(Editor’s note: we recommend you listen to this story.)
Jose Burgos was 16 years old when he shot and killed Omar Kaji. It happened during a bogus drug deal in 1991 in southwest Detroit.
“The whole plan was, we’re going to make it look like – from the outside looking in – there’s 10 pounds of marijuana in this bag,” says Jose.
He and three other teens stuffed a bag with rags, hoping the twin Kaji brothers they were meeting would hand over $17,000 without inspecting the bag. Jose and his people drove to the meetup spot behind a bar. Jose put a gun in the bag of fake marijuana. Then he went to the twins' car. He says as soon as he got in the back seat the driver, Omar Kaji, turned around and grabbed ahold of the bag.
Jose says he quickly told Omar, ‘Hold on, let me show you the marijuana first.’
“It was that moment that I realized, ‘what did I just get myself into? I don’t even know what to do here?’” says Jose.
He says he had never fired a gun before. But when he saw Omar moving around up front, he thought he might be reaching for a gun – even though he wasn’t sure.
“From then on it was just like everything happened just like so fast,” Jose says. “And that’s when I reached in, I pulled my weapon out and held it up ... It was like adrenaline had taken over me ... when I fired the first shot."
Jose shot both the twins, grabbed their money and ran to the getaway car. In the car he looked at the wad of cash. On top and bottom of the stack was a 20-dollar bill, but in between, there was nothing but paper.
In an attempt to dupe each other with paper money and rags, Omar Kaji was dead, his twin Ayman Kaji was paralyzed and Jose was sentenced to die in prison. It was the mandatory sentence for juveniles at the time.
A second chance for juvenile lifers in Michigan
Five years ago, in the case Miller v. Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it was cruel and unusual punishment to give a sentence of mandatory life without parole to teenagers convicted of first-degree murder. Michigan has the second largest juvenile lifer population in the country with 367 prisoners. After that ruling, the state resisted applying it retroactively.
Then two years ago, in the case Montgomery v. Louisiana, the court ruled it had to be applied retroactively. This prompted Michigan to begin resentencing its juvenile lifer population. The process has been moving slowly. A few juvenile lifers have been released. But most of the remaining prisoners, including Jose, are waiting for their court date, knowing they could just be sentenced to die in prison again.
Puerto Rico to Detroit
Jose and his two siblings came to the U.S. mainland from Puerto Rico when Jose was around five years old.
Their grandmother raised them in southwest Detroit. Their dad stayed behind in Puerto Rico; they didn’t know him. But their mom lived nearby with her boyfriend and was a big part of their lives.
Jose says his mom was very energetic and the life of the party.
“My mom was like the one that brought everyone together,” says Jose's sister.
His sister's legal name is Maricela Burgos, but she’s gone by Prieta since she was a child. She’s a single mother living in a second-floor apartment with her four kids in southwest Detroit. Next to the house is a vacant lot where her landlord plants vegetables. Next to that is a collapsed house. In front, is the freeway. She works at a grocery store nearby. She and Jose talk on the phone frequently.
They describe their childhood as normal. But then everything changed.
When everything changed
Their mom passed away in 1988. Jose was 13 years old. Prieta was 11.
They say their mom and her boyfriend had always gotten along well. But then the boyfriend accused their mom of cheating on him, and he hit her for the first time. Their mom came to their grandparents' house, and when no one was looking, she swallowed most of their grandfather’s heart medication.
They rushed her to the hospital almost immediately, but three days later she died. It was ruled a suicide.
“It just crushed me,” says Prieta. She says she felt like, “‘What about us? Where do we stand? We’re your kids. We love you.’”
At the hospital, the doctor took them to see their mom. Jose says the family surrounded the gurney his mom was laying on. She still had tubes coming out of her.
“And one by one they were reaching over her and kissing her on the forehead,” he remembers. “And so when I came up ... I stretched myself up, and I kissed her on the forehead.”
“After that it was all hell,” says Prieta. “All hell for all of us."
Jose agrees it was a turning point.
“I can look back now,” he says, “and recognize that this is where things just started going bad.”
That fall, 13-year-old Jose entered junior high and almost immediately started skipping school, smoking marijuana, drinking and hanging out with the gang the Latin Counts. His grandmother tried to stop him and make him go to school, but he wouldn’t listen.
Four years later, at 17 years old, Jose sat in court awaiting his sentence for shooting the Kaji brothers. He says he remembers it vividly, especially the moment the Kajis' mother made her statement.
“That’s when she held up the picture,” says Jose, “and it was a picture of her with her two sons, and they were by a grave.”
Jose says it was the grave of the twins’ father. He says the Kajis had immigrated the U.S. after their father died.
Jose recalls the Kajis' mother telling the court that she brought her children to this country for a better life, and Jose had taken that away from them.
“It’s almost like my life and their life, it mirrors one other,” Jose says. “These two different families come from two different countries, and they come looking for a better life. And we each lost a parent. And here we are, we end up meeting somehow with one another. We both have these intentions in our minds in this deal. ... How does something like that happen?”
Mandatory life without parole
When Justice Clarice Jobes sentenced gave Jose the mandatory life without parole sentence, she took issue with the law.
“I find the limitations of this statute to be totally unfair to everyone concerned,” she told the court. “However, I have to live with them and deal with them. … So looking at all of it, I don’t think I have a choice.”
But since Miller v. Alabama said the mandatory sentence Justice Jobes had to give was unconstitutional, judges can now choose anywhere from 25 years to life without parole when sentencing these juveniles. Now, they’re able to choose a sentence based on the specific person in front of them, looking at things like their upbringing and the circumstances of the crime.
For people like Jose who already got mandatory life and will be resentenced, the courts will also consider their behavior in prison. They’ll examine if these juvenile lifers fit the legal description “irreparably corrupt” – in other words, irredeemable and still a threat to society. If the court decides a prisoner does not fit that description and has been rehabilitated, prisoners like Jose could eventually get out.
The path to rehabilitation
These days Jose is incarcerated east of Flint at Thumb Correctional Facility. He’s 42 years old, and he’s been in prison for 26 years. He’s a mentor for kids in trouble with the law, and he’s a Prisoner Observation Aide – someone who helps monitor prisoners who are suicidal.
As an aide, he says he’ll sit in front of the cell of a suicidal prisoner. Every 15 minutes he writes down exactly what the prisoner is doing.
“If the prisoner is laying in bed,” says Jose, “you have to write down, ‘the prisoner’s laying in bed.’ If the prisoner's talking to the prisoner observation aide, you have to write that down.”
Jose says some suicidal prisoners don’t want to talk, and so he’ll just sit there and observe, making sure they don’t hurt themselves. But other prisoners will talk.
“They tell you they have parents or siblings,” he says. “I explain to them, ‘they love you, and there’s a better way to deal with whatever it is you’re dealing with. ... No matter what it is you’re going through now, you’re going to have hard times in life, but it’s going to be ok. ... Life is beautiful, and it’s going to be ok.’”
This is Jose’s life coming full-circle.
“I always think about my mom,” says Jose. “Cause I think about what could drive a person to want to hurt themselves. I never knew what exactly drove my mother to do what she did ... and what took her to that dark place that she felt like this was her only way out of that situation.”
A life for a life
Jose’s file is thick with certificates of achievement – his GED, classes, work and mentoring. In the past 20 years of his incarceration, he’s had very few infractions.
But Wayne County prosecutors do not think Jose is rehabilitated. They did not want to comment on Jose’s case in an interview, but in the motion they filed last year, they wrote:
“Defendant’s crime in the current case was not the result of unfortunate yet transient immaturity, but, rather, evinced irreparable corruption that requires a Life without parole sentence.”
Prieta doesn’t think "irreparable corruption" describes her brother.
“He would have chose the wrong path if he was really that bad of a person,” she says. “If he was such an animal. ... He wouldn’t have tried to get into this mentor thing. ... My brother made a bad choice – the wrong choice, and he’s paid for it.”
The prosecutor doesn’t decide Jose’s new sentence; a judge or jury will do that. But this recommendation does not help Jose’s chances of getting out.
Of Michigan’s 367 juvenile lifers, prosecutors say 60 percent are irredeemable and should stay in prison for life without parole, according to MLive. This has surprised some. The U.S. Supreme Court said this should only happen in the rare circumstance where the juvenile is considered “irreparably corrupt,” but these prosecutors are saying over 60 percent in Michigan, including Jose, fit that description.
This position is in step with Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, who fought against resentencing, saying it would unnecessarily re-traumatize the victims’ families.
It’s hard to know where the Kaji family stands now. They did not respond to multiple requests for an interview. But Ayman Kaji – who remains paralyzed from the neck down – is quoted in a Detroit Free Press article.
“I’m a Christian, but I’ll never forgive,” he said during the getaway driver’s trial over 20 years ago.
Something good has to come of this
Jose wishes he could talk to the Kajis and apologize to them in person.
“I would like to say to the family that ... I am truly truly sorry for what happened that night,” he says. “I had no right to be there. I had no right to have a weapon, I had no right to shoot. Nobody gave me no right to take a life. That is something that I think about on a daily basis. It’s something that I think about all the time."
Jose still thinks he deserves a second chance.
“I know without a shadow of a doubt that I am not the person I used to be,” Jose says. “I live a life now that I don’t define myself by what happened that night. I did have to be held responsible, accountable for what took place that night, but to say that I’m deserving of a life without parole sentence, of never being able to just know what life is outside of prison, I don’t feel that I deserve that type of sentence."
To the people who say he should still be in prison for a life because he took a life, Jose responds:
“It is difficult to say, ‘Well, I want my freedom,’ when in fact you’re correct there’s a person who lost a life. I don’t forget that. ... I don’t want nobody to ever think that the victims get lost in our pursuit for freedom. ... I’ve had so many conversations with other juvenile lifers, and we do not forget that ... on the other side of this there’s also a victim. ... The only thing I can do is go out there and be the best man that I can possibly be.”
Jose says he believes a second chance is an opportunity for juvenile lifers to make a difference in communities they took so much from. It’s also an opportunity for him to do better for his family, particularly his grandmother.
“I know she wanted more for me,” he says, “That’s another thing that drives me to just become somebody that she can be proud of.”
He says his grandmother tells him she has this dream that she hears a knock at the door one day, and it’s Jose.
“So I do the best that I can to see to it that that happens,” Jose says.
There’s this tricky dance with hope and fear right now for Jose and his family. The legal system is moving slowly. Jose is still waiting for his resentencing court date to be scheduled. And he knows full well, when that day comes, he might leave court with the same sentence he arrived with: life without the possibility of parole.