This is the first part of a three-part series called “Second Chances,” where CBS 42’s David Lamb speaks with people who served time in prison and have since been freed.
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
That quote could from best-selling author and criminal reform advocate Bryan Stevenson could easily apply to Ron McKeithen. At 21, McKeithen was tossed in prison and the key was thrown away. But oddly enough, prison was a place he had prepared for his entire life.
“I was kind of bred for prison,” McKeithen said. “I went to juvenile hall a couple of times. My mother was an alcoholic, I didn’t have a father, so the streets kind of swallowed me up.”
But the Ron McKeithen you meet today bears little resemblance to the man– by his own admission– he once was.
“I was blaming everybody from the DA, the judge, everybody,” he said. “But when it got to the point that I recognized the part I played in it, then I accepted the fact that I can’t blame nobody. I made the decision.”
The decision that sealed his fate was robbing a Birmingham convenience store back in 1984. McKeithen had prior non-violent property crimes in his past. Under Alabama’s habitual offender law, his sentence was life without parole.
“I’m not going to say I didn’t deserve to be there, but I damn sure didn’t deserve to be there that long,” he said. “Not that long.”
Carla Crowder, executive director of Alabama Appleseed, a nonprofit dedicated to spreading awareness of injustice, said a a life sentence for a robbery where no one was injured, no shots fired and a couple hundred dollars were taken was too much. The victims of the robbery agreed.
“We contacted the victims in his case,” Crowder said. “They literally laughed in our face and said there’s no way that he’s still locked up. And we said ‘Well yes, he is, and you can do something about it.’”
And they did. The victims’ support led to McKeithen walking free on December 16, 2020, ending 37 years behind bars.
”I don’t live in regrets right now,” he said. “I’m just moving forward, and every day is like a wonderful experience for me.”
Today, life after prison for McKeithen is all about making the most of his second chance. He now works for Alabama Appleseed as a re-entry coordinator and advocate, spreading a message of hope and possibilities to those locked up and those newly free.
“For me to go up there and be standing out there when they walk out, aw man it’s great.,” McKeithen said. “It can get a little emotional for both of us.”
Crowder said McKeithen has been a model employee and an effective champion for the work done at Appleseed.
“Everybody’s impressed with Ron,” Crowder said. “He’s a gem. He’s brilliant. He’s a great speaker. He’s inspiring to people. He’s a ray of sunshine because this work is hard.”
But as hard as the work is, McKeithen knows life behind bars can be harder and less hopeful. And now, as a free man with a painful past, he is on a mission to reach back and lift up those he left behind.
”My main mission is to let people know that if you are impressed with me, you should meet the guys I left behind,” he said. “That’s who I’m out there for because that’s my mission to shine the light on the guys I left behind.”
In addition to his work with Appleseed, McKeithen is also an artist whose work has been featured by the NFL. However, he has set the brush down for the time being, concentrating on the work he is doing in the lives of both the incarcerated and newly free prisoners.