were children. In 2017, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals declared that all prisoners in Michigan who committed crimes as children and were sentenced to life have a right to parole. The court required the state to give “notice to all such persons who have completed 10 years of imprisonment that their eligibility for parole will be considered in a meaningful and realistic manner.”
In response to Rhode Island’s effort to dismiss Steven’s suit, his attorney wrote, “There is no basis on which to conclude that the plaintiff’s juvenile status at the time of his offense, his development while incarcerated, maturity, acceptance of responsibility, or his rehabilitation were considered by the Parole Board.”
I first heard of Steven in the fall of 2016, when the ACLU issued a report on offenders 18 year of age and younger. “False Hope: How Parole Systems Fail Youth Serving Extreme Sentences” found that more than 8,000 inmates across the country had been sentenced to 40 years or more, the equivalent of a life term, for crimes they had perpetrated as children. The ACLU put me in touch with Steven’s friend, Bruce Reilly, who then helped arrange my first interview with Steven.
In 1992, Bruce, then 19, fought with and killed Charles A. Russell, 58, an English professor at Community College of Rhode Island. Charles had offered Bruce a ride. When a dispute spiraled out of control, they fought. Bruce beat and stabbed Charles to death, and then stole his wallet, credit cards, and car. He was arrested about a year later in Boston.
“I was surviving, a drug dealer open to other criminal activity,” Bruce told me over the phone. “I was fucked up in the head and I killed someone.”
Bruce is now 45. He served nearly 12 years in prison. He studied law and helped other prisoners with their cases. In 2005, after his third parole hearing, he was released. He became involved in prisoners’ rights issues, enrolled in college, and formed a theatre company that produced several plays he had written. After finishing five years of parole, Bruce transferred his probation to Louisiana to attend Tulane University Law School.
He spent his first eight years in prison with Steven. He recalled the afternoon they met, while awaiting trial. Steven, just 18, had approached Bruce, who had already become known as the guy who goes down to the law library. He put his foot on a steel stool welded to the table where Bruce sat. “You think you’re a bad-ass,” Bruce thought, but he understood. Show you’re tough. Standard prison advice.
“Yo, can I ask you something?” Steven said, leaning in close, so as not to be overheard, then pointed to a sentence in a legal document about his case.
“Yeah, w’sup?” Bruce replied.
Steven wanted to know what the word “nexus” meant. Bruce gave him a dictionary answer, about the relationship of two things.
It impressed Bruce that Steven would talk to him. A guy has to be careful with their stuff. Some people try to pass themselves off as a jailhouse lawyer and then turn rat for the district attorney.
As he got to know him, Bruce considered Steven a kindred spirit. Here was a guy who got mixed up in something he shouldn’t have. Bruce related to that, a couple of teenagers who lost their way if they ever had one. Tragic as it may be, he understood it. Over the years, he saw Steven become a thoughtful adult.
“Steve is not the person he was 26 years ago,” Bruce told me. “Steve now is doing more to deter crime than all these other people whose job it is to deter crime. Those high-school kids he talks to, those young dudes who get locked up for a couple years, they’re not going to go to the D.A. with their problems; they aren’t talking to a parole officer. They come to people like Steve, like me.”
Bruce said he appreciates why some people think that he and other people convicted of murder should never be released. They have no context beyond the label, “murderer,” and all it conveys. You got out, they think. You are no longer paying for what you did. You’re a bad person. You have not suffered enough. You’re a killer. Fuck you. Bruce gets it.
Parole boards often think the same way, Bruce told me. In his opinion, the boards look at prisoners as they appear before them 20 years after their conviction: grown men and women, not the children they were when they committed the crime, and not the adults who have changed. Parole boards don’t observe the changes, so they risk defining someone forever as the sum of their single worst bad act.
Bruce’s prison record prevents him from taking the bar exam. He has faced hurdles in employment and housing, and applied to 32 law schools before Tulane accepted him. Last year, he told his nine-year-old daughter about what he did for the first time.
“She cried,” he told me. “For Charles, his family, his friends, for me, for everyone. She is an amazing kid.”
The consequences of what he did haven’t ended because he’s out, but he can live a semblance of a normal life. He now works with a nationally recognized social justice organization, and several attorneys report to him. He does not let his crime define him. He sees himself not as a convict or ex-felon but as “a person who . . .”
A person who decades ago killed a man and lives with the consequences of what he did every day. A person who graduated from law school. A person who is active in prisoner’s rights. A person who is a father and an award-winning playwright. A person who laughs and cries and gets impatient waiting in lines at a supermarket.
In the year between the murder and his arrest, Bruce thought hard about his crime. He asked himself, what do I do with my life? Kill myself? Make it even?
What would Charles want me to do?
He still asks that question.
October 17, 2017
I wish I could talk to the 17-year-old me! Maybe he would have listened to this older, wiser version of himself.––Steven Parkhurst in a letter to the author.
In June 2017, Steven and I agreed to talk three times a week by phone for the 20 minutes allowed per call by the prison. In our first conversation, Steven told me that Trevor Ramella was not someone he hung out with. Trevor was closer in age to Steven’s older siblings, Jason and Jen. But he had known Trevor since he was six. His father had a chiropractic office up the street from where Steven grew up in Woonsocket, Rhode Island. Trevor had attended North Smithfield High School. Steven and one of Trevor’s sisters had a class together.
When he heard that Trevor was going to have a party at his parents’ house, Steven was undecided about going. He had not seen Trevor in a long time. However, everyone he knew was going and Steven decided to go as well.
By then, Steven had been in and out of group homes. He had a reputation as the guy who had been to jail. He fit in with the kids who partied. They embraced him and he liked belonging to a group. Get a case of beer, party at the dunes. Absolutely. He was cocky, impressed with himself but he wasn’t raised that way. Cocky wasn’t down-to-earth, blue collar Woonsocket. As a kid, Steven remembers swimming in a neighbor’s pool, playing hide-and seek-and Jen teasing him for having freckles. She called him Howdy Doody, the adopted one.
A good life, but Steven’s parents fought. The old man beat his mother with a sandal and held a knife to her throat one night. They divorced when Steven was five and his mother married a retired Marine. He worked the kids’ butts off at a snack bar and restaurant he owned. He was flirtatious with the female customers, which didn’t go over well with Steven’s mother. They eventually divorced.
When he was 12, Steven joined his father, a house painter, in Stockton, California. He also hung out with his father’s brother, Rick, in a neighborhood Uncle Rick called Eastside Okieville. White working class, struggling. Guns. Lots of crank.
Uncle Rick was a man-to-man kind of guy. Know how to take an ass whooping so you can give one, he’d say, and then he and his friends would beat the shit out of Steven. Cowering, crying, bruised and bleeding, Steven would ask himself, were they joking or have they lost it? Where’re the brakes on this?
To a kid, even one taking a daily pounding, Uncle Rick was in charge of the world. Steven feared him but wanted to be like him. To stand out. Yo, look at me. The way Uncle Rick behaved, that was how life worked.
Eighteen months later, high on Uncle Rick’s speed, Steven returned to Rhode Island. He was arrested twice for busting into cars and stealing radios. His stepfather had it with him. He drove him to the airport, slapped a credit card on the counter and bought him a ticket back to California.
“There you go,” he said and left.
Steven moved in with Uncle Rick. He attended high school, dealt with gangs and got high. About a year later, his father bought him a Greyhound bus ticket back to Rhode Island. Steven arrived in Providence with 20 bucks in his pocket and in need of a shower. He stayed with friends and broke into his mother’s house to shower and eat and snatch money from her purse.
In 1991, Steven entered Ocean Tides, a residential home for delinquent youth, after “a long history of school, home and community behavioral problems,” according to a monthly review by the Department of Children, Youth and Families’ Juvenile Correction Division. The report cited detentions at two boys’ homes from which he left without authorization and an arrest on May 7, 1991, for car theft and another arrest for the same crime two weeks later. He ran away from another youth facility before he was picked up by police the next month.
At Ocean Tides, Steven attributed his problems to his troubled relationship with his mother and stepfather. Staff described him as “mildly anxious” but “honest about describing his community difficulty.”
“The primary focus,” the report concluded, “would appear to be an examination of interfamilial relationships.”
In August 1991, Steven returned home to live with his mother, but by the end of October, his mother, tired of his partying and the arguments that followed, persuaded the state to place him in another group home in Providence. He was allowed to continue attending North Smithfield High School. Steven, however, kept disappearing from the group home. He left for good on November 13th and crashed at Jen’s apartment.
About a week before the Ramella party, Steven was drinking every day, all day, with friends and without friends. Jen threw him out of her apartment when she caught him having sex. “You’re making my life hard,” she said. “You can’t keep doing this.”
Two days later he was back at her place.
Looking back, Jen, now Jen Lebrun, 46, with three children of her own, told me she feels partially responsible for what happened to Trevor. She doesn’t know exactly what she could have done to prevent it, but probably something. Like taking Steven back to the group home, for one, but at the time she thought, at least I’m keeping him off the street.
She often wonders how he has lasted this long in prison and doesn’t have much faith that he’ll get out. But she tries not to bring him down. The brother she saw at the trial was a scared boy. No one else may have seen him that way, but Jen did. She knows many people are glad he was put away for so long. Now, the Parkhursts will see what it’s like to lose a son, they might think. A life for a life. Jen doesn’t believe that’s right any more than she thought it was right for her mother not to attend the trial. She’s still angry about that. At the same time, Jen can’t imagine the loss of a child. With her own children, she’s too cautious. Where are you going? When will you be back? Her daughter tells her, Mom, I’m 21. I want to know where you are, Jen fires back.
“What kind of parent would I be if I said, ‘I don’t know where my kids are?’” she asked me.
According to court records, over the course of five nights, Trevor Ramella held parties at his family’s North Smithfield home while his parents, Francis and Mary Ramella, and his two sisters, vacationed in the Grand Cayman Islands. Witnesses testified that Trevor carried a .22 caliber revolver from his father’s cabinet while he mingled. At one point, Trevor evicted Steven from the property at gunpoint after accusing him of attempting to take advantage of an intoxicated 16-year-old girl. Steven left with a friend, Ryan Wright. Witnesses said Steven was angry that Trevor had pointed a gun at him. He and Wright did not return to the house that night.
The next night, a Thursday, Steven arrived at the Ramellas for another night of partying. He later met friends at another house. One girl told Steven that Trevor had demanded sex with her. According to the girl, who asks to remain anonymous, Steven responded, “Don’t worry. I’m going to kill him on the last night of the party.” The girl testified she did not believe Steven was serious.
On Friday night, about 40 young people showed up at the Ramellas for another night of partying. About 9:30 p.m., Trevor, waving his father’s pistol, asked several people to leave, including Steven. One witness later testified that after Steven and Ryan left the party, he overheard them say how much they disliked Trevor and that Steven wanted to get back at him for kicking them out. Other witnesses, however, said they did not hear any threats. Later that night, Steven and Ryan returned to the Ramellas and Trevor let them in.
Witnesses testified that after hearing noise on the second floor, Trevor hurried upstairs. “They got my guns,” he shouted and hurried downstairs. One witness followed Trevor and saw him lying face down in a pool of blood. The witness said Steven held a .22-caliber revolver and was staring at Trevor. Ryan stood to one side of Trevor, holding the barrel of a rifle.
Steven and Ryan fled the Ramella’s home in a stolen Toyota Celica. At a rest stop in Mystic, Connecticut, on Route 95, Steven attempted a carjacking. He shot into a vehicle, striking the driver, Michael Holmes, several times in his face, head, and shoulder, according to a police report. Michael was able to drive away and call 911. He was taken to a hospital and survived his injuries.
Racing away from the rest stop, Steven and Ryan robbed a Howard Johnson restaurant in New York and then drove on westbound Interstate 80. They robbed a gas station in Ohio and continued into Indiana, where they held up a motel before police finally stopped them. Francis Ramella’s .22-caliber revolver was found under the driver’s seat. They were extradited back to Rhode Island.
At his trial, Steven testified that at about midnight, he and Ryan were watching television at Trevor’s house when Ryan got up to use the restroom. When he returned, he was carrying a revolver. Steven said he took the gun from him. Ryan left again and came back with a rifle. Steven said he began to feel sick and walked outside with the revolver to the front of the house, where he fired two shots. Trevor then came running out of the house, and the gun went off accidentally, Steven testified. He insisted he did not intend to shoot Trevor. He testified that he did not seek help for Trevor or call 911.
“Over the years the why of it all changes, the ‘how comes,’” Steven told me. “It happens. There is no thought. I wanted to put the bullet back in the gun. It took the breath out of me. As I took a breath, Trevor fell with each one. Ryan and I just stood there and I stared at Trevor. He didn’t die like people do on TV. Every breath is an eternity. I didn’t see anything but a little bit of blood come out of his mouth. I wanted what just happened to go away.”
A jury found Steven guilty of first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder, breaking and entering, larceny of a firearm, and carrying a stolen firearm while committing a crime of violence. In addition to his life sentence, he also received a nine-year term for shooting Michael Holmes in Connecticut.
Ryan, 16-years-old at the time of Trevor’s murder, and who prosecutors alleged struck Trevor in the face with the butt of a rifle numerous times, pleaded guilty after Steven’s trial. He was sentenced to 60 years in prison. Connecticut added a seven-year sentence, to be served consecutively. He was paroled from Rhode Island in December 2012 and served almost five years in Connecticut before he was released to a halfway house. He successfully completed his time at the halfway house in 2017.
Steven killed Trevor at a time when states began implementing laws to charge juvenile offenders as adults. Across the country, young people 18 and under convicted of homicide and in some instances rape, kidnapping and armed robbery were sentenced to live the rest of their lives behind prison walls.
Judicial attitudes began to change in the 2000s, after a series of studies determined that adolescent brains are still developing, more easily influenced, more susceptible to the impacts of intoxication, and not always capable of making rational decisions. In 2012, the Court ended the mandatory life-without-parole sentences in murder cases committed by children, and four years later, the Court ruled that their decision applied retroactively, to thousands of children sentenced before 2012. The court based its decisions in part on the emerging consensus that children––less able to control their emotions and more likely to change over time––are “constitutionally different” from adults.
However, opposition to the rulings has led to multiple interpretations by states. As a result, not everyone who ultimately qualifies for parole eligibility may ever leave prison. Much depends on the policies and politics of the state where the inmate has been imprisoned. Parole boards follow the state’s lead because they only face scrutiny when granting parole to people convicted of serious, high-profile crimes, and face harsh criticism if one of them returns to prison. With no consequences for keeping people imprisoned, no matter their eligibility, parole boards have nothing to gain by releasing anyone with a murder conviction.
But they would save states money if they did. Research shows that men, women and children convicted of murder have among the lowest recidivism rates in the country. A 2004, study, Life Without Parole: A Reconsideration, analyzed 175 Michigan prisoners serving life sentences for murder between 1937 and 1961 and found that just four returned to prison, none of them for murder.
More recently, the Stanford Criminal Law Center issued a 2011 report that evaluated 32,000 California prisoners serving life sentences with the possibility of parole. The report followed 860 convicted murderers released since 1995. Just one percent returned to prison on a new felony charge.
At the time the ACLU issued its report on flawed parole systems, the Rhode Island Parole Board’s own website said prisoners should expect to be denied parole at their first hearing. Most would be reconsidered for parole at “six, 12, 18, or 24-month intervals.” A few years before Steven was arrested, parole eligibility on Life sentences was 10 years. It was 15 years in 1992, and is now up to 25 years.
Last year, the Rhode Island State Legislature began consideration of a bill that would allow prisoners convicted when they were younger than 18 to be considered for parole after 15 years—a decade earlier than adults. The bill, opposed by the state’s attorney general for two years in a row, has yet to pass. Whether it does or not, the Ramella family remains steadfast in their opposition to Steven ever being released.
“Our son, Trevor Ramella, lost his precious life on November 28th, 1992, at the cruel and violent hands of Steven Parkhurst,” Mary Ramella said at 1995 hearing in which Steven first sought and failed to secure a sentence reduction. “That senseless act was an assault, too, on our family, which has wrought devastation which will last a lifetime. We have been left with the permanence of Trevor’s death. Similarly, justice demands that Steven Parkhurst should be subjected to a lifetime of punishment, as should others who take the lives and cause families the torment we have had to endure.”
The Ramella family did not respond to my requests for an interview. To get the perspective of families who had lost loved ones to murder, I reached out to the National Organization of Parents of Murdered Children in Cincinnati. Its executive director put me in touch with one of its members, Sharon Tewksbury, whose husband was killed by burglars. Through other sources, I also contacted Kay Lincoln of St. Louis and Hector Black of Cookeville, Tennessee, both of whom had daughters killed during robbery attempts.
Monte Tewksbury, the husband of Sharon, died on April 17, 1983, after he was stabbed while working at a convenience store. Three men were later arrested and charged with the murder. One them apologized in a letter to Sharon. She forgave him before he died of cancer in 2002.
“Murder changes you and the whole course of your life,” Sharon, now 74, told me. “Anger aside, you’re consumed by overwhelming grief. You’re never through grieving and being angry. You just learn to control it.
“In my belief system,” Sharon, continued, “I was taught that if you don’t forgive, you won’t be forgiven. I don’t know if I believe that today. Now, I do believe that if you want forgiveness you have to ask it of the man you murdered and the God you believe in. I’m secondary. You didn’t kill me.”
Kay Lincoln feels nothing but rage and contempt for the killer of her daughter, Jessica Paxton, 23. She was shot in June 2016 when a man attempted to rob her and her boyfriend in St. Louis.
“I wish there was a way to communicate to him what he took away,” she told me of the killer. “There’s no forgiving something like that.”
Hector Black felt a similar fury after his adopted daughter, Patricia Ann Nuckles, 46, was raped and murdered in 2001 by an intruder in her Atlanta home.
A Quaker, Hector said all his feelings against the death penalty went out the window. Over time, however, Hector began to wonder what happened to Patricia’s killer, Ivan Simpson, now serving a life sentence, that had turned him into “a monster.” He learned that when Ivan was 11, he watched his mother drown his younger sister after she said God told her to kill them all.
Who would I be, Hector asked himself, if the woman who brought me into the world tried to kill me? He wrote to Ivan in 2001 and told him he did not hate him but he hated what he had done to Patricia.
“Forgiving,” Hector, now 93, told me, “does not mean forgetting. The hurt never goes away. Not everyone in my family agreed with me when I reached out to Ivan. It was a very hard time in our family. But thoughts of revenge did not satisfy. I knew the hate was eating at me.”
June 11, 2017
I learned early on that how you do this prison thing is a choice. I continued to make some stupid choices early, accumulating the majority of my 22 disciplinary infractions over the first four to five years. By 22 – 23 years old, I began to mature. In that sense, life itself changes you. The developmental life span changes you.–– Steven Parkhurst in a letter to the author
Steven spent his first prison years awaiting trial in a madhouse of people fresh from the street. Some were in for having killed the brother of someone else in the cellblock. Others were going cold turkey from a drug habit. Steven described that time to me as gladiator school. He saw stabbings, rapes, and killings. A guy talking on the phone and someone knocks the receiver out of his hand, works him over and he’s left for dead. To stay alive, afraid someone might try to take advantage of him for sex, Steven postured as a hard guy, the guy who’d swing on anyone who fucked with him. He had a big mouth and got into fights but prison didn’t let him get away with that. Talked shit and shit came back to him. Convicts had no problem calling him out in front of 98 other guys and they didn’t worry about his feelings. Some days, he retreated to his cell and cried. It didn’t get much better after being sent to Maximum Security. Not at first.
By his fourth year, Steven began reconsidering his behavior. He recognized he wasn’t getting anywhere brawling. He entertained a lot of people being a bad ass, but when whatever went down was over, he faced the consequences alone. This is what happens when you act like an idiot, he thought. Over time, he started to see opportunities in small, unanticipated moments to show a different side of himself.
One afternoon, for instance, the leader of a gang, the Latin Kings, approached him. He used to eat at the diner run by Steven’s mother and stepfather.
“Yo, Steve, my boy needs help with this. He’s taking the G.E.D. What do you say?”
Steven had been to school, so he tutored the guy. He realized he got further helping out then fighting. Intelligence, generosity and responsibility brought him respect. He didn’t have to be Einstein to figure that out, but it made an impression. He began giving food away. Extra crackers, soup, whatever he had without anything attached. Without someone saying, What’s up? What do you want from me? Yo, you trying to sex play me? No, man, it’s just soup. Nothing more. That’s rare in prison.
He hooked up with Bruce Reilly and other convicts like him who had positive things going on. Guys who read books, made art, took classes through the mail, wrote stories, used their brains. One afternoon, Steven began talking down on people addicted to drugs while he was smoking a cigarette.
“What do you call that?” Bruce asked.
They struck a deal: Bruce could punch him in the arm every time he lit up a cigarette. After a few weeks of bruises, Steven smoked his last cigarette.
Another time, Steven asked Bruce, “What’re you reading?”
“You ain’t ready for this,” he replied.
Like quitting cigarettes, another challenge. After a few months, Steven read his first book on Buddhist philosophy.
Greg Tovmasian met Steven in 1998 as he was kicking a soccer ball in the prison yard with Bruce. Greg was 18, about the same age as Steven, but he thought Steven was much older. He had a look––bored, anxious, miserable–– that said he was doing a lot of time. He seemed really mad at the world and had no time for small talk.
Greg had been convicted of murder, too. In December 1996, he attended a party after he got off work from a rib joint. He had just been paid and had $700 in his coat pocket. He got high and passed out, and someone stole his money. When he came to and noticed the money was missing, no one would help him find it. Instead, they fucked with him: Yo, where’s your money? Where’s your money? Don’t look at me, man, I didn’t take it. I didn’t take it. Ha, ha! Greg exploded with anger at a friend he suspected of robbing him, and stabbed him in the stomach. Stunned by what he’d done, and instantly sober, Greg called an ambulance and turned himself in. He was charged with first-degree murder as an adult, threatened with a life sentence, and pled guilty to 45 years, but served 12 years and eight months.
In prison, Steven and Bruce impressed Greg. They were always reading, always discussing ideas. Like, what’s an oligarchy? Is it a moral structure for society? They gave each other essay assignments and evaluated their handwriting and how well they articulated ideas. Greg enjoyed learning from them. They also taught him how to be a prisoner: Don’t talk to a correctional officer or people will think you’re a snitch. Don’t gamble, you don’t want to owe money. Don’t watch TV during the day or you’ll become a couch potato. Read, be into something. Keep your mind sharp. Think outside of the walls or you’ll be lost.
Other lessons he learned on his own. No one gets parole the first time, especially for murder. Parole boards have a number in their head of the time they want you to do. You have to reach that number and until then, even if you find the cure for cancer, you’re not getting out. Every time he went in, the board told Greg he was a model inmate but he was still denied. He was released in 2009, 22 months after his fourth hearing.
Since he has been out of prison, Greg married, had a daughter, and earned a college degree. The job market was toxic for him as an ex-felon. He works for his uncle, making jewelry. Landlords weren’t keen on him any more than employers, so Greg and his family lived with his parents until they finally found an apartment last year. He’s 38 now and doing well but he still doesn’t feel 100 percent. More like 85 percent. He’ll never be 100 percent. He carries a jacket he’ll wear the rest of his life. Murderer. He understands. People get scared when they hear the word. He would, too, if he were them. He expects some people will hate him to his grave. The guy he killed was a buddy, David. Greg had known him since middle school. David’s girlfriend was pregnant with his daughter when Greg killed him. The daughter––a young woman now–– didn’t get to grow up with a father like Greg’s daughter will. Awful doesn’t begin to describe how he feels about that. He wanted to reach out to David’s family to apologize, but they wanted nothing to do with him.
With social media, David’s daughter could find Greg if she wanted and he may have to face her one day. He doesn’t have answers. He doesn’t know why. Why he hung out with the wrong crowd. Why he got so fucked up that night. Why he reacted the way he did when he couldn’t find his money. It was senseless. Her dad died for no reason. He doesn’t want to tell her that but it’s true.
Greg has said he’s sorry. How does he express that? What does it mean to others? All anyone seems to care about is how he shows his sorrow and regret. If he experiences just one moment of happiness, just one, then they see him as unrepentant. Who are “they?” It feels like they are everyone on a street corner, everyone he needs to submit an application to, for anything. He took a father from a daughter. That’s the worst part. It’s soul-sucking.
Steven earned his associate degree in 2009. The degree, among other constructive activities over the years, got him a transfer to medium security where he saw his co-defendant, Ryan Wright, walking a yellow Labrador retriever in the yard one afternoon. What the hell? Steven thought. Ryan told him he was part of the dog-training program. A program taught inmates how to work with dogs to be placed with special-needs clients. Inmate dog trainers lived with the dogs they trained and did not have to share a cell with other prisoners. They also lived in A block, which had central air. Steven applied to be a trainer and became one of 12 dog handlers.
The other guys dubbed him the quiet one because he didn’t say much. He watched, listened, learned. Being surrounded by dogs, he thought, was the greatest thing. To have them lick his face, leap around his feet, strike his knees with their wagging tails left him wonderstruck. Like going to the zoo, reliving his childhood. His family had a dog, “Fred,” a Labrador-German shepherd mix. Sometimes his mother tied him to Fred so he wouldn’t wander off.
“When you talk to a dog, use your puppy voice,” the instructor of the program told him. “A baby voice.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Steven thought.
To come from Max, a place where he had to be so guarded, so tense, where violent shit jumped off at unpredictable moments, and now to be told to talk fucking cootchy, cootchy, coo crap, had everyone lost their minds?
“Yes,” the instructor said, “a baby voice.”
Steven glanced around to see if anyone would hear him.
“Come here, boy,” he said in a high, hesitant voice to Callie, a Labrador.
It was so bizarre the way he felt himself open up, his reserve melting away. When he walked the dog in the yard, the other inmates watched him. Some asked if they could the pet dog.
“Sure,” Steven said.
He watched them stroke the dog’s head, guys who had difficulty interacting with one another playing with a dog. He understood. A dog didn’t judge.
One of his most satisfying moments in the program came three years later. The trainer told him that his dog at the time, a black labrador, would be matched with Jessica Kensky, a survivor of the Boston Marathon bombing. She lost her left leg in the blast and eventually had her right leg amputated as well. The dog was named Rescue, after the fallen Massachusetts firefighter Jon Davies, who served on the Rescue Squad.
Steven worked with Rescue for 15 months. He described him as a big Baby Huey, a goofball who after a day of training liked to roll in the mud. Don’t you dare, Steven would tell him, and then Rescue would jump on him.
The day Rescue left to join Jessica, Steven told himself, Don’t you lose it. Rescue rested his chin on Steven’s lap. I’m 25 years in now, Steven reminded himself. Keep it together. He gave Rescue a hug and a treat and walked away.
A few weeks later, Jessica came to the prison with Rescue to thank participants of the dog program. Everyone gathered in the visiting room. Steven looked at Jessica and noticed how she did not stop smiling. She was accompanied by her husband, Patrick Downes, also injured in the bombing. Rescue locked eyes on Steven.
“I want you to know I put my heart and soul into that dog,” Steven told Jessica.
He has not seen Rescue since 2013. Sometimes he sees photographs and reads articles about him and feels a connection. Out there somewhere. My boy. He feels humbled to have helped Jessica and Patrick and been part of their healing. It blows him away to think he committed murder and the survivors of another horrific killing accepted a dog he trained. No one has any idea what that means to him.
Dear Steve, Jessica wrote in an undated letter, Thank you for your gift in training our new family member and service dog. These last few months have been particularly challenging for us and Rescue has been a wonderful addition to our lives. He has already brought us countless laughs, comfort and much needed independence. We can tell that his first year and a half of life was spent with someone who took excellent care of him. Thank you again for your hard work and dedication. In many ways, Rescue is the greatest gift we have received since that tragic day at the marathon. Sincerely, Jessica and Patrick.
Brian Heroux, 45, of Cumberland, Rhode Island, still thinks about Trevor’s murder. He was at the party that night and was the only friend of Trevor’s who would speak with me. Trevor’s death took a toll on people, he said. They couldn’t handle it then, they can’t handle it now. All these years later no one who was there wants to discuss it.
Brian, a landscaper, is married but doesn’t have children. He can’t imagine what the Ramellas went through. Horrible how one night changes the course of so many lives. He wonders sometimes what Trevor would have done with his life. Would he have been successful? He was a real joker in school. Happy-go-lucky. He wasn’t a mean person. He was always laughing. Brian didn’t know Steven. Might have exchanged small talk at one time but nothing more.
North Smithfield is a small town and dozens of young people Brian had never seen before showed up at Trevor’s house. The Ramellas had a pool table. The TV was on, sports or something. It was a long time ago and everyone was drinking.
Trevor, Brian remembers, asked him to give Steven and Ryan Wright, a ride home. He didn’t want them there. However, Steven and Ryan refused to leave. Brian didn’t push it. He told Trevor they were staying and left. Later that night, Trevor was killed. Brian looks back now and wishes he had been more persistent. Should he have gotten them out of there? Was he to blame for what happened?
As a devout Catholic, Brian believes in forgiveness. But Steven didn’t kill his son. He’s sure he’d feel differently if he had. Is Steven truly sorry? He’s heard he is but he doesn’t know.
Brian wants to talk about that night with other people who attended the party. Feels like he needs to. Something like that, it doesn’t go away.
Steven’s nephew, Joel Elias, never knew his uncle outside of prison. Now 25, Joel was eight or ten before his mother told him Uncle Steven killed a man. Joel was shocked. He had known Steven had done something wrong but he didn’t realize it was that bad. The man he met in prison didn’t seem the type. He was always in a good mood and interested in his mother’s life and Joel’s. He’d talk sports, music. They’d play cards.
The Ramella murder is always in the background of Joel’s life. It never got uncomfortable until high school when a criminal justice teacher one afternoon discussed a student he had. A promising kid who turned out to be a psychopath, Steven Parkhurst. Joel sank down in his chair. The teacher didn’t know his relation to Steven but he still felt as if the comments were directed at him. The message: Don’t turn out like your uncle. He feels sure the teacher had the wrong impression. Sure, Steven didn’t like authority, but he got good grades. He wasn’t crazy. When Joel told Steven about it, Steven told him to brush it off. The teacher had a right to his opinion.
Joel got an earful from Steven after he got arrested with pot. Look dude, Steven said, you’re responsible to other people. Your family had to see you in jail. Your parents had to pay for an attorney. All these things people who care about you had to do because of something you did. Steven wanted him to feel the gravity of it in a way he never had, because no one ever talked to him like that. You’re growing up. You’re not a kid who can get away with shit.
June 5, 2017
To start, saying these words out loud means a lot to me–Trevor Ramella. Maybe at the end, when the article is complete, I can say them again. It’s my way to honor him while still selfishly pursuing my release. Prison, prison officials, parole boards, courts and prosecutors would love for every incarcerated person serving time for murder to believe that the only way to honor the person killed is for you to die in a cold, lonely cell. You’ll see, Malcolm, from spending time with me, that each second of time since pulling that trigger is not black and white. In fact, perspective, memory, guilt, remorse and the whole “what happened?” of it all is as far away from black and white as can be in this world. I’m not perfect. Not perfect in my remorse. Not perfect in my efforts to get out. The one thing, I think, has been done the right way is the honesty in which I look at my life (past, present and future). Many things suck about it, but I don’t look away.––Steven Parkhurst in a letter to the author.
When his first parole hearing approached in 2014, Steven thought he had it. He was doing everything right. He had all this extra energy in anticipation of the hearing. He worked out twice as much. He told himself, stay positive. Get a grip. He had waited 20 years and worked his ass off for this moment. He had been a model prisoner. He had taken advantage of numerous opportunities for self-improvement. He expressed remorse and had many letters from family, teachers, social workers and others recommending him for release, including Deborah Davis, an employee of the Department of Corrections and an adjunct professor for the Community College of Rhode Island.
In a June 2014 letter to the Rhode Island Parole Board, Davis wrote “[ Steven ] has embraced the opportunities that were available to him at the DOC, has created his own academic opportunities, and has worked hard to achieve academic success. I fully support his parole.”
But when he sat before the parole board, Steven’s nerves took over. His words sounded garbled. He felt so defensive. He wanted to tell them what he had learned, all the good things he was doing, but their questions all came back to the murder.
Steven told the board, “You know, let me emphasize 200 percent, like, all my—every single thing that happened that night was my fault. Like, I chose to go to that party. I wanted to go to that party. I wanted to drink, so bad. I wanted to impress my friends at every single opportunity I could, and to have that gun in my hand, I felt like I was in charge. Like, that nobody was going to pull a gun on me. In that moment that’s the way I felt. And I may not have fully understood that right then, but looking back on it, I realize that.”
Board members followed up with questions about Steven’s attitude toward Trevor. Chairwoman Laura Pisaturo: “You had a very general explanation of being a teenager, who was spiraling out of control…Yet on the other hand, not every teenager who is struggling in that way does what you did…And there were witnesses who testified that you discussed not just going back to the party, but going back to kill Trevor. What’s your response to that?”
Steven responded: “It’s hard to admit that I took his gun with every intention of hurting him. I think I was—I was so angry in my life, everything else happening in my life, that I used that moment on Wednesday when Trevor embarrassed me, to take all of that off my shoulders. And on Friday when I saw his gun, that’s what I thought. I thought I wanted to hurt him. It’s not as innocent as an accident, and it’s not as innocent as a teenager who’s drinking. I was an angry kid and I wanted to—I just wanted something to make all of that go away.”
The board decided against parole.
“The reason for the denial is due to the seriousness of the offense, the level of violence as a weapon was used and death of the victim,” the board said. “We will see him again in August 2023. The Board acknowledges a letter of objection from the Attorney General’s office and letters of support on Mr. Parkhurst’s behalf. We commend him on his program participation.”
Steven knew denial was to be expected at the first parole hearing, but he didn’t understand why the board refused to consider him again until 2023. That hit him hard. Nine years. He couldn’t make sense of it. He felt as if he had been shoved into a box and the walls were collapsing, and it took everything he had to keep breathing, to keep the walls from crushing him. Nine years. Three other guys got the same nine-year hit from the board. One of them committed two murders. He doesn’t participate in programs, does nothing to educate and improve himself. Was the board saying Steven was the same as that guy? What had he done wrong when he appeared before them? Had he failed because of arrogance, hubris? Maybe.
He had believed in idea of parole, the dream of being recognized for his good work and released. Prisons promote the dream. Behave, change, better yourself and there’s a possibility of getting out only no, there wasn’t. Not this time. Maybe that’s what the parole hearing was about. Show contrition without any hope of release, without any hope of anything. When we take your spirit, we’ll let you out.
Last year, three years after Steven was denied parole, board chairwoman Laura Pisaturo expressed her enthusiasm for Senate Bill 237, the legislation that would permit incarcerated children younger than 18 to be eligible for parole after 15 years.
“Review after 15 years is appropriate for those who were young at the time of their crime,” Pisaturo wrote in an April 2017 letter supportive of the legislation. “Psychological evidence shows that individuals who were adolescents have a unique propensity for rehabilitation and are able to successfully reintegrate into the community after maturity and growth. Research demonstrates that criminal recidivism rates decline after the brain fully matures, in the late 20s.”
Pisaturo concluded her letter by urging the legislature not to “underestimate the power of hope as a motivator for behavioral change. For children who grew up in communities of poverty and violence, being sentenced to decades in prison without review only further reinforces messages of hopelessness and lack of self worth. By giving individuals the chance to present their progress to the Parole Board, the legislature creates a powerful incentive for youth to grow into mature adults, creating a safer community both within and outside of prison walls.”
This year, Pisaturo’s words turned into action. In April, the board proposed new guidelines pertaining to children under 18 who had been convicted of crimes. The Board said it would “take into consideration the diminished culpability of juveniles as compared to that of adults, the hallmark features of youth and any subsequent growth and increased maturity of the prisoner during incarceration.” Other factors the board would review included participation in rehabilitative and educational programs while in prison; age at the time of the offense, efforts made toward rehabilitation and evidence of remorse among other considerations.
A short time after it proposed the new guidelines, the board granted Steven a second hearing this September.
Steven stands about 5 feet, 11 inches. He has a crew cut and wears the same khaki prison uniform every day. It’s communism in here, he told me, half joking. Everyone puts on the same clothes, the same socks, the same shoes, eats the same food, earns the same amount of money. He sees a lot of himself in the younger guys, but after 26 years he’s not them. He’s an adult. His hair has grown thinner, his body aches where it never hurt before.
Steven is 42. If he’s not out by the time he’s 50, he assumes he may never get out, that he’ll be left alone in the world. His relationship with his mother isn’t good but he remains close to his sister, Jen.
In 2017, his father died at 65. Shackled in chains, Steven was taken to Curtis J. Holt’s Sons Funeral Home in Woonsocket and allowed to the view the body for 15 minutes.
This year, he faced another loss. A doctor diagnosed Uncle Rick with stage four cancer.
“You don’t have to be tough now,” Steven told him the last time they spoke in April. Remembering that Rick’s mother died when Rick was a boy, Steven continued, “You can go see her now.” Rick started crying.
The other day, Steven saw Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes on TV being interviewed about their children’s book, Rescue & Jessica: A Life-Changing Friendship. Rescue sat with them. Steven felt a connection but far removed, like someone watching a movie and recognizing a street from their childhood.
He’s seen Bruce twice since 2001, at a court hearing a decade ago, and just recently when Bruce facilitated a prison workshop on how to get into college and apply for scholarships from a foundation he started with two other guys who had also done time. For Steven, to see Bruce in a suit, hair graying, to give him a hug, yo, homie, my boy, doing it right, that was more than something. Beyond surreal.
At night, he rarely dreams of the world he knew outside. Instead, he dreams about the prisoners and guards who are an everyday part of his life. Life beyond walls is increasingly becoming a dream he no longer remembers. What’s real to him is not real to anyone else. The other day, a convict boasted, “I’m sending my cellmate out feet first. I’ll be going back to Max. See you in a couple of years.” Then he offed his cellmate.
“If anyone wonders if I’m feeling it,” Steven told me in a recent conversation, “don’t worry about it. I’m feeling it. I suffer. Prison is relentless.”
He wept when his attorney told him he’d have a new parole hearing in September. As the hearing approaches, he recalls his thoughts from four years ago. He had wanted to overwhelm the board then with his good work in prison and not confront the things he had done that night more than 20 years ago. A lack of humility, he believes, contributed to his denial. He has learned humility since. Disappointment and the deaths of his father and uncle have chastened him. He wonders about the possible repercussions of his lawsuit. The people who will decide his future are the people he’s challenging. How upset has he made them? Only he knows how he has changed. He can’t force people to see beyond the 17-year-old murderer to the man he believes himself to be today.
Steven shot Trevor Ramella. He took his life. He knows what that means. He can’t just say, Forgive me, I’m not a monster, it won’t happen again, and poof everything will be OK and he’ll walk out a free man. It doesn’t work that way. He can’t look in a mirror without trying to compensate for that night. He doesn’t need people to believe the best thing about him. They never will. However, no matter what they think, he wants them to know, he wants Trevor and his family to know, that he accepts the consequences of killing him. He doesn’t look away. Every day, he lives with what he did. Even if he gets out, that night will never end. For anyone.