Josh Beckius is in search of redemption. That's a word that comes up regularly when he talks about his life.
At the age of sixteen, Beckius was charged with the murder of Dayton Leslie James, a night-time manager of the Baseline Cinema Savers in Boulder. The crime, which had occurred two years earlier, in 1993, was one of those stupid, vicious, random events that make people question the benevolence of the universe, and it shocked relatively crime-free Boulder. James was a kindly man, a ballroom dancer who had survived an abusive childhood to raise two loving daughters. He had worked with abused children himself and served as a Big Brother, and he was known to let homeless people into the Cinema Savers for free. The movie house was targeted for robbery by a drug-dazed and incoherent gang whose members called themselves — depending on whom you asked — either the Crazy Boy Crips or the Chinie Boy Crips, most of them teenagers, led by Cambodian refugee Chamroen (Charlie) Pa, whose age no one could pin down, but who was thought by police to be in his early twenties. Beckius, then fourteen, ran with the group. During the course of the robbery, which netted around $2,000, Pa shot James twice, in the chest and the back of the head. A welter of confused and often contradictory testimony — a key component of which turned out later to be false — placed Beckius in the cinema with Pa. Colorado's felony murder statute states that if a death occurs during the commission of a crime, anyone involved — whether the driver of a getaway car or someone who once conspired with the perpetrators, even if he later backed out — is guilty of first-degree murder, regardless of intent. Beckius's court-appointed attorney, Patrick H. Furman, was aware that this statute could send the teenager to prison for life with no chance for parole, and he felt that speed was of the essence: Charlie Pa was in custody, and whichever defendant agreed first to a plea would get the better deal. Prosecutor Pete Hofstrom accompanied Furman on his first visit to see Beckius, and the two had already hammered out a deal even though no charges had yet been formalized. After a few days of adamant denial, a highly emotional Beckius pleaded guilty to serving as a lookout for Pa.
Dayton James's daughter, Darcy Priola, was present at the sentencing hearing, and she read the court a letter she had written: "Joshua is heartless for doing what he has done. I know he said he had a bad childhood, but so did my dad, and so have a lot of people.... The crimes which he has committed should be punished for a very long time. As far as I'm concerned, a long time will never be enough time for taking my dad from me."
Beckius was sentenced to forty years and sent to the Buena Vista Correctional Complex, an adult facility. (Pa received a sentence of 48 years.) "I thought prison was going to be my life," Beckius says today. "I was in the mind frame that I was just going to die in there."
Josh Beckius is sitting in a Boulder coffee shop, holding a cup of espresso. He has never tasted espresso before, and he's surprised that the cup is so small and the coffee so bitter. But he likes it. Now 32 years old, Beckius has been given a second chance. He is living at Denver's Peer 1, a residential facility that houses men who have criminal histories and a record of substance abuse. He has a job at a tire company and spends weekends with his family. Grateful to be outside prison walls, Beckius is anxious to experience as many new things as he can.
He sets down his cup. There is no special treatment for juveniles sent to adult prisons, he explains. "It was pretty much, 'You were charged and sentenced as an adult, you were sent here, and you're on your own.' The guards didn't go out of their way to ensure your safety. Some guys that have been locked up fifteen, twenty years kind of explain the ropes. One of the things I was taught by them: Don't let anyone disrespect you. People look at you as pretty much weak and an easy target, and that's one thing that you don't want to put out."
Beckius got into fights. He continued to use drugs. "I just didn't care," he remembers. "I didn't care about myself. I didn't care about my life. For the first four or five years of my incarceration I was constantly in trouble, constantly being sent to segregation for twenty to thirty days...until they pretty much got fed up with me and sent me to CSP."
The Colorado State Penitentiary is a high-tech maximum-security prison, and Beckius spent the next three and a half years in solitary confinement, living in a six-by-eight-foot cell where the light was never turned off, allowed one hour a day to exercise alone in a concrete yard. The prisoners were able to yell to each other through the doors, but Beckius rarely joined the cacophony. He did have books and television, and he could see the outside through a long slit of a window. Most important, there were bi-weekly visits from his father and stepmother, Tim and Kathy Beckius, conducted through a glass partition. In his cell, he watched sports, educational programs and the History and Military channels, wrote letters and a journal, and read the Denver Post every day, "to keep up with what was going on in the world," he says. "It was kind of weird and ironic. But I wanted to be given an opportunity to prove that I belonged back out here, that I'm not just some monster that deserves to be locked away for life."
Experts say that prolonged solitary confinement can cause the disintegration of personality, even full-blown psychosis. Those who visited Beckius during those years remember him as withdrawn and looking haggard and grim. But Beckius says he believes in mind over matter, and he refused to give up: "They'd bring people out of their cells and they'd look like a walking dead man. I didn't want to be that person. Regardless of if I had to do the full forty years in solitary, I wasn't going to be broken."
But the ordeal did change him.
Who is the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition?
Our chief areas of interest include drug policy reform, women in prison, racial injustice, the impact of incarceration on children and families, the problems associated with re-entry and stopping the practice of using private prisons in our state.
If you would like to be involved please go to our website and become a member.
Wednesday, October 26, 2011