By Ricky A. Ortega
As a child, I was always afraid of the dark, fearful of what lurked outside my bedroom window. Alone in my room, my mother would sit with me at night and whisper reassuringly that if I close my eyes I could be alone with God, and He would keep me safe. But on a cold, foggy night on January 10, 1981, when I was arrested for Terri’s murder, I encountered a darkness I had never known. This time, however, I couldn’t close my eyes and face the same God who once protected me as a child. Captured by the sins of my youth and placed in the isolation unit, I found myself locked inside the deafening silence of solitary confinement. Never again could I be alone with God and feel safe in His loving care. And with nowhere left to turn, I fell to my knees and surrendered to the valley of deep shadow, where the light of a mystic moon hovers over the trail of Terri’s tears.
This series of articles will explore the personal lives of those sentenced to life without parole; how we are confronting the destruction of our past and searching through the rubble of our self-ruin. Like a lone tree in a forgotten forest, LWOPs weather the storm as fallen leaves, plucked before our time, descending downward onto the trail we left of shattered lives, the trail of unforgotten tears.
Dante Love received a life without parole sentence in July, 1998, at the age of 23. With no positive male role model growing up, he turned to the streets to learn its definition of a man. “I learned a false belief system about being loyal to the street but the street doesn’t love any of its victims. Like we heard in the old western movies, there’s no honor amongst thieves. This belief gave me the false power that I could murder an innocent man without being punished,” admitted Love.
Indeed, Love realized quickly that the streets do not love any of its victims, including him. “Being sentenced to life without parole was like being buried alive,” confessed Love. “But I was so full of rage, I was determined to survive no matter what the cost. Racial struggles were a major issue for me. My grandmother and mother raised me to judge a person based on their character. But it rarely seemed to go both ways and that’s what fueled a lot of my anger.”
But while the world around him seemed to be saturated in hate and negativity, Love invested in his future through self-awareness and education. “Graduating GRIP gave me the tools to face my truth about my crime and the Alternatives to Violence project helped me discover true, authentic leadership. As a member of the Juvenile Diversion Program, I learned the value of what a mentor is. And in my third year of college, I’ve completed 33 units in Social Work, Human Services and Business which has sparked my self-esteem tremendously,” admitted Love. “But my true breakthrough moment that gave me the courage to face my true self was having my daughter come back into my life after 25 years of separation.”
Those of us sentenced to die in prison are bracing ourselves for an uncertain future. Seasons of change loom on the horizon, like the birth of rosebuds glistening in the sunlight, giving LWOPs reason to hope. Although self-awareness and education are critical steps on our journey to rehabilitation, it’s the trail of tears that we must travel to bring true healing. Today, I’m no longer afraid of the dark. I can close my eyes and be alone with my God as we walk together down the trail of Terri’s tears.