I started writing Corey Hollinger during my last term at York College. http://girlboxer1970.com/2012/03/14/life-sentence-at-16/
On August 17th I visited Corey in prison to talk to him about his life and life sentence.
That’s the question I struggle with the most. “Why do you deserve to be paroled? The truth is, I don’t.”
Corey surprised me with that statement. I didn’t have an expectation of what his answer would be and his honesty and sincerity caught me with my guard down.
“Tell me how you and your brother ended up in a man’s house with a gun.” I asked. Corey let out a long, deflating breath and took me back to his life at age ten.
Corey’s family passed dysfunctional life like an Olympic sprinter. As far back as he could remember, the household was chaotic and negative. He recalls his mother being suicidal and often having to talk her down from taking her life. He has vivid memories of her telling him and his little brother Tracey she couldn’t take life anymore and locking herself in the bathroom with a butter knife. His memory of the butter knife was eye-opening. Genuine suicide attempts usually don’t include butter knives.
He also recalls his dad swallowing an entire bottle of aspirin in his suicide attempt. Corey called his aunt who was a nurse to come help him. Both his parents survived the attempts but permanently scarred him and his brother. Tracey also attempted suicide but was not successful.
The emotional trauma didn’t stop at suicide attempts. Their mother was having an affair and one day their father told them to get in the vehicle, they were going to hunt down their mom. Corey watched his dad load his rifle and carry it out to the truck. As his father drove to the house where he suspected his wife to be cheating, Corey knew his father had intentions of shooting his mother and her boyfriend. To his relief, neither was at the house and the rifle was not put to use. He had no doubts that had they been at the house, his father would have shot them dead.
In his early teens Corey began getting in minor trouble with the law. He felt everyone was against him and he was bitter at the hand life had dealt him.
He wanted to be emancipated from his parents who were no longer together. He compared his plans of freedom to making a house of cards. Every card held the next card up with invisible strings of hope. When one card fell out of place, it pulled down the entire house to its foundation.
His plan was to be emancipated, get an apartment with his best friend Dominic who was two years older, finish high school and follow in Dominic’s steps by starting college. His house of cards did not stand for long. Corey’s mom decided to fight his emancipation infuriating an already angry, young man. Next his girlfriend was grounded by her father and they were not permitted to see each other after school.
Again, he paused and said, “I don’t know why this upset me so much. It wasn’t like we didn’t see each other in school or we couldn’t talk on the phone. I just felt that her dad was being unfair because her punishment had nothing to do with me. She was only grounded for a month…just a month! Now I realize that a month is nothing in time.”
Shortly after his girlfriend’s grounding, his best friend’s father had a massive heart attack. Dominic was leaving for three weeks to attend to his family’s needs in this time of loss. Corey felt the only two supportive people were leaving him.
At this point Corey and Tracey had been placed in juvenile support homes. He said not so much because they were in trouble but because they had no parent role models to ensure their care and safety. They lived in separate homes, a rule of the housing program. Determined to make it through this program and become emancipated, he put his best foot forward and began to excel. Then there was a minor set-back for an infraction of the rules and he was told an additional 30 days would be added to his program.
“My card house crashed to the ground again and I felt I needed to get away. It was a Friday and I talked Tracey into skipping school with me. All I had in my head was I wanted to get a car and go to Potter County where my family had a cabin. My second biggest regret in life was talking Tracey into joining me.”
Corey and Tracey started hunting for a car to steal. Luck was not on their side as everyone seemed to be away from home. They broke into a house but found nothing that interested them. The second house they broke into they discovered a stash of guns. Corey took two handguns and they left. They saw a man in a neighboring home arrive in his station wagon and enter his home.
The decision to rob the man of his car is what truly changed their lives. “I could have handled this stupid decision so many ways but when we went inside the house, I raised the gun and pulled the trigger. I didn’t think I shot him at first. He raised his hands to his chest but was still standing. Tracey thought I missed him too and I pulled the trigger for the second time. The man, a stranger to me, fell to the ground. Suddenly I was over-whelmed with what I did and kept repeating, I’m sorry, I’m sorry! Tracey grabbed the keys and yelled at me, snapping me out of it. I followed him back out the door and he jumped in the driver’s seat of the car.”
Tracey didn’t drive more than a mile when his nerves caused him to shake uncontrollably. He pulled over and they switched seats. Corey decided to drive to a nearby state park to toss the guns. There were side roads that led to pavilions for family picnics. Each one he turned down was occupied so he gave up ditching the guns there. He was driving on a main road of the park when they passed a state trooper. As they crossed paths the trooper raised his hand and pointed at the car. Corey realized they had just been made in the stolen car and decided to make an escape.
The dirt road kicked up thick dust as he drove over 110 mph to make a get-away. He knew the roads well and made a hard turn onto a side road in hopes to officer wouldn’t be able to tell he turned. He was correct and the officer continued straight ahead not realizing the station wagon was no longer in front of him.
Corey remembers Tracey screaming as the road with pot holes big enough to lie down in came to an end. He slammed on the brakes but couldn’t stop the wagon. “Trees don’t grow in perfect rows,” Corey explained, “but we somehow came to a stop between two and not head on into one. I jumped out and started to run. When I looked back, I saw Tracey was trapped and couldn’t get his door open.”
Corey ran through the woods and came to a barn that was half burned down. He hid trying to catch his breath and thoughts. A barricade was set up to contain the state park but Corey had already passed through the perimeter. He could hear the police radios and helicopters overhead and considered just running further into the woods, abandoning the barn.
An officer on a bull horn began coaxing him to surrender. “Corey, we have Tracey! You are surrounded, come out with your hands in the air!” The police were nearby, but didn’t know Corey was in the barn. He could hear dogs barking and the officer called out, “Surrender now or the dogs will be released!”
“I didn’t want to be mauled by dogs and was scared so I decided to surrender. I walked out of the barn and saw a young cop about 20 years-old. He must have recently graduated from the academy and was still green. I went towards him and he began waving me off and I realized he didn’t know who I was. I yelled out to him ‘It’s me!’ and he waved me off again. I yelled ‘It’s me you’re looking for!’ and I was close enough then to see the light bulb go off in his head.
“He drew his gun and told me to get on the ground. I did as he instructed and he ran up to me putting his knee in my back.” The officer didn’t cuff Corey immediately, instead radioing in that he had the suspect. The muzzle of his gun was to the back of Corey’s head. The officer was shaking so badly that Corey kept repeating, “You got me, just cuff me!”
“I really thought he might accidentally shoot me in the head from shaking so much.” The officer put his gun back in the holster, cuffed Corey and put him in the police cruiser. “It had to be a big deal to him to be the one who cuffed me.”
Corey and Tracey were represented by court appointed lawyers. Their relatives did not have money to hire legal representation for them. They pleaded guilty in hopes of a judge giving some leniency. They were tried as adults at the ages of 14 and 16. Tracey served his years and was paroled. Corey was sentenced to life with no chance of parole.
Twenty-five years after his taking a life, the Supreme Court has ruled sentencing a juvenile to life in prison with no chance of parole as cruel and unusual punishment. Corey heard the ruling on the radio inside his cell and began to cry, thanking Jesus for the possibility of his release. His paper work has been filed and he is anxiously waiting to hear from him newly appointed lawyer. I asked what the process is for seeking parole and he wasn’t sure how it works. “It’s all new. To the lawyers, judges and prisoners sentenced as youth. My hope is they will set guidelines to decide when someone is eligible. For example, many of us think they will make the law that a mandatory 25 years must be served before eligibility is considered. If that’s the case, I hope my lawyer and the district attorney can come to a decision that have my time is served and I won’t have to go before a judge.”
“Is that even possible?” I asked. He replied, “Anything is possible. I haven’t been in any trouble in years and I have a great track record with my job of teaching inmates to prepare them for taking their GED. I haven’t been involved in drugs since the 90’s and only been in the hole twice that I deserved.”
His first stint in the hole was for jumping his new cellmate as soon as he returned from the gym. Before leaving for the gym, he told Corey he was going to rape him when he got back. Corey knew the man was in prison for raping two women and didn’t doubt him acting on his word. “I was still a teenager and scared to death of being raped by this man. As soon as he entered our cell I jumped him knowing I would be removed as his cellmate. The guards pressured me for a reason why I did this and I wouldn’t answer with anything other than “just send me to the hole to serve my time.” I didn’t need to tell them why and they knew I wasn’t going to tell them. Ratting on someone is much more dangerous than just serving time in the hole. I was sentenced to 30 days for fighting instead of the mandatory 90 days. My other deserved stint was for drugs which I’ve long quit. All other trips were bogus but I went without causing myself even bigger problems.”
Other than the brown jumpsuit that all the prisoners must wear when having a visitor, Corey doesn’t look the part. At 41 years in age, he is in excellent physical shape, well-spoken and clearly intelligent. He offers no excuses for his actions as a teen other than stupidity in thinking the world owed him. He knows now what he didn’t as a child. No one owed him anything and you get out of life what you put into it.
He believes prison has changed him for the better and that is a rare occurrence. Most prisoners fall deeper into the cycle of anger and resentment during their sentence. Corey has become more positive and closer to God because of his life sentence. “When men whine during class about how it sucks being here and having to do school work I tell them they are here for a reason and I don’t want to hear their whining.”
This is an opportunity to improve their life before being released and they should be grateful. Sometimes they listen to Corey as he has been locked up much longer then they have, with others it falls on deaf ears. There isn’t a day that goes by that Corey doesn’t think of his biggest regret, taking a man’s life for his car. He can’t justify his actions in any way and knows the hurt he brought to the victim’s family and his own family as well. All this pain and sadness is what makes answering the key question of the parole board so difficult. It is Corey’s honest answer of not deserving parole that makes me believe he is truly deserving of a second chance after serving 25 years of his life behind bars. He admitted his guilt at 16 and knows he is still guilty of his crime. He has prayed for forgiveness and has faith that someday God will see fit to remove him from prison so he can attend ministerial college and share the glory of God’s word, the same words that saved his life and keeps him honest with himself.