Mohammed Davis walked into Judge Jeffrey Minehart’s chambers at the Juanita Kidd Stout Center for Criminal Justice in August with a prospect he hasn’t had in 20 years: the possibility of parole.
The court officer escorted him to his seat next to his attorney. Still in handcuffs, Davis managed to wave at his cluster of family members sitting two rows behind him, scanning faces he hadn’t seen in more than a decade, when he was convicted of killing Robert Reitz during a robbery days before Christmas in 1999.
At 17, Davis was handed a life sentence without the possibility of parole for first-degree murder. Now, at 36, he’s back in court, this time to hear the terms of a new sentencing that could possibly lead to his freedom.
Davis is one of more than 2,300 prisoners across the country who were given life sentences when they were juveniles — under age 18. The new sentencing is part of an ongoing process to grant resentencing hearings to all juvenile lifers convicted before 2012. This is because of a Supreme Court ruling in 2012, Miller v. Alabama, which found it unconstitutional to convict a juvenile to a mandatory life-without-parole sentencing.
The hearing on this day was quick and to the point, Assistant District Attorney Chesley Lightsey told a reporter afterwards, adding that she has negotiated at least 100 resentencing agreements. She has been waist-deep in juvenile-lifer cases for two years.
Lightsey has already negotiated about half of the 320 convictions in Philadelphia that required new prison terms. After Davis’ hearing, she said she wishes all of the resentencing cases could be so straightforward.
“Each case is unique. All of the facts are different and the victims’ families make different decisions about whether to come and be there personally, or read an impact statement. That can make the process a lot longer,” Lightsey explained.
In June, she was named the new assistant supervisor of the homicide unit, where she’s simultaneously juggling an estimated 30 active cases on top of the resentencings. It’s a life she said she hadn’t pictured for herself while growing up in Mississippi.
The out prosecutor began her professional career as a teacher. A trip to visit a friend living in Philadelphia sparked a love affair with the city that drove Lightsey to quit her job at the summer camp where she worked in Mississippi. She relocated here in 1996 and spent four years teaching at Friends’ Central School in Wynnewood before taking an interest in law. Lightsey subsequently enrolled at the Beasley School of Law at Temple University. After graduating, she worked as a legal intern at the Center for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights before making her way to the D.A.’s office in 2005.
Lightsey began as a prosecutor in preliminary hearings, and eventually landed in the family violence and sexual assault unit, which is where she wanted to be all along.
“I really love to work with kids. Before going to law school, I was a teacher for seven years, so that’s one of the reasons I went to the family-violence unit initially. That led me to the homicide unit. I get a lot of cases where there are children who are witnesses to murder and I help with getting them ready for that process,” Lightsey said. “I’ll meet with kids multiple times and not talk about the case at all. It’s a matter of getting them to be comfortable with me, gaining some kind of trust so they feel comfortable talking.”
Lightsey said the one thing she carries with her as she moves from one case to the next is the resilience of the families and the witnesses she encounters.
“What I always think about and refer back to is the strength of witnesses and how hard it is for them to confront the person who hurt them personally. This job is hard. It’s not the goriness of it so much as just the human emotion, the loss that people have suffered — mothers who’ve lost children. I don’t know how people deal with it — it’s a lot, but it’s just part of what you sign on for.”
Lightsey’s new supervisory position involves a lot more meetings with detectives on cases that are not hers, a change from what she’s used to, she added.
“I’m used to meeting with detectives on cases that I’m trying, but now I’m meeting with detectives about cases where arrests haven’t been made yet, thinking about what other steps can be taken before a warrant can be approved.”
The ADA makes it a point to never take work home, she said.
“I don’t talk about work at home. I have two small children — ages 5 and 8 — and they do not even know what I do. They think I give bad people timeouts.”
Back in the courtroom on that August day, Lightsey addressed Davis, asking him questions to verify that he understood his decision to enter into the resentencing negotiation and that no one had “threatened or promised him anything.”
The new terms of his prison sentence were arranged between the prosecutor and the defense prior to the hearing.
Davis agreed that he understood the agreement and said he wanted to read aloud a remorse letter intended for Reitz’s family, who chose not to attend the one-day hearing.
“I sincerely apologize for my actions and for all of the hurt and pain that my actions have caused. I made an emotional and impulsive decision that severely affected the lives of a lot people. At the time, I was a selfish, ignorant, stupid child that was only thinking of myself, but today, I stand before you as a man who is sincerely sorry for my actions,” Davis said.
He continued: “I’m ashamed and embarrassed for what I did. I didn’t understand the effects of my actions or the effects my actions would have on the family and friends of the victim as well as my loved ones. I understand that nothing I say right now will bring the victim back. I would like the family to know that I express my deepest remorse. I respectfully ask that you find it in your heart to forgive me or at least consider my apology. I can honestly say I was the not the man I was 20 years ago. My whole perspective on life is different as well as my morals and priorities.”
Davis appeared to breathe a sigh of relief after Minehart agreed to a resentencing of 33 years to life, which will factor in the time he already served. In 13 years, Davis will have the opportunity to go before the parole board to plead his case for another chance at life outside prison.
Davis was escorted out of the courtroom, stealing one last look at his band of supporters before the wooden door closed behind him.