Courtesy photo: Kayle Smith and Karen Smith-Gates

Excerpt from "Florida's legacy of slow-rolling parole keeps thousands of people behind bars—some, for decades past their eligibility date" which first appeared in Scalawag Magazine, October 28, 2021. 

It's been three years since Karen Smith-Gates had a major panic attack behind the wheel, driving home from visiting her younger brother, Kayle Smith, at Wakulla Correctional Institution in North Florida.

After visiting him for over 30 years, she was used to the waves of fear that had become commonplace afterward: That uneasy feeling lurching in her stomach, the chills rushing through her body, her heart racing. But this time, something about the heartbreak of it all—not just seeing her brother in prison, but the weight of the family dysfunction that brought him there and the broken system that kept him there—was just too overwhelming.

Kayle has been incarcerated since 1987. He was 18 years old when he was arrested and charged with first-degree murder of his and Karen's mother, a crime he falsely confessed to in a drunken state of shock.

Karen forgave her brother long ago for any role he might have played in their shared family tragedy. She said the rest of their family—Kayle's siblings, father, grandmothers, aunts, uncles, and cousins on both sides—also forgave him for his role in his mother's death. They are confident that the person actually responsible for their mother's death is also behind bars; that man confessed the same day, with the evidence and motive to prove it. In her petitions to free her brother, Karen has offered to house, feed, and care for him upon his release.

Still, Kayle, now 53, has spent nearly two-thirds of his life in prison.

Of those 34 years, he has been eligible for parole for 10. For Karen, it makes no sense why the Florida prison system keeps him locked up. She spends most days fighting for her brother's parole release, which she feels he should've been granted many years ago.

Kayle has technically served his time, and then some. As of October 2020, all people locked up on murder charges in crimes before 1995 are technically eligible for parole in Florida. But there is still no sign that the state will be releasing him any time soon.

The Smith family's situation is not unique. Of an estimated 80,000 incarcerated people and another 115,000 serving a sentence under community supervision,  Smith is one of nearly 4,000 people who are eligible for parole in Florida who remain in limbo.

With help from prison and justice advocates, Karen has petitioned multiple Florida governors, state representatives and senators. By her count, Karen has made 280 phone calls and emails over the past year alone pleading for Kayle's release.

According to records from the Florida Commission on Offender Review (FCOR), the agency that administers parole in the state, from 2015 to 2020, only 152 parole-eligible people out of 6,851 considered cases were granted parole, or less than two percent of the cases reviewed. Of those, 86 people paroled were serving time for murder or attempted murder, as Kayle is.

The commission's 2020 annual report said there were 3,959 incarcerated people who were eligible for parole that year. The commission granted parole to 41 incarcerated people—about one percent of those eligible for parole in Florida.

Florida's numbers are staggeringly low compared with neighboring Southern states. Georgia considered 21,790 cases in 2020, releasing 10,429 people—nearly half of the people eligible for parole that year. In Alabama, 544 paroles were granted out of 2,704 paroles cases heard in 2020. That's 20 percent.

Even during the pandemic, when some states eased release rules, Florida stood firm. In 2021, the Orlando Sentinel discovered that at least 60 out of 221 people who have died of COVID-19 were parole-eligible.

What's more, in March, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis universally exercised his clemency powers  to deny the pending parole application of any incarcerated person with a murder charge. (The governor's office and the commission did not respond to requests for comment on this decision, or any other inquiries about people eligible for parole-eligible.)

DeSantis' decision immediately destroyed any chance Smith had at being released this year, and the Florida Commission on Offender Review estimates that up to 1,000 pending clemency applications will be denied because of the Governor's unilateral action.

"How can he just do that?" Karen said in a recent interview. "How many hopes did he destroy?"

When Kayle became parole-eligible 10 years ago, Karen's fight to free him became more focused. She has testified on behalf of Kayle at five parole hearings, all of which were denied by FCOR. Documents obtained from FCOR through a public records request show that Kayle's parole hearing dates have been delayed multiple times as a punitive measure after prison guards claimed that he was caught in possession of a contraband cellphone charger. He was also accused of using narcotics after a suicide attempt.

Denise Rock, Executive Director of Florida Cares, a nonprofit prison reform group that has counseled Karen, said FCOR will often deny a person parole if the agency determines what it believes to be an "egregious nature" to the crime. The same reasoning has been listed as a reason for Kayle's denial of parole.

"What we need is transformative justice," Rock said. "Currently, prisons are in place to punish people like Smith, but not to release them healed back into society. And the families are left to deal with that burden."

A national survey by the Alliance for Safety and Justice, a group that brings together crime survivors to advance policies that help communities most harmed by crime and violence, found that across the country, violent crime victims like Karen actually want shorter prison sentences, less spending on prisons, and more concentration on rehabilitating people.    

Karen still loves her brother deeply and believes he deserves a chance to move past the mistake he made as a young man.

Back in 1986, Kayle lived with his mom, Junavis Smith. Also living there were an older sister Kimber, Kimber's husband, David Pentecost, and her child from a previous relationship.

By most family and friend accounts, Junavis had always had a loving relationship with her son Kayle, and a more strained relationship with Kimber and Pentecost. After several fights, Junavis kicked out the couple, but kept custody of Kimber's son, who remained in the home with Kayle.

Kimber and Pentecost had discussed killing Junavis in retaliation for kicking them out and having possession of Kimber's son, court records say.

Around that time, Kayle—then 18 years old—started spending more time with both Kimber and Pentecost outside of the house. According to court records, their mother expressed to her friend, police officer Marsha Smith--no relation--that she felt like she was "losing control" of her son.

On Dec. 15, 1986, Kayle and Pentecost were splitting a bottle of whiskey at the couple's home. After a night of drinking, Pentecost asked Kayle for a ride to Junavis' house. According to court records, Kayle drove him even though he was drunk. He swerved across the road and ran into curbs but managed to get them there.

Kayle claims that he didn't know how serious Pentecost's intentions to harm Junavis were until they got to her house. Kayle used his own key to unlock the door. When he saw his brother-in-law break through the security chain latch, he realized the seriousness of the situation and ran.

Kimber's child was also in the house at the time, in a room across the hall.

Court records show that "late that night" Junavis called the Pensacola Police Department to report someone had broken into her home. During her distressed call, she yelled, "David! David!" before the phone line went silent. Police found Junavis dead, next to her bed and a small ax that she had tried to use to defend herself.

Pentecost initially claimed Kayle was the one who was responsible for the murder, court records show, but his own fingerprints were all over Junavis' room. Still, even though a forensic officer testified that there was no physical evidence of Kayle being in the room when Junavis was stabbed, Kayle felt remorseful for having driven Pentecost there. In a state of shock after finding out what Pentecost had done to his mother, he confessed to police, and pled guilty to first degree murder, court records say.

Kayle was sentenced to 25 years to life. Pentecost also pled guilty, and initially faced the death penalty, but his charge was lowered to match Kayle's.

Nearly 34 years later, both men are still behind bars.

In that time, Kayle has mentored younger folks he has met in prison and has developed into a model citizen, according to Karen. But any time he thinks of his mother, she said he feels the agony surge through him. In a letter from prison, he wrote, "I suffer torment every day in the hell of my own mind."

Reggie Garcia, a Tallahassee-based lawyer who is an expert on clemency and parole cases, said that victim forgiveness, as well as the offer of food and shelter being provided upon release, have played a role in cases that he's worked on, including those that involve murder.

"It's super important when the victims of a crime have forgiven a person, it means that there's less risk of harming a victim through releasing someone on parole," Garcia said. "And if they have their basic economic needs covered—a house, food, clothing—they're much less likely to reoffend."

Florida's legacy of slow-rolling releases through parole is long-standing.

From 1986, the year Kayle was arrested, to 1988, there were 1,272 parolees released. According to FCOR, in the mid-1990s, Florida's release rate took a downward trajectory, with only 72 granted parole in 1995, and 86 in 1996.

"[Kayle's] case is a perfect example of what is wrong with our criminal justice system," said Kara Gross, legislative director and senior policy counsel at ACLU of Florida. "It's a tragedy, and the nature of his crime does not fit the sentencing."

The ACLU of Florida and Southern Poverty Law Center are working to release people who are eligible for parole through legislation. In March, their efforts led to Senate Bill 620 being passed, which will require the FCOR to partner with the DOC to adopt certified rules and regulations for how people can achieve parole.

Gross points out another drawback to having such a bloated prison population—the cost to taxpayers. It currently costs about $24,000 per year to keep a person in prison.

With all of the powerful forces at play, Karen often feels overwhelmed in the struggle to free her brother. She knows it's an uphill battle, but she continues on. Most of all, she just wants healing for her family; to see and hug her brother outside of prison walls.

"It's impossible to explain the loss and sorrow that I feel when I think of Kayle in such a horrible place," she said. "I just want him to see that there's a life outside of prison, with those who love and care for him, who want him to know what life really is."

Justin Garcia for Scalawag Maagazine