SAN QUENTIN -- Michael Nelson doesn't look like a killer.
He is handsome and well-groomed. His voice is gentle, his demeanor polite. You wouldn't flinch if he approached you on a dark and empty sidewalk.
But when he was 15, Nelson sneaked up behind a middle-aged man and cracked his skull with a baseball bat. Then he watched a friend finish off the victim with a knife. Charged as an adult, Nelson pleaded guilty in 1998 to first-degree murder and was sentenced to 25 years to life.
Fifteen years later, it's hard to reconcile such gruesome violence with the articulate 31-year-old man holding a discussion in a classroom at San Quentin State Prison, where Nelson leads a notable group of 16 inmates. The men are all "juvenile lifers," serving up to life in prison with the possibility of parole for murders committed while under the age of 18.
The group calls itself Kid CAT. "Kid" refers to the age when the men committed their crimes. "CAT" stands for "creating awareness together."
Even at a prison known for its rehabilitative programs, the men have drawn acclaim for their focus on self-improvement through education and counseling. Scott Budnick, a Hollywood producer and advocate for juvenile justice reform, is one of many people, from educators to politicians, who have met and lauded the group.
"To me they are proof in the flesh of why we should never throw our kids away," said Budnick, who visited Kid CAT in 2012.
The ostensible transformation of these men evokes two of the thorniest questions in the field of criminal justice: Do young criminals have a special capacity for rehabilitation? And to what extent should society treat them differently from adults who commit similar crimes?
An influential body of psychological and neurological research suggests adolescents are less culpable than grown-ups. Teenagers are generally rash and suggestible, the thinking goes, and fail to anticipate consequences -- once their brains fully develop, young people tend to mature out of violent or impulsive thoughts and behavior.
For that reason, reformers claim, teenage offenders who work to improve themselves in prison should receive ample opportunities to show they're worthy of re-entering society.
The argument is taking hold in California, where the punishment for 14- to 17-year-old killers ranges from life without parole in state prison to less than a decade in a juvenile facility. Gov. Jerry Brown has signed two laws since 2012 creating mechanisms for many adolescents sentenced to life with or without parole to reduce their terms.
But some Californians find these changes repellent. Christine Ward, leader of the nonprofit Crime Victims Action Alliance, which lobbied against both bills, asserts "the consequences of murder need to be severe," no matter the killer's age. She questions how many young offenders are truly rehabilitated and how many act the part to gain parole.
Phyllis Loya, 65, knows the devastation of losing a family member to violent crime. Her son, Pittsburg police Officer Larry Lasater, was shot and killed by an 18-year-old fleeing an armed robbery. His accomplice was 17.
"You can't excuse these terrible crimes by saying they're just kids," said Loya, of Bay Point. "My grandson has to live his life without a father to guide him, with only knowing his father through pictures and stories of others."
Nelson and 10 other juvenile lifers founded Kid CAT in 2011 to support one another and perform acts of service inside and outside the notorious prison in Marin County. The inmates run the program with the help of citizen volunteers and two San Quentin officials.
Most of the homicides committed by these young men were not as ghastly as Nelson's. Several of them pulled the trigger in gang-related shootings. One handed a gun to a friend, who shot a 16-year-old boy in the neck during a botched robbery.
The men say they take responsibility for their crimes, and admit they deserved to be punished. Now they are trying to give back, in ways small and large, to the society they so viciously harmed.
Their projects include a hygiene drive Nelson is planning for homeless children. The men aim to assemble backpacks filled with donated toiletries for distribution in San Francisco.
Most significantly, Kid CAT designed a 24-week curriculum that its members are teaching to more than 80 fellow inmates. The course encourages participants to delve into the origins of their criminal behavior. Kid CAT hopes one day to offer the course to Bay Area at-risk youths to shepherd them away from prison.
This and other projects may help demonstrate the men of Kid CAT's suitability for release -- one of them, Inglewood native Gary Scott, left prison on parole in June -- but the parole board isn't their only audience. Michael Tyler, just 17 when he fired eight bullets into the chest of a man who used drugs with his mother, said he yearns to demonstrate to the world that he isn't a cancer, but a person with something to contribute.
"I want to show I'm somebody that's redeemable," said Tyler, 34, "that wants to be considered human again."
A brutal crime
Michael Nelson tells his story. Kid CAT has gathered for a weekly meeting in a classroom off San Quentin's recreation yard, where shirtless inmates play basketball and lounge on picnic tables.
He grew up east of Los Angeles in Riverside. His father was in and out of prison, Nelson says, and his mother beat him routinely -- more than once he awoke to the pain of her striking him.
When Nelson was 12, his mom started locking him out of the house at night. For several months, he says, he slept in the garage surrounded by cages holding rats, tarantulas and a boa constrictor.
By 15, he was out of school and using crystal meth daily. Homeless, aimless, he was drawn into a bizarre murder scheme. Nelson's two friends, a 16-year-old boy and a 13-year-old girl, wanted a car so they could run away to Las Vegas. The group decided to kill a man for his Cadillac.
Nelson, his girlfriend and the two other teens talked their way into the man's home. As his victim played a video game, Nelson smashed him three times in the head with an aluminum bat. The other boy took over, stabbing the man in the neck and throttling him with an electrical cord.
Nelson's eyes well up as he considers the pain he felt and inflicted on others, not just the victim and his loved ones, but Nelson's own family. For years he has grappled with the question of why he lashed out so savagely. He'd begun lying and stealing when he reached adolescence. But although he'd witnessed plenty of violence, he claims he'd never committed any until that day in January 1998.
"The only way I can connect with what I did is that I had no value for human life," Nelson says. "I wasn't capable of valuing the lives of other people. I didn't value my own."
San Quentin's counseling programs, particularly the nonprofit Insight Prison Project's intense Victim Offender Education Group, have helped him understand the consequences of his crime. Now Kid CAT offers a modest chance for atonement.
"I don't think 'I'm sorry' is enough, and I don't think my actions will ever be enough," Nelson says. "But it's all that I have to give."
An evolving debate
The United States has long been one of the harshest countries in the world when it comes to punishing juvenile murderers, according to human rights groups, but the pendulum is now swinging in the other direction.
Since 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court has incorporated the notion of adolescents' reduced culpability into four major rulings, including Roper v. Simmons, which outlawed the death penalty for those who commit crimes under the age of 18.
Those decisions are reverberating throughout the country, including California, which has more juvenile offenders serving life without parole -- 286 -- than all but a handful of states. California has been tough on adolescent crime in other ways: In 2000, voters passed Proposition 21, which made it easier for youths to be tried in adult court.
In August 2012, however, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill giving most teenage offenders serving life without parole a chance to have their sentences reduced to 25 years to life. This September he signed SB 260, which provides some juveniles lifers an earlier shot at release and requires the parole board to give "great weight to the diminished culpability" of adolescent offenders.
Elizabeth Calvin, an advocate for Human Rights Watch, which sponsored both bills, acknowledges violent crime must be punished, but argues the criminal justice system should reflect young people's ability to change.
"There's no question that murder is a horrible crime with a ripple effect of pain and suffering for everybody involved," said Calvin, who sought Kid CAT's input in crafting SB 260. "A lot of people think if you take a life, you lose your life. I just think, particularly when we're talking about young people, the analysis has to be deeper and more complex."
The California Board of Parole Hearings determines which lifers, having served their minimum term behind bars, are safe to be released from prison. Some members of Kid CAT will get earlier parole hearings under SB 260. Nelson will not; he has 10 years to wait before he is eligible. But he will likely have a better chance of earning parole.
For both juvenile and adult lifers, the prospect of leaving prison alive is much less daunting today than it was a decade ago. Legal challenges have forced the board to loosen its hands -- 14 percent of lifer hearings resulted in a parole grant in 2012, up from 3 percent in 2002. Meanwhile, Gov. Jerry Brown has used his authority to overturn the board's approvals far less than his two predecessors -- in just 19 percent of cases last year.
Still, freedom is far from certain for inmates serving life with parole, including the state's nearly 2,500 juvenile lifers. Most inmates serving Nelson's sentence of 25 to life never get out, says California corrections spokesman Bill Sessa.
That's OK with former Riverside County prosecutor Brian Sussman, who worked on Michael Nelson's case. Sussman says he believes in rehabilitation, but he puts more stock in consequences.
"You could be remorseful, you could be rehabilitated, but you put someone in the ground, and they're never coming back," he said. "Why do you get to make a comeback?"
Roots of violence
When Nelson finishes speaking at the Kid CAT meeting, Michelle Rochelle, a San Quentin secretary who helps the group, hands him a box of tissues. He wipes away his tears.
"Tissue means that it's not OK to cry," he teases.
Masculinity is a key topic in the group's curriculum -- how children absorb twisted lessons about manhood. Like many inmates, the members of Kid CAT learned men are supposed to be tough and hard.
Vinh Nguyen, serving 29 to life for a fatal shooting in San Jose, grew up hearing that men in his culture should never show vulnerability.
"We shed blood before we shed tears," said Nguyen, 35, reciting an adage his Vietnamese elders ingrained in him.
Journal writing has helped Nguyen learn to express his feelings. He and the other men of Kid CAT are, to varying degrees, willing to expose themselves emotionally in a way that defies prison stereotypes.
At a June luncheon marking the completion of the group's curriculum, a Marin County filmmaker screened a trailer of an upcoming Kid CAT documentary. A crowd including inmates and prison officials watched the clips, in which several men of Kid CAT cried while recounting their crimes. Heidi Rummel, a University of Southern California law professor, said she was "blown away" by the experience.
"I heard men speaking very frankly and emotionally about their crimes, expressing remorse," said Rummel, a former prosecutor who now runs a program to assist lifers with parole hearings. "You don't see that at men's prisons in front of other men."
Kid CAT's chief sponsor is Lt. Sam Robinson, San Quentin's public information officer. Before assuming that post, Robinson spent several years as sergeant in charge of the Adjustment Center, which houses the prisons's most dangerous, hardened inmates. The veteran corrections officer claims the men of Kid CAT are different.
"What they did was monstrous," Robinson said. "But they are not monsters."
Contact Aaron Kinney at 650-348-4357. Follow him at Twitter.com/kinneytimes.