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After 'powerful' hearing 3 decades later, juvenile lifer Songster eligible for parole

To see the juvenile lifer Kempis Songster, a man of 45, graying at the beard, seeking the mercy of a judge Monday at his resentencing for a crime committed decades ago drove home the pain of what the victim's father lost the day two teenage runaways killed his son in a fortified crack house in Southwest Philadelphia.

Kempis Songster at Graterford in December 2016. Songster, 44, was sentenced to life without parole for a murder he committed at age 15.
Kempis Songster at Graterford in December 2016. Songster, 44, was sentenced to life without parole for a murder he committed at age 15.Read morePa. Department of Corrections

After 30 years, Errol Pryce said he was still expecting to see a child when he flew to Philadelphia from Texas to come face to face with his son's murderer. After all, he still thought of Anjo that way, his son forever frozen at age 17, his family shattered.

To see the juvenile lifer Kempis Songster as a man of 45, graying at the beard, seeking the mercy of a judge Monday at his resentencing for a crime committed decades ago only drove home the pain of what Pryce had lost that September day in 1987, when two teenage runaways killed a third in a fortified crack house in Southwest Philadelphia.

"I look at this man over there, and I see a grown person," Anjo Pryce's father told an emotional courtroom filled with Songster's relatives and supporters, plus several recently released juvenile lifers. "And I think what would [Anjo] look like? My son is gone, and it's been a nightmare."

Still, through their raw grief, Errol Pryce and his daughter Toshira showed a generosity toward Songster that they have shown from the beginning.

So did the judge, issuing a sentence of 30 years to life, making Songster eligible for parole in September. He becomes one of about 100 Philadelphia juvenile lifers to receive new sentences as a result of two U.S. Supreme Court decisions that invalidated their life sentences without parole as unconstitutional.

The case, one of the first contested sentencings of a juvenile lifer, has been closely watched by those following developments in Philadelphia, where more than 300 juveniles have been serving life without parole, including Songster's codefendant Dameon Brome, who is to be resentenced Aug. 29. Songster and Brome had turned down plea deals of 10 to 20 years, which would have freed them a decade ago.

"I believe you, sir," Toshira Pryce responded quietly to Songster, as he stood and faced her and her father and apologized over and over for what he had done, begging them for some way to make amends, describing how he had imagined this chance to speak to Anjo's father for so long.

"I'm so deeply sorry," Songster said. "I'm deeply ashamed of the things that I've done. The last thing I want is for Anjo Pryce to be forgotten. If I could be your brother, if you'll have me, I could be your brother."

To a sobbing Errol Pryce, Songster said: "For 30 years, I've always dreamed of this moment, wondering whether my voice would be the last voice you want to hear, or the first voice you think of. I always dreamed about meeting you, how to approach, head up or head down, extend my hand or just run. I wonder if I have the right to speak his name, considering the role I've played."

In that moment, though, Songster just spoke directly to Pryce, who avoided the gaze of his son's killer only at first. Songster said the progress he had made in prison — where he has earned a bachelor's degree from Villanova University, organized workshops for fathers in prison, and networked far and wide with advocates for juvenile lifers — was intended to somehow redeem himself in the eyes of his family and Pryce's. He has been offered a job as a personal trainer at a Spring Garden gym.

Errol Pryce testified that other than Toshira, members of his family remained angry at him, believing that he should have done more to find his son after Anjo Pryce ran away to Philadelphia. The family had fractured irrevocably, he said.

"I was supposed to find him," he said. "I tried. I'm blamed too for not going to find my son. It's been devastating."

Anjo's mother died recently, her son's coat still hanging in her closet, Pryce said.

In the end, after a gut-wrenching three hours of ricocheting emotions, Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Jeffrey Minehart took a short break, returned to the bench, noted that he had started his career as a juvenile probation officer, and issued the new sentence of 30 years to life.

Minehart said he had worked with defendants who had committed serious crimes. "But they were juveniles," the soft-spoken judge said. "Mr. Songster was a juvenile."

The sentence makes Songster, known to his many supporters as Ghani, eligible for parole in September. The sentence was less than the 35 years requested by Assistant District Attorney Chesley Lightsey, who described the killing in brutal detail and also outlined a series of infractions Songster had committed during his three decades in prison, including being caught up a violent October 1989 uprising at the state correctional institution at Camp Hill.

"I wish you well, sir," Minehart said. Songster's eyes widened and stayed that way, but he showed no other reaction.

Meanwhile his mother, Catherine Joy Songster, was on a bench in the hallway eating a banana to ease a pounding headache. The result was hard to process, she said. Songster's fiancée, Monay Washington, an art instructor who met him during a workshop at Graterford Prison, said she could think only of the next step, the parole hearing. She and her mother have prepared a room for Songster.

His aunt Gail Songster, who testified emotionally and also apologized to the Pryce family, said: "The day is coming."

Nationwide, about 2,500 juvenile lifers are being resentenced following a pair of Supreme Court decisions – Miller v. Alabama,  which decided that automatic life-without-parole sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional, and Montgomery v. Louisiana, which required Pennsylvania and other states to apply that decision retroactively.

A series of local rulings led some advocates to worry that judges would for the most part hand out new sentences of 35 years to life,  the current penalty in Pennsylvania for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder. But Minehart signaled at another contested hearing last week and again Monday that he did not consider himself bound by that.

Douglas Fox, a lawyer at Cozen O'Connor who has represented Songster pro bono for 12 years, and Lightsey, the prosecutor, said the hearing served to air out emotions for the two families caught up in the tragedy.

"It was incredibly powerful to hear not only Kempis Songster speak from the heart, but also the victim's sister and father," Fox said. "They are a generous family. It just shows what a tragedy the whole thing was. Everybody involved with the case recognizes how these juveniles were sucked up into some adult criminal plot and none of them knew what they were getting into or how to get out of it."

Lightsey agreed that the hearing was an important milestone for both families.

"What I found most powerful was having his sister say, 'When I google my brother, [Songster's] face shows up,' " Lightsey said. "Because everything has been about Songster. I believe for them, they were happy to be able to have people here to say he was something other than a drug courier. Kempis Songster was something other than a drug courier."

"He was 15," Toshira Pryce said after the sentence, standing with her father, both seeming to have found some peace with the result. "He'll do justice in the community."