Florida Teens With Life Sentences Fight for Freedom After Supreme Court Win

On a Sunday afternoon one week before Easter 1999, Mark Williams pulled his SUV into the parking lot outside his estranged wife's West Palm Beach apartment with his 11-year-old son Lamatra riding shotgun. For most of his life, Lamatra had shuffled between his mother and his grandmother, but this week...
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On a Sunday afternoon one week before Easter 1999, Mark Williams pulled his SUV into the parking lot outside his estranged wife's West Palm Beach apartment with his 11-year-old son Lamatra riding shotgun. For most of his life, Lamatra had shuffled between his mother and his grandmother, but this week it was his spring break, and he'd been able to spend much of it with his father. That morning, they'd gone to the flea market and gotten their hair cut. On the way back, they decided to stop to say hello to Williams' wife in a working-class neighborhood north of the airport.

As father and son sat in the idling Nissan Pathfinder, two men approached. Suddenly, one yanked at the passenger handle and swung open the door where Lamatra sat. Before he could understand what was happening, he was pulled from the car, and one of the men slid into his seat. Holding a long-barreled silver gun to Williams' head, he grabbed at the gold chain hanging from his neck.

"Give me your jewelry," he demanded.

"Wait," Lamatra heard his father say. "Give me room to take it off."

Black fired a single round. A bullet tore through Dixon's hand and pierced Williams' chest.

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The man, known only by his nickname, "Black," lowered the gun to Williams' chest. His accomplice, 17-year-old Zachary Dixon, tried to push the weapon away. Without warning, Black fired a single round. A bullet tore through Dixon's hand and pierced Williams' chest.

The robbers shoved the bleeding Williams out of his seat and sped off in the Pathfinder. Frozen with fear, the 11-year-old boy stood crying as his dad collapsed beside a dumpster. Bystanders rushed to his side and pressed a rag to his chest to try to stop the bleeding. But by the time paramedics arrived, the 32-year-old father of five was dead.

Police came to believe at least five people were involved in the robbery, but only Dixon was ever charged with the murder. Four days after Williams was killed, 20 officers raided the 17-year-old's girlfriend's apartment in Miami and led him out in cuffs. In two separate trials, juries convicted him of first-degree murder. At his sentencing in 2003, Williams' mother, Beverly Blocker, asked that he be sent to prison for the rest of his life.

"I have come to realize this young man is not repentant in any way for his part in this horrific crime," Blocker wrote in a letter to the judge. "His only aim is to one day get freed."

The judge complied, giving Dixon life in prison without parole, the only sentence other than death the law allowed at the time. The teen was shipped to the Madison Correctional Institute, about an hour east of Tallahassee. He expected he would leave prison only as a dead man.

But now that life sentence has been thrown into doubt. Four years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life sentences without parole are unconstitutional for juvenile offenders. Last year, the Florida Supreme Court decided that decision applied retroactively to cases like Dixon's.

Across Florida, the rulings have sent prosecutors and defense attorneys scrambling. Close to 300 lifers — most convicted of homicides as teens, but some serving time for other charges, such as armed robbery — suddenly became eligible for new sentences.

For inmates such as Dixon, the rulings mean hope they might leave prison before they die, although it's not guaranteed. Judges can still resentence them to life terms, and practically speaking, overworked and underfunded public defenders often don't have the time or resources to mount strong cases.

At least 25 juvenile offenders in Florida have already been resentenced, and ten of them have still gotten life terms, according to Roseanne Eckert, coordinating attorney for the Florida Juvenile Resentencing and Review Project at Florida International University. The rest received 25 to 51 years, and only one has been released on probation.

"My family doesn't feel like they want to ever walk out on the street with their children and bump into him."

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Dixon could be one of the lucky ones who get out early. That's because he's represented by the Palm Beach County Public Defender's Office, which has deputized one of its best attorneys and its chief investigator to work exclusively on juvenile resentencing cases. Since June 2015, the duo has quashed life terms for three clients. In Dixon's case, they say his traumatic childhood, his young age at the time of the crime, and his efforts to change in prison mean he too should have a shot at redemption.

"We always say people are more than the worst thing they've ever done," says defense investigator Hilary Sheehan, who along with Assistant Public Defender Jennifer Marshall spends hundreds of hours on each of the cases.

For families of the victims, though, the rulings mean something else entirely: years, sometimes decades, after the conclusions of the cases, they now have to accept that what seemed like a done deal — life in prison without parole — is reversible. In court, mothers like Blocker are asked to relive the worst moments of their lives and to face the person responsible for it. Williams' family remains adamant that Dixon's life sentence is deserved.

"We're a family, and he disrupted that family," says Blocker, the family's 66-year-old matriarch. "My family doesn't feel like they want to ever walk out on the street with their children and bump into him. They feel like he's where he's supposed to be."

Zachary Dixon's story begins with the troubled lives of his parents. His mother, Debra Dixon, grew up in Miami with two sisters and three brothers. Their mother was an alcoholic, and their parents fought a lot. As a girl, she remembers hiding from them in a closet.

"It was a dysfunctional family at the beginning," she testified in late April. "But it was still somewhat loving too, in spite of what I experienced and witnessed."

She grew up with Zachary's dad, Craig Willard, in West Little River and began dating him her senior year of high school. Zachary was born about five years later, June 2, 1981.

Zachary spent his first years at his grandparents' home while his mother struggled to pay bills without the help of his father, who was in and out of the picture. The 24-year-old Debra raised her infant son while caring for her mother, who was dying of lung cancer. Not long after, her father grew ill with diabetes and died.

After her parents were gone, Debra's brothers tried to force her out of the house, and they weren't afraid to use violence to get their way. In one incident, one brother pointed a double-barreled shotgun at her head. Another time, a different brother held a knife to her throat. Zachary, just a toddler, watched as his uncles threatened his mother and on other occasions saw his father grow violent. "Hit on me, beat on me," his mother testified. "He witnessed that too."

"She was getting high, my brother was getting high, the police were coming... There's no stability."

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As her life spiraled out of control, Debra found comfort in crack cocaine, barely trying to hide her drug use from Zachary and his younger sister. The family moved to public housing in Carol City until the building was razed, and then they were shuffled to Liberty Square, a notoriously rough Liberty City project more commonly known as Pork 'n' Beans.

The family's new neighborhood was unlike anything 12-year-old Zachary and his younger sister had experienced. "Police running around in the neighborhood with their guns out, people selling drugs on the corner, shooting dice," his mother told the courtroom. "He wasn't accustomed to any of that."

Other relatives did what they could to help but weren't able to fully shield the children from the drug abuse and domestic violence plaguing their parents.

"You have two people who are on drugs that are battling each other, and the child is lost in the process," said Zachary's aunt, Leslie Trice. "She was getting high, my brother was getting high, the police were coming, you know? There's no stability."

With almost no supervision, Zachary soon began hanging out with older boys who, by all accounts, were terrible influences. "Zachary was never a bad kid," Trice said. "But as you get older, living where they lived at, you just get caught up."

His mother agreed. "I feel like the lack of love that was in the home where I'm living now, it turned him toward the streets," she said.

By the time he turned 17, Dixon had been arrested for grand theft auto, possession of marijuana, and possession of cocaine with intent to sell. But his attorneys and family say it was a group of older, more sophisticated men influencing him to commit crimes. In particular, it was a charismatic guy six years older than Dixon, they say, who persuaded him to drive to West Palm Beach the day Williams was killed.

At the time of his death, Williams was 32 years old with a newborn daughter at home. He worked at the Solid Waste Authority but also sold cocaine on the side, according to police reports. He'd had his own struggles, his family says, but he wasn't a bad person. "He was a good boy, and he didn't deserve this," Blocker later told reporters.

Whoever dreamed up the robbery, it was Dixon who took the fall. Police never did ID "Black," the gunman. And under Florida law, the fact that Dixon hadn't fired the gun that killed Williams was irrelevant; as a participant in a deadly robbery, he was charged with first-degree murder.

He went to trial in 2000, and 12 jurors needed just six hours to find him guilty of first-degree murder and carjacking with a firearm. That conviction was overturned in 2002, though, because of a Miranda rights violation.

As he waited for a second trial, police made one more arrest. They charged Williams' wife's roommate, Latoya Anderson, with armed robbery for her role in planning the crime. She was sentenced to two years in prison and released in early 2006. In January 2003, police also asked prosecutors for an arrest warrant for Jennifer Williams, Mark Williams' estranged wife. But prosecutors decided not to file charges.

Dixon's second trial began in October 2003, and a second jury reached the same conclusion as the first. He was sentenced to life without parole.

Blocker felt justice had been done. But she was still frustrated; she believed Dixon knew plenty more about who else helped plan the robbery that killed her son.

"His secrets keep my family in pain with no closure," she wrote the judge at the time. "He must pay for the innocent blood he helped spill. For the lives he helped ruin. For the mother who has no son, whose heart can never heal."

Zachary Dixon is now 34 years old. He stands five feet, ten inches tall and speaks with a deep voice that is both confident and self-effacing. His head is shaved bald, but he wears a closely trimmed beard flecked with a few gray hairs. He's a father now; his son is 16, almost as old as Dixon was when he first got locked up.

As he has aged in prison, the laws that put him there also evolved. When he was arrested for murder in 1999, it was still legal in Florida to send a 17-year-old like him to die in the electric chair. Six years later, the U.S. Supreme Court abolished death for juvenile offenders in Roper v. Simmons.

In 2010, the Supreme Court justices ruled in Graham v. Florida that juveniles who weren't convicted of homicide couldn't be given life in prison without parole. And that decision paved the way for the 2012 breakthrough in Miller v. Alabama, when the high court said that even juveniles who commit murder should be sentenced with a judge's discretion instead of given blanket sentences of life without parole.

Their reasoning: Scientific evidence gave weight to argument that juveniles are less culpable than adults for their crimes and more susceptible to negative influences and outside pressures. Children have a lack of maturity, the court found, and compared to adult offenders are far more likely to rehabilitate. In the majority opinion, Justice Elena Kagan wrote that mandatory life penalties were unfair because "every juvenile will receive the same sentence as every other—the 17-year-old and the 14-year-old, the shooter and the accomplice, the child from a stable household and the child from a chaotic and abusive one."

Even in cases where juvenile offenders were resentenced to life, the new Florida law gave most of them an opportunity to have that sentence reviewed by a judge again after serving 15 or 25 years, depending upon the circumstances.

Although only a small number of lifers have gone back to court so far, at least four South Florida prisoners serving life for crimes they committed as teens have been resentenced. In each case, the defendants received new life terms. In February, a Miami-Dade circuit judge gave life to Michael Hernandez, who was 14 when he slit the throat of a classmate at Southwood Middle School in 2004. That same month, a different judge gave the same term to Jason Beckman, a 17-year-old who in 2009 fatally shot his father, a former South Miami commissioner. In Broward, Javarous Dawson, a 17-year-old who shot and killed another teen during a Dania Beach robbery, also got a new life term.

None of those defendants, though, had Dixon's team of Palm Beach defenders. The county has taken an aggressive role in fighting for new sentences for juveniles serving life without parole.

Last summer, Assistant Public Defender Jennifer Marshall and chief investigator Hilary Sheehan were freed of other cases and assigned exclusively to represent juvenile offenders like Dixon. They would spend hundreds of hours interviewing family members, childhood friends, pastors, teachers, and social workers so they could reconstruct the lives of their clients before, during, and after their crimes.

Marshall, a lanky brunette with tight shoulder-length curls, has been with the Public Defender's Office for 16 years. For six of them, she represented clients who were mentally incompetent or insane. Later, she moved to major crimes and homicides.

Sheehan, her counterpart, became a parole officer straight out of college in the '70s. She later became director of Palm Beach County's Sexual Assault Program and then started a business with her sister doing private investigations, which she kept at for 18 years. When Carey Haughwout became the county's elected public defender in 2001, she brought on Sheehan to investigate cases for indigent defendants.

The pair's approach has paid off for defendants. At least six juvenile offenders in Palm Beach County have had their sentences reduced, including all three represented by Marshall.

Before Dixon's case, their biggest victory had been for a client named Carl Booth, who was 17 when he and a group of young men shot Norman "Pooh" Griffith Jr., a senior football player at Pahokee High School. Although he was not the shooter, Booth was convicted of first-degree murder in 2010 under the felony murder principle.

Marshall and Sheehan began by knocking on doors and calling dozens of people who knew Booth. Finally, they landed on a key piece of new info: Booth's youth pastor told them Booth had been diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, something no one else had revealed.

"We had probably talked to 20 people before we talked to the youth pastor," Marshall says. "I don't think the parents knew it mattered. It just took that one person to turn the lights on to show us what was really going on."

They tracked down teachers who remember Booth's difficulties in school and an expert who testified how the condition made him more impulsive and susceptible to peer pressure.

"You never know where you're going to find somebody who can help put it together," Marshall says. "You have to actually go there and knock on people's doors and spend days and days driving." After considering the new evidence in January, Palm Beach County Judge Barry Cohen reduced Booth's sentence from a life term to 25 years.

Marshall and Sheehan have since honed in on Dixon's case. They started by meeting Dixon at South Bay Correctional Institution at the base of Lake Okeechobee and then tracked down his mother, who still lives in Pork 'n' Beans.

They scored an important victory before Dixon's resentencing hearing began in April: The judge agreed he was not the shooter, meaning the stakes were much higher. Like Booth, he was not subject to Florida's minimum 40-year sentence for the person who actually pulled the trigger or held the knife in a murder.

In theory, Dixon could be resentenced to a life term — or he could walk out of prison right away with five years of probation.

In a cramped courtroom on the 11th floor of the Palm Beach County Courthouse, Beverly Blocker clutched a photograph of her son Mark to her chest. It was a formal portrait; mother and son smile against a blue backdrop, and her hands rest on his shoulders. For four hours, except for one trip to the restroom, Blocker never once set the picture down.

April 28 was the first day of Dixon's new sentencing hearing, and Blocker had arrived at the courthouse alone, sliding onto a wooden bench in the second row. It was the closest she'd been to Dixon in 13 years.

For Blocker, this was the third time she'd appeared in court with a simple mission: Hold Dixon accountable for her son's murder. For Dixon and his public defenders, though, this was a chance for a man who'd made a huge mistake to alter the destiny he'd made for himself as a teenager.

The hearing began with Dixon's defense, which had been laboriously prepared by Marshall and Sheehan. From opposite ends of the courtroom, Blocker and Dixon listened as his mother, two aunts, several correctional officers, his prison "life skills" teachers, and his 16-year-old son reconstructed his life for the judge. They painted a picture of Dixon's troubled childhood and his attempt to better himself in prison.

They told the court how, just one month after he was arrested, his girlfriend learned she was pregnant. She gave birth October 7, 1999, and named their son Zachary Dixon Jr. In prison, he enrolled in a parenting class and earned his high-school diploma in 2006. He got a job on the prison's cleaning crew, refinishing floors and emptying trash cans, and became a valuable contributor to a life-skills course even though — as a lifer — he wasn't technically eligible for the class.

As Dixon's mother told the judge about how her turbulent relationship led to an addiction to crack cocaine that gripped her for years before she was able to get clean, the prisoner watched solemnly. "I just didn't care, and so I was introduced to drugs. I'm not proud of it," she said softly. And from her spot back in the gallery, Blocker wiped at her face.

This was a chance for a man who'd made a huge mistake to alter his destiny.

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The second day, the defense called one expert to testify about the effect of trauma on childhood brain development; another said Dixon's lack of disciplinary writeups in prison over the past 15 years was "beyond remarkable." (Dixon had been cited just once in 17 years, in 2000 when he was reprimanded for unarmed assault, participating in a disturbance, and disobeying an order.)

Dr. James Garbarino, a professor of psychology at Loyola University Chicago and an expert on child and adolescent development, described the risk factors in Dixon's life as a tower of blocks. "Eventually, you put one more block on the tower and it falls over," he testified. "But you don't really want to say that block is the cause, because if that block was there by itself, it wouldn't fall over."

He talked about a ten-question survey that asks participants to disclose their exposure to a variety of childhood traumas: if they felt unloved in their home, if they felt in danger, if their mother was physically abused, if they lived with someone who abused alcohol or drugs, if a household member had gone to prison. Dixon had answered yes to all but one of the questions. His score, Garbarino said, put him in the company of just 0.10 percent of all respondents across the United States.

"We often say, well, lots of people have difficult childhoods, but this means a worse childhood than 999 out of 1,000 people," he testified. "So it helps to take the very general statement to make it very specific."

For those first two days, Blocker spent hours listening to family members and experts talk about Dixon, while almost no mention was made of her son. The third day, it was finally time for her to speak. She was called forward as the state's first and only witness.

Blocker hobbled to the front of the courtroom and took a seat on the witness stand. It was four days before Mother's Day, and she told the judge how her son used to give her cards on both that day and Father's Day. "Because you've been both mama and daddy to me," he'd tell her. Those days were gone now.

"I miss that," Blocker said from the witness stand, her voice quivering. "A simple card."

Blocker spoke of how Williams' murder had shattered the lives of his five children. Martavis, who was 9 when his father died, lost a key male figure. Marcavia, who was 8, gained weight and grew depressed. Seven-year-old Alexandria would draw pictures in school of a little girl crying at a gravesite. The baby, Avianna, grew up fatherless.

Most crushing of all, though, she told the court, was how witnessing his father's death had influenced Lamatra's life. He'd already had a difficult life. He was born to a mother addicted to heroin, who got clean when he was 5 but died of organ failure by the time he was 15. His friends and brothers had been victims of gun violence. Like Dixon, he had dropped out of high school. After witnessing the savage death of his father, Blocker said, her grandson became disobedient and mean.

"He was no longer a child," she said. "It was like overnight he just completely changed."

When Lamatra was 18, police arrested him for armed robbery. He has spent the past nine years in prison and won't be released until 2027.

"I was working three jobs, but I kept my eye on him," his grandmother testified. "He left his car at home, and next thing I hear he's in jail. They went over to a bingo parlor and stuck the place up."

For all of the pain Dixon had caused her family, Blocker said, he deserved to spend the rest of his life in prison. She told the court that she had forgiven him but that her grandchildren had not.

"Not one of them thought you were worth them losing a day's pay to come here and tell you how they feel," Blocker told Dixon as she read from a letter. "So don't take their absence as a sign they've moved on. There's anger, depression, loneliness, and hate, just to name a few."

Circuit Judge Samantha Schosberg Feuer thanked Blocker as she stepped off the witness stand: "I can only imagine how hard this is for you."

"It is hard," Blocker replied, the exasperation clear in her voice.

Finally, it was Dixon's turn to address his victim's mother. With his hands cuffed and shackled to a chain around his waist, he stood to face her.

"I know I've caused your family a lot of pain. Like I said before, I don't take pride in what I've done," he said. "And you're right — I could have made a choice and said no. When I saw your grandson in that car, I could have chose to say no. But I was a coward, and I told you that."

His voice trembled as if holding back tears as he continued. "I was a follower; I was young. I was trying to find my way in the world... If I could have that day back, I would in a heartbeat, but I just want to let you know that I'm sincerely regretful for what I've done, and you and your family deserve that. And hopefully one day, your grandkids and your great-grandkids can move forward and forgive me."

Dixon has spent 17 years in prison. He'll have to wait another month to find out whether he'll spend the rest of his life there.

Because it was her first juvenile resentencing case, Judge Schosberg Feuer said she needed time to read up on the law and to consider what she'd heard. On June 29, Dixon, Blocker, and the attorneys on both sides will head back to court to learn Dixon's fate.

Prosecutors have asked for at least 40 years — and encouraged the judge to reinstate Dixon's life term.

"I know I've caused your family a lot of pain. Like I said before, I don't take pride in what I've done."

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"A life sentence is not inappropriate; that's what he got in the first place," Assistant State Attorney Jill Richstone argued. "It's unimaginable to have one child and to have that child be murdered over a necklace... There has to be a heavy significant understanding of that when any court imposes sentencing."

Dixon's defense, meanwhile, says 20 years would be appropriate. Under the new Florida law, the judge is asked to consider ten factors. The effect of the crime on the victim and the nature of the crime are only two of them. The other eight pertain to Dixon, including whether his age, maturity, and psychological development at the time of the crime affected his behavior and whether he has shown he can be rehabilitated.

Whatever Judge Schosberg Feuer decides, the drama at the heart of Dixon's case will play out thousands of times across the nation in the coming years. An estimated 2,000 to 3,000 inmates like him across the nation are awaiting their own hearings.

Advocates say more of those prisoners should have access to a legal team like the one representing Dixon, something that may take more time and funding for smaller counties to assemble.

"We're going to need to see more resources put toward having fair hearings, and I don't think we have sufficient resources to be able to do that overnight," says Eckert, the resentencing project director at FIU. "On both the defense and the state side, it takes time to investigate before you can hold a hearing that comports with due process."

Ideally, defense teams should include two attorneys, an investigator, and a mitigation specialist, according to guidelines from the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth that have been endorsed by the Florida Public Defender Association and the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. But that isn't happening uniformly, often because of a lack of funding.

"The guidelines aren't being followed in every jurisdiction," Eckert says. "I would say most of the public defenders and regional counsel have an attorney experienced with capital cases and a mitigation specialist, but not all."

There's also the significant issue of whether inmates even know they're eligible for a new hearing. Public defenders have been writing inmates to let them know about the Supreme Court's ruling, but Eckert says in about 5 percent of cases she has reviewed, the prisoners haven't taken any action. She has been personally writing letters to them but says in some cases, she has received no response.

"There might be some who have fallen through the cracks," says Eckert, who is adamant she will not let that happen. "Those are the ones I'm concerned might have mental illness or cognitive deficits."

While Marshall and Sheehan have about six cases left on their list, they believe their assignment could be extended depending upon the outcome of other cases pending before the Florida Supreme Court. One case could open up resentencing for teens given life with the possibility of parole. Another could force courts to reconsider punishment for teens who received life terms that weren't mandatory.

While Dixon awaits his new sentence, Marshall and Sheehan are preparing for their next case in July, a 16-year-old sentenced to life for his role in the killing of a Boynton Beach man during a home invasion robbery.

"It's just never-ending," Marshall says. "There are a lot of them."

As for Dixon, Blocker and her family will wait until June, hoping to hear he will face decades more behind bars.

Marshall, though, says Dixon embodies the type of inmate the Supreme Court intended to get a second chance.

"If you think about what these cases are all about, who is a more perfect example than Zachary Dixon?" she asks. "If he's not the one, then the one doesn't exist. It's legal fiction."

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