After 43 years for a purse-snatching gone wrong, a juvenile lifer's chance at freedom

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Doreen St. John and Earl Rice Jr., former spouses, dream of a future together. After decades spent in prison, he has plans to reunite with family.

At age 60, Earl Rice Jr. is living for the future.

"I train myself to get up at 4 every morning," he said, "just so when I go home, I'll be up before the sun rises and ready to go."

Rice has served 43 years toward a life sentence at Graterford state prison for a purse-snatching gone wrong at age 17.

Now, for the first time, he has a chance at release.

"There's a lot of people I want to spend time with and things I want to do," said Rice, now a great-grandfather. There's a trip to Disney World with his daughter that's decades overdue. A wedding delayed eight years already. "You can't make up for 43 years, but I want to do what I can for others and live life to the fullest."

He feels that his luck is finally changing.

Rice, denied commutation three times, may now be among the very first of 480 juvenile lifers in Pennsylvania considered for parole after the Supreme Court's ruling in Montgomery v. Louisiana. That decision made the court's 2012 ban on automatic life-without-parole sentences for juveniles retroactive.

But his freedom is far from certain: It would be the first time in decades that Pennsylvania's parole board has considered releasing someone convicted of first- or second-degree murder.

While other inmates are expecting new hearings, Chester County Judge James MacElree simply revised the sentences of the juvenile lifers on his docket, including Rice, to "time served to life."

Surviving relatives of the victim, Ola Danenberg, didn't get a chance to testify. They declined to be interviewed or identified, but allowed the state's victim advocate, Jennifer Storm, to speak on their behalf.

"They are not happy," she said. They told her life without parole is "absolutely" still the right sentence.

"Always into something"

Danenberg and Rice had not met before their paths intersected, momentarily and momentously, at 2 a.m. on Sept. 2, 1973, on East Market Street in West Chester.

Rice, then 17, was the third of nine siblings but the oldest boy - a charismatic troublemaker who liked to steal cars for joyrides. His girlfriend was newly pregnant.

"I was one of those kids who was always into something," he said of his childhood in public housing. "Neighborhood ladies would offer to bake me pies if I would behave."

That night, Rice and a friend left a party, planning to stop by a bar for a quart of beer.

But they saw Danenberg, then 62, walking alone. They thought she was an easy target. They ran at her, grabbing her purse. Glancing back, Rice saw her fall to her knees.

A few days later, Rice heard that police were looking for him - that it had to do with a murder.

He thought it had to be a mix-up and went to the station, without a parent or a lawyer, to straighten it out.

"I gave them a full statement. That's when I found out she [hit her head and] died," he said.

"Neither me or my parents knew enough about the law or criminal justice system to realize how much trouble I was in."

He was in about as much trouble as a person can be in: Life without parole was the only sentence then available for murder.

"Death by incarceration"

Rice calls his sentence "death by incarceration."

And yet, life went on.

Seven months after Rice was arrested, his daughter was born. Seventeen years after that, he had a grandson. Twenty-three years after that, a great grandson. There were deaths, too: Rice's mother in 1979, and three siblings since.

He made meaning where he could: He got his diploma, and trained as a plumber and a butcher. He volunteered to speak to at-risk youth with the Police Athletic League, and helped Drexel students make a film urging kids to stay on track.

And he's built a close relationship with his grandchildren, nieces and nephews, and especially his daughter, Crystal Twyman.

"My father is my best friend," said Twyman, of Lititz, now 42, a mother of three and a grandmother. But it's bittersweet: "I never got to have a father-daughter dance. He missed the birth of my children. He's been in there my whole entire life."

Something else happened about a decade into Rice's incarceration: He fell in love.

Rice still remembers when he first met Doreen "Pam" St. John. He was 13, cutting lawns; she was 12, getting off a school bus in a short purple mini dress. ("It wasn't that short!" she insists.) They lost touch until the 1980s, when they began writing, then visiting. In 1988, they got married. They divorced in 2002, but they've been back together for eight years now.

St. John, 58, of Coatesville, visits every other Saturday. What the two have in common, Rice said, is unconditional love - and the dream of a future together. He intends to get a job, then a ring. He'll take any work he can get, but he intends to be a private investigator: He once tracked down a witness no one else could find from inside prison.

For now, he has visits.

The prison caps inmates' visitor lists at 40, and Rice's is at capacity.

Last Saturday, Rice's five surviving siblings got special permission to visit together at Graterford.

At other times, all 11 of Rice's nieces will go together, or all seven nephews.

After this visit, the siblings shifted the festivities to the home of Rice's nephew, Dale Rice, 44. His house, in Coatesville, was decked out with eggs and bunnies for Easter. Dale's own father wasn't around, so he often turned to Rice.

"Everyone looks up to him for leadership," he said. The family is close: They have karaoke nights, picnics, barbecues. At each one, Rice is missed.

A shift in sentences

Earl Sr., now 87, never thought he would have to wait this long to see his family made whole. "There are people who committed murder point-blank that got out quicker than him, and my question is: Why?"

The answer involves forces bigger than Rice.

His incarceration coincided with the rewriting of Pennsylvania's criminal code, the start of a prison boom, and drastic changes in the treatment of lifers.

There were eight state prisons when Rice was locked up in 1973 and fewer than 7,000 inmates; today, there are 26 institutions and 50,000 inmates.

At the time of his arrest, lifers often served as few as 10 or 15 years before the governor commuted their sentences. Gov. Milton Shapp commuted 251 life sentences from 1971 to 1978; by contrast, only seven lifers received commutations from 1995 to 2015.

When the Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that mandatory life-without-parole sentences are unconstitutional for juveniles, it was the first hopeful sign Rice had seen in years.

After that, Pennsylvania's legislature changed the mandatory minimum for juvenile killers: 25 years to life for those 14 or younger, and 35 to life for those 15 to 17.

Rice is among 189 lifers who would be parole-eligible under those guidelines.

He has started preparing his application, which can take months. The approval rate for parole in Pennsylvania is about 60 percent.

Marsha Levick, deputy director of the Juvenile Law Center, worries it will prove a major hurdle for juvenile lifers.

Many have few family ties and no employment history - indications they would be stable upon release. Then, there's the nature of their crimes: If the parole board already has trouble releasing people convicted of violent crimes, how will they treat those guilty of murder?

And, she said, although the Supreme Court rulings were based on the idea that kids are less culpable, "Parole boards aren't accustomed to thinking about that at all."

With his support network, Rice has more going for him than many lifers.

But in his case, as in all others, the victims' families - who imagined the cases were closed for good - will have to weigh in.

Storm, the victim advocate, said Danenberg's family will testify in support of keeping Rice jailed for life.

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