Living With Murder

Intro from Jay Allison: This past year, we at Transom have been fortunate to work with the new investigative podcast, The Frontline Dispatch (PBS and WGBH). The final episodes of the first season are a collaboration between Frontline and Transom, building on our previous story, "A Life Sentence: Victims, Offenders, Justice, and My Mother."

Producer Samantha Broun has continued to report on criminal justice reform, balancing the positions of victims and offenders. Her reporting is personal--her mother was a victim of a violent crime--but it's also universal, raising the societal questions of punishment, redemption, revenge, rehabilitation, fear and trust.

For this Transom Feature, we bring you our new two-part special, "Living With Murder." It's the story of Kempis Songster, who was given a mandatory life sentence without parole for a crime he committed at 15 years old. He is forty-five now, still incarcerated, but recent Supreme Court rulings are giving him a chance at parole. This story follows him up to the moment of his re-sentencing, and is based on conversations with victims, prosecutors, advocates, politicians, and, mainly, between Kempis, a juvenile lifer about to be released, and Samantha, whose mother was attacked by a juvenile lifer who was released.

The story is produced by Samantha and me. Big thanks to Raney Aronson, Sophie McKibben and the team at Frontline. We hope you'll check out the other episodes of our first season of the Frontline Dispatch.

Stumbling On A Story

I didn’t go looking for this story. I stumbled on it.

This happened in the months after I finished A Life Sentence: Victims, Offenders, Justice and My Mother, a story about a violent crime my mother survived over 20 years ago, and the impact the crime had on my mother and our family, as well as on the criminal justice system, especially in Pennsylvania.

I had taken the piece on the road — so to speak — playing it and having conversations with audiences in Pennsylvania. And it was then I learned a few things:

1. The United States is the only country in the world that sentences juveniles to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

2. Pennsylvania is the juvenile lifer capital of the world.

3. A series of Supreme Court rulings over the past five years has made it unconstitutional to give juveniles mandatory life without parole. And, the court stipulated, those who had been given this sentence would be able to have their sentence reconsidered, which could include the possibility of parole.

If you’re interested, you can learn more about juvenile lifer-related issues here or here. Or you can watch this great TV documentary about juvenile lifers from PBS Frontline called Second Chance Kids.

All of this was of interest to me as a human being and as a citizen of this country. But more specifically I was interested because the man who attacked my mother was a juvenile lifer from Pennsylvania, and when he was given a second chance, he attacked my mother and murdered others.

So, I started asking around, looking for someone — a juvenile lifer — who people thought might be willing to talk with me throughout their process of being re-sentenced. A few people, thankfully, pointed me to Kempis Songster.

Challenges

This was a complicated story to tell for a number of reasons.

First, as was true with A Life Sentence, I wouldn’t be able to entirely separate myself from the story. As a reporter, I didn’t anticipate finding myself in a position like this again, so soon or even ever, and so — before I began reporting this piece — I had to gear up for knowing that what I said and how I changed over the course of the reporting and telling was going to be part of the story too.

Anjo Pryce

Second, ultimately this is a story about violence, trauma, grief, second chances, and trust. Really tricky, emotional subjects to navigate. I interviewed Kempis who, along with a co-defendant, was found guilty of the murder of Anjo Pryce. Kempis was 15 at the time of the murder. Anjo was 17. I also interviewed Anjo’s family, the family of other victims, a former Department Of Corrections staffer, a public defender, a district attorney, and others. These are people who often stand on opposite sides in matters like these. These are people who often may not even want to talk with each other. My goal for the finished piece was to tell the story in such a way that each of these people would feel compelled to listen all the way through. That they would hear themselves in the piece and that they might also hear the “other.” That they might learn, or be willing to consider, new thoughts, ideas, perspectives, new somethings. This meant that while I was producing and editing the piece(s), it was crucial to listen with all those ears/perspectives in mind. It also meant relying on Jay Allison, who produced this with me, as well as the team at the Frontline Dispatch, to make sure I was fair and honest in the reporting and in the telling.

Third, while there’s a lot of material we fit into this piece, there’s also a lot we left out. Crucial issues were not included. Such as an in-depth examination of race and class in all this; an in-depth history of the laws around juveniles; the powers that influence the criminal justice system; or the conditions that create places like the crack house Kempis found himself in at 15. We didn’t discuss, for example, the fact that I’m white and Kempis is black and how that matters between us and in the world. We didn’t discuss the amount of trust it took for Kempis to let me tell his story, and for me to trust that Kempis was worthy of a second chance. Like I said, crucial issues.

Managing Mountains Of Tape

In the end, I interviewed over a dozen people over the course of a year and easily had over 50 hours of tape (35 + with just Kempis). I’ve never collected so much tape for one story. All of it was transcribed (not by me, thank you Frontline!). As soon as a transcript arrived, I’d sit down and pull the most interesting bits of tape. If we could, Jay and I would then listen to the pulled clips together and he would tell me what he found interesting or — in his awesome Jay way — would point out how something this person said would go great with something another person said (even if we had listened to that other person weeks before).

Eventually, I came up with themes (the crime, redemption, pushing back, the resentencing, etc.) and literally cut out the best quotes from each transcript and organized them on big tri-fold, cardboard backboards. From there I could move pieces of paper around to begin to shape the story. The boards were also super helpful to Jay who would ask from time to time about who we were missing or “What about that great quote so-and-so said? Where’s that?” And bam! There it’d be on the board where we could see it and consider where it might fit in.

Jay making sense of all our tape.

Show, Don’t Tell

This was something Jay pointed out to me once we had our hands on the tape and were in production mode. He’d say that as much as possible instead of narrating all the emotionally tricky subjects mentioned above, we should let things happen in the tape. That we should let the listeners hear the surprise or vulnerability or doubt from interviewees or in the interaction between me and Kempis, not tell listeners about it in narration. Sage advice that, I hope, results in taking listeners on a bit of the emotional journey that I went on while hearing all of these perspectives.

Thanks

Thank you to Transom and to the Frontline Dispatch for allowing me the time, support, platform and resources to properly tell this story. To Jay Allison, who I’ve somehow convinced now twice to work on a personal piece with me. Thank you for making a hard thing easier. To Sophie McKibben — the series producer at the Frontline Diapatch — who knew her stuff on this topic and generously shared what she knew, and then skillfully and gracefully shepherded the piece through the Frontline process.

Thank you to everyone I spoke with and interviewed for this story: Errol and Toshira Pryce, Catherine Joy and Gail Songster, Amy Rosenberg at The Philadelphia Inquirer (who has been reporting on Kempis’ story for 30 years), Bobbi Jamriska, Bradley Bridge, Chesley Lightsey, David Diguglielmo, Doug Fox, Jack McMahon, Jennifer Storm, Judge Timothy Savage, Laurence Steinberg, Mark Singel, Steven Morse and especially Kempis Songster who, it turns out, is a good listener and asker of questions himself.

Thanks also to Mike Lyons and The Redemption Project, Monay Washington, Annie Ruhnke and Lauren Fine at the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project, etta cetera, Jody Kent Lavy and Karmah Elmusa at the The Campaign For The Fair Sentencing of Youth and Brooke McCarthy at The Juvenile Law Center.

Thank you to the rest of the team at PBS Frontline — I know I’m missing some — who made this piece possible: Executive Producer Raney Aronson, PBS Frontline managing editor Andrew Metz, Senior Producer Jamie York, Series Story Editor Lauren Ezell Kinlaw, Associate Producer Amy Gaines, and Special Counsel Dale Cohen. The Frontline Dispatch is made possible by Abrams Foundation Journalism Initiative.

Thank you to Matthias Bossi and Jon Evans of Stellwagen Symphonette for the music. And Sydney Lewis and Viki Merrick, public radio stations WCAI and WGBH, and Atlantic Public Media for all of your support.

And finally, to Rob Rosenthal and Melissa Allison. Thank you for your generous hearts.

*The photo at the top of the post is from The Philadelphia Inquirer and was taken in 1988 as Dameon Brome (l) and Kempis Songster (r) were being escorted out of the courtroom at the end of their trial.

Additional support for this work provided by the
National Endowment for the Arts
National Endowment for the Arts logo

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