Inmates reflect on prison time after committing crimes as teens
10/26/2016 1:31 pm PDT
Inside the maximum security Indiana State Prison sit plenty of killers surrounded by cement and personal reflections.
Inmate Aaron Brown murdered his own parents in cold blood.
"I thought I did what I had to do," said Brown.
"Murder-robbery. Robbery went bad, guy ended up dying," said inmate Justin Cook. "Hit him in the back while he was running."
Inmate Labarron Johnson simply took revenge.
"I'm incarcerated for attempted murder," said Johnson. "I took it upon myself to defend my sister. She was being abused and I shot the guy."
Combined, these three will serve hundreds of years. But time isn't the only measure they have in common: They all committed their violent acts as teenagers.
"Sixteen years, six months and four days," said Brown, asked how old he was when he committed his crime.
Crime Watch Daily Contributor Sara Kruzan can relate: She has her own harsh memories of spending more than 15 years in prison for putting a bullet through the neck of a man who had been her sexual abuser, pimp and trafficker for five years. She was 16 years old.
"I'm starting to feel a little anxiety," said Kruzan as Crime Watch Daily approached the Indiana State Penitentiary. "It just brought back the fact when I was dropped off in the prison, being shackled in chains, a sense of feeling just being hopeless and oppressed."
The steel cold sounds and loss of all control are brutal, emotional and tearful reminders.
"When I first got here I'm sure I felt the same way, being 17 when I got here," said Justin Cook.
"My first time coming into prison I was 15 years old and first thing that crossed my mind was, How am I going to survive this?" said Labarron Johnson.
"It's very scary to have a gun in your hand and to kill somebody," said Kruzan. "It changes you. Is that fair to say?"
"Yep," said Aaron Brown.
"Were you remorseful as soon as you committed the crime?"
"No," said Brown. "I felt like I did what I needed to do. I really don't even think I understood the gravity of the situation."
Brown is now 38 years old. Twenty-two years ago he killed his own mother and stepfather, lying in wait, shooting them point-blank in the early morning hours as they returned from a party, all part of a methodical plan.
"It just came down to one day and I did actually wake up that morning and say 'Today is the day,'" said Brown. "And there was nothing anybody could tell me, because I actually called pretty much every person I knew and said 'Hey, guess what? I'm not going to be able to see you anymore. I'm going away for a while.'"
Brown is serving a 100-year sentence. He narrowly escaped the death penalty for murders he only now sees as regrettable.
"In reality they didn't deserve what I did to them," said Brown.
"Help me understand why a young boy feels so compelled and so full of rage that killing his parents is the only option," said Kruzan.
"I have a hard time talking about this aspect of it, because in the past I've been accused of victim-blaming, and I don't want to be the guy that's blaming other people for what I did," said Brown. "I chose to make the decision I made, and there was a lot of stuff that went on in that household. There was no sexual abuse, it was no physical abuse. It was mental and emotional. But what did and didn't go on in that household was secondary."
As a teen, Brown couldn't see solutions to the emotional abuse he says he suffered. He could only feel rage.
"Did you want them to pay for everything they had done to you?" said Kruzan.
"Yes, when I killed my stepfather I was yelling a whole lot of things. To this day I can't tell you what all those things are, but I was screaming at the top of my lungs in the middle of the night as I am standing over a body," said Brown. "And I went back in the house and I looked at my mother and I didn't say anything to her, but I did stand over her and take it in one last time, and I left."
That disconnected, raw lack of feeling and control was similar for Justin Cook.
"I was 15 years old when the murder happened," said Cook.
Cook was a notorious Fort Wayne, Indiana gang-banger running wild.
"That's how I grew up," said Cook. "It's hard to believe but I had people that were older than me working for me. We'd do everything from home-invasions, robberies, carjackings, just to survive, selling drugs on the streets and I guess living the life of a gangster."
But it caught up with Cook when his "associates" turned him in for murdering a man they all tried to rob. Suddenly he was facing a 60-year sentence in an adult prison at 17 years old.
"When I first got here they put me straight out in 'Population,'" said Cook.
"Were you scared? Did you think you would die here?"
"Most definitely," said Cook. "Yes I did. You know, through the gang-banging and stuff, yes, I thought for sure I'd be dead.
"I'd fight the Aryan Brotherhood because they wanted me to be in Aryan Brotherhood, and I wouldn't be in Aryan Brotherhood," said Cook. "And that's why I thought I would die in here, I figured someone would stab me and it'd be over with."
Justin Cook obviously survived. He has now served 22 years. But it took him many of those to fully own up to killing an innocent man as a brash, uncontrollable teen.
"I finally faced the facts and admitted to myself about seven years ago and took responsibility for it," said Cook. "It took -- I've been locked up almost 23 years. I was one of the ones, 'I didn't do it. I didn't do it, I didn't do it.' One day I just, it's time to just tell the truth."
Labarron Johnson has no trouble owning up to what he did.
"How do you feel for being here for attempted murder?" said Sara Kruzan.
"I've grown in ways to where I'm not more of a reactionary person, I have better self control," said Johnson.
This is a second offense for Johnson, who was restrained with arm and leg chains for our interview.
"I broke a facility rule, which was being in an unauthorized area -- basically just being out of place," said Johnson.
He first met a jail cell for attempted armed robbery when he was only 15 years old, and served almost nine years. He admits the harsh lessons made him grow up fast.
"I've been -- counting both of my prison terms -- I've been incarcerated, this year will be 19 years, and I'm only 37 years, so I've cheated myself a whole lot, you know, and I'm tired of cheating myself," said Johnson.
Learning that violent actions have severe consequences is something all of these offenders say was eye-opening as they aged in prison.
"You're not thinking about it at the time, you know?" said Justin Cook. "You just act on emotions. I'm glad I'm finally growing out of it."
"When I got locked up I was a very dangerous person," said Aaron Brown. "My particular paradigm was extremely flawed. When I was 20, 21, something, I said 'It's time to grow up.' I started picking up books and I started doing things and I started learning more about what it is to actually be a man."
Brown has changed dramatically over the years, earning a Master's Degree.
"Back then in order to get a Class-A job, the highest-paying job here, which is 25 cents an hour -- I make 'big money' -- you had to have a college degree," said Brown. "So I was like, OK, I'll get my G.E.D., I went and got into college, and I found that I really enjoyed it. For so much of my life I'd just been told I was stupid, I'd never amount to anything."
And Brown also found love while being locked up. Heather Brown is his wife of five years. The two met when Heather started corresponding with Aaron through letters, and then phone calls, after seeing him profiled on television.
"It was on our first meeting he proposed to me," said Heather. "But we had already been discussing like how we would take our relationship to a different level, and so I had already thought about it and already considered all the possibilities, because at that point, his out-date is 2040, so that played in a lot to what I had to think about."
She visits once a week. It's not easy. Aaron Brown won't be eligible for release for another 20 years. He'll be over 60 years old when he becomes a free man: A lengthy sentence for killing two family members as a juvenile. A lot more time to reflect.
"Do you think you're a monster?" said Sara Kruzan.
"[No.] It kind of goes to the argument of why there's a problem with giving a juvenile a life sentence, or the equivalent," said Brown. "It's the fact that we can rehabilitate, we can change, we can grow, and I did that. I'm proud of the man I've become."
Though Aaron Brown's sentence was 100 years, Indiana allows for good time, which could make him eligible for parole sooner.
With good time counted against his 60-year sentence, Justin Cook could be eligible for release in about eight years.