Hi. How you doing?
Hello, sweetheart. How are you?
Uh, not too good.
I know, baby.
I have to come home. I have to come home.
Baby, I know that. I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to stay strong. Are you saying your prayers?
Yes, mom, but I want to come home.
Baby, I promise you that we’re working on that, okay?
Will you promise me that I’ll come home?
Will you try?
Sweetheart, we’re trying everything we can. I promise you. There’s nothing in the world that I want more than my boy home with me.
It’s a familiar conversation: a homesick child calling his mom, begging to come home. Yet this boy is not away at camp or on a school field trip. He’s in prison, a juvenile tried and convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
This is the beginning of Lost for Life, Josh Rofé’s heart wrenching film that takes viewers inside the lives of these young people and the lives of their parents as they attempt to adjust to a new normal, one that revolves around prison. We see the crimes these prisoners committed and learn about the victims and the victims’ families. While that opening phone call is painful to hear, that audio is juxtaposed with a visual as the camera slowly pulls back to reveal the brutal slaying of a young teenage girl that landed this teenage boy and his friend in jail.
]“I did not make an advocacy piece by any means,” explained Rofé during a phone interview. “I hope that this film will spark a national conversation around the issue.” On June 24, 2012, in a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional to mandate a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for a juvenile convicted of homicide. Writing for the majority, Justice Elena Kagan said, “Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features – among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences.”
The ruling does not eliminate life without parole for juveniles, but means that other factors should be considered before sentencing, including the young person’s background and circumstances as well as the nature of the crime.
According to the National Center for Youth Law, there are currently around 2,500 prisoners serving life without parole sentences for homicides committed when they were under 18 years of age. The U.S. Is the only country in the world where youths are allowed to die in prison.
“[That Supreme Court ruling] should have been front page news,” said Rofé. “It wasn’t because minutes after that ruling came down, the ruling [on Obamacare] came down. No one even remembers it unless they are in the trenches working in or around this issue or had their lives deeply affected by it somehow. And I think there are a lot of people out there serving this sentence who are worth a second look, who are absolutely worthy of redemption.”
Rofé remembers exactly when he first heard about juvenile murderers being incarcerated for life with no hope of freedom. “It was October 10, 2008; I was in Los Angeles at a friend’s birthday party,” he said. Rofé spent most of the evening talking with his friend’s father, a judge in Panama City, Florida. “I asked him what cases and trials had stayed with him throughout the years. He told me about a15 year-old girl who shot a cab driver in the back of the head killing him and who he sentenced to life without parole. I was taken by the fact that a 15 year-old girl did something like that, but I was also taken with hearing about life without parole for someone so young.” The judge told Rofé he was conflicted about handing down such a tough sentence.“His daughter had the same name as the girl he sentenced to life without parole; they were about the same age. He kind of bit his tongue, but he expressed that he wasn’t quite sure if that was the right move.” (Rofé later learned that the girl, Rebecca Falcon, had been gang raped when she was 13 and was sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend. When Rebecca’s grandmother urged her to tell her mother about the abuse, the mother instead married the boyfriend.)
Beginning the project, Rofé initially thought he would make a film about Rebecca Falcon. But after her attorney told Rofé he had a roster of 14, 15, and 16 year-olds in the same situation, Rofé realized there was a larger story to tell. “That set me on the path,” he said. “I knew that I wanted to open it up and examine multiple cases across the country as opposed to just one person’s story.”
Rofé spent four and a half years working on the film, admitting that two and a half years into the project, he literally “wiped the slate clean” and finally ended up with the subjects featured in the film. Those interviewed fall into categories. “There’s the kid who grew up in a gang culture; there was the kid who was abused and took vengeance on the abuser,” he said. The third category and the one that opens the film is the “thrill killer.” Rofé added: “Those were, of course, the most unsettling. It seems like you can chase your tail forever and ask why. You go and you meet their families and they remind you of your own. But there’s something that went very wrong. There’s some secret that was either unearthed or has yet to be unearthed that led to these crimes.”
The prisoners in Lost for Life are now adults even though they were sentenced as juveniles. For the most part, they come across as intelligent and introspective as they reflect on their crimes and why they did what they did. Jacob Ind, now 34 years-old, was 15 when he was arrested for killing both his mother and stepfather. Jacob had initially recruited a schoolmate to do the killings. When that boy botched the hit, Jacob finished the job. “Jacob, who I got to know very, very well, his mother sexually abused him in ways that are so horrific, you can’t even believe that these things exist,” said Rofé. “She used to give him enemas to prepare him for his stepfather.” On camera Jacob said: “I raised every red flag that I could and no one paid any attention. It put me in a very deep, dark place where I didn’t see any option.” Mary Ellen Johnson, author of The Murder of Jacob, commented: “Jacob is serving a life sentence for the sins of our community. Nobody helped him.”
Josiah, whose parents were in a religious cult, was convicted of killing Stacy Dahl, 39, and Gary Alflen, 47, during a robbery. “My parents would, like, have random prophets through the house that, you know, we’d be left with, and, we could have been protected better,” explained Josiah’s sister, Amber.
Sean represents the most hopeful story in the film. Now 38, he was arrested at 17, in a gang shooting. “Sean is the poster child for someone that America would write off,” said Rofé. “He’s black. He was a Blood. He murdered somebody in a drive by shooting. He was a drug dealer. Everything about him on paper says we should forget about him.”
Sean was released on parole and has dedicated his life to helping others who came from circumstances similar to his own. “I talk to him frequently,” said Rofé. “He’s married. He’s a great guy. He’s incredibly grateful and incredibly remorseful. He’s committed to, one day at a time, trying to make amends for what he did when he was so young.”
Rofé believes that community outreach is important. “I have always hoped that with this film, frankly, we would scare the shit out of kids who are in sixth grade,” he said. “Whether it’s the inner city or the wealthiest suburbs in this country, there are kids right now getting ready to commit horrific crimes. We’ll know their names tomorrow or a year from now. But I think the juvenile lifers themselves can share their experiences directly with kids who think there is no other way. “