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Parole Hearing Granted to Inmate Convicted of Murder at 13

05-Aug-2013

When he was only 13 years old, Jesil Wilson was present at the scene of a murder. He did not pull the trigger, but he was there, and he knew violence was on the agenda. He was certified to stand trial as an adult on a charge of accessory to first degree murder, a charge which was later amended to first degree murder. By the time he was 16 years old, he was a convicted and sentenced to life behind bars.

Now, at age 29, having spent nearly half his life in a maximum security prison, Jesil Wilson has been granted a hearing by the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board.

As a sixth grader, Wilson was already building a reputation as a hardened Crips gang member. "Lil' Hoodsta" allegedly carried the guns for his fellow gang members, including his 18-year-old cousin Zachary Ferguson. He told police that he was to take the guns and run if police showed up. The older gang members said that Wilson's young age would keep him out of trouble.

Little did they know.

At a New Years' Eve party ushering in the year 1997, a major disturbance erupted at Tulsa's Skate World, requiring 20 police squad cars to handle the chaos. Wilson, just 13-years-old, was carrying a .22 caliber pistol. His friend and neighbor, soon-to-be murder victim Mitchell Knighten, took the gun from Lil' Hoodsta to keep him from hurting anyone.

A few nights later, on January 3, Wilson, Ferguson, and another teen went to visit Knighten to get the gun back. The 18-year-old Knighten refused to give the gun back, allegedly shoving Wilson and threatening to kill them. Ferguson then drew a gun and shot Knighten three times.

Two years later, prosecutors filed first degree murder charges against Wilson. His cousin, the shooter, was conviced of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole. The following year, Wilson was tried as an adult and also sentenced to life in prison.

Oklahoma law says that a juvenile who commits a crime may be prosecuted one of three ways:

  • as a juvenile delinquent in juvenile court
  • as a youthful offender in district court
  • as an adult in district court

Under the Oklahoma Youthful Offender Act, a person under the age of 18 who commits certain felony offenses may be tried and convicted as a youthful offender. This distinction is important, because it is a middle ground between juvenile delinquency and adult incarceration. Youthful offenders are subject to harsh penalties for serious crimes in order to protect the general public, but they are allowed the rehabilitative and age appropriate services of the Office of Juvenile Affairs. 

However, in first degree murder cases, a juvenile as young as 13 or 14 may be certified to stand trial as an adult, unless they are certified as a juvenile or youthful offender.

Prosecutors and judges in Wilson's case say he was certified as an adult because of a violent criminal history and a lack of remorse. A judge said he "lacked the fire in his belly" to change, and a prosecutor called him "steely cold." Critics of his certification, conviction, and sentence say that Wilson was the victim of bias and point to the number of other young defendants who are not certified as adults. They say he was deprived of his rights, interviewed as a witness without a parent or an attorney present. Police say Wilson made incriminating statements when he was interviewed as a witness, without Miranda warning, and that he was free to go at any time. However, Wilson was a middle schooler in handcuffs, a sixth grader with a learning disability that put his cognitive development at a fourth-grade level. Is it reasonable to expect that he would know his rights or understand that he was free to go?

Whether Wilson was a young victim of an abusive, violent, and criminal upbringing or a hardened criminal at an early age is a matter of perspective. In September, the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board will lend its viewpoint to determine the future of Jesil Wilson.



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