BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT)– A Birmingham man sentenced to life without parole is using his newfound freedom for criminal justice reform. Ron McKeithen was in prison for 37 years, he was released from the Donaldson Correctional Facility on December 16, 2020.
McKeithen received his life without parole sentencing through Alabama’s Habitual Felony Offender Act. It’s a three-strike law that gives repeat offenders longer sentences. The law does not always distinguish between violent and non-violent offenders.
“I think the intent of the legislation is obviously to allow some discretion as it relates to different crimes and not base a sentence totally on the charge itself but be able to look behind the charge and look at the facts of that case and determine what actually happened to make the appropriate sentencing recommendation,” said Jefferson County District Attorney Danny Carr.
In a testimony McKeithen wrote, “In 1984, Ronald McKeithen was convicted of first-degree robbery for a convenience store hold-up in Birmingham. There were no physical injuries or shots fired, but several hundred dollars was taken. The judge had no choice but to sentence Ronald to spend the rest of his life in prison; life without parole was mandatory under Alabama’s Habitual Felony Offender Act (HFOA) because Ronald had three nonviolent property crimes in his past, two stemming from a single incident.”
McKeithen was 20 years old when he was convicted.
“It was at a time when I was on drugs, young and dumb,” he said. “[I] made the same mistake a lot of other guys was making.”
While McKeithen’s sentencing was legal under state law, those that read up on his case realized life without parole was not deserved for the crimes committed. Carr advocated for McKeithen’s sentence to be reduced to time served.
“I think life without parole was harsh,” said Carr. “But it was not an illegal sentence. We had the opportunity to look at the facts of the case, revisit it even talk to the victims involved. And they were shocked to know he was still incarcerated.”
That is how long it took for McKeithen’s case to be revisited. Roughly 18 months ago, Alabama Appleseed, Center for Law & Justice, began working with McKeithen. Appleseed Executive Director Carla Crowder and legal fellow Alex LaGanke represented McKeithen in his petition for time served.
“I lost hope a number of times,” said McKeithen, recounting his time in jail. “I tell people my faith would waiver… [This law] messed up a lot of peoples’ lives, like me for instance. First-degree robbery– [I] didn’t murder anybody. Because of a three-strike law, I did 37 years in prison. And that wasn’t fair.”
Crowder advocates for the repeal of the Habitual Felony Offender Act. Crowder said people convicted of crimes classified as violent, such as drug trafficking, and burglary when there was no victim present do not deserve to die in prison. “Even robbery convictions, like Mr. McKeithen’s, often involve offenses with no physical injury to the victims,” said Crowder. “Life without parole sentences in these cases are grossly disproportionate to the crimes.”
McKeithen said his story is more than one of new beginnings, it’s one of a broken system.
“Don’t think I’m someone special, like I’m someone unique,” he said. “There are hundreds of thousands of guys in there just like me, who just need opportunity.”
McKeithen said he had petitioned for his released a dozen times in the nearly four decades he was incarcerated. For his sentence to be reduced to time served, it took a team of lawyers, the district attorney, and the victims of his 1984 robbery to petition for his release.
“The victims themselves were shocked to find out he was still incarcerated,” said Carr. “They even provided affidavits saying, ‘we knew Ron from the neighborhood.’ They were very supportive of his release as well.”
Jefferson County Circuit Judge Shanta Owens granted the petition. McKeithen was released from prison in December of 2020.
“I think I didn’t really believe it until I walked out that gate,” said McKeithen, recalling his first day as a free man. “You know, it’s like everything was just overwhelming. I saw the difference, the change, in Birmingham, all the different new buildings.”
Offender Alumni Association helped in McKeithen’s transition back into society. Their organization provided housing for McKeithen, as well as offer resources to help him secure a job, get his driver license, and form community relationships.
“We understand that coming home, you have so many things up against you. You have a lot of anxiety,” said Dena Dickerson with Offender Alumni Association. “It’s not over night, it’s a process… to allow him… the space to move forward in a manner that is going to be safe and healthy.”
Now he has a lot of plans for his life ahead.
“I want to get my own place, get me a car, get me a job, get my own business, I want to travel!” exclaimed McKeithen.
Now 58-years-old, McKeithen says he dreams of attending UAB, starting his own business selling greeting cards with his artwork, and mentoring young people struggling with the same issues he struggled with decades ago.
According to ACLU Smart Justice, in 2020, Alabama had more than 500 people serving a life without parole sentence under Alabama’s “Habitual Felony Offender Act” or HFOA.
There is currently a bill in the state legislature to repeal the habitual felony offender act. House Bill 107 would also provide for resentencing for defendants whose sentences were based on the habitual felony offender act.
McKeithen said it is thanks to organizations like Alabama Appleseed and Offender Alumni Association that he is out of jail today. There is a GoFundMe set up to help McKeithen get back on his feet. To read more about his journey or donate, click here.