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Will you understand this Murrieta and Lemon Grove casual killer?

Caged animal at Calipatria

Tommy McCauley is serving life without parole, or LWOP — “a living death.” Pictured here with his aunt Krista, grandmother Amy Robinson, and aunt Martha Kinkade.
Tommy McCauley is serving life without parole, or LWOP — “a living death.” Pictured here with his aunt Krista, grandmother Amy Robinson, and aunt Martha Kinkade.

In the infinite flatness of southern California’s Imperial Valley, an irrigated desert of cropland and skin-frying heat, lies Calipatria State Prison, a mostly maximum-security Level IV warren of cellblocks, surrounded for miles by massive ag plots: white plastic-coated storage barns of alfalfa hay; acres of livestock to which the bales are fed; fields of greenly ripe, ruler-straight commodities like sweet corn and leaf lettuce; flocks of snowy egrets that feast in those fields on lizards, snakes, and mice; and, powering some of the valley’s energy, large pitches of solar arrays on barren parcels. More widely diffused are the sun-withered towns, mottled and cracked by dust storms, where cadres of prison guards live. Not much moves in the desert other than the birds and the wind, breezing over Colorado River water rushing down the concrete ditches. And, arriving every hour, females driving families in battered Corollas, coming to visit their lost loved ones.

One day this past spring, I entered the Calipatria visitor center to interview an inmate. I was told that a strict dress code applied: no hat, no sunglasses, no blue jeans; only car keys and tokens (used for purchasing “treats” from the vending machines inside) were allowed. (Women with dresses endured a private strip search.) I had to change into black sweat pants in an on-site trailer. Back in line, a guard asked, “What's this?” My three-by-five note cards and a pen, brought in lieu of a tape recorder. Confiscated. “Who’s the inmate?” Tommy McCauley, a man serving life without parole, or LWOP — “a living death,” it’s been called. He was in for a double murder, committed with an accomplice on Thanksgiving weekend in 2006, in Murrieta and Lemon Grove. McCauley and I sat opposite one another in little plastic chairs at a round two-foot-high activity table, as if we were in kindergarten. A pack of gun-belted guards stared at us with uniform indifference, watching for contraband to exchange hands. For the next two hours, I felt guilty; I hadn’t brought anything, and wasn’t hiding the thing I hadn’t brought, but it seemed written on my face that I had.

I thought I’d take my time getting to the killings. I inquired about McCauley’s day-to-day life. But suddenly, the 38-year-old McCauley — dressed in his prison cotton blues, wearing dark-lensed prescription glasses, his arms crowded with tattoos — was speaking about the murders, as if he wanted to provide my readers and me a killer’s scene-by-scene account of his malevolent acts.

McCauley had met his accomplice, the younger Franko “Dopes” Bernal, when the two were teenagers, and they became social-media players on MySpace, headliners of sorts in gangster theater. McCauley’s code name was “Giggin McGiggster,” Bernal’s, “Big Dick McGiggster.” Bernal bragged, “I sell drugs to as many bitches as I can.” He listed his occupation as “street pharmacist.” He said he was married, a college grad, and made $100K per year. That he owned several companies that traded in “nasty but classy dripping wet movies and dope delicious girls.” The dope-addled hoopla went on and on: “I live like a rockstar running from the cop cars.”

Thanksgiving evening, before the first murder, McCauley and his aider and abettor were at a party in Murrieta, boasting of their prowess. Bernal kept his .22 gun in his car, which, he said, according to court records and trial testimony, was “for my protection.” That night, he had “Jack Sparrow” — his weapon’s nickname, based on the flintlock-wielding character played by Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean — tucked into his waistband; he lifted his shirt and showed several witnesses his “little friend.” If anybody screwed with him, Bernal said, he’d get them, “clack, clack, clack.” Later, after the two robbery-murders, anonymous tips from text-messaging friends at the party led to their arrests; one caller got $2500 from Crimestoppers.

McCauley said that “the trial and the media got it all wrong” during his 2008 trial for two counts of first-degree murder, premeditated attempted murder, and robbery. The then-homeless McCauley — driven by Bernal — did not randomly shoot 18-year-old Duante Mercado-Bates as he was walking down the street, eating corn nuts, and wearing a backpack in Murrieta. No, McCauley said, “I got out of the car and went to rob him,” carrying Bernal’s “Jack Sparrow.” McCauley recounted saying, “‘Gimme that backpack, bitch,’ and the kid wouldn’t do it, so I knocked him on the ground. He still wouldn’t give it, and kept trying to get up, so I hit him in the head with the gunstock so hard it cracked. And he went down, tried to get up again. ‘Gimme the backpack!’ That’s all I wanted. But he wouldn’t. So I shot him. Closer than you are to me. He went down and I saw him go” — here he mimed Mercado-Bates’s last gasp, “Aaahh,” tilting his head back, his eyes swallowed by his forehead. “And then he was dead. Right in front of me.” Actually, as I’d read later, the kid slowly bled to death, and did not die until dawn.

The Mercado-Bates killing took place after midnight on Thanksgiving day. Twenty-four hours later — still dressed in their black hooded sweatshirts and black ball caps, but now binge-drinking and joyriding through Lemon Grove, looking for targets to rob — Bernal and McCauley spotted a man at an ATM. “That’s $300 right there,” McCauley said. Bernal hesitated. McCauley shouted, “Come on, let’s do it!” He was sick, he told me, of Bernal’s big-talk and little-do. They argued; both men threw punches. Enraged, McCauley told Bernal to stop in front of a 7-Eleven, hoisted the gun, and said it was time. Inside, he saw another kid, Andres Villaverde, 18. The kid was looking at him, “So I shot him.” The bullet took off half his jaw. Once he reached the store’s counter, McCauley pointed Jack Sparrow at the clerk, Pedro Hernandez-Vargas, 54, and shot him. The man went down, begging for his life. McCauley recalls saying, “I didn’t hurt you that bad, bitch. Get up.” Hernandez-Vargas got up, apologized that he didn’t unlock the till quickly enough — “My bad, dog” — and McCauley shot him twice more. Once around the counter, he pushed the dead man aside, pocketed bills and change, swiped a handful of lottery Scratchers, blew the locked handle off a beer cooler, and cradled out a couple of six-packs. Another man was in the store, McCauley told me, but “I didn’t shoot him.” Out he went, and the cowering Bernal drove them away.

The next day, the two men ran, but not before bragging about the killings to friends — friends who later testified in the trials. (The men were tried with separate juries, using the same evidence.) Bernal was caught in Las Vegas; McCauley Greyhounded to Cody, Wyoming, where his aunt convinced him to surrender. Each was convicted and given two concurrent terms of life, LWOP sentences: Bernal went to Kern Valley State Prison, while McCauley bounced over a decade-and-a-half from San Diego county jails (at Central, he assaulted a guard), to the supermax pen at Corcoran (the late Charlie Manson’s nest), to the medium-security prison at Kern (he said he never ran into Bernal), and then to the supermax Tehachapi, where he did “a year clean,” which qualified him for the boiling hot but less restrictive Calipatria where he is now. Along the way, he spent a total of six years in the special housing unit, or SHU — sometimes in solitary, sometimes with a celly, confined 23 hours a day. “I didn’t follow the rules,” he explained. At times, he was in because he fought with guards or other prisoners; at times, he was in for protective custody, separated from inmates who wanted to kill him.

Tommy’s childhood circumstances seem, by turns, criminally horrifying and hardly unusual. His aunt Martha recalls five-year-old Tommy, battered by his parents’ turmoil, who told her one day he wished to commit suicide.

When McCauley’s aunt asked why he killed Mercado-Bates, he said, “No reason.” But he admitted to detectives (but not at trial) that he shot the Murrieta kid to “get his rocks off.” Besides the deaths themselves, these conflicting responses remain, for me, the most troubling aspect of these successive, post-midnight killings. Coupled together, both replies challenge the notion that we can look for a reason why men commit murder — revenge, infidelity, money, and the partially mitigating cause of an abusive family. Pitting “what’s the reason” against “no reason” is incongruous, and the incongruity shows that establishing a motive is tricky. If there is and there isn’t a reason, then maybe the unstable McCauley deserves life behind bars. If there’s no motive with which to properly engage, then maybe he’s incorrigible to the marrow. If he can’t learn about why he did what he did and why it was wrong, then he’ll never change, and motive hardly seems to matter. Lock him up. But to people who care about humane incarceration, it still matters that a man is in no small part the result of where he came from: in his case, a trauma-besieged childhood so egregious that his past may, for what it’s worth, shed light on his seemingly irremediable nature, a nature shared by the majority of youth offenders.

  • * * *

Bernal and McCauley appealed their convictions in 2011. The verdicts for the two first-degree murders were upheld, and their LWOP sentences remained in place. The appellate judge argued that the crimes were committed with “malice aforethought.” The word “malice” means a desire to hurt, “aforethought” indicates that said malice was possessed prior to the act itself, which is not as definitive as it sounds.

It’s objectively true that McCauley brought a loaded gun along for both robberies. According to the appeal, the fact that he “used it to kill an unarmed victim reasonably suggests the defendant considered the possibility of murder in advance.” It’s worth noting that the law regarding premeditation does not require “a rational motive” for murder. Any motive, “shallow and distorted but, to the perpetrator, genuine” may be sufficient. What’s more, we typically think of premeditated murder as one in which the assailant lies in wait, having plotted the assault. The intention to murder, however, is much more broadly defined than that. An intent to kill can occur in the moment. The appeal argued that “at such close range,” six feet or less, “and with the number of shots fired, the inference could be made that the shooter was intent on inflicting death.” It is also rational to believe, as the jury was instructed, that McCauley’s taking sexual pleasure in the murders added another motive, morbid but still “genuine.” These explanations for McCauley’s act being treated as willful, deliberate, and preconceived first-degree murder were presented accurately to the juries, San Diego’s presiding judge Judith McConnel ruled.

Most of us would likely agree that a person charged with murder — 90 percent of murderers are men — who told detectives he “got his rocks off” by killing and has “no reason” besides that to offer is profoundly immature. We may regard such a person as a degenerate juvenile or depraved adult, depending on his age. And yet, by law, we judge the adult as more culpable than the youth, in part because of the youth’s insufficient brain development. This is enlightened thinking; rather than writing off the evildoer as simply evil, we can, by tying culpability to age and maturity, attribute at least some of the act to poor development. And in that case, then subsequent development may help solve his problem. Perhaps such a man can be rehabilitated. (It’s noteworthy that the recidivism rate for paroled youth offenders is under one percent.) But the grown-up, ice-in-his-veins killer? Him we tend to regard as unsalvageable, deserving of prison’s ingenious mix of punishment, retribution, and exile.

Richard Gates is Chief Deputy of the Office of Multiple Conflicts, where his attorneys represented McCauley and Bernal in 2008.

But should “unsalvageable” be considered when we’re talking about culpability? Leaving their convictions aside for the moment, is it possible that Bernal and McCauley, 20 and 22 at the time of the killings, were so significantly mis-wired that they were, as the neurologist Robert Sapolsky puts it, “organically incapable of regulating the appropriateness of their behavior”? What happens to guilt and sentencing if neuroscience firmly establishes that some men in their teens and early twenties simply can’t control their violent impulses? Is there some way in which the worst of the worst might be assessed differently, determined to be as complexly determined by circumstance as by biology? Granting parole hearings to LWOP inmates would require a massive shift in public opinion and, consequently, new statutes regarding the nature of culpability itself. (Of the 115,000 men in California state prisons, 33,000 are serving life sentences, and 5200 are LWOP.)

Here are some behavioral traits that neuroscience finds in people with underdeveloped brains, people who, before age 26, may — and often do — engage in dangerous or criminal activity. The condition of “impaired volition” brings with it a lack of responsibility, an inability to understand risks and consequences of one’s behavior, a high susceptibility to negative influences and outside pressures, and the classic notion that impulses beget actions, though most agree that the term “irresistible impulse” is a circumlocution: murder may cross the minds of many, but many still resist the act — even when young.

  • * * *

Tommy McCauley was born April 14, 1984, to Sam McCauley and Lisa Ann Fitzgerald, parents bedeviled from the get-go by their drug and alcohol addictions. Both of them have acknowledged their failures at parenting Tommy, a boy who loved animals, books, and Montessori preschool — Lisa in trial testimony, in which she blamed herself and argued for leniency, and Sam in a recent interview where he bemoaned his neglect. Tommy McCauley told me that his mom came to California “at 15, on the back of a motorcycle.” Quickly, he said, she was “doing a lot of meth” as well as prostituting herself. She married Sam McCauley, then had Tommy and Tommy’s sister, Krystal. At McCauley’s sentencing hearing, Lisa admitted to years of abandoning the boy as well as her history of depression and drug dependency. (Eventually, she converted to evangelical Christianity in Cleveland, Tennessee, and she died there in 2009.)

Lisa and Sam were often so high or drunk (or both) that family members stepped in to care for Tommy. Recently, I spoke with some of his relatives — Tommy’s aunt Martha, his grandmother Amy, and his father Sam, near Sam’s home in Santee, where, at 62, he is trying to repair his life. I asked Sam if he has visited Tommy in prison. He hasn’t: first, because Tommy has refused to see him, and second, because Sam — who has had six arrests in the county — is a registered sex offender, convicted in 1997 of committing a “lewd or lascivious act with a child under 14 years of age.” The victim was the daughter of a girlfriend. He told me he has “lost the damn paperwork,” and must complete it before Calipatria will allow him in.

Tommy’s childhood circumstances seem, by turns, criminally horrifying and hardly unusual. His aunt Martha recalls five-year-old Tommy, battered by his parents’ turmoil, who told her one day he wished to commit suicide. (Sam told me that as a young girl, Lisa had grabbed the steering wheel of the car she was riding in with her family. He said the car rolled over and everybody inside was killed but her. For Lisa, that tragedy was followed by an unsafe girlhood in foster care.) Aunt Martha describes young Tommy as having sores in his mouth from screaming for food. Martha, her mother Amy, and a sister would visit Sam and Lisa’s home in East San Diego and find him on the floor, in filth, his parents unavailable — Lisa lying in bed all day and doing drugs, Sam away on an Army tour or “always working and after work, partying.”

Aunt Martha recalled that when Sam, Lisa, and Tommy stayed with Sam’s mother Amy, she noticed her teaspoons were missing. Martha, living nearby, told her mother that Lisa was taking them to cook crack. Other members of Tommy’s extended family let the boy live with them — for a time. He would “get quiet,” a sign of cooperative meekness, and they’d let him stay, thinking things had stabilized. But invariably, his parents took him back, and the peril returned. By Tommy’s sixth birthday, Sam and Lisa had split up. A pregnant Lisa took him to New Mexico. Sam followed with his brother Brad; they intended to liberate the boy at gunpoint. Met by Lisa’s friends and their guns, the brothers fled.

Tommy told me that consuming alcohol was a family habit; he started at 13. That same year, he learned that Sam had been convicted of molesting a young girl of similar age, the daughter of Sam’s girlfriend. How did his son learn of it? Before his arrest, Sam took him to Lake Murray for a walk and confessed. “Tommy was crushed,” Sam said. That’s when, he admitted, the anger rooted deeply in him. By his late teens, Tommy had dropped out of high school and moved in with his dad. He had a job, but he was also tagging with the DTK (Down to Kill) gang. Sam said, “I was really hard on him. I told him not to drink and smoke and hang out with a gang.” He told him to get off his ass, saying, “I leave for work. You’re on the couch. I come home from work. You’re on the couch. You gotta go. You gotta get the fuck out. I can’t deal with it.” The way the traumatized Tommy spoke, his father said, was “with his fist.” He was unable to talk about his feelings. One night, Sam went to call the cops on Tommy, “and then he attacked me, fucked me up pretty bad. When I came to, the police were there; he had crushed my orbital socket and split my head open.” Sam had the bone around his eye rebuilt with titanium, “to keep my eye from falling out.”

Since establishing her one-woman practice in 2009, attorney Laura Sheppard has focused on lifers, those serving 25-to-life, whom she represents at parole hearings.

Sam’s own life of travail began in the military, in Germany, where, at 20, he was drugged and raped. He never told a soul, even during his seven years of homelessness, not until he quit drinking. Eventually he enrolled in P.E.T. (prolonged exposure treatment) with the VA, which, along with a PTSD diagnosis, has helped. He’s been in AA for nearly a decade, attended community college for a drug-counseling certificate, and survived prostate cancer. After Tommy was sentenced in 2008, Sam remembers him saying, “he didn’t want anything to do with me.” Only recently have they begun speaking by phone.

I asked Tommy why he thought his sister, grandmother, and two aunts continue to write, e-visit, and drive to the below-sea-level penitentiary, with its summers in the 110s. His answer surprised me, though it made sense. They feel guilty, he said, about not rescuing him from his parents’ abuse. It’s something Sam feels from afar as well: he fears his son’s rage will surface if he, Sam, ever shows up at Calipatria.

  • * * *

As prisoner-rights attorney Laura Sheppard sat down with me in her office — a second-floor, heat-trapping room above City Heights’ Little Brown Jug liquor store — she pointed to the back of the door, through which I’d entered. There a was a sign on it reading “Exit,” haloed by dozens of photos of the lifers she has got out of prison. Next to the “Exit” door was another door labeled “Closet.” On it were photos of her current clients — all doing life.

I asked Sheppard to describe her work. Since establishing her one-woman practice in 2009, she has focused on lifers, those serving 25-to-life, whom she represents at parole hearings. She joked that her clients are a “captive audience,” pointing to hundreds of unsolicited letters from cons in state lockups who’d love her help. (She’s not taking new cases just now.) Families of inmates pay her retainer, some by counting out stacks of $5 bills from tip wads and piggy banks. Her office’s tumult reflects an unlawyerly modesty. “I do this work from my heart,” she says, “I’m not trying to get rich off them.”

I laid out McCauley’s case; she said she would start her comments with age categories. Men under 26 are youth offenders; before that age, they’re juveniles, after that, adults. But Sheppard contends every prisoner, no matter the age, should have the possibility to earn parole. Why? She’s been visiting inmates since she started accompanying her advocate parents at age five, and she’s learned to despise the prison system. She grants that her clients’ crimes, like McCauley’s, are horrible to revisit. But she also finds that the violence of a carceral system intensifies the horrors shouldered in from the inmate’s previous life. She noted, bitterly, that she is typically the first person to whom clients disclose their “extreme sexual or other abuse in childhood. Those disclosures hurt me more than the crime they’re convicted of, because the ‘victim’ is a person who I know and am in a [legal] relationship with.”

She continued. “Once you’re the victim of childhood trauma, your brain development is permanently damaged, permanently stunted.” Most youth killers are incapable of moral reasoning, she said, because of the lack development in their prefrontal cortexes. And prison just reinforces that damage: no one pops out of the pen and into “adulthood” at 26. McCauley’s mental tools, like most of the LWOP men in his yard, are limited. He had a psych evaluation prior to his trial, but, Sheppard said, several things were likely true of his mental state at that time. First, he had no way to articulate his psychological impairment. Second, court psychologists measured him only at a “point in time,” just after a double homicide. Third, his public defender may have avoided his client’s fitness, since he was already labeled a “pariah” following his arrest, and few would have argued against the state to lessen his culpability, other than — as his lawyer did — to escape the death penalty. That was thought to be defense enough.

There a was a sign on Sheppard’s office door reading “Exit,” haloed by dozens of photos of the lifers she has got out of prison. Next to the “Exit” door was another door labeled “Closet.” On it were photos of her current clients — all doing life.

Today, it’s different. Brain trauma and youth criminality are clearly conjoined; attorneys use diagnoses of mental illness and family abuse as mitigating evidence for youth offenders, most of whom will come up for parole. But, Sheppard asked, thinking of the LWOPs, have science-savvy courts and judges kept up with these advances for all inmates? Mostly no, she said; they’re “way behind on everything.” Budgets are the chief drag.

Sheppard’s passion was palpable. She characterized herself as storyteller and psychologist, ticking off “attorney” way down the list. She leaned forward and, with piercing gusto, said: “I will rip somebody’s head off if they tell me that people can’t change, because I get to witness [that they have]. I’ll never say a person is a monster or evil, though their behavior is sometimes that. But that doesn’t define them.”

What influence has she had on the lifers she represents? “I don’t mean to toot my own horn,” she said, “but it’s been life-changing on both sides to really get to see the impact I make.” She gets several thank-you cards each week. Men have lied to her in letters, and later apologized for lying once they discovered her commitment to their cases. One such acknowledgement read, “You opened my eyes to the fact that there are good people because I never saw any good growing up, and once I saw it from you, then I started to see it in others. And now I feel like I can be one of the good guys.”

  • * * *

Among the active prisoner rights’ groups, agreeing with Sheppard’s agenda are Families United to End LWOP (or FUEL) and the Anti-Recidivism Coalition. Both advocate for “restorative justice,” a holistic concept that aims to reconcile prisoners, victims, and communities. Perhaps the most effective of these groups are the ones that are inside — the small but mighty self-help pods in prison yards, often zealously led by one or two saved souls.

One such person at Calipatria is Ruhani Bustamante, a former “triggerman” for the East Side Longos, a violent street gang in Long Beach. Convicted of double homicide in 2010, he’s now serving an LWOP sentence. He called me recently to describe guys who are “rehabilitating, doing good, and trying to change our way of thinking.” Bustamante is the secretary of their LWOP alliance, 40 inmates in their cellblock, with “guys trying to get in.” Tommy McCauley is the vice-chair. Some LWOP inmates in Calipatria, Bustamante said, “are very discouraged and live a kind of hopeless disparity,” referring to the core distinction between LWOP and other lifers. Their alliance counters the defeatism by mentoring men with “pro-social behaviors to be leaders and to quit doing drugs. We talk about commutations and earning freedom.”

During his incarceration, McCauley spiraled into near-oblivion. Marking his time inside, the “six years” in the SHU, the hopelessness, the fights — he described inmates as “a bunch of middle-school girls with knives” — are his tattoo-illustrated arms, sporting, to my eye, a prison lexicon of signs and symbols. Some, he wishes he could scrub off. One day he learned that his sister had found him, via a DNA search on 23 & Me. She wrote him with the news that she had three biracial kids, a fact that might trouble a man who had identified with the Aryan Brotherhood. The blood relations woke him up. His father Sam said that it “lit a fire in him. He realized he’s not alone.” Now, he’s got three nephews he’d like to meet someday.

At Calipatria, he caught a break; he dropped his gang affiliations when he entered the Sensitive Needs Yard, or SNY, a new block for men whose profiles differ from most inmates. (The roughly 600 inmates in SNY comprise a sixth of Calipatria’s overpacked 2737 occupants. The prison is 127 percent above capacity, a norm in California pens.) McCauley does his time next to gay men, trans, pagans, Muslims, old convicts, the mentally ill, sex offenders, and those who want to erase the mindset of racism, extortion, and violence and to eschew drugs, gambling, and alcohol — the invisible chains of the incarcerated. McCauley said, “I love it here” — “here” being sensitive-needs segregation. His grandmother echoed her grandson’s feeling: “I think Tommy feels safe there,” adding quickly, “something he’s never felt.”

Another rehab component is self-direction: for McCauley, that means earning a degree from Imperial Valley College and managing the prison chapel, where services are held by Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, Native Americans, and Pagans. Recently he was baptized a Christian. He said he was “dunked” into the faith and found “peace” to replace the “emptiness.” It’s another means by which McCauley is documenting his emotional and spiritual development, if in no other form than testimony — to any person or force who’ll listen.

A new California law reflects our state’s evolving views on rehabbing lifers. A Franklin hearing allows defendants serving life as youth offenders (under 26 at the time of the crime) to “present evidence that would mitigate their sentence.” However, Franklin excludes LWOP inmates — at least for the time being. Sheppard told me she was preparing documents that anticipate changes in “legislation or a commutation from the Governor” for her roster of non-parolees. She writes, “the Franklin decision reflects the wisdom of collecting evidence related to the hallmarks of youth as early as possible.” And she says that youth offenders need “help seeking and filing this evidence now, rather than at some later date when [they] may become eligible for parole.”

Richard Gates is Chief Deputy of the Office of Multiple Conflicts, where his attorneys represented McCauley and Bernal in 2008 (McCauley’s attorney, Dan Mangarin, has retired). LWOPs, Gates said, are out of luck for Franklin. For them to get relief, the legislature must act. (SB 481, which would have granted a parole hearing to LWOP youth offenders, died in committee last year.) He described what seems a two-tiered system: for lifers (those who are parole-eligible), factors like abuse, mental illness, drugs, and trafficking “place them in a more sympathetic light,” such that they may receive some leniency in sentencing. “The LWOPs do not get” the same consideration, he said, even if neuroscience and psych exams can show the hell of their upbringing and the personal changes they have made in prison.

“Some factual crimes,” Gates said, “will face an organized opposition to release an individual, no matter how well they perform in prison.” However, he sees “no harm in having a hearing.” Gates noted that “there’s nothing in the prison system that indicates ‘getting out’ is a slam dunk.” In effect, the only way an inmate matures is through the social milieu he both transcends and uses on his behalf — an extremely high bar that requires doing one’s best in the worst of conditions. What’s a stellar record in prison? A person who is substance-free, shows positive testimony from family, teachers, and social workers, and reveals strides in maturity with time-tested mental health assessments. Documenting those strides is daunting and will take years, as will sobriety, mentorships, and self-repair, things which McCauley or any LWOP inmate must achieve and procure with scant professional aid.

For much of his imprisonment, McCauley concentrated on survival: He told me Job #1 was “take care of myself.” Then, when participating in an AA-like inmate circle, he heard a lifer confess that his act deprived family members of their time with the man he murdered. The lifer said he’d been mourning their loss. McCauley chimed in: it had never occurred to him to care about Andre Villaverde’s life, or Mercado-Bates’s and Hernandez-Vargas’s kin. Suddenly, he did. I asked if he had written the families letters of regret. He had. I said, unnecessarily critical, “Anybody can write a letter. The question is, did you feel it?” A softened sensitivity lit his face, and he nodded. Then it was gone. But I saw it.

  • * * *

When the guard announced over the crackling loudspeaker that time was up, we — the visiting sisters, mothers, wives, kids, and me, one of a handful of men — left by rows. McCauley got up, and he and I bumped fists, then he sat back down. At the door, I turned and saw a different person. When we spoke, he had sat ramrod straight and addressed me firmly, eyes locked on mine except when he glanced at the guards. Now he adopted a fuck-you attitudinal slump: the imperious adolescent, leaning back, mouth open, one calf resting on the other leg’s knee. He seemed to have relaunched his inmate’s condescension toward the system, the guards, and who knows what or who else. A curtain of the servile drew across him. Or maybe it was a curtain that shielded me from an existence, no, a life, I had no way to process, let alone understand.

“Should people forgive you?” I had asked before we finished talking. “Only if forgiving me will help them heal,” he said. “It won’t do that for me. I have to do that for myself.”

By this point, readers should be asking, “What of the victims and victim families? How do they regard LWOP men who are dedicating themselves to rehabilitation?” I found no victim-family follow-up stories or contacts regarding the 2006 homicides. (If anyone knows . . .) For some sense of the murders’ weight on family and friends, I scoured news stories and police accounts and found nothing. At trial, McCauley never spoke. Bernal, who claimed, accurately, that despite never pulling a trigger he was convicted as the aider and abettor, flung several smart-ass comments. He told one victim’s family, “It doesn’t matter. He’s not coming back. Happy Thanksgiving.” He yelled at the prosecutor, “Mr. McCauley didn’t just kill two people, he killed me. I’m over, I’m done with.” As he was led from the courtroom, he sneered, “See you guys in the next life.” At sentencing, the wife of the 7-Eleven clerk McCauley shot, Pedro Hernandez-Vargas, told the judge, “I have never felt such sadness and emptiness in my life.” Then, addressing McCauley and Bernal, she said, “You will deservedly live the rest of your life as caged animals.”

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Tommy McCauley is serving life without parole, or LWOP — “a living death.” Pictured here with his aunt Krista, grandmother Amy Robinson, and aunt Martha Kinkade.
Tommy McCauley is serving life without parole, or LWOP — “a living death.” Pictured here with his aunt Krista, grandmother Amy Robinson, and aunt Martha Kinkade.

In the infinite flatness of southern California’s Imperial Valley, an irrigated desert of cropland and skin-frying heat, lies Calipatria State Prison, a mostly maximum-security Level IV warren of cellblocks, surrounded for miles by massive ag plots: white plastic-coated storage barns of alfalfa hay; acres of livestock to which the bales are fed; fields of greenly ripe, ruler-straight commodities like sweet corn and leaf lettuce; flocks of snowy egrets that feast in those fields on lizards, snakes, and mice; and, powering some of the valley’s energy, large pitches of solar arrays on barren parcels. More widely diffused are the sun-withered towns, mottled and cracked by dust storms, where cadres of prison guards live. Not much moves in the desert other than the birds and the wind, breezing over Colorado River water rushing down the concrete ditches. And, arriving every hour, females driving families in battered Corollas, coming to visit their lost loved ones.

One day this past spring, I entered the Calipatria visitor center to interview an inmate. I was told that a strict dress code applied: no hat, no sunglasses, no blue jeans; only car keys and tokens (used for purchasing “treats” from the vending machines inside) were allowed. (Women with dresses endured a private strip search.) I had to change into black sweat pants in an on-site trailer. Back in line, a guard asked, “What's this?” My three-by-five note cards and a pen, brought in lieu of a tape recorder. Confiscated. “Who’s the inmate?” Tommy McCauley, a man serving life without parole, or LWOP — “a living death,” it’s been called. He was in for a double murder, committed with an accomplice on Thanksgiving weekend in 2006, in Murrieta and Lemon Grove. McCauley and I sat opposite one another in little plastic chairs at a round two-foot-high activity table, as if we were in kindergarten. A pack of gun-belted guards stared at us with uniform indifference, watching for contraband to exchange hands. For the next two hours, I felt guilty; I hadn’t brought anything, and wasn’t hiding the thing I hadn’t brought, but it seemed written on my face that I had.

I thought I’d take my time getting to the killings. I inquired about McCauley’s day-to-day life. But suddenly, the 38-year-old McCauley — dressed in his prison cotton blues, wearing dark-lensed prescription glasses, his arms crowded with tattoos — was speaking about the murders, as if he wanted to provide my readers and me a killer’s scene-by-scene account of his malevolent acts.

McCauley had met his accomplice, the younger Franko “Dopes” Bernal, when the two were teenagers, and they became social-media players on MySpace, headliners of sorts in gangster theater. McCauley’s code name was “Giggin McGiggster,” Bernal’s, “Big Dick McGiggster.” Bernal bragged, “I sell drugs to as many bitches as I can.” He listed his occupation as “street pharmacist.” He said he was married, a college grad, and made $100K per year. That he owned several companies that traded in “nasty but classy dripping wet movies and dope delicious girls.” The dope-addled hoopla went on and on: “I live like a rockstar running from the cop cars.”

Thanksgiving evening, before the first murder, McCauley and his aider and abettor were at a party in Murrieta, boasting of their prowess. Bernal kept his .22 gun in his car, which, he said, according to court records and trial testimony, was “for my protection.” That night, he had “Jack Sparrow” — his weapon’s nickname, based on the flintlock-wielding character played by Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean — tucked into his waistband; he lifted his shirt and showed several witnesses his “little friend.” If anybody screwed with him, Bernal said, he’d get them, “clack, clack, clack.” Later, after the two robbery-murders, anonymous tips from text-messaging friends at the party led to their arrests; one caller got $2500 from Crimestoppers.

McCauley said that “the trial and the media got it all wrong” during his 2008 trial for two counts of first-degree murder, premeditated attempted murder, and robbery. The then-homeless McCauley — driven by Bernal — did not randomly shoot 18-year-old Duante Mercado-Bates as he was walking down the street, eating corn nuts, and wearing a backpack in Murrieta. No, McCauley said, “I got out of the car and went to rob him,” carrying Bernal’s “Jack Sparrow.” McCauley recounted saying, “‘Gimme that backpack, bitch,’ and the kid wouldn’t do it, so I knocked him on the ground. He still wouldn’t give it, and kept trying to get up, so I hit him in the head with the gunstock so hard it cracked. And he went down, tried to get up again. ‘Gimme the backpack!’ That’s all I wanted. But he wouldn’t. So I shot him. Closer than you are to me. He went down and I saw him go” — here he mimed Mercado-Bates’s last gasp, “Aaahh,” tilting his head back, his eyes swallowed by his forehead. “And then he was dead. Right in front of me.” Actually, as I’d read later, the kid slowly bled to death, and did not die until dawn.

The Mercado-Bates killing took place after midnight on Thanksgiving day. Twenty-four hours later — still dressed in their black hooded sweatshirts and black ball caps, but now binge-drinking and joyriding through Lemon Grove, looking for targets to rob — Bernal and McCauley spotted a man at an ATM. “That’s $300 right there,” McCauley said. Bernal hesitated. McCauley shouted, “Come on, let’s do it!” He was sick, he told me, of Bernal’s big-talk and little-do. They argued; both men threw punches. Enraged, McCauley told Bernal to stop in front of a 7-Eleven, hoisted the gun, and said it was time. Inside, he saw another kid, Andres Villaverde, 18. The kid was looking at him, “So I shot him.” The bullet took off half his jaw. Once he reached the store’s counter, McCauley pointed Jack Sparrow at the clerk, Pedro Hernandez-Vargas, 54, and shot him. The man went down, begging for his life. McCauley recalls saying, “I didn’t hurt you that bad, bitch. Get up.” Hernandez-Vargas got up, apologized that he didn’t unlock the till quickly enough — “My bad, dog” — and McCauley shot him twice more. Once around the counter, he pushed the dead man aside, pocketed bills and change, swiped a handful of lottery Scratchers, blew the locked handle off a beer cooler, and cradled out a couple of six-packs. Another man was in the store, McCauley told me, but “I didn’t shoot him.” Out he went, and the cowering Bernal drove them away.

The next day, the two men ran, but not before bragging about the killings to friends — friends who later testified in the trials. (The men were tried with separate juries, using the same evidence.) Bernal was caught in Las Vegas; McCauley Greyhounded to Cody, Wyoming, where his aunt convinced him to surrender. Each was convicted and given two concurrent terms of life, LWOP sentences: Bernal went to Kern Valley State Prison, while McCauley bounced over a decade-and-a-half from San Diego county jails (at Central, he assaulted a guard), to the supermax pen at Corcoran (the late Charlie Manson’s nest), to the medium-security prison at Kern (he said he never ran into Bernal), and then to the supermax Tehachapi, where he did “a year clean,” which qualified him for the boiling hot but less restrictive Calipatria where he is now. Along the way, he spent a total of six years in the special housing unit, or SHU — sometimes in solitary, sometimes with a celly, confined 23 hours a day. “I didn’t follow the rules,” he explained. At times, he was in because he fought with guards or other prisoners; at times, he was in for protective custody, separated from inmates who wanted to kill him.

Tommy’s childhood circumstances seem, by turns, criminally horrifying and hardly unusual. His aunt Martha recalls five-year-old Tommy, battered by his parents’ turmoil, who told her one day he wished to commit suicide.

When McCauley’s aunt asked why he killed Mercado-Bates, he said, “No reason.” But he admitted to detectives (but not at trial) that he shot the Murrieta kid to “get his rocks off.” Besides the deaths themselves, these conflicting responses remain, for me, the most troubling aspect of these successive, post-midnight killings. Coupled together, both replies challenge the notion that we can look for a reason why men commit murder — revenge, infidelity, money, and the partially mitigating cause of an abusive family. Pitting “what’s the reason” against “no reason” is incongruous, and the incongruity shows that establishing a motive is tricky. If there is and there isn’t a reason, then maybe the unstable McCauley deserves life behind bars. If there’s no motive with which to properly engage, then maybe he’s incorrigible to the marrow. If he can’t learn about why he did what he did and why it was wrong, then he’ll never change, and motive hardly seems to matter. Lock him up. But to people who care about humane incarceration, it still matters that a man is in no small part the result of where he came from: in his case, a trauma-besieged childhood so egregious that his past may, for what it’s worth, shed light on his seemingly irremediable nature, a nature shared by the majority of youth offenders.

  • * * *

Bernal and McCauley appealed their convictions in 2011. The verdicts for the two first-degree murders were upheld, and their LWOP sentences remained in place. The appellate judge argued that the crimes were committed with “malice aforethought.” The word “malice” means a desire to hurt, “aforethought” indicates that said malice was possessed prior to the act itself, which is not as definitive as it sounds.

It’s objectively true that McCauley brought a loaded gun along for both robberies. According to the appeal, the fact that he “used it to kill an unarmed victim reasonably suggests the defendant considered the possibility of murder in advance.” It’s worth noting that the law regarding premeditation does not require “a rational motive” for murder. Any motive, “shallow and distorted but, to the perpetrator, genuine” may be sufficient. What’s more, we typically think of premeditated murder as one in which the assailant lies in wait, having plotted the assault. The intention to murder, however, is much more broadly defined than that. An intent to kill can occur in the moment. The appeal argued that “at such close range,” six feet or less, “and with the number of shots fired, the inference could be made that the shooter was intent on inflicting death.” It is also rational to believe, as the jury was instructed, that McCauley’s taking sexual pleasure in the murders added another motive, morbid but still “genuine.” These explanations for McCauley’s act being treated as willful, deliberate, and preconceived first-degree murder were presented accurately to the juries, San Diego’s presiding judge Judith McConnel ruled.

Most of us would likely agree that a person charged with murder — 90 percent of murderers are men — who told detectives he “got his rocks off” by killing and has “no reason” besides that to offer is profoundly immature. We may regard such a person as a degenerate juvenile or depraved adult, depending on his age. And yet, by law, we judge the adult as more culpable than the youth, in part because of the youth’s insufficient brain development. This is enlightened thinking; rather than writing off the evildoer as simply evil, we can, by tying culpability to age and maturity, attribute at least some of the act to poor development. And in that case, then subsequent development may help solve his problem. Perhaps such a man can be rehabilitated. (It’s noteworthy that the recidivism rate for paroled youth offenders is under one percent.) But the grown-up, ice-in-his-veins killer? Him we tend to regard as unsalvageable, deserving of prison’s ingenious mix of punishment, retribution, and exile.

Richard Gates is Chief Deputy of the Office of Multiple Conflicts, where his attorneys represented McCauley and Bernal in 2008.

But should “unsalvageable” be considered when we’re talking about culpability? Leaving their convictions aside for the moment, is it possible that Bernal and McCauley, 20 and 22 at the time of the killings, were so significantly mis-wired that they were, as the neurologist Robert Sapolsky puts it, “organically incapable of regulating the appropriateness of their behavior”? What happens to guilt and sentencing if neuroscience firmly establishes that some men in their teens and early twenties simply can’t control their violent impulses? Is there some way in which the worst of the worst might be assessed differently, determined to be as complexly determined by circumstance as by biology? Granting parole hearings to LWOP inmates would require a massive shift in public opinion and, consequently, new statutes regarding the nature of culpability itself. (Of the 115,000 men in California state prisons, 33,000 are serving life sentences, and 5200 are LWOP.)

Here are some behavioral traits that neuroscience finds in people with underdeveloped brains, people who, before age 26, may — and often do — engage in dangerous or criminal activity. The condition of “impaired volition” brings with it a lack of responsibility, an inability to understand risks and consequences of one’s behavior, a high susceptibility to negative influences and outside pressures, and the classic notion that impulses beget actions, though most agree that the term “irresistible impulse” is a circumlocution: murder may cross the minds of many, but many still resist the act — even when young.

  • * * *

Tommy McCauley was born April 14, 1984, to Sam McCauley and Lisa Ann Fitzgerald, parents bedeviled from the get-go by their drug and alcohol addictions. Both of them have acknowledged their failures at parenting Tommy, a boy who loved animals, books, and Montessori preschool — Lisa in trial testimony, in which she blamed herself and argued for leniency, and Sam in a recent interview where he bemoaned his neglect. Tommy McCauley told me that his mom came to California “at 15, on the back of a motorcycle.” Quickly, he said, she was “doing a lot of meth” as well as prostituting herself. She married Sam McCauley, then had Tommy and Tommy’s sister, Krystal. At McCauley’s sentencing hearing, Lisa admitted to years of abandoning the boy as well as her history of depression and drug dependency. (Eventually, she converted to evangelical Christianity in Cleveland, Tennessee, and she died there in 2009.)

Lisa and Sam were often so high or drunk (or both) that family members stepped in to care for Tommy. Recently, I spoke with some of his relatives — Tommy’s aunt Martha, his grandmother Amy, and his father Sam, near Sam’s home in Santee, where, at 62, he is trying to repair his life. I asked Sam if he has visited Tommy in prison. He hasn’t: first, because Tommy has refused to see him, and second, because Sam — who has had six arrests in the county — is a registered sex offender, convicted in 1997 of committing a “lewd or lascivious act with a child under 14 years of age.” The victim was the daughter of a girlfriend. He told me he has “lost the damn paperwork,” and must complete it before Calipatria will allow him in.

Tommy’s childhood circumstances seem, by turns, criminally horrifying and hardly unusual. His aunt Martha recalls five-year-old Tommy, battered by his parents’ turmoil, who told her one day he wished to commit suicide. (Sam told me that as a young girl, Lisa had grabbed the steering wheel of the car she was riding in with her family. He said the car rolled over and everybody inside was killed but her. For Lisa, that tragedy was followed by an unsafe girlhood in foster care.) Aunt Martha describes young Tommy as having sores in his mouth from screaming for food. Martha, her mother Amy, and a sister would visit Sam and Lisa’s home in East San Diego and find him on the floor, in filth, his parents unavailable — Lisa lying in bed all day and doing drugs, Sam away on an Army tour or “always working and after work, partying.”

Aunt Martha recalled that when Sam, Lisa, and Tommy stayed with Sam’s mother Amy, she noticed her teaspoons were missing. Martha, living nearby, told her mother that Lisa was taking them to cook crack. Other members of Tommy’s extended family let the boy live with them — for a time. He would “get quiet,” a sign of cooperative meekness, and they’d let him stay, thinking things had stabilized. But invariably, his parents took him back, and the peril returned. By Tommy’s sixth birthday, Sam and Lisa had split up. A pregnant Lisa took him to New Mexico. Sam followed with his brother Brad; they intended to liberate the boy at gunpoint. Met by Lisa’s friends and their guns, the brothers fled.

Tommy told me that consuming alcohol was a family habit; he started at 13. That same year, he learned that Sam had been convicted of molesting a young girl of similar age, the daughter of Sam’s girlfriend. How did his son learn of it? Before his arrest, Sam took him to Lake Murray for a walk and confessed. “Tommy was crushed,” Sam said. That’s when, he admitted, the anger rooted deeply in him. By his late teens, Tommy had dropped out of high school and moved in with his dad. He had a job, but he was also tagging with the DTK (Down to Kill) gang. Sam said, “I was really hard on him. I told him not to drink and smoke and hang out with a gang.” He told him to get off his ass, saying, “I leave for work. You’re on the couch. I come home from work. You’re on the couch. You gotta go. You gotta get the fuck out. I can’t deal with it.” The way the traumatized Tommy spoke, his father said, was “with his fist.” He was unable to talk about his feelings. One night, Sam went to call the cops on Tommy, “and then he attacked me, fucked me up pretty bad. When I came to, the police were there; he had crushed my orbital socket and split my head open.” Sam had the bone around his eye rebuilt with titanium, “to keep my eye from falling out.”

Since establishing her one-woman practice in 2009, attorney Laura Sheppard has focused on lifers, those serving 25-to-life, whom she represents at parole hearings.

Sam’s own life of travail began in the military, in Germany, where, at 20, he was drugged and raped. He never told a soul, even during his seven years of homelessness, not until he quit drinking. Eventually he enrolled in P.E.T. (prolonged exposure treatment) with the VA, which, along with a PTSD diagnosis, has helped. He’s been in AA for nearly a decade, attended community college for a drug-counseling certificate, and survived prostate cancer. After Tommy was sentenced in 2008, Sam remembers him saying, “he didn’t want anything to do with me.” Only recently have they begun speaking by phone.

I asked Tommy why he thought his sister, grandmother, and two aunts continue to write, e-visit, and drive to the below-sea-level penitentiary, with its summers in the 110s. His answer surprised me, though it made sense. They feel guilty, he said, about not rescuing him from his parents’ abuse. It’s something Sam feels from afar as well: he fears his son’s rage will surface if he, Sam, ever shows up at Calipatria.

  • * * *

As prisoner-rights attorney Laura Sheppard sat down with me in her office — a second-floor, heat-trapping room above City Heights’ Little Brown Jug liquor store — she pointed to the back of the door, through which I’d entered. There a was a sign on it reading “Exit,” haloed by dozens of photos of the lifers she has got out of prison. Next to the “Exit” door was another door labeled “Closet.” On it were photos of her current clients — all doing life.

I asked Sheppard to describe her work. Since establishing her one-woman practice in 2009, she has focused on lifers, those serving 25-to-life, whom she represents at parole hearings. She joked that her clients are a “captive audience,” pointing to hundreds of unsolicited letters from cons in state lockups who’d love her help. (She’s not taking new cases just now.) Families of inmates pay her retainer, some by counting out stacks of $5 bills from tip wads and piggy banks. Her office’s tumult reflects an unlawyerly modesty. “I do this work from my heart,” she says, “I’m not trying to get rich off them.”

I laid out McCauley’s case; she said she would start her comments with age categories. Men under 26 are youth offenders; before that age, they’re juveniles, after that, adults. But Sheppard contends every prisoner, no matter the age, should have the possibility to earn parole. Why? She’s been visiting inmates since she started accompanying her advocate parents at age five, and she’s learned to despise the prison system. She grants that her clients’ crimes, like McCauley’s, are horrible to revisit. But she also finds that the violence of a carceral system intensifies the horrors shouldered in from the inmate’s previous life. She noted, bitterly, that she is typically the first person to whom clients disclose their “extreme sexual or other abuse in childhood. Those disclosures hurt me more than the crime they’re convicted of, because the ‘victim’ is a person who I know and am in a [legal] relationship with.”

She continued. “Once you’re the victim of childhood trauma, your brain development is permanently damaged, permanently stunted.” Most youth killers are incapable of moral reasoning, she said, because of the lack development in their prefrontal cortexes. And prison just reinforces that damage: no one pops out of the pen and into “adulthood” at 26. McCauley’s mental tools, like most of the LWOP men in his yard, are limited. He had a psych evaluation prior to his trial, but, Sheppard said, several things were likely true of his mental state at that time. First, he had no way to articulate his psychological impairment. Second, court psychologists measured him only at a “point in time,” just after a double homicide. Third, his public defender may have avoided his client’s fitness, since he was already labeled a “pariah” following his arrest, and few would have argued against the state to lessen his culpability, other than — as his lawyer did — to escape the death penalty. That was thought to be defense enough.

There a was a sign on Sheppard’s office door reading “Exit,” haloed by dozens of photos of the lifers she has got out of prison. Next to the “Exit” door was another door labeled “Closet.” On it were photos of her current clients — all doing life.

Today, it’s different. Brain trauma and youth criminality are clearly conjoined; attorneys use diagnoses of mental illness and family abuse as mitigating evidence for youth offenders, most of whom will come up for parole. But, Sheppard asked, thinking of the LWOPs, have science-savvy courts and judges kept up with these advances for all inmates? Mostly no, she said; they’re “way behind on everything.” Budgets are the chief drag.

Sheppard’s passion was palpable. She characterized herself as storyteller and psychologist, ticking off “attorney” way down the list. She leaned forward and, with piercing gusto, said: “I will rip somebody’s head off if they tell me that people can’t change, because I get to witness [that they have]. I’ll never say a person is a monster or evil, though their behavior is sometimes that. But that doesn’t define them.”

What influence has she had on the lifers she represents? “I don’t mean to toot my own horn,” she said, “but it’s been life-changing on both sides to really get to see the impact I make.” She gets several thank-you cards each week. Men have lied to her in letters, and later apologized for lying once they discovered her commitment to their cases. One such acknowledgement read, “You opened my eyes to the fact that there are good people because I never saw any good growing up, and once I saw it from you, then I started to see it in others. And now I feel like I can be one of the good guys.”

  • * * *

Among the active prisoner rights’ groups, agreeing with Sheppard’s agenda are Families United to End LWOP (or FUEL) and the Anti-Recidivism Coalition. Both advocate for “restorative justice,” a holistic concept that aims to reconcile prisoners, victims, and communities. Perhaps the most effective of these groups are the ones that are inside — the small but mighty self-help pods in prison yards, often zealously led by one or two saved souls.

One such person at Calipatria is Ruhani Bustamante, a former “triggerman” for the East Side Longos, a violent street gang in Long Beach. Convicted of double homicide in 2010, he’s now serving an LWOP sentence. He called me recently to describe guys who are “rehabilitating, doing good, and trying to change our way of thinking.” Bustamante is the secretary of their LWOP alliance, 40 inmates in their cellblock, with “guys trying to get in.” Tommy McCauley is the vice-chair. Some LWOP inmates in Calipatria, Bustamante said, “are very discouraged and live a kind of hopeless disparity,” referring to the core distinction between LWOP and other lifers. Their alliance counters the defeatism by mentoring men with “pro-social behaviors to be leaders and to quit doing drugs. We talk about commutations and earning freedom.”

During his incarceration, McCauley spiraled into near-oblivion. Marking his time inside, the “six years” in the SHU, the hopelessness, the fights — he described inmates as “a bunch of middle-school girls with knives” — are his tattoo-illustrated arms, sporting, to my eye, a prison lexicon of signs and symbols. Some, he wishes he could scrub off. One day he learned that his sister had found him, via a DNA search on 23 & Me. She wrote him with the news that she had three biracial kids, a fact that might trouble a man who had identified with the Aryan Brotherhood. The blood relations woke him up. His father Sam said that it “lit a fire in him. He realized he’s not alone.” Now, he’s got three nephews he’d like to meet someday.

At Calipatria, he caught a break; he dropped his gang affiliations when he entered the Sensitive Needs Yard, or SNY, a new block for men whose profiles differ from most inmates. (The roughly 600 inmates in SNY comprise a sixth of Calipatria’s overpacked 2737 occupants. The prison is 127 percent above capacity, a norm in California pens.) McCauley does his time next to gay men, trans, pagans, Muslims, old convicts, the mentally ill, sex offenders, and those who want to erase the mindset of racism, extortion, and violence and to eschew drugs, gambling, and alcohol — the invisible chains of the incarcerated. McCauley said, “I love it here” — “here” being sensitive-needs segregation. His grandmother echoed her grandson’s feeling: “I think Tommy feels safe there,” adding quickly, “something he’s never felt.”

Another rehab component is self-direction: for McCauley, that means earning a degree from Imperial Valley College and managing the prison chapel, where services are held by Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, Native Americans, and Pagans. Recently he was baptized a Christian. He said he was “dunked” into the faith and found “peace” to replace the “emptiness.” It’s another means by which McCauley is documenting his emotional and spiritual development, if in no other form than testimony — to any person or force who’ll listen.

A new California law reflects our state’s evolving views on rehabbing lifers. A Franklin hearing allows defendants serving life as youth offenders (under 26 at the time of the crime) to “present evidence that would mitigate their sentence.” However, Franklin excludes LWOP inmates — at least for the time being. Sheppard told me she was preparing documents that anticipate changes in “legislation or a commutation from the Governor” for her roster of non-parolees. She writes, “the Franklin decision reflects the wisdom of collecting evidence related to the hallmarks of youth as early as possible.” And she says that youth offenders need “help seeking and filing this evidence now, rather than at some later date when [they] may become eligible for parole.”

Richard Gates is Chief Deputy of the Office of Multiple Conflicts, where his attorneys represented McCauley and Bernal in 2008 (McCauley’s attorney, Dan Mangarin, has retired). LWOPs, Gates said, are out of luck for Franklin. For them to get relief, the legislature must act. (SB 481, which would have granted a parole hearing to LWOP youth offenders, died in committee last year.) He described what seems a two-tiered system: for lifers (those who are parole-eligible), factors like abuse, mental illness, drugs, and trafficking “place them in a more sympathetic light,” such that they may receive some leniency in sentencing. “The LWOPs do not get” the same consideration, he said, even if neuroscience and psych exams can show the hell of their upbringing and the personal changes they have made in prison.

“Some factual crimes,” Gates said, “will face an organized opposition to release an individual, no matter how well they perform in prison.” However, he sees “no harm in having a hearing.” Gates noted that “there’s nothing in the prison system that indicates ‘getting out’ is a slam dunk.” In effect, the only way an inmate matures is through the social milieu he both transcends and uses on his behalf — an extremely high bar that requires doing one’s best in the worst of conditions. What’s a stellar record in prison? A person who is substance-free, shows positive testimony from family, teachers, and social workers, and reveals strides in maturity with time-tested mental health assessments. Documenting those strides is daunting and will take years, as will sobriety, mentorships, and self-repair, things which McCauley or any LWOP inmate must achieve and procure with scant professional aid.

For much of his imprisonment, McCauley concentrated on survival: He told me Job #1 was “take care of myself.” Then, when participating in an AA-like inmate circle, he heard a lifer confess that his act deprived family members of their time with the man he murdered. The lifer said he’d been mourning their loss. McCauley chimed in: it had never occurred to him to care about Andre Villaverde’s life, or Mercado-Bates’s and Hernandez-Vargas’s kin. Suddenly, he did. I asked if he had written the families letters of regret. He had. I said, unnecessarily critical, “Anybody can write a letter. The question is, did you feel it?” A softened sensitivity lit his face, and he nodded. Then it was gone. But I saw it.

  • * * *

When the guard announced over the crackling loudspeaker that time was up, we — the visiting sisters, mothers, wives, kids, and me, one of a handful of men — left by rows. McCauley got up, and he and I bumped fists, then he sat back down. At the door, I turned and saw a different person. When we spoke, he had sat ramrod straight and addressed me firmly, eyes locked on mine except when he glanced at the guards. Now he adopted a fuck-you attitudinal slump: the imperious adolescent, leaning back, mouth open, one calf resting on the other leg’s knee. He seemed to have relaunched his inmate’s condescension toward the system, the guards, and who knows what or who else. A curtain of the servile drew across him. Or maybe it was a curtain that shielded me from an existence, no, a life, I had no way to process, let alone understand.

“Should people forgive you?” I had asked before we finished talking. “Only if forgiving me will help them heal,” he said. “It won’t do that for me. I have to do that for myself.”

By this point, readers should be asking, “What of the victims and victim families? How do they regard LWOP men who are dedicating themselves to rehabilitation?” I found no victim-family follow-up stories or contacts regarding the 2006 homicides. (If anyone knows . . .) For some sense of the murders’ weight on family and friends, I scoured news stories and police accounts and found nothing. At trial, McCauley never spoke. Bernal, who claimed, accurately, that despite never pulling a trigger he was convicted as the aider and abettor, flung several smart-ass comments. He told one victim’s family, “It doesn’t matter. He’s not coming back. Happy Thanksgiving.” He yelled at the prosecutor, “Mr. McCauley didn’t just kill two people, he killed me. I’m over, I’m done with.” As he was led from the courtroom, he sneered, “See you guys in the next life.” At sentencing, the wife of the 7-Eleven clerk McCauley shot, Pedro Hernandez-Vargas, told the judge, “I have never felt such sadness and emptiness in my life.” Then, addressing McCauley and Bernal, she said, “You will deservedly live the rest of your life as caged animals.”

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