"He wants to be forgiven for what he has done and wants the opportunity to come back and learn how to survive," says Patricia Jones, Alvin Kenard's niece, for his uncle (Bryn Anderson / AP)  years Alvin Kennard was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
His crime? He stole $ 50.75 from a bakery in 1983.
Now 58, Kennard goes home after spending more than 35 years – virtually his entire adult life – behind bars. On Wednesday, when an Alabama judge ordered his release, more than a dozen friends and family members gathered in the courtroom jumped to their feet and cheered.
"I fell apart," says Kenard's niece Patricia Jones to WBRC. "I just threw my hands up and said, 'God, thank you, thank you.'"
The unusually severe punishment was the result of the Common Criminal Act, also known as the "three strikes law", which originally originated in aimed at stemming repeat offenders when it came into effect in the 1970s, but Kennard wasn't exactly a career criminal when he was sentenced to life behind bars: his previous story was blamed for breaking into an unoccupied gas station when is 18, which put him on probation
Several years after the incident, Kennard and another man walked into a Highlands bakery in Bessemer, Alanya, with a knife and emptied the cash register, according to court records. As he pleaded guilty to three counts of breaking through a gas station, the sentence was a life sentence.
Kenard was imprisoned in Bessemer, where his family lives, so for more than three decades they were able to visit it regularly. Jones told WIAT she saw firsthand how prison makes him a different person. After a few years behind bars, "he started talking about God and I realized he had changed," she said. "He wants to be forgiven for what he has done and wants the opportunity to come back and learn how to survive."
Kennard's family is praying that he will be released one day, knowing that the odds are against him. Then, in 2013, in the face of huge overcrowding in the state's prison system, Alabama began to rethink its sentencing guidelines and gave more judges discretion in cases like his own. If the 58-year-old was convicted of first-degree robbery today, AL.com reports, he would still be eligible for parole, but the minimum sentence would be 10 years in prison.
The Alabama Law and Justice Center Appleseed, a not-for-profit legal advocacy group, tackled the Kennard case. The group noted that he was an exemplary prisoner who lived in a "dormitory" – a faith-based housing unit where prisoners are subject to stricter rules – and was not cited for disciplinary or behavioral misconduct for more than a decade. Carla Crowder, the organization's executive director and Kennard's lawyer, argued in court Wednesday that he would probably be eligible for parole 20 years ago if convicted to the new standards, WIAT reported.
On Wednesday, 14 of Kennard's friends and family attended the hearing, and Crowder cited them as evidence that he had an unusually strong community support system. "We have no doubt that he would do well outside," she said, according to the station. "When we spoke this morning, he said he just wanted to work. I think this is commendable. "
At the hearing, Kennard told the judge that he deeply regretted the crimes committed more than three decades ago and, if released, hoped to work as a carpenter and live with his family in Bessemer.
"I just want to say I'm sorry for what I did," he said, according to WIAT. "I take responsibility for what I did in the past. I want the opportunity to handle it. "
Prosecutors did not oppose Kennard's sentence sentence, AL.com reported, and Judge David Carpenter sentenced Kennard to time served, meaning he would be released as soon as the Alabama Department of Corrections receives
"It means a lot to me that you take responsibility for what you did," the judge told WIAT.
Outside the courtroom, friends and family cried with joy, hugging each other and offering prayers of thanks. ego middle-aged man, kennard was about to re-enter a world that changed drastically after the age of 22, but they assured reporters that they were there to help him through the transition.
"We will support him," Jones told WBRC. "Whatever he needs to be able to deploy, we're ready to do it."