Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on Jan. 16, 2021. Read more of CT Mirror’s “Best of 2021” stories here.
Over a few months in 2007, a day room at Cheshire Correctional Institution turned into a mock trial courtroom a couple of nights each week. Sitting on drab, half-cushioned seats, roughly a dozen male inmates practiced complex legal arguments in preparation — they hoped — for a future court hearing at which they could prove they should be released from prison.
As each man presented his case, someone in the group was assigned to be the lookout, scanning the room’s entryway for correction officers who might spot them and accuse them of gang activity, which could put them at risk of losing their prison jobs or being sent to segregation.
The others tried to be mindful of their peers who wanted to use the precious hours outside their cells to watch Monday Night Football or another show on the common room’s shared television in peace. These complications meant the mock trials only lasted a few months. The group scrapped the meetings, worried they’d get caught.
Still, it was great while it lasted, said James Jeter, one of the mock trial participants who practiced his arguments and learned to take constructive criticism from his incarcerated peers.
“It’s really getting away from these clear-cut narratives that, ‘Oh well, you do the crime, you do the time.’ Sure. But what’s the time?” Jeter said. “Is it justice if you give me an insurmountable amount of time and take in no mitigating factors?”
Jeter was released from prison on parole in 2017, but the man who organized the mock trials is still behind bars. That man is Clyde Meikle.
Like many of his informal courtroom colleagues, Meikle is fighting for his freedom while serving his time — in his case, a 50-year sentence for killing his cousin in 1994 — and is awaiting a judge’s ruling in his petition for a sentence modification that, if granted, could cut his sentence to 28 years. Among those supporting his release are Scott Semple, the former commissioner of the Department of Correction; James Rovella, the commissioner of the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection who, as a Hartford police detective, arrested Meikle in 1994; and Donna Mambrino, a career prosecutor in the Hartford State’s Attorney’s Office whose first case in Part A court, where serious felonies are handled, was Meikle’s.
“My philosophy during my tenure as commissioner was that you have to have some semblance of hope in the correctional system, otherwise, it’s a system in chaos. And you need to send a message that you have something to work for,” Semple said in an interview on Jan. 11.
Meikle’s case is unique in that he was able to take, and thrive in, college classes while he’s been incarcerated, Semple said, which has aided in his rehabilitation.
“However,” Semple said, “there are a lot of people like Clyde that have ended up in the correctional system as young people and have now matured and moved forward in their lives, that do have the capability to be accountable to themselves and more likely than not are not a threat to society.”
Hartford Superior Court Judge David Gold is expected to announce a decision on Meikle’s sentence modification on Friday. If he grants the request, Meikle, who is currently 49 years old, won’t have to spend the rest of his life behind bars. If he doesn’t, he could die in prison.
To Jeter, Meikle is a “no-brainer” for a sentence modification. He’s one of the founding members of the prison system’s highly regarded T.R.U.E. Unit, which pairs older inmates with younger ones, to mentor troubled youth and help keep them out of the prison system. While incarcerated, Meikle earned his GED, an associate’s degree from Middlesex Community College and completed the credits required for a bachelor’s from Wesleyan University.
“That’s the complicated part: We settle for the no-brainers. Of course Clyde deserves a sentence modification, because look at what he did in the system,” Jeter said. “But should that be the only standard?”
The CT Mirror reviewed Meikle’s petition for a sentencing modification; the 500 pages of exhibits his attorneys filed containing court records and letters of support from Meikle’s family and others he’s helped; and spoke to experts about Meikle’s case and the use of sentence modifications as a tool to dismantle mass incarceration and reduce lengthy sentences.
The resulting picture is one of a man who has lived two distinct lives — one before he fired the gun that killed his cousin, and one after. It took imprisonment for Meikle to get the resources he needed to earn his G.E.D. and thrive in college classes, and it took the perspective that comes only from time and sobriety for Meikle to grow into a role model for incarcerated youth.
His rehabilitation, which he has painstakingly built over the 26 years he’s spent in prison, seems inarguable. What is still uncertain is his redemption — a more nuanced process that rests not with the courts, but within himself: forgiveness, granted through a lifetime of helping others struggling with similar afflictions.
Incarceration led to a rebirth for Meikle. Gold’s decision will determine whether prison is the end of Meikle’s road, or a path to a new one.
A string of crimes
On Oct. 31, 1994, a 23-year-old Meikle pointed a gun at two people at a car wash on Woodland Street, stealing their money and jewelry.
The next day, on Nov. 1, Meikle arrived at his family’s house on Enfield Street in Hartford, where he met his cousin, Clifford Walker. The two men — close friends who used to go on family fishing trips together — started yelling and cursing at each other when Walker asked Meikle to move his car. Meikle pulled a sawed-off shotgun from his blue Cutlass Ciera and approached Walker.
“What are you going to do, shoot me?” Walker asked, his arms raised.
Meikle shot him in the stomach from four feet away.
Then he fled the scene. About an hour and a half later, according to transcripts from his sentencing, he returned to the same car wash as the previous day, less than two miles from where he shot his cousin, and tried to rob another man. The man resisted, so Meikle shot him too. The man survived.
Walker wasn’t as fortunate. He was transported to St. Francis Hospital, where he died four hours after being shot. He left behind two biological daughters and a stepdaughter.
Walker was killed four days before he turned 30. His family buried him on his birthday.
Meikle spent two days hiding out in New Haven before coming back to Hartford to collect some money. He’d told his mother, Mable, he was going to flee Connecticut.
Mable and Seka Simpson, Meikle’s younger sister, sat down and considered what to do. The two came to the conclusion that Meikle’s life was going to go one of two ways: He would go to prison, or he would die on the streets. They chose incarceration. Maybe, Simpson said in a phone call with The Mirror on Jan. 12, he could get help there.
Mable called the cops and told them Meikle was coming to her house to get cash and clothes so he could leave the state.
Rovella, then a detective with the Hartford Police, arrested him there.
This is an American tragedy.”
Meikle wasn’t sentenced for four more years, but he was eventually found guilty of murdering Walker. He pleaded guilty to the other charges at the car wash, receiving a 25-year sentence, which he finished in 2019.
Meikle received the 50-year sentence for killing his cousin on July 7, 1998.
During his sentencing, the Meikles pleaded for mercy; the Walkers pleaded for punishment.
“He was my father when my mother and my father split up,” Clifford Walker’s sister, Kim, said when she took the stand. “He was the only one there. He raised me. He dressed me. He bathed me. He combed my hair and sent me to school. And you took that away from me.”
Others talked about how much Walker’s children were suffering in their father’s absence. Lisa Edmonson, the mother of Walker’s children, said she was struggling being a single mom.
“My daughter listen to songs at times now and she cry, go up in her room and cry,” she said.
Judge David M. Barry recounted Meikle’s history of drug and alcohol abuse, his inadequate schooling, his failure to hold a job. The judge faulted him for his addiction and acknowledged the “baggage” Meikle brought with him to Barry’s courtroom.
“This is an American tragedy,” Barry said before handing down Meikle’s sentence.
“When he was sentenced, he said that his life was over, but I told him his life was just beginning,” Mable wrote in a letter supporting her son’s request for a sentence modification. “He couldn’t take back what he did, but he could turn away from the drugs and the life of the streets.”
A childhood marked by trauma
Meikle grew up on Enfield Street in Hartford’s North End, one of the most violent, poorest sections of the capital city. Two-thirds of the city’s robberies and around 40% of its homicides occurred within his neighborhood’s three square miles, according to the petition Meikle’s lawyers filed; over a two-year timeframe during Meikle’s childhood, there were nine murders on his street.
In a neighborhood where poverty and violence reign, growing up unscathed is nearly impossible. It wasn’t uncommon for a young Meikle to see friends and community members get beaten or shot. When he was 16, he watched a close friend die after getting shot in a drive-by. The two had been standing together on a porch. It was not the only time of his adolescence that he was in danger.
Meikle had been shot, stabbed and burned before he reached his 20s. According to a legal filing, a nurse noted that he still sucked his thumb at age 17, a sign of severe trauma.
“Before coming into prison I did not explicitly think about violence. I lived in it,” Meikle wrote in a 2018 letter from prison to a retired Hartford police sergeant he knew from his childhood. “Violence became not only a medium of communication and security, it became social capital. If you were unwilling to exercise violence, especially to defend yourself, you would be ostracized: a social outcast among social outcast.”
His parents, both of whom are Jamaican immigrants, fought constantly before they separated. Once they split up, Meikle’s mother had to work multiple jobs to make ends meet. Sometimes she was gone for weeks at a time, hospitalized because of her asthma.
Meikle started drinking alcohol with his father when he was 10 years old. He began snorting cocaine a few years later. His addiction spiraled as he grew older. He was absent from his family for long periods, turning up only when he needed money.
Simpson was the first person in the immediate family to find out Meikle was using drugs. It broke her heart. She was a young teenager at the time and carried the secret for a week or two before she told her two older brothers, so they could all tell Mable together.
“Looking back, I felt for a long time that I could have saved him,” Simpson said. “I felt like I waited too long. I can’t remember how long it was, but I felt like maybe I should have said something sooner.”
Meikle’s drinking was already causing family strife. Like his father, Meikle turned mean and angry when he was drunk. In her letter supporting Meikle’s sentence modification, Mable wrote that she could always tell her son was sober if he was kind and brought her his paycheck.
“When he would get out of jail, it would be a good time, the best time, because he would be sober,” Mable wrote.
When Meikle was 15, a psychologist hired by the state Board of Education conducted an evaluation. Meikle had just been expelled from Weaver High School for disruptive behavior and breaking suspension rules.
“When he went to Weaver, that’s when everything broke down,” Mable recounted in her letter. “I was working so hard I wasn’t paying attention.”
The psychologist concluded that Meikle read at a fifth grade level. His math was seventh-grade level. Although he appeared interested in “the usual and expected things, such as girls, money and going to college,” the psychologist wrote in his report, “he may also harbor feelings of inadequacy and poor self-esteem, especially in school.”
The psychologist concluded that Meikle was “essentially a slow learner who will probably have difficulty continuing with his present school programming.” He recommended Meikle be enrolled in special education classes and receive counseling to build his self esteem.
Meikle didn’t get any of that support. He didn’t step foot in a classroom again until he was in prison.
But when he was behind bars, he flourished. He got his GED diploma one year after his sentence. He took vocational classes in the ’90s and 2000s, earning several certifications. He became an avid reader and took to mentoring younger prisoners in an attempt to steer them toward a better life after they were released.
In 2009, he was one of 18 inmates chosen to participate in Wesleyan University’s Center for Prison Education. He earned an associate’s degree and has the credits for a bachelor’s, but his graduation was disrupted by the pandemic.
Jeter, who also participated in Wesleyan’s CPE program, said Meikle recruited many of the incarcerated students in the Wesleyan program by building up their confidence, convincing them they could handle the rigorous coursework.
Meikle gives his incarcerated peers books to read. He edits their writing. He became a teaching assistant in a calculus class.
The other prisoners call him “Professor Meeks.”
An emotional reunion
One summer day in 2014, Thea Montanez sat in the parking lot outside Cheshire Correctional Institution and waited for her meeting with the Lifers Group, a club of men serving long prison sentences who support each other and perform philanthropy both inside and outside the prison.
As she was waiting, then-Hartford Police Chief James Rovella pulled into the parking lot. The two struck up a conversation, chatting about why they were visiting the prison. Rovella said Meikle invited him to visit so the Lifers could share their ideas about how the city could address a wave of gun violence that summer.
It was the first time Rovella and Meikle had seen each other since 1998, during Meikle’s sentencing.
When he was sentenced, he said that his life was over, but I told him his life was just beginning.”
In Montanez’s recollection, Rovella told the crowd about the gun violence in the city. He said it was his job to keep the community safe but he couldn’t do it alone, which is why he accepted the offer to visit with the Lifers.
Then Rovella turned to Meikle. Montanez remembers the police chief telling Meikle he hadn’t seen him in a long time. Then he extended his arm to shake one of the hands he had placed in handcuffs 20 years ago.
“Clyde looked at him and just burst into tears,” Montanez said.
At Meikle’s side were two fellow Lifers. They whispered in his ear and patted his back as he cried, telling him it would be OK.
Montanez, who is now the chief operating officer for the City of Hartford, said she thinks that experience was a crucial part of the recovery process people like Meikle go through after they harm others. Rovella’s arrest of Meikle in 1994 bound them, Montanez said, and Meikle needed to cross paths with him again to progress in his rehabilitation.
The Lifers’ invitation wasn’t out of the ordinary, said Montanez, whose cousin was also a member of the group. They were known to invite community members to visit the prison, so they could offer their thoughts on how to make life better for people on the outside.
“When you are facing that much time,” Montanez said, “I think you naturally question, ‘What is my purpose?’”
A chance for release
Meikle’s options for getting out of prison before the end of his 50-year sentence are limited.
He’s not eligible for parole, his lawyers say, or credit earned for good behavior. The Board of Pardons and Parole is not currently accepting applications for commutations. Some other forms of discretionary release, like a reentry furlough, would have to be renewed every 45 days. A release to a halfway house wouldn’t happen until much later, at the tail-end of his sentence. He’s only served slightly more than half his time.
At the moment, Meikle’s best hope for a meaningful reduction in prison time is a sentence modification, a petition judges can respond to by dismissing it entirely, ordering individuals be discharged immediately, or subjecting them to community supervision for up to as long as they would have been incarcerated.
Those serving sentences of three years or less can petition the court directly. But those like Meikle, who are serving any sentence longer than three years, must get an agreement from a state’s attorney that the sentence can be reviewed.
That can be difficult to obtain. Criminal Defense Attorney Brian J. Woolf says denial is the norm, not the exception. His office gets phone calls every week from those hoping to get a sentence modification.
“I turn down about 95% of them, knowing I can’t do anything about them,” said Woolf.
Successful sentence modification petitions require a confluence of factors, Woolf said: prosecutors who are in favor of the sentence modification, or at least won’t oppose it; a prisoner with a compelling story who is “clearly rehabilitated, or well on the process of being rehabilitated”; a victim who won’t “viciously oppose” the petition; and a sympathetic judge.
“The judge doesn’t just have to hold a hearing,” Woolf said. “The judge can deny it from the paper or grant it outright.”
Lawmakers will have an opportunity to change the rules for sentence modifications in the 2021 legislative session. The Sentencing Commission has sent a proposal to legislators that would broaden the parameters under which incarcerated people can directly petition the court without having to get permission from a state’s attorney. The bill would allow people serving seven years or less to bypass getting a prosecutor’s blessing. Those who were sentenced to prison for any length of time after a trial — a rare occurrence, since most cases are handled through plea deals — also would not need to go through a state’s attorney.
Because the staff who have worked with Clyde and other people like Clyde, they need to be able to see that they’re having an impact on somebody’s life … That’s what they’re supposed to do. They’re supposed to correct. Anything else is incapacitation.”
Under the proposed bill, if the petition for sentence modification is denied, the incarcerated person would have to wait five years to file another.
The measure is a compromise that has support from key players on criminal justice policy, including the Public Defender’s Office and Chief State’s Attorney Richard Colangelo, said Alex Tsarkov, executive director of the Sentencing Commission.
“There seems to be a recognition that some cases do deserve another look because sentencing is so complicated, so this provides an expansion of eligibility,” Tsarkov said. “Nothing is automatic here; you have to go through a hearing, you have to prove your case as a defendant, but at least you can bring up a case.”
Reginald Dwayne Betts hears a lot about sentence modifications in his role on the Criminal Justice Commission. As a commissioner, he’s tasked with interviewing and appointing prospective state’s attorneys.
“It’s a thing prosecutors have consistently brought up when they’ve talked to me about the issue of accounting for this thing we call mass incarceration,” Betts said, explaining that prosecutors use ‘sentence mods’ as a vehicle for addressing long sentences, acknowledging the ways that people have changed while they’ve been incarcerated.
But sentence modifications only apply to individual cases, making them an imperfect tool for broader systemic reform that dismantles mass incarceration.
“These motions are not easily put into checklists, or categories,” Tolland State’s Attorney Matthew C. Gedansky said in a statement to the CT Mirror. “These motions must be individualized and taken on a case-by-case basis, taking into account many factors, which is what I would think everyone would want of a process like this. Cookie-cutter justice, one size fits all, is never a good system for defendants, victims or the community.”
Betts acknowledged that sentence mods are a piecemeal approach to reducing the prison population but said many of the problems raised in sentence modification petitions require individualized remedies, since they are rooted in individual problems. Plus, he thinks there’s value in state’s attorneys grappling with issues raised in the petitions.
“I think it’s meaningful to put prosecutors in the position to reevaluate the lives of people they sent to prison,” Betts said. “Otherwise they would be living in a vacuum in which they saw people at the worst moment of their lives and are left to imagine that that’s all they could be.”
One of the state’s attorneys appointed by Betts and other commissioners is Sharmese Walcott, who became the state’s attorney for the Judicial District of Hartford on Sept. 25. That office is the one that allowed Meikle’s case to progress to a hearing and supported modifying his sentence to 28 years.
All sentence modifications sent to the Hartford Judicial District are reviewed by a three-member committee, Walcott said. The group performs a thorough analysis of each petition, gauging each applicant’s housing and employment prospects, their attitude and the steps they’ve taken to rehabilitate themselves while they’ve been incarcerated. They also look at records from before they were sentenced, underscoring the individualized approach.
“A lot of times, we will look at the underlying file because the only way to see how far a person has come is to know where they started from,” Walcott said. “They have to demonstrate the person they are now is ready for release.”
Walcott said an important consideration is the attitude change a petitioner has undergone during their incarceration. “You’re looking for that shift of ‘Whatever, I’m going to do what I have to do to survive,’ to really kind of caring about the others that are in the community and around them,” she said.
Betts said he thinks it’s brave for state’s attorneys to allow sentence modification petitions to get a hearing because prosecutors are the ones who have to explain to victims that they’re allowing an application to proceed.
The process of following a case through the system can be long and overwhelming for victims, Walcott said. They often “pour their hearts out” at sentencing hearings and then try to move on from the senseless trauma of the crime after the case is resolved.
Then, Walcott said, “We call them 20, 25 years later and say, ‘Hey, remember that case? Everything we went through 20, 25 years ago? This guy has been doing really, really, really, really great in prison. And we think maybe he should have an opportunity to argue for a shorter sentence.’ And it just reopens everything for the family.”
Jeter said Meikle’s case is being watched closely by those still in prison because he’s such a perfect candidate. If Meikle can’t get a sentence modification, what is the hope for anyone else?
But there are rehabilitative programs at every prison and jail in the state, and there are a number of college courses and degree programs in which prisoners can enroll. Meikle is hardly the first person who has used his time in prison to better himself.
“There has to be hope,” Jeter said. “A lot of these men, they’re not the same individuals; they’ve had the space and time to transform. Are we so punitive that we’d rather have someone sitting and dying than being active and transformative to the world?”
Semple said he thinks it’s just as important for corrections staff to pay attention to Meikle’s journey to redemption as it is for incarcerated people.
“Because the staff who have worked with Clyde and other people like Clyde, they need to be able to see that they’re having an impact on somebody’s life, that they’re making communities safer as a result that they’re engaging with incarcerated people,” Semple said. “That’s what they’re supposed to do. They’re supposed to correct. Anything else is incapacitation.”
All eyes on Meikle
On Dec. 18, Meikle sat beside one of his attorneys and appeared for a virtual hearing on his sentence modification petition. A slew of officials spoke in support of Meikle, including Mambrino and Semple.
Reviewing her 31-year career in the Hartford State’s Attorney’s office, Mambrino said she’s prosecuted hundreds of serious felonies, including 47 murders and 12 capital felonies.
“And during that time, I’ve reviewed countless requests for sentence modification. Only twice have I concurred with inmates’ requests and granted a hearing. This is the first time I’ve ever agreed to a specific sentence to pose to the court,” Mambrino said, outlining her reasons for agreeing to Meikle’s petition for a 28-year sentence. “And the reason for that is I’ve never been presented with an incarcerated person who has accomplished as much as Clyde Meikle has.”
Semple called Meikle “a poster boy candidate” for release. He spoke highly of Meikle’s work as a mentor and said there have been virtually no behavioral incidents in the T.R.U.E. Unit because, he thinks, of the example set by Meikle and the other mentors.
Meikle gave a short, emotional speech taking responsibility for Walker’s murder and expressing his remorse. He talked about the pain of knowing he had done irreparable damage to his family members’ relationships, how he had robbed Walker’s children and grandchildren of a father and grandfather. And he talked about his pursuits over the past 26 years, his education and service to help turn others away from a life that will put them back behind bars. Still, in all of Meikle’s work, Walker remains an indelible figure in his life.
“My presence will always be tainted with his absence,” Meikle said, crying softly. “The victims’ family is my family, and the seeming impossibility of reconciliation between family members haunts me.”
Mambrino said Walker’s daughter Natasha was initially skeptical of Meikle’s sentence modification request. She’d been against his release until the DOC arranged a phone call between her and Meikle. That conversation changed her mind.
“She believes that the man has done enough time and that he should, in fact, come home,” Mambrino said.
Judge David Gold asked Natasha if she wanted to speak. Appearing to change her mind again about the prospect of Meikle’s release, she said she was aggravated by all the people who spoke in support of Meikle and called him a good man. Didn’t they know her children could never call their grandfather, that they only thing they’d ever know of Clifford Walker is a gravestone?
“It don’t matter if he come home today, tomorrow, next year or did the whole time, I’m still going to hurt, and I’m still going to feel the same way I feel, because when you take somebody’s life, it don’t matter what you went to jail and accomplished,” she said. “You got sentenced that time, you supposed to do that time.”
My presence will always be tainted with his absence, The victims’ family is my family, and the seeming impossibility of reconciliation between family members haunts me.”
Others talked about all that Clifford missed by dying so young. Kimberly Walker, Clifford’s sister, said her brother could have done the same things Meikle did, but he never got the chance.
“You guys think it’s OK, you think it’s all right because he got a degree?” Kimberly asked those on the virtual hearing about Meikle. “If he was out here, he wouldn’t have gotten that degree.”
Gold scheduled another hearing for Jan. 15, at which he will issue his ruling.
On a phone call three days before Meikle’s next hearing, Simpson said she’s girding herself against disappointment. She’s scared. If her brother is denied the sentence modification, she’s worried it’ll feel like losing him all over again.
That doesn’t mean she hasn’t thought about what they’ll do the first day Meikle is released. They’ll be at Simpson’s house, where Meikle has a room waiting for him.
“The house would be a home,” said Simpson.
His first night back, the family would sit at the kitchen table and talk, making up for lost time. Mable would probably make fried dumplings and ackee salt fish, Jamaica’s national dish. Simpson said it will be the first time Meikle will have eaten Jamaican food in 26 years.
Later, they would visit their father’s grave. He passed away in 2002, eight years after Meikle killed Walker. Simpson said her brother’s incarceration was hard on her dad. She doesn’t think he ever visited Meikle in prison, and she’s not sure they ever talked on the phone.
Still, Simpson thinks Meikle will want to tell his father about his achievements and goals, that he’s a different person now — the man Gladstone and Mable always hoped he’d be.
“He had to go through a lot of trials and tribulations to get there,” Simpson said. “But, thank God, he made it.”
Note: Clyde Meikle’s petition for a sentence modification was granted on Jan. 15, shortening his prison sentence to 28 years. For more on the judge’s ruling and the potential policy implications, click here.