A man who committed a brutal robbery as a teenager in Missouri, firing a gun at two people, will be in prison until he dies. Is that fair?
Bobby Bostic wakes up at 4.45am, every day.
He washes his face, brushes his teeth, goes for breakfast around 5.30. He comes back, watches TV – usually CNN – prays, then starts reading.
The prison is violent. It was worse 20 years ago, but trouble still finds you. So Bostic keeps his head down: New York Times, St Louis Post-Dispatch, Entrepreneur magazine.
He loves autobiographies – if it’s not in the library, his family can order it – but he reads anything. His last book was The Innovators by Walter Isaacson.
Bostic keeps the TV on silent, with the subtitles on. If there’s breaking news, he turns up the volume. If not, he keeps reading.
After meals and outdoors time – 12 hours a week – he goes to bed at 10pm. The next day, he wakes up, washes his face, brushes his teeth, goes for breakfast.
Bostic was 16 when he committed the 17 crimes for which he was given consecutive sentences. Unless the court changes its mind, he will be in prison until January 2091, at least.
He is 39 now. By then, he will be 112.
Bobby Bostic is from St Louis, Missouri, in the American Midwest. He was one of four; his older brother and sister had a different dad. Growing up, his father wasn’t around.
“We didn’t have many male role models,” he says from prison in Jefferson City. “I was free to roam the streets.”
Bostic’s family was poor. He didn’t play in sports teams because they couldn’t afford the uniforms. Instead, he played American football on concrete. “No helmets,” he says.
Aged 10, he started smoking and drinking. He was on cannabis aged 12 and was smoking PCP – another illegal drug – aged 13. At the same time, he would steal cars, or ride in stolen ones.
“It was a status symbol,” he says. “That was our idea of wealth – a car that wasn’t even ours.”
It was a Tuesday in December 1995 that changed his life. Bostic, 16, was at a friend-of-a-friend’s house in another part of town; smoking weed, drinking gin, smoking PCP. Then a female friend went outside.
“She got talking to a dude from the neighbourhood,” he says. “He smacked her. She told him she would get us. He told her to go get us.”
Bostic and his friends went to confront the man. “And that’s why I had the gun,” he says.
The argument was resolved without a shot being fired. Bostic and his friend, Donald Hutson, went to smoke more weed.
“As we did that, we saw the victims,” says Bostic. “We knew they weren’t from that neighbourhood. They had a lot of stuff on their truck.”
The victims were giving presents to a needy family, as part of a newspaper appeal. They had two car-loads and a truck. One of the presents was a Christmas tree; another was an old couch.
“It wasn’t a plan,” says Bostic. “We saw them. I looked at him [Hutson]; he looked at me, a knowing look. It was just an instant thing. We pulled the guns out.”
Bostic and Hutson approached the first victim as she took the couch cushions out of her car. They put a gun to her head. When she ran, they chased her.
Her boyfriend – who had been on the phone – shouted at them, so Bostic and Hutson chased after him instead. They demanded his money, punched him, and shot at the ground.
When the boyfriend didn’t hand over the money, Bostic shot him. Why?
“I can’t make excuses,” he says. “I didn’t even know what I was doing. I wasn’t trying to kill the dude, or hit him. I can’t make excuses for it. I shouldn’t have done it, and I regret it.”
The bullet grazed the boyfriend. After it did, he handed over $500. But Bostic and Hutson weren’t done.
They grabbed a woman – who was part of the present-giving group – and stole her leather jacket. They demanded money from a man who was with her; when he threw down his wallet, they shot at him. The bullet missed. But they still weren’t done.
After fleeing, Bostic and Hutson went to a girl’s house. She said they couldn’t stay. “So we stepped out of the house, went right round the corner,” says Bostic. And that’s when they found another victim.
The woman was taking packages from her car. Bostic and Hutson put a gun to her head, took her car keys, forced her into the back, and drove off.
They told her to take off her coat and earrings; she handed over her purse. Hutson put his hand down her trousers and boots, to make sure there wasn’t more money. He also touched her breasts.
After arguing between themselves, Bostic and Hutson drove off, leaving the woman in an alley. They were arrested an hour later.
“I didn’t realise the seriousness of it until I was arrested – who those people were, and what they were doing,” he says. “That’s when the remorse came.”
At the same time, their first victims gave out the Christmas presents, as planned. The needy family was a man bringing up three children.
Four months after being arrested, Bostic was offered a deal: plead guilty and take a life sentence – 30 years – with the chance of parole. He turned it down.
Eight months later, he was offered a “mercy of the court” deal: plead guilty and take what the judge decides. Again, he turned it down. Why?
“I was advised by people – my father, my step-father. He was in prison – I wrote him and he said don’t ever take a blind plea, because you never know what’s going to happen.
“I knew I was guilty of the case, but I always thought I had a better chance with the jury. As a 17-year-old, I still wasn’t thinking clearly. But at the time, that’s what I was thinking.”
Bostic went on trial and was found guilty of 17 counts, including eight counts of armed criminal action, and three counts of robbery. Before his sentencing in 1997, his lawyer suggested writing to the judge, so he did, four times.
Each letter made his situation worse.
“Looking back, I didn’t show enough remorse,” says Bostic, who last read the letters two or three years ago.
“If I read those letters now, they sound like a 17-year-old who doesn’t know the gravity of what he’s facing. I used them to complain about the trial, and what was going on, instead of taking responsibility.
“That was the wrong thing to do – but no one ever told me [differently].”
Bostic’s mother, Diane, also wrote a letter to the judge, who said it was “one of the most beautiful letters I have ever received from a parent”. But it wasn’t enough to save him.
Addressing Bostic in court, Judge Evelyn Baker told him: “You write me these letters how brilliant you are, how intelligent you are, how you are smarter than everybody else in the world.
“You are the biggest fool who has ever stood in front of this court. You have expressed no remorse. You feel sorry for Bobby.”
The judge ordered Bostic’s sentences to run consecutively, rather than concurrently. The total was 241 years.
“You made your choice, and you’re gonna die with your choice,” said Judge Baker. “Because Bobby Bostic – you will die in the Department of Corrections.”
Bostic’s accomplice, Donald Hutson, took the mercy of the court deal. Judge Baker gave him 30 years.
“Reality set in the very moment I was given 241 years, and she told me I would die in prison,” says Bostic.
“When that happens, the world drops, and reality sets in. It’s no longer a game. Your life has just been taken away. That’s when I got the wake-up call.”
Bostic was in a juvenile dorm for two months, before joining the adults. The prison, he says, was “complete chaos”.
“It was predator versus prey,” he says. “You had to try and fit in. If you didn’t, people would do all types of thing. You had to be a man at an early age – or try to be a man.”
In his early days, Bostic went through “several trials”. Having your food stolen was a common test.
“I got into a few fights,” he says. “That’s going to happen to anybody. You’re going to get tested, because you’re new. I was a young guy, I had to prove myself. You do that through fighting.”
Bostic graduated from middle school, but barely started high school, leaving aged 14 or 15. But after two or three years in prison, he started reading.
The first book to have an impact was the autobiography of Malcolm X. “He was somebody that went through what I went through,” he says. From then, it was “book after book after book after book”.
He got his GED – equivalent to a high school diploma – and started writing books: four non-fiction, eight poetry. One poem is called The Terrible Bullet.
He also took courses – business classes, a paralegal diploma, many others. One of them was a victims’ advocate class.
“They teach you from the start of the crime, to the end of the crime, what victims go through,” he says.
“When I committed my crime, I never realised who my victims were, or what they were doing. The courses teach you how to put a face on the victims. They teach you empathy, and to realise they’re people with rights.
“You learn about the trauma they experience; how to help them heal. Knowing that my actions caused all this trauma, I took it more to heart. I took it personally. I created victims.”
Bostic needs four more classes for his associate degree – maths, biology, environmental science, English 202. He wishes others would do the same.
“Ignorance is the order of the damn prison,” he says. “The youngsters lie around. There’s no studying or reading. When I came in, we used to read, study. Nowadays, that doesn’t exist: it’s just TV and games. Everything is a game now.”
Bostic believes in education. He dreams of helping teenagers; of using his skills; of starting a charity on the streets where he used to steal. But first, he needs to get out.
The Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution, adopted in 1791, bans “cruel and unusual punishment”.
In 2010, in the case Graham v Florida, the US Supreme Court ruled that juveniles who didn’t commit homicide – such as Bostic – should not be given life sentences without parole.
In 2012, the Supreme Court extended this to juveniles who had committed homicide. And, in 2016, the court said the law should apply retroactively – that is, to past cases, as well as future ones.
At that point, 2,600 people, who were sentenced as juveniles, were serving life without parole. Now, the total is half that: more than 250 were released; the others are now serving fixed-term sentences.
Bostic, though, is not one of them. Why?
The courts in Missouri, where Bostic has appealed, say he is not serving a life sentence – he is serving a long sentence, with the chance of parole in “extreme old age”.
Missouri also says Grahamv Florida applies to single offences. Bostic, they say, was guilty on 17 counts, and is serving 17 sentences, one on top of the other.
The American Civil Liberties Union has asked the US Supreme Court to look at Bostic’s sentence. Their appeal has a number of high-profile backers, including Ken Starr, a former US solicitor general.
There is also support from another, less likely, source. In 1997, Judge Evelyn Baker ruled that Bostic should die in prison. Now, she has changed her mind.
Mrs Baker, 69, remembers Bostic clearly. “In all honesty, he came across as being a little sociopath,” she says. She also remembers his four letters. “It was everybody else’s fault in the world.”
Mrs Baker was a judge for 25 years, retiring 10 years ago. Bostic’s 241 years was her longest sentence. “This is the only one where I regret the amount of time I gave,” she says. “The amount of time is ridiculous.”
She started to change her mind around the time of Graham v Florida, when she read about the difference between teenage and adult brains.
“I held Bobby to the same standards as a full-grown adult,” she says. “When I reflect back on it, I have to say, the average 16-year-old boy does come across as being a bit of a sociopath. It’s all about them.”
When Missouri wouldn’t reconsider the case, she decided to go public. “I did Bobby a disservice,” she says. “It’s a disservice that can be corrected.”
Mrs Baker thinks a 30-year sentence – the same as Donald Hutson’s – would be appropriate. With parole, that could mean Bostic being released this year.
“From what I’ve read about Bobby and the things he’s doing, he is not the 16-year-old little punk I sentenced,” she says.
“Bobby is a fully-fledged, responsible adult, who I think has shown true remorse for what he did, and an understanding of the wrongness of his actions.”
It took Bostic more than ten years to write to his victims to say sorry. He never heard back.
He has apologised in the media, and wants to do so again (the BBC traced three of Bostic’s victims but none replied). He doesn’t ask for sympathy, but he does ask for a second chance.
So what does he say to those who think he should die in prison? Who think robbery, and kidnap, and near-murder, are unforgivable? Who think 241-year sentences deter evil deeds?
“They’re entitled to their point of view,” he says. “If they think I should die here, if they think it was a terrible crime – which it was – they’re entitled to feel that way.”
The US Supreme Court is expected to comment on Bostic’s case in April. It could order a re-sentencing; it is more likely to ask for more legal argument.
Either way, it keeps Bostic dreaming. “As a human being, freedom never leaves your mind,” he says. “You look at TV and see everything you want, but can’t have. Even when you go out, get air, you’re reminded that you can’t have it.”
So Bostic is stuck on repeat – the same day, every day, starting at 4.45 every morning. Wash face. Brush teeth. Breakfast at 5.30.
“I’ve got a lot to offer,” he says. “I’m not that same 16-year-old. The child that committed the crime, in my mind, should always get a second chance, because he was just a child.
“That doesn’t justify what he did. But as a man, he should have a chance to live a life.”
Does he have a final message for anyone reading, whether they are sympathetic or not?
“If the victims haven’t heard this, I’d like to again apologise to them, let them know I’m sorry,” he says.
“To society in general – if there’s any kids or teenagers listening, take what happened to me as a prime example of what could happen to you. Please, take my life as an example of what could happen. Use this lesson to avoid the mistakes I made.
“I hope I didn’t sound unsympathetic to anybody. I truly realise the enormity of my crimes, and what I did. I live with that regret every day. I just hope that the rest of my life will be invested in something else.”