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View of downtown Los Angeles through a city street
Photo by Dillon Shook on Unsplash

What does it take to get a second chance? If you’re serving life without parole, it takes nothing short of a miracle.

In 1996, 17-year-old Wajuba McDuffy was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for a crime he maintains he did not commit. When federal and state laws banned such sentences for juvenile offenders, it saved his life.

Born and raised in Compton, California, McDuffy grew up as the eldest of four children of a crack-addicted mother. They lived in the Ujima Village Housing Projects, where he was exposed to gangs, poverty and criminal activity at an early age.

“In the 1980s my mom fell victim to the crack era and our family suffered because us kids had to take care of ourselves,” he said, recalling his upbringing. “This exposed me to gangs and criminality because they would come to our apartment. … That’s really how I got involved with gangs. I never saw anybody working. All I saw was the twists and manipulations to get money, and I thought to myself, ‘This is how the world works.’”

Influenced by the gangs, Wajuba said he followed the path of many at-risk youth, seeking love and acceptance in all the wrong places. At 10 years old, he was arrested for stealing from a grocery store. By the time he was 12, he had joined his neighborhood’s gang. From the gang he received acceptance by doing robberies and assaults, selling drugs and by doing anything that would gain the approval of other members.

On June 17, 1995, Wajuba and an older gang member were pulled over during a routine traffic stop. Officers found a gun in the car. Because the driver was a two-striker, Wajuba said he claimed the gun as his own; he was taken to juvenile hall for receiving stolen property. It was his 17th birthday.

Six months later he was charged with felony murder due to forensics. In 1998 he was tried, convicted and sentenced to life without parole.

“It humbled me because I thought I was standing up for this noble belief — not telling on anybody,” Wajuba told the Mule Creek Post, a prison newspaper at Mule Creek State Prison in California.

Ten years later, with all appeals exhausted, reality hit him: He was going to die in prison. The fear of dying in prison drove him to begin seeking ways to get out. He started writing letters to law firms and to the Innocence Project in Southern California.

Help finally came when the California Legislature in 2017 passed a law to comply with new federal rules which retroactively eliminated life-without-parole sentences for minors. Under the new state statute, those sentenced to life-without-parole for crimes committed before they were 18 years old are eligible for a parole hearing after 25 years of incarceration.

It was the break Wajuba needed.

After a successful second petition, he was re-sentenced to 25-to-life on June 14, 2018. In July 2018, he had a psychiatric assessment. On December 12, 2018, he was found suitable for parole. Four months later, on April 24, 2019, he was a free man.

Wajuba became a member of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that works to end mass incarceration in California. ARC was active at Lancaster State Prison, where Wajuba had been housed.

Wajuba and ARC advocate for policy changes and sentencing reform. ARC also helps provide opportunities for those inside to come home.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Sean "Sharif" Neal is a writer incarcerated in California.