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Life After Life

Nancy Mullane

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Philip J. Seiler
(Nancy Mullane)
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What does it mean to serve a life sentence in prison? In some states, such as Louisiana and Pennsylvania, it means you spend the rest of your life behind bars. But in most states, including California, if you can prove you've rehabilitated yourself, you might get out.

But who decides whether a person convicted of murder is rehabilitated? Twenty years ago, voters in California gave that final decision to the governor. Since then, fewer than one percent of all lifers eligible for parole have been released.

Now the state's highest court has gotten involved. It's ruled the governor has to have evidence the prisoner is still a threat to the public or he or she has to parole them.

That ruling becomes official today, and on Monday morning the courts may start releasing dozens of lifers who've already been found suitable.

That's already happened to one inmate who'd been serving a life sentence at San Quentin State Prison in Northern California. Just days after the court's initial ruling, he was notified he was getting out. Nancy Mullane was there and has his story.

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As he shaved his face on his last morning inside prison, Philip J. Seiler was shaking with excitement. "I'm getting ready to go see my family and friends," he said. "They're all waiting for me at home. They got a little party for me."

Seiler's a tall man with slightly graying brown hair, snappy blue eyes and a short moustache.

He says he discovered he was getting out of prison just two days earlier, when his prison counselor handed him a fax from the California Board of Prison Terms stating his release.

When he finishes shaving, he walks down the hall to a nearby office filled with armed guards to wait for his parole officer to come pick him up and take him to his parents' house.

After more than two decades in prison, he says he's got lots of patience.

As he talks, the room gets quiet. The guards and clerks at their desks listen in as Seiler begins to describe the day back in 1988 when, he says, it all went bad.

Now 47, he was just 27 when he shot and killed Charlie Horner, a man who he says was having an affair with his wife.

"I just went berserk," Seiler says. "I started chasing them. They pulled over. We got out. We exchanged a few words and I shot him."

After shooting Horner, Seiler says he got back in his van, drove to his mother-in-law's house, called the police and turned himself in. Then, he "sat on the couch with my boys and just held onto them and told them I was going away for a long time and I was sorry."

Seiler was found guilty of murder and sentenced to 17 years to life in the state prison, with the possibility he could be paroled if he rehabilitated himself.

So for the past two decades, Seiler's been a model prisoner. He's taken college classes, joined organizations devoted to nonviolence and talked to troubled teens. He says, "Something's got to come out of a guy getting killed who didn't need to get killed. The stuff that I've been doing for 21 years in prison is in honor of Charlie."

Suddenly, a dark blue sedan pulls up outside the guard's office. A parole officer in a Hawaiian shirt gets out of the car and walks over to Philip. He asks Seiler to give his corrections number and date of birth. Seiler calls them out from memory. Then the parole officer asks if he has his "dress outs," the clothes Seiler wants to wear as a free man.

Seiler changes out of his prison blues and into street clothes, a short-sleeve grey t-shirt and jeans. Then Seiler loads boxes of letters and books he's saved over the years into the officer's car and they drive out through the prison gate.

Meanwhile, about a hundred miles away, Seiler's family and friends are waiting and watching at the window of his parents' home. He's already called to tell them he's getting out, and they're pacing the floor. There are deli sandwiches, chips and Phillip's favorite, a carrot cake, on the table.

His mom, Shirley Seiler, is anxious. She says they've been cleaning the house from top to bottom for two days. "We want him to come home and see how good home is," she says.

Suddenly, the front door opens and everyone looks over at Seiler. His mom rushes to hug him, something she hasn't been able to do in more than 20 years. As they hug, Seiler tells her it's all over. That he's home.

Then his stepfather, only sister, and the girlfriend he met in prison take turns hugging and kissing him. His sons aren't there. They're both locked up in prison.

After his parole agent leaves, everyone's overly careful not to do anything that could violate the terms of Phillip's parole.

So they fill plastic champagne flutes with nonalcoholic sparkling apple cider, and everyone toasts to Seiler's release in turn: "To freedom. Long overdue freedom. To Philip."

Seiler says, "I'm floating, just floating."

Then he pushes the front door open and walks outside the fenced-in yard to test his new freedom. As he looks around, he says one thing really amazes him. Sidewalks.

"You know what, these sidewalks for one reason or another are amazing me. We don't have sidewalks in prison. I forgot about sidewalks. I used to jump my bike on these and you're walking by people's houses. We didn't have them in prison."

But not everyone wanted Seiler to get out of prison. Twice he'd been found suitable for release by the California Board of Parole Hearings. The victim's family didn't fight his release. But each time, the governor reversed the board's decision, arguing that no matter how much rehabilitation Phillip had done, his original crime was too heinous.

Then late last month, the California State Supreme Court ruled that wasn't a good enough reason to deny a lifer parole. Instead, the Court ruled there has to be evidence the prisoner is still a threat to public safety, otherwise, the governor has to release him.

The day the court's ruling came down, Seiler's case happened to be up for review and so the governor ordered his parole.

That doesn't sit well with Julie Garland. "I think it's hard for anyone to say whether someone really would be a danger if they're released or not," she says. "We're talking about murderers sentenced to the possibility of life in prison."

Garland is a Senior Assistant Attorney General for the State of California and represented the governor before the Supreme Court. She argued that in the name of public safety, the governor should have the final say over whether or not to parole someone. "There's obviously the possibility they could commit another murder or another crime," she explains. "But that is something very difficult to predict, and we had tried to keep that prediction in the hands of the governor."

On Saturday, Seiler's first weekend as a free man, he wanted to spend the day at the California State Fair in Sacramento, like he used to do when he was a kid.

As we pull into the parking lot, he looks up at the new high-tech rides and their seat-like cages hanging in the air. The rides have changed since the last time he came to the fair. Maybe, he says, he'll just walk around instead. "My luck would be the ride that I got on, the car would fly off, and so I would get out of prison after 20 years and spend a week out and be dead. So I don't think I'm getting on any rides."

But when he sees the huge 40-foot water slide, he can't resist. Seiler says he loves water and hasn't had a good swim in a long time. Changing out of his shorts and shirt into swim trunks, he climbs the stairs to the top and jettisons himself over the lip of the slide. With water shooting in all directions, he slips down the bright yellow slide in a vertical drop. Then, soaking wet, he gets to his feet, a big smile on his face.

He takes a few more trips down the slide and then takes a seat on a picnic bench in the shade of some trees. He says the state won't regret letting him out. He's going to get his old job back as a plumber and spend time getting to know his family. But, he says, he can't help but think about the hundreds of lifers he knew and left back at San Quentin, still behind bars. "It's survivor's guilt. It's like being in war and going home safely, and your partners are killed on the battlefield. Why me?"

More inmates may be asking that question very soon. On Monday morning, courts across the state will begin processing the appeals of hundreds of lifers who've challenged the governor's decision to deny them parole.

  • Music Bridge:
    Summa
    Artist: Tape
    CD: Opera Plus (Hapna)

Comments

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  • By Margaret Baker

    From Crescent City, CA, 03/15/2009

    know a man that got second degree murder, and got 15 to life with the possibility of parole, he said I should do this time. with a very clean record the parole board says he is ready for parole I think 5 times but the Gov says no him, and now 26yrs later, he still hopes

    By Sandi Russell

    From Plantersville, AL, 11/05/2008

    I am so happy to hear about this new law. My friend from childhood has been in your system for 30 years, for murder. He did not kill the man, but helped his friend hide the body.His "friend" that did murder has been out of prison for years! My friend, who did this at 18, is still in your system, fallen thru the cracks, and continually denied parole. It's such a sad story, and there has been noone who cared, or would think of helping.I would so much appreciate an ear to listen, and someone to help. Thank you!!!!!!!

    By Michelle Montijo

    From Inglewood, CA, 10/22/2008

    I never knew what it was like a person being in prison until i found my ex-boyfriend in prison, he was my first boyfriend my first kiss and my first holding hands but nothing else happened beyond this, because of his mom we never where able to stay together well we were young me 14 and he was 18 and after 25 yrs i found his brother and asked him for him and he told me what had happened so i decided to write him a letter and he was so excited that got a aniexty attack so he was very happy to make a long story short we got back together again and got married, and he told me now nobody will keep us apart he got 31 to life in there but to me i have so much faith that i know he one of the ones that is getting out so i have alot faith, and this story i heard of this ex-prisoner i believe that God gave him another chance so now that i know what they go thru i will always have the prisoners in my prayers and that they are humans to with family so if you that dont believe that they have a chance go and visit a prisoner so you can see what is there expression on there faces and they do deserve a chance in life.

    By Lillian Cunningham

    From Englewood, FL, 10/10/2008

    There seems to be a problem with the Florida System. They start out with a zero for the first time you are in prison. The second time an A. The third time is a B. My son has a B before the number on his badge which means he has been in The Florida Prison
    Three times. I have tried o get this B removed. He has been in the Florida prison one time and one time only. How ddo you suggest that I get this taken care of?
    Lillian Cunningham

    By Kelly Fennell

    From NY, 10/06/2008

    So happy to see that there is hope for lifers that deserve a second chance. Not all do, but there are plenty that are remorseful for their crimes... there are plenty that have utilized the system to their benefit, to become productive human beings. There are plenty of lifers that have bettered themselves inside the walls, have stayed away from drugs and gangs on the inside and have done everything in their power to keep their noses clean. Someone commented that "prison's sole purpose has completely shifted from penalty to rehabilitation"... that is why they are referred to as "correctional" institutions... penalty is automatic when you strip these men and women from their lives and treat them like caged animals for the most part... if the justice system is going to work as it is structured to, then rewarding deserving men and women with a second chance in society for utilizing it's resources to rehabilitate themselves should not be frowned upon.

    By Bruce Harrington

    From St. Paul, MN, 09/26/2008

    After 20+ years in prison of model behavior, no, we cannot be perfectly certain that someone is no longer a threat to society. But as David Foster Wallace asked, "Have we become so selfish and scared that we don't even want to consider whether some things trump safety?"

    By Bonnie Carter

    From Woodland, WA, 09/23/2008

    My fiance of 10 years was sentenced to 27 years to life, 27 years ago when he was 15. It was because he was with 2 other older teens in a confrontation with a drug dealer in his 50's. No one knew who fired the fatal shot. He has been raised in prison as a child. No parole.No money for legal help. He is a model prisoner. College educated and every program possible on the inside. He is no more the same young mixed up child that was involved in actions not planned and went terribly wrong.
    God has forgiven him. And not a day has gone by he isn't sorry for that mans death.
    He would be a real asset to society and could use his experience to guide others on the wrong track.
    I hope and pray the system will finally go case by case instead of lumping all lifers together. There are those who need to stay forever. And so many that can re enter society as a productive human. Pray to God, they are given the chance they worked so very many years to prove rehabilitation and remorse.

    By Malinda Wargo

    From Long Beach, CA, 09/21/2008

    Your story gives me hope. My brother has been in prison for over 23 years, convicted of a murder he did not do. Even so, he was just denied parole AGAIN.He has been a model prisoner and has spent his time in prison trying to prove his innocence while educating and improving his chances for employment when he would finally be released. There was never any solid evidence, no motive, no weapon, no fingerprints, only an eye witness. He was at work, on an oil island at the time of this crime. All he could think of at the time was "This is a mistake, they will find out soon and I will be released." Our Dad was destroyed and died 3 years ago from Parkinson's. He held on as long as he could,he wanted so much to see his son pardoned and set free. Our Mom's health is declining and she is due for major surgeries. Tom was up before the parole board, once again on the 18th of this month, once again DENIED for a year. Even though he did not do the crime, he is still doing the time. He has been a model prisoner the whole time. The parole board supposedly wants him to show remorse for killing someone he did not kill. He will never do this, so he's stuck... Maybe if he had he would be out. I was recently called for jury duty, and when I was excused, I met an employee of the courts. She told me that if they tack on "to life" to a sentence, he will probably never get out. His sentence: 21 years to life.

    By Lillian Cunningham

    From Englewood, FL, 09/20/2008

    Jesus died on the cross for our sins.
    What right do people that live in glass houses throw stones at others. I am sure that each and every person on a parole board has skeletons in their closet. We do have to forgive to be forgiven. Do you think the our Lord and Master will hold the people responsible for the years that were taken away from this man. I am sure that he prayed for forgiveness.

    By Stefan Mueller

    09/20/2008

    This is a happy ending for one person, and that's it, just one person, the other person is dead.
    No matter how remoreful he may be, it doesn't change the fact, that he murdered a person for no good reason.
    He took a life, that wasn't his to take, what makes people think that he deserves to have his back, does the murder victim get his life back?!

    By Mike Gary

    From Hidden Valley Lake, CA, 09/20/2008

    While this story celebrates the rehabilitation of a confessed murderer, I cannot help but wonder if it might be misconceived in that it assumes that prison's sole purpose has completely shifted from penalty to rehabilitation. As I listened to the joyful reunion of this man with his adoring family, I felt sympathy for the family of the man who is never going to take in the state fair with their loved one.
    If the parole of a murderer is to be based upon the whether that man is a threat to society, why shouldn't the message sent to other potential offenders also be considered?

    By jackie richardson

    From CA, 09/19/2008

    This is the most wonderful story. There are hundreds of men and woman in prison for murder who do not deseve to spend the rest of their life behind bars. There are so many reasons that someone takes another life, each case should be handled individualy. Not just one ruling accross the board, yes I am aware there are just as many prisoners who should never get out of lockup. Please lets all see the differance.

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