THE PAIN THAT PAIN PRODUCED
Name: D. Roberts
Offense: 1st Degree Murder
Sentence: Life (with chance of parole after 20 years)
Age at the time of offense: 25
Age at the time of writing: 44
Incarcerated in: Massachusetts (out of state transfer)
According to most, I am simply a convicted murderer who brought grief to an undeserving family and terror to his community. All of those facts are true. Society can be assured that justice was served when I was sentenced to life in prison—a fate reserved only for those considered irredeemable. That’s it, end of story: all are held accountable. My actions 18 years ago, however—which resulted in incalculable grief, and for which I am remorseful—were in large part influenced by my upbringing and social environment: an environment where lack of opportunity, resources, and equal treatment subjected me to a life in unsafe neighborhoods, poverty, and a feeling of low self-worth. While I am in no way denying responsibility, this climate and other mitigating factors put me at risk at an early age and contributed to my eventual offenses against society.
I was born the only child of 17-year-old unwed parents in Providence, Rhode Island. Although I always knew my father and saw him frequently, he played no role in my upbringing, financial or otherwise. Those duties were left to my young mother. Looking back, I can’t recall a time when violence or the ever-present feeling of being unsafe didn’t exist. Being in a constant state of hyper-vigilance became a normal part of my life as I experienced violence early in life. My maternal grandmother, whom I spent my early years with while my mother adapted to her role, was an alcoholic who often yelled and gave beatings to make her point—a style of parenting eventually adopted by my mother.
When I was seven or eight years old, my grandmother suffered severe burns when she was attacked with scalding water after answering a knock at the door. Some sought revenge on my mother, and my grandmother suffered the consequences. Shortly thereafter, an older cousin was stabbed to death in a fight over a woman. One thing I recall about that time was the narrative of my cousin bleeding to death on the street and the poor response from police officers whose station was nearby. My family felt the authorities let him die.
My mother’s long-time boyfriend often beat her, and as a young boy I would be forced to watch, frozen with fear and unable to help her as she curled up in the corner, being pummeled by his fists. Eventually my mother gained the strength to leave her abusive boyfriend for someone who treated her well. In response, her old boyfriend stabbed him in the face with a broken bottle. The gash and the stitches on his face left a vivid and haunting reminder of the violence around me.
My awareness of these and other incidents at a young age was heightened by the fact that as an only child, I was often around adults whose lives revolved around violence, retribution, and mistrust of authorities. Growing up in housing projects, my mother did the best she could to raise me in an unsafe, underprivileged environment. I was taught to defend myself at all times, and to find a weapon when someone bigger challenged me. I was also warned that if I came home crying about getting beat up, I would be whooped at home. There were times when I fought other kids while my mother encouraged me. My mother was someone I loved, respected, and feared. What she said carried great weight, and I did not want to disappoint her. I understand why my mother gave me advice that no normal thinking person would give their child; we existed in abnormal circumstances.
Over time, I became accustomed to violence. I was desensitized by it like so many in my family and neighborhood. When I was 11 years old, my mother and I moved to Las Vegas to join family who had recently moved out there. After initially living in a relatively safe neighborhood where my mother had a good job, my temporarily safe world was suddenly shattered when my mother became addicted to drugs. We could no longer afford to live in the neighborhood, and were forced to move across town. Suddenly we were back in an environment similar to the one we left in Rhode Island. Battering ram vehicles raided drug houses, crime and poverty were prevalent, and the feeling of hopelessness returned. Unfortunately, many other kids had to endure similar circumstances of a parent at home getting high, so we ran the streets aimlessly to avoid the reality of home life. My home life got worse when my mother’s addiction led to our being evicted from our apartment, forcing us to spend nights in motels. Our already fragile bond was forever broken from that point on.
During the day I roamed the streets, sometimes stealing clothes from stores and eating food in the supermarkets. It was inevitable that my mischief would catch up with me, and eventually I was arrested. I was was arrested with three other kids who broke into a store where I tried to steal a bike. Because I had no home address or telephone number and the police were unable to reach my mother, I was sent to juvenile hall. For the first time in my life I was away from the person I relied on most—my mother. The fear I felt seemed unreal and almost unbearable. Somehow, my mother found me and she came to visit. As I cried uncontrollably, she told me to stop crying, warning me that others would see me as soft and pick on me. The theme of how I was to carry myself as a man continued: never become anyone’s victim, and protect myself at all times.
After two weeks in juvenile hall, I was released to my mother, though we still had no place to call home. Somehow, my mother convinced me that I was better off being with my aunt in California. As she talked, I listened, knowing I had no say in the matter, and reluctantly agreed. To my 14-year-old mind, my mother was getting rid of me and didn’t care for me anymore. Feeling abandoned, I recall not caring about much beyond that point; I never felt more lost and uncertain.
When I moved to California, I had issues adjusting to the authority of others and was defiant toward my aunt. Two months after moving there, I was able to convince my aunt to allow me to move back to Rhode Island under the care of my paternal grandparents. Soon after, I was on a bus taking a three-day trip across the country. I was 14 years old.
Life on the paternal side of my family was different in one major respect: there was very little discipline or accountability. During my early years, I spent weekends with my paternal grandparents and cousins. We basically did whatever we wanted. Nothing changed when I returned. My grandparents, who adopted me, were non-confrontational and rarely raised their voices or showed anger. One similarity to my maternal side was the alcoholism and drug abuse. My grandfather, a war veteran, sold liquor on Sundays and hosted drinking parties for his friends. I would often help around the house by making sure that the music never stopped and that ice was readily available. The use of illicit drugs continued to infect my world as well. One night, in response to noise on the back porch, I opened the door to see my father overdosing while his girlfriend tried to revive him by putting ice on his genitals. Fortunately, help arrived in time to save him, but I never looked at my father the same. I lost all respect for him.
Although we were poor, I was provided with the bare essentials like food, clothing, and shelter. No one abused me physically or otherwise. However, I lacked structure, guidance, and accountability at that crucial stage of my life. By the time I passed the eighth grade, I was already losing interest in school. Because I had been around alcohol and drug activity all my life, I began drinking and smoking marijuana shortly after entering high school. The local liquor store sold alcohol to minors, which made it easy for me and my peers to drink and roam the streets. As a young, impressionable kid, I simply followed the whims of others without any concern for punishment at home.
The neighborhood we lived in, much like other places I lived in before, was a high crime area, and treks to school, the park, or the corner store were through streets heavy with drug activity. My life has always been affected by the residue of crime and violence, so it was easy to adapt to the chaos around me. School was equally as chaotic as my home life. The high school I attended was surrounded by two main streets, a low-income housing development, and a variety of fast food restaurants. There didn’t seem to be any separation from the trappings of the inner city. Traffic was constant, and the restaurants provided convenient hang-outs where many kids—myself included—spent our class time. I remember there was a shooting on campus my freshman year. Although no one was wounded, I don’t recall there being any intervention or changes at the school; things just returned to normal. To no one’s surprise, after cutting class most of the semester, I failed. School had become irrelevant, and I eventually quit, preferring to hang in the streets.
The following summer, while standing outside a nightclub with a reputation for violence, I was one of five people shot. Fortunately, I was only wounded in the leg. That was the first time I had been directly touched by the violence I was so used to. But I wasn’t scared by the experience, nor did I perceive the danger. Instead, I became further desensitized to violence and indifferent about life in general. Everyone I knew experienced violence in some form; I was simply an unfortunate statistic.
By this time, I also began selling drugs in my neighborhood—partly because my peers were doing so, and because they were readily available. On my eighteenth birthday, I was introduced to the criminal injustice system when I was arrested for possession of narcotics. I was consequently sentenced to two years probation, ordered to pay “court costs” and to complete a drug treatment program. But I refused to do the drug program; I thought, “I sell drugs, I don’t use them.”
I returned to the streets and selling drugs almost immediately, subjecting myself to other problems, such as being stopped, frisked, and harassed by the police, often without cause. The procedure was common, as was the constant feeling of confrontation. I had no idea that my rights were being violated, or that my neighborhood was policed differently than others. As far as I knew, that was the way things were, and I accepted the abuse of authority.
Through the years, I was arrested for drug and other offenses. There were instances when I pled to charges I was innocent of simply because I lacked the resources to challenge the state. I was always required to pay “court costs,” and my probation was typically extended. With the looming threat of jail time for failing to pay “court costs,” and the scarcity of jobs—especially for felons—I felt backed into a wall. As I result, I simply lied about having a job and continued selling drugs to meet my monthly requirements. I broke the law to pay the state and avoid jail.
I lost numerous friends to violence, including my best friend, who was murdered in 1996. Funerals were an unfortunate occurrence that came at least once a year, sometimes more. A few months after my friend was killed, I was shot again, along with a relative, as we sat on our family’s porch. We drove ourselves to the hospital, where we were treated, questioned, and released.
By the age of 21, I had little positive meaning in my life; I succumbed to the low expectations associated with black men in the inner city. Whether through the realities of my life, or the influences of media, the potential of death or jail didn’t scare me or have a deterring effect. Returning to the same high risk environment was my only option and all I knew.
Not long after getting shot, I was arrested and charged with murder. Because I was on probation, the arrest was deemed a violation of my probation stipulations, and I was sentenced to three years in prison. Rather than being allowed to serve my time in a low security facility, I was sent to a maximum security prison, where I languished for three years. Ultimately I was cleared of all charges, but the experience tainted me forever. Some say I should be grateful that the system worked. I realize it could have been worse; however, the whole process of being arrested, treated as though I was guilty, and placed in the worst possible institution introduced me to new levels of hopelessness and despair. I spent the entire time there hyper-vigilant and stressed. I developed the necessary attitude to make it from day to day, and became assaultive and unfeeling. As a bitter, scorned person, I was released back into the lion’s den of society—right back to the same circumstances I had failed so miserably under all my life.
At 24 years old, I had no work history, an eighth-grade education, and no resources to change my life. While I was unable to find a job, the level of drug activity in my neighborhood increased as my cousin now sold drugs out of my grandparents’ house. It wasn’t long before I began selling marijuana as a means to survive. Although I didn’t realize it then, I lacked direction, purpose, and meaningful opportunity to rise above my circumstances. My views and expectations were limited by my small world. I found myself aimlessly going through life, not really concerned about my future or my fate; I simply existed. I carried guns regularly, convinced it was a necessary practice to survive. I can’t expect the average citizen to understand my logic, but I felt as though I was part of a separate, isolated world. This was a world where my life and those of my loved ones were constantly at risk. As someone who endured loss in many forms, including the loss of safety that came along with the extremes of poverty, I failed to value life—mine or others’. Unfortunately, any possibility of becoming anything other than a statistical burden to my community was lost only 16 months after my release from prison.
On Mother’s Day 2000, I shot and killed a man following a confrontation. My victim was someone I attended elementary school with—a man whose life circumstances and path to that fateful night were similar to mine. Our fathers grew up together, although neither played a meaningful role in our lives. We both possessed guns that night, along with a feeling of hopelessness, and a misguided notion of what it took to survive in our isolated, neglected worlds. There was a point in my life when I felt my actions leading up to and on the night of my crime were in the realm of normal behavior. I felt that because I wasn’t given any breaks in life, and I had it hard, I was justified. However, I am fully aware of how my actions have hurt so many. I know I was wrong, and I am remorseful knowing I can never undo the pain I’ve caused. I am a far better person than the young, misguided man who entered these walls. True, I am a convicted murderer whose actions have harmed many, but I am also a man whose mistakes were in large part the consequences of failures beyond my control.