PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — A Philadelphia judge has departed from guidelines for the resentencing of a juvenile lifer Monday. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that mandatory life without parole for a juvenile was unconstitutional, giving thousands a chance at freedom.
Kempis “Ghani” Songster was just 15 when he and Dameon Brome ran away from their home in Brooklyn and joined a Jamaican drug gang, known for recruiting kids in 1987. The gang would lock kids in crack houses and abuse them while they sold crack. It was in one of these crack houses that the duo got into an altercation and brutally stabbed fellow gang member Anjo Pryce, 17. They put Pryce’s body in plastic bags and stuffed it in the trunk of his car and drove it several blocks away.
Songster has served nearly 30 years of a mandatory life without parole sentence. The DA’s offered him 35 years to life in a resentencing deal, but he rejected it. His attorney Douglas Fox asked the judge for 30 years to life. The judge ruled in Songster’s favor.
“To have a judge sentence someone to less than 35 years to life is significant,” said Fox, who notes the case could cause other juvenile lifers to challenge offers from the DA.
“Of course it’s not binding on future cases,” he says, “but it shows a willingness on the part of the judiciary to weigh each case individually and make an individualized minimum sentence.”
“We are joyous, but our joy still is muted,” says Gail Songster. She watched her nephew stand and face Errol Pryce, Anjo’s father, apologizing for killing his son.
“I am deeply, deeply, deeply ashamed by the things I hear about myself…the things I have done,” said Kempis, “It haunts me– I will live with this for the rest of my life.”
Kempis said to the judge and the packed court house that Anjo Pryce was an artist whose artwork was visible on the walls and floors of the crack houses they worked in. Errol Pryce listened with tears streaming down his face before taking the witness stand.
“It’s been a nightmare,” he said, “We have had no peace since then- it tore my family apart.”
Errol Pryce says his family blamed him for Anjo’s death. His wife, Anjo’s mother left him and the family split. Only Errol and daughter Toshira attended the hearing on Monday.
“I believe that he is sorry,” says Toshira, “he was 15– he did his time and I believe that who he is– who he says he is, will be good for the community.”
At 45, Songster is a different man. According to his supporters, he is intelligent, humble and well read. He does yoga, mentors inmates, hold workshops and is co-founder of the Redemption Project, an organization that tells the story of inmates and helps promote healing between perpetrators and victim families.
“We thank God for this,” says Catherine Songster, Kempis’ mom. “But we know the Pryce family has had pain– and we want them to know we are sorry.”
With the judge’s new sentence, Kempis Songster could become eligible for parole at the end of September.
This is only the second time a judge ordered a sentence less than the 35 to life guidelines in Philadelphia.