Darrell Atkinson’s hands trembled as he carved at the metal bar, sharpening it till it was a kind of knife. “Forever My Lady” by Jodeci dragged through the air, cranked out over 94.3 WYBC. Up until that day, he still had hope. He had spent two years in the jail on Whalley Avenue and at Northern Correctional Facility, Connecticut’s only supermax prison, awaiting his day in court. He’d rejected a plea bargain of forty-eight years and instead insisted on a jury trial, maintaining his innocence. But that day, March 4, 1994, he was found guilty and sentenced to ninety years in prison.
That night, the first night of his lifelong sentence, he held the makeshift knife to his chest. He closed his eyes and saw the face of his mother. The look on her face said: Boy, don’t you do it. He sighed, dropping the knife. He had four children—three sons and a daughter—and he wanted to see them grow up. He wanted to be able to hold them again someday.
Twenty-nine years later, Atkinson’s voice grew softer as he told me about his family, and about how painful it was not to see them for the thirty-one years he served in prison. I’m the second person to learn of his attempted suicide, he said. The first was his mother, who died while he was incarcerated.
Atkinson is out of jail, now—living in a halfway house, speaking with me—because of Connecticut’s commutation policy. He was one of the 106 people in Connecticut to receive a sentence commutation since December 2021, reducing his sentence by fifty-nine years.
While Atkinson knows it as the tool that gave him his freedom, Connecticut’s commutation policy has proven both contentious and precarious. In just the past five years, the process has been halted and amended with stricter parameters multiple times. Debates between victims’ advocates, incarcerated people, lawyers, and political figures configure commutations in a perpetual state of flux—seemingly straddling the lines between justice and injustice, rehabilitation and punishment.
The Extraordinary Option
In Connecticut, people like Atkinson—those incarcerated for certain violent crimes including felony murder—are ineligible for parole. Instead, incarcerated individuals serving lengthy sentences have several avenues for amending their sentence. The first option, and probably the most difficult, is a direct appeal within thirty days of a conviction. The second is to file a habeas corpus, a petition for a new trial. The third is a sentence modification, which is decided by a judge. And the fourth is a sentence commutation.
A sentence commutation, rather than an appeal or habeas, does not reverse a conviction. But the chances of winning an appeal are low: Atkinson filed multiple habeas corpus petitions for an appeal while incarcerated, in both cases arguing ineffective counsel. Each time, a judge denied his petition.
The crux of the debate around commutations lies in whether or not individuals convicted of violent crimes deserve a second look. Miriam Gohara, a Clinical Professor of Law at the Yale Law School, said that second-look statutes—like parole or commutations—are not a constitutional right in the same way that the right to a jury trial is. “It’s purely discretionary,” Gohara said. “But it’s so critical as a safety valve.”
When a judge hands down a sentence, Gohara said, they cannot know whether a sentencing standard will hold up over time. In 2012, for instance, the Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that life without the possibility of parole for juveniles was unconstitutional for non-homicide crimes and could not be mandatory for homicide crimes. Additionally, Connecticut abolished the death penalty for future crimes in 2012 but continued to have eleven men on death row until 2015, when the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional. In other words, judges rely on second-look provisions to know that a sentence can be changed if circumstances beyond the crime itself change.
Over time, sentencing standards for the same types of crimes have gotten shorter. Given that a significant percentage of the prison population in Connecticut was sentenced decades ago, this means if they were to commit the same crimes today, they might receive a much shorter sentence. There are about half as many people incarcerated in Connecticut today as there were fifteen years ago, with a little more than ten thousand today compared to about twenty thousand in 2008.
In other states, the power to commute a sentence typically resides with the governor of a state. But in Connecticut, that power is instead held by the Board of Pardons and Paroles, whose members are appointed by the governor and have experience in social work, law enforcement, criminal justice, or substance abuse treatment and prevention. When deciding whether to commute a sentence, the Board previously considered factors including the seriousness and recency of a conviction, the incarcerated individual’s conduct while serving their sentence, the impact on victims and the community, the extent of the individual’s rehabilitation, whether the length or form of the individual’s sentence is consistent with contemporary sentencing standards, and the extent to which continued service of the individual’s sentence is in the interest of justice.
In order to apply for a commutation, incarcerated individuals must have served at least ten years of their sentence. And, Atkinson’s attorney Alexander Taubes LAW ’15 said, if you get denied, you have to wait another five years before applying. Incarcerated individuals thus have to decide which types of sentence modifications to apply for and in what order, in case having been denied for one hearing might prejudice them in the other.
In the early nineteen-nineties, Connecticut legislators removed the possibility of parole and good time credits for homicide offenses, which includes felony murder. That means the only option available to a majority of the people serving lengthy sentences—which tend to be for violent crimes—is a sentence commutation. These commutations are, in criminal justice professor at the University of New Haven and former state legislator Michael Lawlor’s words, the “extraordinary” option.
Freedom for Whom?
Taubes represented forty-three of the 106 sentences that were commuted between December 2021 and April 2023. In total, his clients had 751 years taken off their sentences, with an average of 17.5 years.
These victories were largely unprecedented. Previously, from 2016 to 2021—including a hiatus in 2019 and 2020 to reevaluate the commutation process—the state had averaged only one commutation a year. Many advocates both for and against the state’s commutations policy attribute the jump to a natural increase in applications following the pause, but this rise in commutations raised alarm bells for some.
The push against commutations for violent crimes picked up at the start of 2023, with some victim advocates and several Republican legislators advocating for limiting commutations to non-violent crimes. In March, Governor Ned Lamont replaced the chair of the Board—who some legislators felt was too liberal when commuting sentences–with Jennifer Medina Zaccagnini, a former social worker who served on the board since 2008. Lamont also suspended commutations entirely while the Board reviewed its policies, following pressure from Republicans and some victims’ families.
Part of the outrage is that forty-four of the seventy-one sentences commuted in 2022 were for murder.For people like Atkinson—those serving lengthy sentences without the possibility of parole—a sentence commutation can seem like the only shot at freedom. And as Lawlor suggested, the minimum of ten years served for eligibility explains why so many of the commuted sentences are for violent crimes: the people applying for a commutation have to be serving a long enough sentence to begin with.
`“How are you supposed to have a second chance onanything at life if people want you to get out of jail when you’re 80, 90 years old?” Atkinson said. “They’re just clearing the path for your funeral.”
The uptick in commutations sparked concern from some victims’ families, who worried their own perpetrators would be released from prison. The Board of Pardons and Paroles notifies the family of homicide victims of the application, even if the hearing ends up being denied. The board also takes into consideration statements from the victim’s family and prosecutors.
Plea bargains—which often include waiving the right to appeal—further complicate the avenues through which incarcerated individuals can have another chance at freedom. Some victims’ families feel that commutations undermine the strength of these plea bargain stipulations, acting as a loophole for freedom.
“It can almost be insulting to them because it’s like a contract,” said Jessica Pizzano from Survivors of Homicide. “‘[The accused individual] willingly accepted their sentence, and then to turn around how many years later and change that is extremely difficult for our families.”
Survivors of Homicide is a Connecticut-based, non-profit organization that provides support and advocacy to anyone connected with a homicide victim. Pizzano stressed that the organization is apolitical with the sole goal of providing support to its members. Pizzano also emphasized that most of the families the organization works with do not have a problem with commutation hearings as a whole, but do believe that violent crimes like murder, sexual assault, and felony murder should be excluded from commutations.
Today, murder charges often come with shorter sentences, or the charge itself may be lowered to manslaughter or felony murder, Pizzano said. “That’s very hard for our families right now to be told that due to the current trends, this is the sentence that we can give,” Pizzano said. “Fifteen years for killing someone, that doesn’t sit well with our families.”
Over the last few months, the Board met with various stakeholders on both sides in order to develop a new commutation policy. On August 30, the Board heard three cases in its first commutations hearings since the pause. All were for murder convictions from the mid-nineties. And one, Miguel Sanchez, was granted a commutation. Sanchez had been incarcerated since 1997 and the Board reduced his sentence by fifteen years, bringing his new effective sentence to forty-five years.
Attorney David Bothwell, the legislative and administrative advisor to the Board of Pardons and Paroles, said the Board is now looking for individuals to show “extraordinary and compelling” circumstances towards rehabilitation, beyond participating in programs the Department of Correction offers. This is the main change to the policy. Victim input, the nature of the crime, and the seriousness of the individual’s involvement will also continue to be taken into consideration.
The new policy is vague to a fault, Taubes said.
More critically, it raises the issue of what rehabilitation means in a prison setting. How does someone who maintains their innocence demonstrate accountability for a crime they may not have committed? And can a prison environment really allow for “extraordinary and compelling” forms of rehabilitation?
A Deeper History
Atkinson grew up in the Hill, a neighborhood composed mainly of Black and Hispanic residents just south of downtown New Haven. When he was 3 years old, his mother picked him up and walked to her sister’s two streets down. She put him down on the porch steps, rang the doorbell, and walked away. Atkinson stayed with his aunt for a day before she called the Department of Children and Families. For the next twelve years, he bounced around foster homes and group homes. His mother never knew that he lived just a few streets down for most of that time. He walked past her once, when he was 14, at the King’s Department Store. She didn’t recognize him. It felt like a gut punch.
A year later, Atkinson ran away from a group home in Massachusetts. When he arrived at his mother’s home, she pulled him in. They sat for hours, running over everything that had happened. “Why did you give me up?” he asked her. She told him that she hadn’t been ready to be a mother.
“How am I supposed to return? To love you?” Atkinson paused—it isn’t an easy subject. His instinct was to protect himself, to resist the mother who had once abandoned him. I asked him how he was able to forgive her.
All families are complicated, he said. But when you make it back home, when you walk through the door, you feel like you’re 2 years old again, running into your parents’ arms. “I always wanted to be loved by my family; I didn’t want to leave this earth not feeling loved,” Atkinson said.
Over time, Atkinson felt like he could go to his mother for anything. She was a stern woman, someone you wanted as a friend but not as an enemy. He picked some of that up from her, he said, but he was also committed to softening his anger so he could make her proud.
When Atkinson was 17, he met Michelle, who was a few years older than him. She came up to his bedroom window to get his attention on behalf of her friend. Right away, he found her “intoxicating.” A few days later, his mother called out to him from the front door. There was a girl at the door for him: Michelle. “She was the love of my life,” he said. “And I don’t throw that word love around.”
At 18, Atkinson had his first son, Bobby. Michelle told Atkinson he had to get serious—he couldn’t keep getting in trouble for petty crimes.
But Atkinson, at the time in his late teens, frequently found himself face-to-face with cops. The Hill has historically had the highest number of people in New Haven living below the federal poverty line. Atkinson recalls the police making frequent rounds in the area. In the late nineteen-eighties, this was far from unusual: intentional policies pushed from 1970 onward had brought about the era of mass incarceration in the U.S., as legislators pushed for stricter sentencing laws, tough-on-crime policing—which targeted primarily Black and Brown neighborhoods—and growing prison populations. From 1970 to 1985, the national prison population rose from 196,429 to 502,507, according to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics’s Prisoners series.
Connecticut was no exception to this national trend. In 1968, Connecticut established the Department of Correction—the first central authority in the nation to oversee all youth and adult correctional institutions and parole functions in the state. Connecticut’s prison population grew rapidly, in part due to legislating definite sentences and eliminating parole for crimes committed after July 1981. Between 1980 and 1990, the incarcerated population doubled, the number of prison staff tripled, and the DOC budget quadrupled.
Those effects are still felt today. An October 2022 report by the Prison Policy Initiative on redistricting data in Connecticut found that six cities—Hartford, Waterbury, New Britain, Bridgeport, New London, and New Haven — were home to over half of the state’s incarcerated population, despite making up only 17 percent of Connecticut’s total population. High incarceration rates disproportionately affect Connecticut’s communities of color: in April 2020, the DOC reported that 44 percent of the prison population was Black, while only 13 percent of Connecticut residents are Black.
Atkinson served his first prison sentence at age 19, a fifteen-month sentence for drug-related charges. After being released, in November 1991, Atkinson was ready to turn his life around. He wanted to commit himself to looking after his four kids, finding a consistent job, and making his mother proud.
But on February 29, 1992, the police were at Atkinson’s door again. The body of a young man named Edward Moore had been found in the Roberto Clemente field on February 27, and the two detectives standing before Atkinson—New Haven Police Department officers Joe Greene and James Ponteau—thought he had something to do with it.
According to the affidavit for Atkinson’s arrest, a friend of Moore told police that a man approached them and then walked quickly ahead of them. Three other men, all in masks, ran up and robbed Moore and his friend at gunpoint. While Moore’s friend was on the ground, he heard two gunshots. He got up and ran, and heard another gunshot go off in his direction. Police later received a tip that Atkinson was involved, although the affidavit does not mention from whom that information came or how the informant knew it.
Police interrogated Atkinson, who said he had been at the field with the other men, but left when they suggested robbing Moore. Atkinson told police he learned of Moore’s death on the TV at home. An eyewitness later identified two of the subjects, one of whom she said was unmasked; neither of whom was Atkinson. Atkinson claims the police fed him information about the crime during the interrogation. The affidavit notes that they read Atkinson his constitutional rights midway during the police interview. But Atkinson believes the fact that he had a criminal record and that the police knew who he was mattered.
Atkinson was arrested alongside two co-defendants for Moore’s robbery and death. Police could not establish who shot Moore, so Atkinson was charged with felony murder, robbery in the first degree, conspiracy to commit robbery, and attempted assault. The felony murder rule allows anyone accused of committing a dangerous felony to be charged with first-degree murder for a death that occurs during the felony, even if the defendant was not the killer.
But Atkinson maintains that he was not there for the crime at all. According to reporting by Will Sutherland, Ryan Myers, one of Atkinson’s co-defendants, also maintains his innocence but made the choice to take an Alford plea—a rare type of guilty plea wherein the defendant does not admit to committing the crime—for a shorter sentence. Detective Greene had been implicated in cases of wrongful arrest and improper investigation in the past. This includes a federal civil rights case against him and another detective, Michael Sweeney, in August 1991 for false arrest and malicious prosecution. Eric Ham, who had brought the case, was awarded nearly one million dollars.
Between December 2021 and April 2023, the commutations policy was more generous, Taubes said, including a more liberal view of accountability. Taubes represented four clients during that period who applied for a sentence commutation while they had habeas corpus actions in court—in other words, they continued to maintain their innocence. All four commutations were granted.
Although Atkinson did not have a habeas petition at the same time as his commutation hearing, his application package includes several letters from family and friends that emphasized their belief in his innocence. On August 30, at the first commutation hearings since the pause, another of Taubes’ clients, Corey Turner, had his application denied in part because he had a habeas corpus action and was still maintaining his innocence. Turner’s case appears to break a pattern in how accountability and rehabilitation are considered by the Board, although it is difficult to say for certain what that means for potential wrongful convictions.
“So much of the talk about rehabilitation and change and transformation comes around the notion of the person accepting responsibility for the crime, and how can you accept responsibility for the crime if you maintain your innocence?” Taubes told me. “But that question goes both ways. How do you expect someone to take responsibility for something they didn’t do?”
The new commutations policy means that many more people may have to face this dilemma. According to Taubes, the traditional view in sentence reductions is that maintaining your innocence can be held against you. Incarcerated people who say they have been wrongfully convicted must make a difficult choice: maintain their innocence and potentially remain behind bars, or accept responsibility for something they didn’t do in order to earn their freedom.
At the beginning of Atkinson’s sentence, he struggled.
“I was younger back then,” he wrote in his commutation application, “and very immature, and I did very stupid things.”
For Atkinson, rehabilitation meant accepting that the life he’d been living before his arrest needed to change. Though he maintains that he was not involved in the murder, he asserts that he knew he had to do more in order to be a father to his kids.
Over the thirty-one years he spent behind bars, he received his G.E.D., earned a culinary arts degree, and worked as a baker in the kitchen at Garner Correctional Institution for eighteen years. He remained disciplinary-free since 2004.
Many of those applying for commutation have similarly spent decades rehabilitating themselves and feel transformed from the person they were when they committed their crime. Fifteen years ago, according to Lawlor, people under the age of 30 made up the largest cohort of the prison population, while those over 40 were the smallest. Today, that has flipped: incarcerated people under the age of 30 form the smallest cohort, followed by those between the age of 30 and 40, and the largest cohort is made up of people over 40 years old—in spite of the overall shrinking prison population.
And that group over 40, Lawlor said, is the least likely to re-offend. The average age at offense of people whose sentences were commuted from 2021 to 2023 was 22.8; the average age at their commutation hearing was 47.
“Do you really want to have these people sitting in prison until they’re dying at the age of 80 or 90?” Lawlor asked.
“There’s also the fact that people change,” Gohara said. “Those people, I think regardless of their crimes, deserve at least a consideration, just a consideration—and again, not all of them are going to be deserving.”
Some advocates, like 74-year-old Barbara Fair, feel that a commutations policy based mainly on merit ignores the fact that prison isn’t a rehabilitative solution in the first place.
Fair was a teenager when her brother went to prison. It was the first time anyone in her family went to prison and the first time she started to think about incarceration. She became part of a group called Citizens for Humanizing Criminal Justice. One of their first big successes, she recalled, was getting trailers placed on the grounds of the Osborn Correctional Institution—at the time known as Somers—so that incarcerated people could sign up for their families to visit and stay in the trailers on weekends. In the over fifty years that Fair has been working in advocacy, she has witnessed the prison system turn into an industry.
“We are getting less and less human in the way we treat other human beings,” Fair said. “How much rehabilitation do you get when you’re caged like an animal? So to have that as a standard to even be considered…it’s just really disingenuous.”
As Fair emphasizes, rehabilitation in a prison setting can also mean allowing yourself to be demeaned and dehumanized, because standing up for yourself could lead to getting written up. Atkinson recalls kind officers side-by-side with ones who doled out punishment to assert their power. Seg—short for the segregated housing unit, where an incarcerated person would be detained with restricted contact with other inmates—was one of the ways officers would discipline prisoners or threaten them to stay in line. Atkinson told me he was thrown into seg, once, for making a joke.
Atkinson told me how officers, including a female officer, came into Atkinson’s cell and ordered him to get on his knees before cutting his clothes off of him. He felt humiliated and exposed but had to bite his tongue. Atkinson was detained in seg for a day, but incarcerated people in Connecticut have testified about much lengthier stays in solitary confinement—so much so that in May 2022, Connecticut limited isolated confinement to no more than fifteen consecutive days or thirty total days within a sixty-day period.
Atkinson was determined to become the son that would make his mother proud. But while he was incarcerated, he received a letter from Michelle that his mother had died. She’d found out at the funeral for Atkinson’s brother, who died of liver cancer. Atkinson clutched the letter. For the second time, he felt convinced that he didn’t want to live any longer.
He remembers fishing out a photo album he kept with him and flipping it open. A full-figured woman in her forties stared back at him. He couldn’t understand why he had to find out through a letter too long after her death, and he still does not know the exact day his mother or brother died. He dedicated the thirty-one years he was incarcerated to his family and trying to better himself for them, but now he describes the pain of never getting to say goodbye. The urns holding their ashes are at his sister-in-law’s house, he said, and he hasn’t been able to bring himself there yet to say his final goodbyes.
Atkinson attended his commutation hearing virtually while held at Garner Correctional Institution. On the big TV screen in front of him, he could see the board members’ faces. They seemed sullen. They asked him what he would do if they gave him a shot at being in the free world. Atkinson explained he wanted to become a nursing assistant, to commemorate his mother who had been a nurse for fifty years. He told them how he’d kept the same job in the prison for close to twenty years, keeping his head down and studying.
He looked at them, knowing they had his life in their hands. They told him to leave the room while they deliberated and he thought, Oh man, I’m not going to get a shot. But when he came back in, the mood had lightened and he learned he would be going home. He was released on May 4, 2023.
“I’m a grown man, I’m 52 years old, I was crying inside,” Atkinson said. “I ain’t going to lie, [I thought] I’m going to die in prison.”
Before his arrest, Atkinson listened to Bon Jovi, Anita Baker, and Patti LaBelle. He especially loved LaBelle’s “If You Asked Me To,” which was dedicated to her sister who died of lung cancer. LaBelle seemed to have a song for anything. Anytime you wanted to explain your love to a person, Atkinson said, you would play “If Only You Knew,” which expressed a feeling of unrequited love. New Haven has changed a lot since Atkinson was last free, but he still listens to Patti LaBelle.
Since his release, Atkinson moved into a halfway house. He had to get a phone, figure out job references, and learn a new way to dress “without wearing skinny jeans,” he chuckled. His kids are now all in their thirties. “It’s hard to reintegrate, even to get to know your family,” Atkinson said. Twice in the four months I’ve known Atkinson, his phone line has been cut because he couldn’t pay the bill on time.
Prison often ages people, he said. But the last time Atkinson navigated the world outside, he was a kid. Sentenced to what amounted to life, he’d missed some of the hallmarks of growing old—working his first real job, getting married, sending his kids to school, attending their weddings, saying goodbye to his mother retiring. There were times, like when he saw his kids for the first time again, that the past coiled up inside him, pulling him backwards in time till he felt like he was a 2-year-old child running into his mother’s arms.
When Atkinson pictures the rest of his life, so much of it is making up for lost time. He wants to walk by the sea with a girlfriend, or to have his own kitchen so he can bake more often. He just started his nursing assistant classes. Anything that brings him a little closer to the life he might have led.
–Miranda Jeyaretnam is a senior in Pierson College.