Free Efrén: 15-year old honor student, wrongly charged 3 life sentences, spends 27th year changing the world from inside a cell
Efrén Paredes, Jr. was a 15-year-old honor student in St. Joseph, Michigan who was who was wrongly convicted by a majority White jury in Berrien County, Michigan, a community with a history of white supremacy. There was no evidence whatsoever linking young Efrén, who had no previous criminal record, to a murder and armed robbery. He was given two life sentences without parole and another life sentence with possible parole.
Efrén has now served almost 28 years an is now 43. He is also a longtime activist and advocate who has opened unimaginable doors and touched communities far outside his cell.
Efrén needs our support: Ways to help
The controversial case has gained international attention, been condemned by veteran investigators, city councils, been addressed at the United Nations, and by numerous reknown activists and academics, including:
His story is also part of a few documentaries:
and the Natural Life film.
According to 4efren.com:
Several notable scholars and activists across the country support Efren’s release including Dr. Elizabeth “Betita” Martinez, Director, Institute for MultiRacial Justice, author, and activist; Dr. Carlos Munoz, Jr., Professor Emeritus, University of California, Berkeley, author and activist; Dr. Rodolfo Acuna, historian, educator and Chicano studies scholar; Dr. Jorge Chinea, Director of Chicano-Boricua Studies Department, Wayne State University, author and activist; Dr. Martha Grace Duncan, Professor of Law, Emory University, and author; Favianna Rodriguez, political printmaker, digital artist, activist; Juana Alicia, muralist, printmaker, educator, and activist; Elena Herrada, Director, Centro Obrero, Detroit Public Schools Board Member, and writer; Elisha Miranda aka E-Fierce, filmmaker, writer, and activist; Dr. Walter Garcia-Kawamoto, Journal of Adolescent Research, Manuscript Consulting Editor; and others.
Efren also enjoys the support of world renowned wrongful convictions expert Paul Ciolino, a veteran private investigator. Ciolino is the author of numerous articles in professional publications and the book, “In the Company of Giants: The Ultimate Investigation Guide for Legal Professionals, Activists, Journalists and the Wrongfully Convicted.” In addition, he co-wrote the best-selling and critically acclaimed textbooks “Advanced Forensic Criminal Defense Investigations” and “Advanced Forensic Civil Investigations.”
Ciolino is the former chief investigative advisor to Northwestern University Law School’s Center on Wrongful Convictions, the Medill School of Journalism, and DePaul University Center for Justice in Capital Cases. In 2003, when former Illinois Governor George Ryan granted clemency and pardons to 167 death row inmates, he cited Ciolino’s investigative work, which helped free five innocent men, as one of the reasons for the en masse commutations.
According to Ciolino, “There is not one shred of credible evidence to suggest that Efren was involved in the murder. No weapon, no eyewitnesses, no physical evidence, no motive, no prior conduct to suggest that a 15-year-old student athlete, and honor role student with zero criminal background, would have planned, participated in or committed this murder. The community and jury were sold a bill of goods based on the words of drug dealers and thieves.”
Juvenile Life Without Parole
There was no physical evidence linking Efren to the crime, no eyewitnesses to the crime, and Efren was home with his parents and two brothers when the crime was committed.
Efren had no juvenile or adult criminal record previous to his arrest on March 15, 1989. In a rush to judgment, and efforts to allay community concerns of criminals committing further acts of violence, he was tried and convicted only three months after his arrest by a jury comprised of 11 White jurors and one Black juror.
Efren received illegal two life without parole (LWOP) sentences for one homicide and a parolable life sentence for the armed robbery. The prosecutor charged Efren under two alternate theories of murder — premeditated murder and felony murder — and his trial judge, Zoe Burkholz, sentenced him for both counts of murder.
The Berrien County Court is located St. Joseph, MI, the same city where the crime occurred. St. Joseph had a racial composition of being 95% White at the time. The judge, prosecutor, all the investigating police, and the victim in the case were all White. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Berrien County ranks among the top 25 most segregated metropolitan areas in the country.
All but one of the youths in Berrien County who have received life without parole (LWOP) sentences have been children of color. Efren is the only Latino youth in the county’s history to receive the sentence.
Efren has since been actively involved in community issues and amplified his message of non-violence and criminal justice reform. According to his site, “He has appeared on various radio stations and podcasts across the nation to discuss criminal justice issues. Some of the stations include National Public Radio (NPR), Michigan Radio, Central Michigan University Public Radio, the Jack Ebling Show, La Raza Chronicles, KPFA Radio, Detriot Superstation 910 AM, Thousand Kites, Juvenile Justice Matters, Youth Radio, and others.
“Articles about Efren have been featured on ColorLines, RaceWire, The Progressive, The Michigan Citizen, South Bend Tribune, TelesurTV, Latina Lista, The Nation, Seattle Times, Miami Herald, Los Angeles Times, Lansing State Journal, MLive, Associated Press, 99% Invisible, The Theory of Everything, AlterNet, and other web sites. In 2015 Latina Magazine named Efren as one of four Latino prisoners in the U.S. deserving of clemency.
“Efren has taken his message of non-violence and criminal justice reform to other countries as well. He spoke to a large audience of youth at a basketball tournament in Toronto, Ontario (Canada) and has appeared twice on TelesurTV, a station based in Quito, Ecuador.
“During his incarceration Efren has raised money for underfunded classrooms, youth summer camps, and breast cancer awareness. He also applied for and received grants from a corporation to build a weight training area and fund the purchase of library books, encyclopedias, and a learning resource center at a prison he was formally housed at.
“Efren has been invited to speak at various religious services and cultural organization events throughout his incarceration. He has been a keynote speaker at Cinco de Mayo, Latino History Month, Kwanzaa, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and Black History Month events, just to name a few.
“He has also developed proposals and received approval by prison administrators to host numerous members of the public who have visited prisons to speak on an array of subjects. Some of those people have included professors, state representatives, poets, authors, psychologists, lawyers, and social justice advocates.
“During the course of his incarceration Efren has received commendations from prison Wardens for the positive work he has done assisting the prisoner population through his work serving over 14 six-month terms as a member of the Warden’s Forum at various prisons. He also has the support of a retired Michigan Braille Transcribing Fund Executive Director as well as current and retired Michigan Department of Corrections staff.
“Efren is currently the subject of an immersive audio project being created by a New York-based podcast producer and Columbia University graduate student. An Emory University law professor is also devoting an entire chapter to him in an upcoming book she is authoring about prisoners sentenced to life without parole sentences when they were juveniles.
“In September 2015 Efren was among 20 prisoners selected to help develop a prison outreach component of the My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) program based at Michigan State University (MSU). MBK is a program that trains people to become mentors to at-risk African-American boys, Grade 6-8, in the Detroit Public Schools. Upon successful completion of the program training Efren will receive an MBK Mentor Internship certification from the MSU Residential College in the Arts and Humanities.”
Xica Nation first heard about this story from Maria Luisa Zavala, Efren’s wife, who had these words to share:
How did you two connect? Why did this matter speak to your heart?
MZP: In 2000-01 I was working at the Xicano Development Center (XDC), a non-profit organization that started in Southwest Detroit and later moved to Lansing, Michigan. One of our board members had a relative that was incarcerated at the time who expressed interest in starting a Latino cultural organization in a Michigan prison.
We had no idea what was required to sponsor such a group so I began researching the idea. I discovered it was actually a fairly simple process. A member of the public was required to attend the group’s monthly meetings to ensure they were making positive plans and hosting cultural programs that benefited the rest of the prisoner population.
We subsequently signed on to sponsor Latin American Spanish-Speaking Organization (LASSO). As the word spread around to other prisons that the XDC had provided sponsorship to LASSO we began receiving additional requests from other prisons, including from organizations such as Hispanic Americans Striving Towards Advancement (HASTA) and Indian Nations United (INU).
In 2004 I began attending LASSO meetings at a prison located in Jackson, Michigan. This is where I met Efren Paredes, Jr. who was President of the group at the time. Efren, the rest of the LASSO board members, and myself worked hard to present Xicano, Mexican, Latin American educational events and programming. I brought professors from the Xicano/Latino Studies Department Ph.D. program at Michigan State University, activists, community leaders, and poets into the prison to speak and teach.
About a year after becoming a LASSO sponsor and interacting with Efren through the programming I facilitated, I became curious why someone like Efren would be serving three life sentences in prison. He was very well-spoken, educated, eager to learn, caring, someone highly respected by prisoners and staff, and wrote very well in light of being incarcerated since age 15.
When I asked Efren about the circumstances that led to his incarceration he directed me to visit his web site, Google his name on the Internet, and asked me to reach my own conclusion. He wanted me to conduct my own independent research before discussing things with me so he did not influence my decision-making in any way. I would go on to read court documents, transcripts, media coverage, numerous blog and web posts about him, and learn a lot about his situation.
After pouring through volumes of documents related to his case, meeting with members of his family, and eventually speaking to Efren about what I learned, I was convinced of his innocence and motivated to support his campaign for justice. The injustice that had been perpetrated to a teenage boy and his family was a terrible tragedy and I wanted to do anything I could do to assist them.
In college I learned to be a community organizer as a member of Movimiento Estudiantil Xicano de Atzlan (MEXA). I fought for the creation of a Xicano/Latino Studies Department at MSU, increasing the hiring of Xicano/Latino professors, and to increase recruitment and retention of Xicano/Latino students.
I also participated as the only womyn involved in a six day hunger strike at MSU to fight for these issues and get the university to acknowledge and respect the grape boycott at the time. I founded the Dia de la Mujer (Day of the Womyn) Conference, which today is the largest Xicana/Latina womyn’s conference in the Midwest. After college I co-founded a Brown Berets chapter in Southwest Detroit in the 1990s.
While researching Efren’s case I also began to learn about the injustice of prosecutors abusing their discretion resulting in many youth being waived into adult court to be tried, sentenced, and incarcerated as if they were adults. It all evoked the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words who said, “An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
These children were unable to defend themselves, actively participate in their own defense, or negotiate guilty pleas because they were unaware how to navigate the criminal justice system. Even adults that understand the system get railroaded every day. My involvement in Efren’s case was an opportunity to shine a local, national and international spotlight on his situation, and perhaps even have justice descend on his case.
I helped Efren and his family launch a campaign to free Efren that has been sustained globally for many years now. We formed a committee named The Injustice Must End (TIME) Committee to Free Efren Paredes, Jr. In 2008 our committee petitioned the Governor of the State of Michigan to grant him clemency.
We were able to get him a public hearing before the Parole Board that generated over 200 supporters and hundreds of support letters, e-mails, and postcards of support. Unfortunately the Parole Board informed Efren they could not recommend his sentence be commuted based on actual innocence because, even to this day, they are not tasked with the power to consider issues of innocence.
The TIME Committee has joined the national movement to end life without parole sentences for juveniles (JLWOP) and promote prison reform. As a grassroots initiative we have testified before legislative hearings to urge lawmakers to end JLWOP sentences, convinced law schools to present Efren’s case to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, and mounted a strong Internet campaign to generate support for his release.
The U.S. Supreme Court rendered a landmark opinion in January 2016 stating that mandatory life without parole sentences for youth are unconstitutional. They ordered the resentencing of 2,500 prisoners nationwide who were impacted the ruling. Three hundred sixty-three of those people are in Michigan.
Despite the high court’s ruling a year ago and all our organizing efforts, Efren has still not been resentenced. We are encouraging people to visitwww.TinyURL.com/Efren1016 to sign our online petition asking Efren’s resentencing judge to impose a 25- to 60-year sentence in his case. We are also calling on people to circulate the petition link widely via social media, e-mail listservs, and to post it on blogs and web sites. People can also learn about Efren’s impressive accomplishments by visiting www.TinyURL.com/EfrenCV2016.
Efrén needs our support: ways to help
Links to more information
Online petition: www.tinyurl.com/Efren1016
Efrén’s accomplishments: www.TinyURL.com/EfrenCV2016
Web Site: www.4Efren.com