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Five killers who did their time and never went back

Profiles of ex-cons are fascinating, but the book lacks victim point of view.

From the book jacket
From the book jacketRead more

Life After Murder
Five Men in Search of Redemption
By Nancy Mullane
Public Affairs. 384 pp. $26.99

The public hears about a paroled murderer who commits another violent crime, but what about those who leave prison and never go back?

In her book Life After Murder: Five Men in Search of Redemption, San Francisco radio reporter Nancy Mullane profiles five convicted murderers who reenter society after decades in prison. She takes the reader inside San Quentin State Prison to see the 11-by-4-foot cell where one of her subjects spent most of his 28 years behind bars. She follows the men when they walk outside the walls to face the joy of reuniting with family members and the struggles of fitting back into regular life.

Through tenacity, coaxing, and luck, Mullane won over reticent prison officials, skeptical family members, and nervous ex-cons in order to write this book. It took four years. Mullane reveals some of the difficulties, including all the smaller stories she used as excuses to return to San Quentin in the hopes of grabbing a few minutes with her subjects.

Mullane gives an intimate glimpse into a world rarely explored. But she also fumbles with a sometimes flaccid writing style, and, most glaring, a lack of interviews with the families of her subjects' victims.

The book's flaws are frustrating, given its powerful subject matter. But to see the world through the eyes of someone who has been locked up so long is fascinating.

"Wow, sidewalks," Phillip Seiler, who served 24 years for second-degree murder, says when he finally leaves prison. "I forgot about sidewalks. You can just walk down in front of people's houses and it's OK."

The book also presents a scathing look at how ineffective prison can be.

Philadelphians are unfortunately accustomed to hearing about parolees committing violent crimes upon release, including, in recent years, the killing of several police officers. But the parolees who commit murder are rarely those who have previously served a sentence for murder, according to Mullane.

Of the 1,000 convicted murderers serving life sentences who have been paroled by the State of California in the last 21 years, not one was rearrested on murder charges, according to Mullane. Murderers serving a possible life sentence in California have to prove to the parole board (and to the governor, who can reverse the board's decision) that they have reformed. They must have a place to live, pass regular drug tests, and maintain a job in order to be released from parole.

But those who serve determinate sentences, judicially fixed specific sentences, for lesser crimes often return to prison. Many either can't or don't take classes and programs. In California, Mullane says, they leave with $200 in their pocket and a felony conviction that makes it exceedingly difficult to get a job or housing.

The numbers bear this out: In 2009, more than 18,500 parolees who had previously served determinate sentences returned to California prisons on new felony charges. Of those, 146 were charged with murder, according to Mullane.

Mullane explains in her author's note that she focused on the five men and their lives and did not interview the families of the victims. But she doesn't keep professional distance, either. She writes about their crimes — most of them committed in the course of a robbery, drug binge, or jealous rage — but doesn't drill down on them about regrets and the choices they made. She celebrates with the men when they're released, seemingly satisfied that they've done the time and expressed remorse, so that's that.

I understand the point of view, but by not interviewing the people these men hurt the most, Mullane leaves a gaping hole in the book. She also misses an opportunity to show the fullest picture of these men and the complexity of human beings. What better way to show redemption than to confront a man's deed and see what he does next?

On a lesser note, the writing drags. Mullane tells meandering stories with unnecessary details, and lengthy quotations that might be appropriate on radio as a way of setting a scene or letting a person tell the story in his or her voice. But in a book, it bogs down the narrative.

As a reporter, I found Mullane's book informative and instructional. But a general reader might think it overly long and too sympathetic to her subjects.