December 1, 2013
SAN QUENTIN — Michael Nelson doesn’t look like a killer.
He is handsome and well-groomed. His voice is gentle, his demeanor polite. You wouldn’t flinch if he approached you on a dark and empty sidewalk.
But when he was 15, Nelson sneaked up behind a middle-aged man and cracked his skull with a baseball bat. Then he watched a friend finish off the victim with a knife. Charged as an adult, Nelson pleaded guilty in 1998 to first-degree murder and was sentenced to 25 years to life.
Fifteen years later, it’s hard to reconcile such gruesome violence with the articulate 31-year-old man holding a discussion in a classroom at San Quentin State Prison, where Nelson leads a notable group of 16 inmates. The men are all “juvenile lifers,” serving up to life in prison with the possibility of parole for murders committed while under the age of 18.
Even at a prison known for its rehabilitative programs, the men have drawn acclaim for their focus on self-improvement through education and counseling. Scott Budnick, a Hollywood producer and advocate for juvenile justice reform, is one of many people, from educators to politicians, who have met and lauded the group.