Released after a wrongful conviction, the Horton brothers set out to end gun violence in Philly

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Lee Horton sat in the waiting area at Jefferson Hospital last March, fascinated by what he thought was an unusual performance: many of the people around him seemed to be engaged in animated conversations with themselves.

“Some of them were pacing, laughing and using all sorts of hand gestures,” Horton said.

He explained to a nurse that Jefferson must have a large psychiatric ward. The nurse was amused and politely informed him that these people weren’t talking to themselves, they were on the phone.

The last time Lee, now 56, and his brother Dennis, 51, walked the streets of Philadelphia freely was in 1993, when cell phones were a rarity and there was no such thing as Bluetooth earbuds. After decades of advocacy, Gov. Tom Wolf commuted his sentences last February, and the brothers have spent the past year readjusting to a society that thrived without them.

In addition to trying to reconnect with their families and communities, the Hortons have tried to get officers to listen to the anti-violence strategy they have developed behind bars, which they believe they are using can help calm the gun culture that has become pervasive in her hometown.

It was Memorial Day when the young brothers went on a fateful beer ride. They gave a ride with Robert Leaf, a childhood friend, unaware that Leaf had just murdered a man in a robbery. The police had followed Leaf – and when the car was stopped, the Hortons were also arrested.

Both were charged with second-degree murder, which carries an automatic sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole in Pennsylvania.

Despite more than a dozen motions, appeals and, according to the brothers and their lawyers, willful negligence on the part of the police and prosecutors, the courts have yet to uphold their innocence.

When they were arrested, Lee’s wife had just given birth to their fourth child, while Dennis, who now calls himself Freedom, was engaged to be married. All of that was abruptly cut short. They would spend the better part of 28 years in the State Correctional Institution in Chester.

Her family has always been supportive, the brothers said, but it’s hard to miss watching their five siblings grow up with children of their own or the birth of Lee’s first grandchild, Lee IV. Her mother Lorretta died before they lived to see her release. “She was the one who got everyone to see us,” Lee said.

The Hortons’ situation is not unique. Pennsylvania is second only to Florida among states with the highest number of people serving life without parole, according to a 2021 study by legal aid group Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity. According to a 2018 report by the nonprofit Abolitionist Law Center, over 80% of people sentenced to life without parole in Philadelphia are black.

During their incarceration, the Hortons became certified peer specialists through training provided by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.

Both say the program has completely changed their lives; You will be relieved of years of underlying trauma, severe anxiety and depression that have been made worse by false accusations.

It also empowered her to effectively help other inmates. The Hortons say they’ve seen men change — and believe these men could play a critical role in curbing violence in both Philadelphia and Chester.

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In the early 2000s, the brothers began devising a plan they call CURE: City United to Respond Effectively. The Anti-Violence Strategy advocates “using the knowledge and experience of life sentence inmates, who were once part of the problem, to develop a long-term strategy to prevent, reduce, and eventually end violence.”

Philadelphia, suffering from an unprecedented shooting that sent homicides to a record high last year, has no shortage of anti-violence initiatives.

The city recently awarded $13.5 million in grants to 31 different community organizations working on different methods to stem the violence. Within the government, the Philly Police recently formed a new non-lethal shooting unit staffed by 40 detectives. The district attorney’s office recently announced the Emerging Adult Unit, which aims to connect young adults accused of lower-level crimes with job training and mentoring.

What most of these programs lack, the Hortons say, is inclusion of men and women who have suffered the same trauma as today’s youth.

In addition to identifying ways that community groups, churches, educational institutions and businesses can contribute, CURE emphasizes the impact that “Reformed people” can have.

The group of significant others who want to be part of the anti-violence solution are “respected by those who commit crimes and can use their influence,” the Hortons write. Specific suggestions include emphasizing Reformed Partners in public service announcements that “show the stark reality of where violent crime can lead,” or encouraging interactive crime-fighting discussions to be held in schools.

The plan also includes conducting comprehensive Certified Peer Specialist training, like the one they attended, across industries. “We recommend that the Philadelphia and Chester Police and District Attorneys create a CPS training course in which specialists work with the police to mitigate easily manageable situations,” the document said.

An alternative arms buyback program is also part of the strategy. Instead of a food voucher for a given gun, they suggest offering jobs or vocational training in exchange for guns

“It’s the young people who shoot,” Lee said. “You need things to do.”

The brothers said they have directed their recommendations to almost every elected official in the area, from Mayor John Street’s administration to current city leaders. State Assemblyman Danilo Burgos (D, North Philadelphia) was the only one who ever responded.

Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration did not confirm receipt of the Hortons’ plan, but issued a statement that said, “The city is always open to partnering with individuals and organizations trusted by the most vulnerable individuals and communities.” A spokesperson pointed to Kenney’s Roadmap to Safer Communities, which includes a component involving the use of “credible neighborhood messengers.”

When asked if her office received or reviewed the CURE plan, Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw did not respond.

The Horton brothers wonder if the overwhelming lack of response is because it’s “a little awkward to bow to the prisoners’ ideas for solutions.”

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Rian Watkins for Billy Penn

As they continue to work to change the system, the brothers enjoy their new existence.

“I’m living my best life,” said Dennis, aka Freedom, explaining that most take “daily celebrations” for him and Lee for granted. Now in a new relationship, he just enjoys being able to visit or call family whenever he wants. “That’s the beauty of being free,” he said.

Lee and his wife Joanna, who have been together since they were teenagers, had open conversations during his incarceration. “We talked about what if I come out of here and we don’t fit together anymore.”

Lee has been married for 30 years and said their bond has deepened even though he’s seen Joanna change. “She has definitely become a much stronger woman raising four children in Philadelphia on her own. We’ve always loved each other, but now we really like each other,” he said. “It’s like we fell right back in place. She is my best friend.”

Both brothers are especially grateful for their time with their 79-year-old father, Lee Sr. “He always jokes about us giving him his 15 minutes,” Lee said, a reference to phone time behind bars.

In addition to pushing for review or adoption of their anti-violence plan, the Hortons are working as full-time field organizers for the campaign of John Fetterman, the Pennsylvania lieutenant governor running for the US Senate.

Fetterman, also chairman of the Pa. Board of Pardons, became emotional while presiding over the Hortons’ hearing. He has long been a critic of the automatic life sentence for second-degree murder and is a staunch supporter of the brothers, citing their exemplary behavior in prison.

“But we support Fetterman because he champions issues that help our communities,” Lee said, “like second chances, marijuana decriminalization and raising the minimum wage.”

CURE is just a starting point, they said. Coupled with these political changes, the brothers believe the city could see a dramatic change for the better.

The Hortons say they know firsthand that there are men and women who want to help stop the violence. Lee said, “Not inviting you is a missed opportunity.”

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