Oregonians Sent a Frightened 17-Year-Old Boy to Prison. My Family Helped.

Larry Muzzy left Oregon, but can't escape what happened on East Burnside Street in 1996.

Larry Muzzy, a 40-year-old father of two, has a box in his attic that makes him sick to his stomach.

The box lives underneath his son's old drum kit and next to the Christmas ornaments. It used to be heavy with court documents. Now, it contains a photo album, his mother's wedding ring, his birth certificate, and a 1-gallon Ziploc bag with the paperwork that could change his life.

What's in that box is "really an emotional weight," he said. "Kind of like dread."

In 1996, Muzzy was 16 and a popular varsity swimmer in his junior year at David Douglas High School. He had just earned a spot in the school's elite Troubadours choir, all that belting out Boyz II Men ballads into his mom's candlesticks paying off.

Larry and his twin brother, Gary, were interracial children, raised by a single mother in the Parkrose neighborhood of Northeast Portland. Their father took off before they were born.

The night before Halloween that year, Muzzy and four acquaintances left church youth group early in a car. They saw a man walking alone in the dark at East Burnside Street and 162nd Avenue.

Court documents state that one of the teens, Daniel Solis, showed his friends a 3-inch knife and suggested they steal the man's wallet. "At trial, defendant [Muzzy] continued his claim that he never saw the knife or knew that a robbery was going to occur," the documents say.

Solis and Muzzy got out of the car and stood in front of the victim on the sidewalk, and Solis demanded his wallet. When the victim, who declined to speak to WW, asked if this was a joke, Solis pulled the knife and said, "Does this look like a joke, motherfucker?" The victim tossed them the wallet and ran.

In the car, the boys were laughing and hyped up. They took out the money and ditched the wallet at a gas station.

Muzzy got home and felt the pull of his conscience. "Something happened," Muzzy told his mother. Muzzy and his mom went to the gas station and searched the trash cans, but two days had passed and the wallet was gone.

"You have to turn yourself in," Michele Straub remembers telling her son, so she took him to the Gresham Police Department, which has become her lifelong regret. Detectives interviewed Muzzy without a lawyer present.

"My point of view at that time was, the truth will set him free and we will be good," Straub said.

Instead, it led to a charge of first-degree robbery, a felony, because the state argued that Muzzy's presence on the sidewalk prevented the victim from fleeing and was therefore "aiding and abetting."

More importantly, it was a Measure 11 crime.

To many Oregonians, Measure 11 means little. To anyone who works or has interacted with the criminal justice system, it may be the most consequential change in state criminal law in the past 40 years. Passed in 1994 by voters, Measure 11 was Oregon's contribution to the nationwide "tough on crime" era that began in the 1980s and coincided with the crack cocaine epidemic.

In essence, Measure 11 removed the discretion of judges when sentencing defendants 15 and up convicted of any number of crimes, such as murder, robbery or rape. Under Measure 11, there was no possibility of parole, even with good behavior. The popular slogan for the law was "one strike, you're out."

And while this new law might seem more at home in a less progressive state, Oregon voters passed the measure by a huge margin. "There was a really different culture throughout our government in the '90s. Everyone wanted to fight the drug war and be 'tough on crime,'" says Aliza Kaplan, a professor at Lewis & Clark Law School and director of the Criminal Justice Reform Clinic. "No blue state was immune from that."

Looking back at racism in Oregon, it's easy to tsk-tsk the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the state in the 1920s, the Vanport flood disaster of 1948, and running Interstate 5 straight through a Black neighborhood. It's less comfortable to realize that a predominantly Democratic electorate in Oregon passed Measure 11 by a landslide of two-thirds, a law that has disproportionately affected the state's Black community.

Courts apply Measure 11 dramatically differently depending on race: From 1994 to 2012, Black youth were 13.7 times more likely to be indicted on a Measure 11 charge than their white peers, according to a report by the Oregon Council on Civil Rights.

Oregon has made some important changes to its criminal justice system over the past decade, including further limiting the death penalty and, just last week, decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of hard drugs. But Oregon has yet to repeal Measure 11. Legislators have tinkered with it, trying to soften the effects of mandatory minimum sentences, but the law still stands.

And in 1996, Muzzy was poised to be one of the first kids the state would put away under Measure 11.

Muzzy's court-appointed attorney, Gary Bertoni, encouraged him to take a plea bargain that would give him three years in prison, but Muzzy refused and decided to take his chances at trial. The boy with the knife, Solis, was found guilty by a jury and sentenced to almost eight years, so Bertoni thought his client might have a better chance waiving his right to a jury trial and having his case decided by a judge.

On Aug. 29, 1997, Multnomah County Circuit Judge Douglas Beckman's courtroom was packed with Muzzy's friends, family, coaches, pastors, teachers and neighbors. The judge had a stack of 52 letters by character witnesses for Muzzy on his desk.

From a "concerned mother and citizen": "Larry Muzzy is a tender, sweet young man, whom like so many of our youth, is simply a product of our imperfect world. The thought of such a person spending one night in the presence of 'real' criminals brings stinging tears of sadness and frustration to my eyes."

From the elderly couple on his block: "He is kind, courteous and considerate of all the neighbors.…Just the other day he kindly helped me move a large upright freezer from our house to our garage. I've seen him mow the lawn of a neighbor lady, Mrs. Swanson, who is alone, and she told me he wouldn't allow her to pay him."

Even the victim asked the judge for leniency for Muzzy, saying he had played only a minor role in the crime.

Judge Beckman—a white, Yale-educated, 52-year-old jurist who had been on the bench for four years—gestured toward the United States and Oregon flags behind him. "The flags are higher than I am because I am below the law," he said. "I have to do what it says."

He sentenced Muzzy to the mandatory minimum: 90 months with no possibility of parole.

The judge was my father.

This summer, I got together with my father, who is now retired, on a quiet neighborhood street abutting a community garden in St. Johns to see a Black Lives Matter mural.

For the first time, I learned about Larry Muzzy. I was also in high school in Portland in the late 1990s.

Dad remembered the trial in surprising detail, considering he heard the case 23 years ago. "Tough case," he said, shaking his head.

A few weeks later, I pressed him for more details. He said Muzzy's case was the hardest of his judicial career and that it made him "almost not want to be a judge anymore."

In the weeks between the trial and the sentencing, he pored over law books in his chambers. He researched state and federal law on disproportionality, unequal protection under the law, cruel and unusual punishment—anything to find wiggle room to give Muzzy a lesser sentence for his minor role in the crime. He asked Judge Harl Haas, who presided over Solis' trial, to help him. They came up empty.

"I hated this case," he said. "As a judge, I have to follow the law, and the law was pretty clear that I had to do something that was unfair. I think it was horrible as applied to Larry."

I asked why he didn't find Muzzy not guilty.

"I wanted to. But I thought that he was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt," he said. In a pre-Measure 11 world, he probably would have sentenced Muzzy to three years of probation, 200 hours of community service, and 30 days in jail "just for the lesson," he said.

My dad's nickname has long been "Dudley Do-Right" in our family. He's a rule follower to the extreme. Invite him to come over at noon and he'll be on your porch at 11:55 am. In 1968, he took a break after his first year of law school at the University of California, Berkeley, to enlist in the U.S. Army and serve in Vietnam. It seemed like the right thing to do, he said, even though he was terrified. He finished his law degree after returning from Da Nang.

But he bristled against following the rules of Measure 11. Mandatory minimums made him feel less like a judge and more like "a rubber stamp."

At the sentencing, he barely held it together. Since Measure 11 was so new, he wasn't sure the Muzzys understood that his hands were tied. He knew the family was furious at him; he felt frustrated and sad.

"I just hoped the time in custody would not crush a guy that I thought didn't deserve it."

After sentencing, Michele Straub didn't get to hug her son or say goodbye. The bailiff handcuffed Muzzy and hustled him out of the courtroom. The pain was amplified by the fact that Straub had voted in favor of Measure 11 in 1994.

Muzzy was one of the first juveniles to receive a Measure 11 sentence, and he got the sense that "the state didn't even know what to do with me at that point." The Department of Corrections has certainly had to figure it out since then: Measure 11 helped double Oregon's prison population from 7,260 inmates in April 1995, when the law took effect, to 14,458 in April 2020, according to the department.

He spent nine months bouncing between correctional facilities, including in Clackamas and Newport and the Multnomah County Justice Center downtown. Even though he was in protective custody because of his age, he says he could hear the prisoners on the next cell block yelling that they would find him upstate and rape him.

"I would get phone calls from my son and he was crying," Straub recalls. "He had to sleep on a floor and he wouldn't have any blankets and they made him sleep with the lights on. Those sound like small things, but when you're 17…" (Muzzy confirms her account.)

Meanwhile, his brother Gary "pretty much gave up on life," he said. The day Larry was sentenced, Gary went to Fred Meyer and stole snacks with friends. He got kicked out of David Douglas High School. He quit swimming.

But mostly, Gary was angry at the judge.

"It seemed like he wasn't receptive of anything in terms of Larry's character and where he was in the robbery," Gary says. "It didn't seem like a fair fight."

Larry Muzzy served most of his time at MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility in Woodburn. He earned his high school diploma, trained dogs, mentored others, and built so much trust with the staff that he was put in charge of driving visitors and employees around the property in a golf cart.

David Vancil was a treatment manager who worked at MacLaren for 31 years and became Muzzy's mentor. In Vancil's "ownership group," Muzzy reenacted his crime, except he played the role of the victim. "He always had our back and listened to us and built that trust," Muzzy says about Vancil, "but he also kept us accountable and called us on our BS."

Vancil remembers Muzzy as "delightful" and a "jokester." They remain in touch.

On July 15, 2002, after serving four years and 11 months, Muzzy was released with a rare post-conviction relief. Bertoni, his attorney, agreed to concede he had not provided Muzzy "adequate assistance of counsel," and Beckman granted Muzzy, then 22, an early release.

On the way up I-5 from Woodburn to Portland after his release, Muzzy "was freaking out because the car was going so fast," his mother recalled. That night, he stood in awe under the stars he hadn't seen in five years.

He was hypervigilant, never turning his back to the door of a room. He tried to attend a Parkrose High School football game but had a panic attack in the stands and left.

After months of job-searching, he finally got hired at Subway. He worked all the time, ate noodles and chicken every day, but Gary remembers that time living in a Beaverton apartment together fondly: "It was just awesome having my brother back."

Larry met his girlfriend in Portland 10 years ago when they were both working at the same bar. They now live in her home state of South Carolina, where she works in hospital administration and Muzzy stays home with their two sons, ages 2 and 7, and occasionally tends bar.

He grows a garden of Thai ingredients—lemongrass, eggplant, kaffir lime and ginger—for his elaborate recipes. Muzzy roots hard for all Pacific Northwest sports teams but especially the Trail Blazers.

He's 40 now. He doesn't want to be managing bars anymore, working all night around drunk people. ("It's not good for my family life," he said.) But what career will he pivot to, when every job application asks if he has ever been convicted of a felony? A criminal record gets in the way of finding housing. And this really stings: He cannot coach his 7-year-old's Little League team.

"What people don't realize is these 'one strike, you're out' laws are really a life sentence," Muzzy said. "You're telling me that at 16 I committed an offense so great that my children are going to have to pay for that? It's just really lazy legislation, to give people a bunch of time and no recourse for rehabilitation."

Muzzy and my father have seen each other once since the courtroom.

A few years ago, my father was picking up his work shirts from Tie's Dry Cleaners in Hollywood one evening. Muzzy was working as the cashier and recognized him right away. They caught up about how Muzzy had been doing since his release, both of them awkward and in shock, until Dad cracked.

"I just broke down and started crying," he recalled. "I just started shaking. I think he could see what I felt about what I had to do in his case."

Last year, Aliza Kaplan wrote a report calling for Gov. Kate Brown to use her clemency power as a tool to mitigate the impact of those whose lives have been upended by Measure 11. A pardon by the governor is the only way for Muzzy and others in his situation to clear their records.

Related: Why is Measure 11 still the law in Oregon?

Pardons are a slim shot: According to Kaplan's report, out of 391 petitions to Gov. Brown for clemency from 2015 to 2018, she granted nine. However, "I'm happy to say she has been in a granting mood for the last six months," Kaplan said.

In 2013, Muzzy decided to seek clemency. He wrote to my father asking for a character letter in support of his petition: "I believe it true that society is better served with a full and more functional me, with no barriers, no hangups, no record. Please help me realize my goal."

My dad wrote him the letter. But Muzzy never sent his application for clemency to Gov. Brown. He has filled out the paperwork, but he can't bring himself to send it in. It stays in the box in the attic.

"It's a weird phenomenon where if I hold onto this, then I still have the hope of someday my record clears," he said. "If I send it in and I get denied, then I have to live with that reality."

Rachel Saslow is a journalist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Vox and Portland Monthly. She lives in Southeast Portland with her family.

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