(L-R): Jesse Reed, Don Cronk, Eddie Ramirez, Philip Seiler and Rich Rael stand in front of San Quentin State Prison in California, where they had been incarcerated for murder. All five were eventually released on parole. (Photo credit: Elisabeth Fall)
When Don Cronk was young, he became addicted to cocaine. The addiction consumed him and he started stealing to pay for his habit.
But one night, a burglary took an unexpected turn. Cronk and his friend broke into a house, only to find the owner still there. The old man pulled out a gun and shot Cronk.
Cronk fired back, immediately killing the home owner. Cronk never intended to hurt anyone that night — he just had an addiction to feed. Still, he was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison with the possibility of parole.
It’s a familiar story: Someone commits a crime, gets caught and is sent to prison. For most people, that’s where the story ends — the bad guy gets put away. But for Cronk and so many others, it’s only the beginning.
In her new book, “Life After Murder: Five Men in Search of Redemption,” NPR reporter Nancy Mullane follows a group of men in California’s San Quentin State Prison through the arduous process of parole and eventually freedom. All had been convicted of murder and sentenced to life behind bars.
“We don’t know who these people who have committed these kinds of crimes become after they’ve gone to prison,” said Mullane. “We don’t know what the back end of that looks like.”
Cronk used his time in prison as an opportunity to turn his life around. With the help of various programs — and a new-found faith in God — Cronk overcame his drug addiction. He also confronted his past bad behavior — what he called “the ultimate crime against humanity” — and earned his GED and an associate’s degree. He got a job at the prison chapel, maintained a steady girlfriend, and had a perfect disciplinary record. He never even smoked a cigarette.
“Every criminal is painted as this monster, irredeemable — someone to be terrified of all the time,” Cronk said. “But my experience — and for most of the men I knew in there — is that we realized what we did. We admitted what we did. We accepted the punishment. If you do all of these things, you shall have a light at the end of the tunnel.”
While Cronk seemed to be the perfect candidate for parole, getting it approved was nearly impossible. In 2007, the California parole board scheduled 6,181 hearings and found only 119 lifers suitable — less than two percent. Those few then faced an even more difficult challenge — getting the governor’s approval.
In the late 1980s, a Massachusetts prisoner named Willie Horton was released on a weekend furlough program and fled to Maryland. While there, he raped a woman and assaulted her fiancé. This incident was used to damaging effect by George H.W. Bush against his Democratic opponent, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. The campaign ad exploiting the Horton case was a catalyst to nationwide anxiety about parole.
Since then, parole has become a political liability for elected officials. As a safeguard, California and a number of other states have implemented laws that require the governor to approve the parole board’s rulings on prisoners convicted of murder.
Parole has become so uncommon that most prisoners sentenced to life with the possibility of parole frequently die in prison. “We have these laws that say based on the conditions of the crime, we see that there’s a potential for change,” Mullane said. “So we give them this hope of life with the possibility of parole, but then we forget that they’re there… We turn our backs on them and say you shouldn’t have gotten out.”
The parole board found Cronk unsuitable six times before he was finally given a parole date on his seventh appearance before the board, 27 years into his life sentence. Several months later, his parole was reversed by the governor. “We don’t want special treatment, we don’t want to get out early,” Cronk said. “Just let me go if I’ve done everything according to the law, when I’m supposed to go.”
Although Cronk was devastated, he didn’t give up. He went to court and appealed the decision. Meanwhile, the California Supreme Court issued a ruling restricting the governor’s ability to overturn parole, explaining that if a person is given a sentence with the possibility of parole, there must be an actual possibility of parole.
Cronk went before the board again and was set free.
Since his release, Cronk has been a model parolee. He moved in with his girlfriend and started working as an electrician. Wanting to advance his career, he went to a community college and took computer classes to help him prepare to take his Microsoft certification test. He is self-employed, using computer programs to edit books, magazines and brochures.
As Mullane writes: “Of the 1,000 prisoners paroled by the state of California in the past 21 years, and who had served a sentence of life with the possibility of parole for murder, not one has committed murder again. Zero.”
For Mullane, Cronk’s story — and the others in her book — testifies to people’s ability to change. “By them being excluded and feeling the need to hide their past, we as a society are being excluded and cut off from the lessons they have to teach us,” she said.
“The average person thinks that we all have a screw loose and that we’re mean and evil and don’t have consciences,” Cronk said. “But people can change if you allow them to, if you help them and make it available for them.”