In 1987, 16-year-old Antonio Espree, a close friend of his, and an innocent bystander were shot during a drug-related dispute in Ypsilanti, MI. Antonio was the only shooting victim who survived, and he was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for first degree murder. He had only been arrested once before, for running away from home.
Antonio’s troubles began years before the shooting – as a child, he witnessed his stepfather and mother abusing drugs and alcohol. They would often argue, and his stepfather would beat his mother in front of him. Antonio not only felt unsafe in his own home, but he felt unloved; in his neighborhood he found drug dealers and gang leaders who filled that void and had a knack for exploiting and enticing young teenage boys. Those traumatic experiences and negative influences, along with the risk-taking tendencies that come with adolescence, set Antonio on a toxic path. Before he was old enough to contemplate the meaning of life, he was involved in the taking of another, and could have effectively ended his own.
But in prison – and despite his life-without-parole sentence and the exhaustion of all his appeals – Antonio began to mature and make better choices. While in some of Michigan’s worst facilities, he avoided trouble, took college courses, and earned certification in several vocational trades, including culinary arts, business education technology, and dog training. He also created and coordinated programs designed to deter younger inmates from leading destructive lives, and received training from FEMA to be a first responder.
After serving 29 years, 10 months, and 19 days, Antonio walked out of prison as a free adult. He was resentenced and released because of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, but also thanks to the mother of the victim in his case, who advocated for his second chance. She recognized that Antonio was just child who had hardly been given a chance at the time of his offense.
Today, Antonio, a proud member of the Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network, often travels and shares his story, and is a passionate advocate for youth sentencing reform. He’s also pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Justice Studies at Arizona State University, and has been volunteering to support families in Puerto Rico who were impacted by Hurricane Maria.