LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Thirteen convicted killers who were sentenced to life without parole as juveniles have been released under a new state law.
The Fair Sentencing of Minors Act, which lawmakers passed last year, eliminated these sentences for offenders younger than 18, bringing Arkansas in line with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling.
The law requires a mandatory sentence of life with the possibility of parole after 25 or 30 years of imprisonment, depending on the crime, for a minor convicted of capital murder, first-degree murder or treason.
The most recent release, 41-year-old Albert Bell, reunited with his family last week, a homecoming 25 years in the making.
“My mother and my father taught me right, but I got caught up in the streets a little bit, making bad decisions,” Bell said.
At 16, Bell wanted to help his parents financially. He decided to rob Cloud’s Grocery Store in Casscoe in Arkansas County with classmate Terry Sims. According to court records, while Bell took the money, Sims killed Julian Russell and Mary Lou Jones.
“Something I deeply regret,” Bell said. “I live with that every day.”
The minor was convicted of both murders and given two consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole.
“I thought that we were going to be executed the next day,” Bell said. “That’s how naive I was to the court system.”
Bell spent the next quarter of a century learning the good and the bad.
“I’ve seen stabbings, rapes,” he said. “That’s something a child should not have to witness.”
Bell got his GED while in the Arkansas Department of Correction and his computer systems certificate after he was transferred to the Utah Department of Corrections.
“So when the opportunity did present itself, I would be prepared so I could provide a life for myself, my family, my mom,” Bell said. “I always had hope I was going to get out, but it seemed like a fantasy.”
Dorothy Holloway made it a reality. She found Bell’s case and used Act 539 to get him out.
“I’m happy, I’m thrilled,” said Holloway, a spokesperson for the “Gone But Never Forgotten” Movement. “I know this day is going to come for James Murphy.”
In 1999, Murphy, 16, killed Holloway’s son. Now, she is fighting for his freedom, too.
“Some people just want to hold on to that hurt,” she said. “I was one of those people. I felt like if I hold on to my hurt, I’m holding on to my son. If I let go, that means I’m letting go of my son and I didn’t love him. But love and forgiveness has him [Bell] sitting here.”
A chance Bell also hopes for Sims, who is still in the Cummins Unit.
“I was a child,” Bell said. “I couldn’t buy cigarettes. I couldn’t join the Army. But you could send me to jail for the rest of my life. The system didn’t put me in prison. I put myself in prison, but there should be something set up to address those people and those circumstances.”
Now that Bell has his life back at 41, he is introducing his mom to a new man.
“Since he’s been here, girl, this boy has been wearing me out,” Lottie Bell said. “I’ll be sleeping at night and he’ll come in my room and say, ‘Mom, are you alright?’ He’s worried about his poor mama. He’s glad to be here, ain’t he?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Bell replied.
During his time in prison, Bell wrote letters to the families of his victims but never heard back.
“My rehabilitation wasn’t just for me,” he said. “It was also for them because I wanted to show them that I’m not the same immature, impulsive individual that participated in taking their family members’ lives. We all deserve a second chance, another opportunity to show society that we’re not the waste that they think we are, that we still have the potential to become something better.”