DENVER (AP) — Michael Clifton understands that he’s a secondary character in another man’s redemption narrative — the improbable story of Rene Lima-Marin, whose mistaken early release from prison led to rehabilitation, re-incarceration and now possibly freedom, if he can resolve some thorny immigration issues.
But while Lima-Marin attracted support from social justice advocates to legislators to the governor, Clifton — his co-defendant in two 1998 video store robberies — has continued to serve a 98-year sentence that many, including the trial judge, found disturbing.
Now, after watching his childhood friend prevail in the state courts and receive an official pardon, Clifton wishes him nothing but the best. He also hopes all the attention might shine a light on his own circumstances.
“I’m not asking to be immediately released,” Clifton said by phone from the Sterling Correctional Facility. “But I’m asking: Shouldn’t we address the excessive sentence for me? Am I not deserving? Can I not redeem myself?”
Clifton, 38, said that while the system imposed the same consequences on them — both received 98 years — their circumstances were markedly different from the day they entered the prison system. The error on Lima-Marin’s sentencing paperwork, which showed him serving only 16 years, offered hope and opportunity for release.
Clifton faced a virtual life sentence.
Lima-Marin served his time as a model prisoner. Clifton was cited for disciplinary violations — mostly contraband and behavioral issues but also a 2004 incident in which he stabbed another inmate.
Gov. John Hickenlooper, asked about clemency for Clifton at his news conference last month announcing the pardon for Lima-Marin, dismissed the possibility, citing the inmate’s stabbing incident.
“That’s not rehabilitating your life in the way that we’re talking,” the governor said.
Clifton counters that the stabbing occurred many years ago, and came in response to being jumped by two inmates in a prison environment — the Limon Correctional Facility — that was harsher than what Lima-Marin experienced. He claims media accounts have unfairly focused on that single incident and the fact that Lima-Marin distanced himself from his former friend as he sought to change his life.
“It seemed like the narrative came to pit my co-defendant against me, to put him in a shining light and put me in the position that I was this bad person undeserving of a second chance,” Clifton said. “It seemed like I’m only brought up to say how he severed ties with me or how I had trouble in prison.
“I’d like to have a perfect prison record,” he added, “but circumstances didn’t allow it. Maybe I wasn’t mature enough, or had to go through my own journey. But to hold that against me, that I shouldn’t get any relief because of my prison record, is hard for me to accept.”
Clifton said he has exhausted his appeals but wants to seek a review of his sentence or, if that doesn’t happen, file a clemency petition “to see if the governor or clemency board has a change of heart.”
Although circumstances didn’t allow Clifton an opportunity to prove himself as Lima-Marin did, he said that like his co-defendant, he also has two children. Clifton’s son and daughter are now in their early 20s.
Clifton’s family shares his feeling that his sentence was excessive.
“Michael has done 19 years and counting,” said Earnestine Clifton, Michael’s mother, from her home in Louisiana. “He never had the opportunity to get out and prove himself the way Rene did. I hope he gets an opportunity to make his case, for people to listen to him and understand they were young and made some stupid choices back then.”
Karen Harris, Clifton’s sister, said that she’s happy Lima-Marin has been given a reprieve from an unjust sentence and prays for him and his family as they navigate the immigration issues.
“But I just want to see justice done for my brother,” she added. “We need to make some noise and get people involved. It’s not fair to keep him locked up. I’m happy for Lima-Marin, but I want to talk about Michael Clifton at this point.”
Clifton developed a close friendship with Lima-Marin from the time they met in a Montbello middle school. Later, after they got into trouble as juveniles, Clifton was sent away to a Pennsylvania facility, where he earned his GED. But shortly after his return to Colorado, the two reconnected and launched their ill-fated plan to rob the Aurora video stores.
Though no one was injured, prosecutors filed a litany of charges that resulted in 98-year sentences for both men. Here, their stories diverge: A mistake on Lima-Marin’s paperwork, which had his sentences running concurrently instead of consecutively, dropped his time to 16 years.
He underwent a spiritual rebirth and, after his parole in 2008, married his longtime girlfriend, started a family and became a productive member of his community. But when authorities discovered the mistake in 2014, he was sent back to prison.
Last month, an Arapahoe County District Court judge granted a writ of habeas corpus and ordered him released. When immigration authorities immediately stepped in to deport Lima-Marin, who arrived in the U.S. from Cuba when he was 2, Hickenlooper quickly granted him a pardon to dissolve his felony convictions in hope of resolving his immigration issues and reuniting him with his family.
Lima-Marin remains in the custody of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement authorities while an immigration lawyer pursues his case.
Clifton hopes Lima-Marin does not get deported.
“I would be sad to hear that,” he said. “He’s a father now, he’s got young kids, and his family could be left with having a long distance relationship or move to Cuba. That would be a devastating situation. I pray for him and hope that everything works out for him.”
Clifton said he takes full responsibility for his crimes and the “psychological trauma and fear I placed the victims in.” But the unfairness of his sentence, he added, is compounded by the circumstances that have put his co-defendant in a position to regain his freedom.
“What I want the public to know is I sit here a humble man,” he said. “I recognize what I did was wrong. What I’d like them to understand is I deserve a second chance just like he did. He was given his by a clerical error. And I didn’t have a clerical error.”
Information from: The Denver Post, http://www.denverpost.com