The Tragedy of Life Sentences

“Ezra’s case represents the ease with which an American citizen can spend a lifetime behind bars based on the flimsiest evidence.” A thoughtful examination of the complications revolving around sentencing people to life in prison exemplified through the heartbreaking story of Ezra Bozeman…

by: Audrey Levitin

“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”

— Fyodor Dostoevsky

Ezra Bozeman was nineteen years old when he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He has been in prison for close to fifty years. Ezra’s case represents the ease with which an American citizen can spend a lifetime behind bars based on the flimsiest evidence.

Ezra, who is Black, adamantly stands by his innocence. He was convicted in 1975 of second-degree murder by an all-white jury for the killing of Morris Weitz, the owner of a dry-cleaning establishment who was shot during a robbery. Ezra’s arrest is based on incentivized testimony, and his conviction on poor legal representation. The only eyewitness against Ezra was the original suspect, who had been arrested for the crime and for whom charges were dropped in the middle of Ezra’s trial, the day before testifying.

Ezra was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, a sentence taking hold in the 1970s, the time when mass incarceration began. At the time there were fewer than 200,000 people in prison. Today there are more than 1.4 million people behind bars, a number greater than any other nation. Of those, one in five men are serving life sentences, a sentence that does not consider the possibility of innocence, time served, good works in prison, or personal redemption.

A battle is being waged by families of inmates unwilling to tolerate draconian sentences established during a time of intense politicization and public reaction to high profile crimes. According to the Brennan Center, a legal and public policy institute, when Ronald Reagan took office in 1980, the total prison population was 329,000 and when he left office eight years later the prison population essentially doubled to 627,000. These families and communities have allies and advocates challenging the status quo including the Innocence Project and Innocence Network, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the Sentencing Project, and The Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration.

The forces driving mass incarceration for the past fifty years have come under intense scrutiny with the breakthrough in DNA testing, bringing with it the ability to prove actual innocence and expose the underlying causes that lead to wrongful convictions. These include eyewitness misidentification, incentivized testimony, invalid science used in courtrooms, and false confessions. According to the National Registry of Exonerations there are over 3400 exonerations in the United States including 575 based on DNA.

Race factors heavily in the need for second look laws, which would allow a prisoner who has served ten years to go before a judge to determine if they are eligible for a reduced sentence. In its 2020 report on Race & Wrongful Convictions, the National Registry of Exonerations found that innocent Black people are up to seven-and-a-half times more likely to be convicted of murder than innocent white people.

The Sentencing Project calls for the abolition of sentences that forbid future review and for the passage of Second Look Laws which are now at various stages of consideration in 25 states. “There comes a point,” said Senator Cory Booker, “where you really have to ask yourself if we have achieved the societal end in keeping these people in prison for so long.” He and then Representative Karen Bass introduced the Second Look Act in 2019, which allows people who have spent at least ten years in federal prison to petition a court for resentencing.

On March 24th, Barbara Hanson Treen, former NY State Parole Commissioner wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times, “When I was a commissioner from 1984 to 1996, it was unusual for me to meet a parole candidate over the age of 50. Now there are more than 7,500 incarcerated people aged 50 or older in New York, or about 25 percent of the state prison population.” She calls for passage of two bills moving through the New York State legislature, the Fair and Timely Parole Act and the Elder Parole Act.

These bills and others come at a time when it is apparent that the prison system is not able to manage the healthcare of older inmates. In 2019, Ezra experienced a minor neck injury while playing basketball. He noticed he was having difficulty walking and was misdiagnosed as having had a mini stroke. Ezra’s physical problems worsened, and he developed numbness in both arms and a diminished range of motion in his neck. He lost the ability to walk and in February 2024 was diagnosed as having a spinal injury and had emergency surgery on his back and neck.

Following the surgery, he was taken back to the prison in immense pain, sitting in a wheelchair in the back of a van despite the need for an ambulance, which his surgeon requested for Ezra to allow him to lie flat. Following his return to prison Ezra lost his ability to move his arms and legs. He had a second emergency surgery and is now completely paralyzed.

He has been moved to a rehabilitation center, and in a Kafkaesque-policy Ezra lost all visitation and phone privileges that were afforded him while in prison. The absurdity of our legal system is represented by having two corrections officers guard a paralyzed man round-the-clock during a staff shortage.

Ezra is a man of significant emotional and spiritual depth, committed to serving the people around him. In prison, where he has spent most of his life, he earned the respect and admiration of fellow prisoners as well as staff and he has developed deep friendships. He lives on the Honor Block, became a Certified Peer Specialist, and provided leadership to the End Violence Project, an initiative helping hundreds of incarcerated men.

A group of former inmates, all of whom have been released from prison through exoneration or commutations have come together to advocate for Ezra’s release. They include Lee and Dennis Horton, who spent 28 years in prison for second degree murder before their sentences were commuted by Governor Tom Wolff. The brothers served 27 years for a 1993 robbery and fatal shooting that both men have maintained they didn’t commit. Dennis and Lee had given a ride to the perpetrator of the crime and were arrested as accomplices. They both declined plea deals and instead went to trial. The commutation is the result of advocacy on the part of then Lieutenant Governor and Chairman of the State Board of Pardons, John Fetterman, who as a Senator invited Dennis to be with him at this year’s state of the union address.

Lee Horton has been a friend of Ezra for many years while incarcerated. In an article for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, and published in the platform, Medium, Lee wrote “Ezra exuded a presence that invited respect.” “Boze,” as he is affectionately called by his friends, provided the leadership for the End Violence Project; a program attracting hundreds of men every year. According to Lee, “You had to volunteer for six months. In prison nobody volunteers for anything. So, the only reason guys volunteered was because of Ezra. Because he believed in it so much and he was so sincere in trying to help guys change their lives and have great outcomes”.

He continued, “What people don’t know about Ezra is he’s very creative. He worked with us when we put on plays. We worked on organizing marathons and we did everything in our power to make sure that the violence went down. So, we kept people busy. Ezra is somebody who gave a lot. And right now, he’s getting nothing in return for anything he gave.”

Also advocating for Ezra is Eric Riddick who spent 30 years in prison based on the testimony of a single eyewitness. Eric was freed due to the advocacy of undergraduate students at Georgetown University, the Georgetown Prisons and Justice Initiative, the Igwe Law Firm, as well as the public awareness brought by the rapper, Meek Mill.

Eric said, “Ezra’s energy and spirit were therapeutic. I cannot remember him being negative. He was always encouraging. The prison administration came to Ezra to help prevent violence. Ezra knew how to step in with wisdom and understood how to talk with compassion to young guys.” Eric was grateful for “Ezra’s large library” which included Michelle Alexander’s groundbreaking book, The New Jim Crow, and books about psychology.

Yusef Jones spent decades in prison and is part of the group working for Ezra’s release. When I asked Yusef why he was involved, he said, Ezra is a wonderful person. He matured into one of the pillars of prison. He is a pillar of humanity. Who he is transcends the restrictions of incarceration.”

Yusef added, “Ezra has an appetite to learn. He took all the classes that were offered inside the prison as well as correspondence courses. All the men agree that Ezra was a mediator and peacekeeper.”

Yusef referred to Ezra’s transformation which occurred while in solitary confinement. “He wanted to have love in his life. He decided to pursue the meaning of life. He is someone who can give love. And he started to be the best human being he can be.”

Ezra met his fiancée, Christine, who had been volunteering in the Pennsylvania prison system. Christine wanted to give back in retirement following a career as senior partner of a leadership development company, providing coaching for Fortune 500 companies. She and Ezra worked together and fell in love, bonding over their shared passion for making a difference in the criminal justice system and bringing to public awareness the reality of life behind bars.

Christine says of Ezra, “In this darkest of circumstances, he demonstrates everyday what it is to be love.” 

She shared a passage from Ezra’s writings.

“I don’t believe any more that people who don’t know me are out to get me so it doesn’t have to be us against them, and I have a way of being open and civil that can work at every level. So those are the tools I use: being civil and open and patient at every level.

I stopped looking for love but BEING love. And I’m not looking for it as a transaction because it’s not a transactional thing. Things may be one way, one moment and then a different way the next moment. A new friend might come along and take a strong liking to you and may even like you and make a transactional commitment and then things break down and people tend to give up on love and there was a time when I was like that.”

There are now medical and elderly law bills being considered. In New York, the Elder Parole Act calls for people over 55 who have served at least 15 years of their sentences, to have their sentences reviewed by a parole board. In Pennsylvania, a bill for medical and geriatric parole would create a mechanism for aging inmates to petition the Pennsylvania parole board for release. Elder Parole and Second Look Laws would be a step in bringing compassion to our prison system while acknowledging its flaws found in 3400 exonerations. Most of all there is a need to release Ezra Bozeman, and others like him, so those who love them and people in their communities can care for them after enduring decades in prison following harsh sentences that did not consider innocence, the politicization of public safety and the ability of people to change.


Read also, “The Trial Penalty” by Audrey Levitin.”

Audrey Levitin is Senior Counsel at CauseWired, a firm working with social service and human rights organizations. For 15 years she was the Chief Development Officer at the Innocence Project. Ms. Levitin is an essayist and her work has been seen in the Star Ledger, The Weekly Forward, and Cape Cod Life. She has also written about criminal justice reform in Occupy Wall Street and the Innocence Project. She and her husband, photographer Nick Levitin, live in West Orange, New Jersey.

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