Life After LifeSEPTEMBER 20, 2008
- Philip J. Seiler
- (Nancy Mullane)
- View the Slideshow
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.
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:
- Artist: Tape
- CD: Opera Plus (Hapna)