CINCINNATI — Painting the walls of his new three-bedroom house, Angelo Robinson said it's still hard to believe he has his own space. In only a year, he saved what he could and worked his way into a healthy raise at his job, all to make a dream he rarely dared to dream come true.
What You Need To Know
- Thirteen percent of Ohio prisoners face life sentences
- Beyond Guilt looks to reduce sentences and give prisoners a second chance regardless of the nature of their crimes
- Ohio Justice and Policy Center started Beyond Guilt in 2019
- Angelo Robinson was the first client
"After so long being around so many people, it's my little slice of heaven," Robinson said. "Being in prison, you're always around someone all day."
August marked one year since Robinson's release on probation. He spent the past 22 years in prison, more than half of his life. Now 43, he went in at 20, with little hope of ever coming out especially after a murder conviction.
“They gave me 29 years to life,” he said.
In 1997, Robinson shot and killed Veronica Jackson. He won't dispute that fact.
"No one deserves to die," he said.
That night he was in an apartment in Cincinnati's West End Neighborhood. Robinson said that's where he used to sell drugs.
“Some guys tried to come in and rob the place, the apartment, and I was in the back room with drugs,” he said.
Robinson said there were gunshots outside and then he heard a knock on his bedroom. Fearing a fight, Robinson shot through the closed door, not knowing his friend, Veronica, was the one on the other side.
"That was the worst day of my life," Robinson said.
He called 911 as soon as he realized. Veronica died of a gunshot wound to the chest. She was 34.
“It was not intentional," he said. "I just thought I was saving all our lives."
Across Ohio, more than 70,000 people are incarcerated, according to the Department of Justice. Among them, 13 percent are serving life sentences, many without the chance of parole.
David Singleton said most people only hear the first half of stories like Robinson's and assume they're exactly the people who deserve to be behind bars for decades. He challenges them to look again.
“We’ve got to really dig into people who’ve been warehoused in prison for decades," he said. "Why are keeping people locked up for year after year after year after they’ve been rehabilitated?”
As the executive director of the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, Singleton started a new initiative focused specifically on addressing that question. It's called Beyond Guilt and Robinson was one of the first clients.
Singleton met Robinson years before, having worked with him on a health care case and he said it bothered him that Robinson's chances at parole were slim to none.
"It’s not smart to over punish people," he said.
Robinson spent his decades in prison finding ways to improve himself, taking guitar lessons, learning Spanish, skills that could help him outside, if he ever got the chance.
Singleton helped appeal Robinson's case to get his sentence reduced. The court determined he was over-charged, his murder conviction was dropped to manslaughter and Robinson was released for time served.
“Just makes me want to do more," he said. "Just to see how much I can actually do.”
Most criminal justice initiatives would shy away from Robinson's case due to the nature of the crime, but Singleton considers him one of the best examples of someone who has proven they deserve a second chance.
Robinson was one of the first Beyond Guilt clients, but since, Singleton said the program has freed 20 Ohioans and he's hoping to expand the program to Kentucky as well.
“Nobody should like crime," Singleton said. "I don’t like crime. I don’t like violent crime, but I also don’t want to over-punish people when they can contribute in ways that Angelo Robinson is doing every single day.”
Now 43 and a year out of prison, Robinson has a home, a full-time job and he's taking classes at Cincinnati State to get a degree and advance in his career. Still, he said he's not used to waking up in his own space.
"When I was locked up, you know you have dreams about being out, and all of a sudden you wake up and it’s like, 'Aww damn. Wish I could’ve stayed in that sleep a little longer,’” he said. “The fact is sometimes I work a lot just so I can stay woke. So I don’t go to sleep and accidentally wake up and it is a dream.”
While Robinson gets to live his dream, he said he's still acutely aware; Veronica Jackson will never get to live hers. He plans to meet with her family whenever they're ready.
"I think that’s going to be set up here shortly,” he said.
Without their consent, Robinson might still be in prison. Now, he said it's only right they get to know who he has become.
“I think it’ll do all our hearts some good to do that,” he said.