At 6:19 a.m. Saturday morning ACCR staff got the call: 38 years, 3 months and 4 days after the 14-year-old Ricky Olds went to prison for buying a bag of potato chips with the wrong crowd, he was going home a free man. If you don’t believe the part about the potato chips, read VICE: The 14-Year-Old Who Grew Up In Prison. It is reasonable to wonder how this could have happened, but honestly it’s nothing you haven’t heard before. Just a lot more of it.
It’s always difficult to know where to start a story of unimaginable injustice. Maybe, in this case, racism. How else do you explain charging Ricky Olds – a skinny little black kid who bought a bag of chips in a Pittsburgh quickie mart and ran away when he saw a gun – with murder? Was it because his older friend killed a white man? Or because his lawyer, all of the prosecutors, and the judge were white? Was it because his jury was all white? Was it because it never occurred to any of them that a 14-year-old black kid might not have done anything wrong? It’s impossible to go back in time, and even if we could we wouldn’t get an honest answer. We can see through a little window, however. The judge didn’t want to give Ricky a life sentence, but he couldn’t persuade the prosecutor to be reasonable. The prosecutor thought it was all just a lot of whining: “He’ll be out in 17 years, maybe less,” Robert Colville said. Wrong and wrong.
But that was ancient history, and we like to think that we’re far more fair and just in 2017 than we were in 1979 (though why we would like to think this after November 8th is a mystery). If only it were true. In 2016 the prosecutor insisted on a 20 year to life sentence for Ricky, which was ridiculous given Ricky’s outstanding prison adjustment and his ludicrously minimal involvement in the crime – under what plausible theory did a guy like him require supervision by the Commonwealth for the rest of his life? But he had already served 37 years by then, so at least he would be getting out of prison. Well, not so fast. The prosecutor was only asking for 20 years, but they were insisting that the parole board release him – so they objected to the judge’s granting of bail. By doing so, the DA’s office made a man who never should have gone to prison for a minute serve an extra three months at State Correctional Institute at Somerset. The Commonwealth’s objection to bail for Ricky Olds infuriated us at ACCR, and we were very outspoken about the knee-jerk objections by the prosecution. But the Pittsburgh newspapers used its discretion to keep the specific prosecutors out of the public’s eye. We have no reason to do the same.
Assistant District Attorney Ron Wabby, just minutes before filing an appeal to keep Olds in prison and only minutes after conceding that Olds surely would be paroled when the parole board got around to it, explained to ACCR staff that he was just “following orders from the top man.” The top man? Stephen Zappala, the DA in Pittsburgh who recently lost the race for attorney general of Pennsylvania, is the son of a former Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice. Wabby and Zappala should be ashamed of themselves, but again, the Pittsburgh newspapers have condemned their decisions but not by name.
Ricky Olds is out of prison, and we should all be glad about that. And we are. But you’ll forgive us for not celebrating. His case, from beginning to end, has been an insult to justice. It would be one thing if we could look back and say “how could they,” and believe with some confidence that we are happy we’ve moved on from 1979. But Zappala and Wabby made two very concrete decisions at the end of 2016 – that the “rules” require an innocent kid to spend the rest of his life on state parole, and that his continued incarceration after 37 years was necessary to uphold the “proper use of bail.” In other words, their cowardly fear of using the discretion the electorate gave them is no different from the behavior of their counterparts all those years earlier.
We have not come far at all. When someone steps forward and says that we made a mistake all those years ago, that will be grounds for celebration. If we survive the shock, that is.