When you work in media, it can be tough to figure out whether the stories you write really matter to anyone. Thanks to the rise of social media and online comments sections, you usually know instantly if something you’ve produced has angered someone, and we just finished a political campaign in which no small amount of energy was spent demonizing reporters everywhere.
But sometimes journalists receive indelible proof that we’ve done something good. Today the news broke that Giselle Gutierrez-Ruiz will be released after spending almost 20 years in prison for being behind the wheel in 1997 when someone he barely knew shot two people, killing one.
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That shooter was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, as was Gutierrez-Ruiz, who was 17 years old at the time of the shooting. His story was troubling enough that Chris Outcalt, a former 5280 staffer, decided to write about the draconian injustice of Gutierrez-Ruiz’s sentence.
Outcalt’s feature, “Still Life” (January 2016), profiled Gutierrez-Ruiz, portraying him as a gentle-hearted, artistic young man (he became an accomplished painter while in prison) who knew he’d done something terribly wrong but had paid far too steep a price for his youthful and unwitting actions. In fact, more than three years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that sentencing a juvenile to life without parole was unconstitutional, so even today’s ruling was long overdue.
In a rare show of unity, jurors, investigators, and lawyers who had worked on the case—some of them have said it’s “haunted” them for years—applauded Judge Thomas R. Ensor’s decision that Gutierrez-Ruiz has served more than enough time for his crime, and even the murder victim’s family has concurred.
The publication of “Still Life” played a significant role in helping Gutierrez-Ruiz’s defense team keep the spotlight on his case, and now he’s finally won his freedom. Gutierrez-Ruiz will be deported to Mexico, likely in the coming weeks. Outcalt quotes Gutierrez-Ruiz as saying that if he were ever freed, his fondest desire would be to return to his family home in Mexico to live out the rest of his days in peace. “I would like to take my paints and paint,” Gutierrez-Ruiz told Outcalt. “I want to start a life over.” Thanks to his diligent and devoted lawyers, members of the legal community who embraced the chance to correct an injustice, and Outcalt’s powerfully moving story, Gutierrez-Ruiz will get that chance.