I have been corresponding with Joe R. Hopkins for several years now and have come to regard him as a friend. He is imprisoned for life in a correctional institution in Florida because almost three decades ago he and another man broke into a house, tied up the two people living there, and ran off with some of their valuables. Why would I befriend someone who participated in such a crime? Why would I plead for clemency on his behalf? For two reasons.
First, because I believe that he was treated with excessive severity. The penalties imposed on him were disproportionate to the gravity of his actions. Only some of the mitigating factors were presented by his court-appointed defense attorney and even those factors were not taken into due account in sentencing him. No information was ever presented about the harmful childhood experiences that warped the formation of his character. I feel that he has already been punished enough, if not more than enough.
Second, I believe that Joe deserves clemency in recognition of the sustained effort he has made to reach self-understanding and reshape his outlook on life – to rehabilitate himself, if you will. Today’s Joe is not the same man as the man who took part in robbing that house all those years ago. People often undergo great change in the course of time. When they do society should acknowledge the change and treat them accordingly.
I do not want to burden the reader with legal technicalities, but I cannot avoid them altogether. The robbery took place in 1990. Joe came up for trial in 1991 after rejecting a plea bargain. He was charged with armed robbery and armed burglary of an occupied dwelling and also with armed kidnapping, all three charges referring to aspects of the same crime. He was found guilty on all counts and given five life sentences: two for armed robbery, one for armed burglary, and two for armed kidnapping. He petitioned for a reduction in his sentence and a hearing was held in 2003 to consider the matter. The judge reduced the two life sentences for armed kidnapping to two 30-year terms. Since then Joe has been serving ‘only’ three life sentences.
I have not been able to obtain the transcript of the original trial, but the State Attorney’s Office of Florida’s Broward County did provide me with the transcript of the 2003 hearing and it is on this document that the following account relies (Proceedings Before the Honorable Robert Carney in the Court of the 17th Judicial Circuit in and for Broward County, Florida, on March 28, 2003, Case No. 91-7274 CF10A)
The crime and Joe’s culpability
The crime was committed on December 3, 1990 by three men: Wayne Mancini, who initiated and directed the robbery; Joe R. Hopkins, who assisted Mancini; and Thomas Stark, who drove Mancini and Hopkins to and from the crime scene in his van. Valuables worth $52,000 were stolen from the residence of Gilbert Eriksen and Dominick Guzzo, a gay couple, at 1200 Tyler Street in Hollywood, Florida (near Fort Lauderdale). Besides the loss of property, the victims suffered the trauma of being tied up and threatened with a hot iron poker in an attempt to obtain the combination to their safe. Eriksen was not injured; Guzzo was burned on the back of his leg.
As state prosecutor John Hanlon says, it was ‘a nasty crime.’
By any reasonable standard of judgment, however, Mancini was much more culpable than either Hopkins or Stark. Although Hopkins did assist in tying up the victims and keeping watch over them, the poker was wielded by Mancini alone. Moreover, Hopkins stopped Mancini from using the poker to do Guzzo serious harm:
[Mancini] had already burned Guzzo to try to get the safe combination. He had the iron and was going to put it in Guzzo’s eye. I said: ’Wayne, don’t do that, man. If he knew the combination don’t you think he would have given it to us?’ Wayne said: ‘Don’t you ever interfere with me.’ But what I said evidently registered with him and he didn’t stick it in his eye.
Unlike Mancini, Hopkins and Stark were small-time criminals. They had committed burglaries before, but this was their first robbery entailing the use of force against people. Mancini used deception to secure their participation, assuring each of them ‘that we were going to burgle an unoccupied house.’ He also used intimidation. Stark testifies:
When I drove by the house I saw that the occupants were at home. I saw Dominick in the bay window. I said they couldn’t do a burglary because Mr. Guzzo was at home. [Mancini] reached behind, pulled out a long barrel .38 revolver, shoved it in my face, and told me just to shut up and park the van and he would take care of it from there.
It is true that the direct target of Mancini’s intimidation was Stark, but Hopkins too, sitting in the same van, must have felt under some degree of duress.
Hopkins’ defense attorney, Dennis Bailey, argues that Hopkins is less culpable than Mancini, ‘logically if not legally.’ Moreover, he received a derisory share of the proceeds of the robbery – about $250 (0.5%) plus a few sodas that he had taken from the victims’ fridge. He should therefore be treated more leniently than Mancini, who has already received a sentence of 22 years. Bailey asks that his client be given 17 years – the shortest sentence for the crime permitted by Florida’s sentencing guidelines at the time. The prosecutor points out that under Florida Statute 777.011 co-defendants bear collective responsibility, meaning that their relative culpability cannot be taken into account. The judge then imposes, without explanation, the longest sentence permitted by the guidelines – 30 years. After the hearing this penalty is ‘enhanced’ to a life sentence. The reason for this final blow will be made clear below.
Legal changes introduced in the name of ‘getting tough on crime’ have made it practically impossible to treat co-defendants differently in light of their individual behavior during the crime. According to the new principle of ‘collective responsibility’ for a crime committed by a group, every member of the group is automatically considered guilty of any criminal act committed by any member of the group. That is why Hopkins and Stark were found guilty of armed robbery and kidnapping even though (according to the transcript) they were not armed – because Mancini was armed. If Mancini had killed the victims, then Hopkins and even Stark, waiting outside in his van, would also have been considered guilty of murder.
An unhappy childhood
The idea of a connection between crime and childhood abuse and emotional deprivation is often ridiculed as a convenient copout. However, it is supported by a great deal of research. Joe R. Hopkins certainly had a deprived and unhappy childhood. Born in 1954, he was abandoned by his parents at the age of 4 and adopted by his grandparents, who were already his main caregivers. Unable to cope with him, they had him confined at the age of 5 in the children’s wing of a mental hospital, where he had very little social contact with normal people, was harshly punished for natural and well-intentioned behavior, and was subjected to barbaric electroshock ‘treatment.’ At the age of 7 Joe was sent back home, the issue that led to his admission still unresolved. Here is his account of his stay in the mental hospital.
Joe was filled with pent-up resentment, unfocused anger, and hatred of the adult world. He started shoplifting – often solely for the sake of defiance, taking things he did not want and then smashing them up or throwing them away. He ‘beat the daylights’ out of a boy who had bullied him, cut clothes’ lines, and cracked the windshields of cars. This is how Joe now views his character as he entered adolescence:
I think that this came about because of being in the hospital at the young age of 5 and being kept there for so long. I had been alienated from 'normal' people for so long that I had very few 'warm' and sensitive emotions. Sensitivity was so feminine and weak to me, and 'I' was a cruel boy! I couldn't connect with people on an emotional plane, the connections that I made were on the performative level -- I was tough and wanted to be seen and thought of that way. Tender feelings that came over me were ruthlessly crushed cognitively. I actually thought through the things I did that were antisocial and did them because they were antisocial. I wanted to be seen as a misfit, a nonconformist -- as unique -- perhaps because I had been classed as a 'sick' child and wanted an identity as a force that was self-directed rather than managed.
Like so many others, he was to find solace in alcohol and street drugs. And like so many others, being unable to earn a stable income large enough both to feed his addictions and to meet his other needs, he resorted to crime to make up the difference. How else was he to do so?
In his mid-twenties Joe began to acquire a criminal record and spend stretches of time in prison. In 1980 he was sentenced to 3 years for ‘robbery with a non-deadly weapon’ but was released after 20 months. In 1985 he was arrested again, this time for ‘attempted burglary of an unoccupied structure’ and ‘grand theft of a motor vehicle’ (he and his girlfriend were stranded late at night with no legal way to get home). Sentenced to a year and a day, he was let out after two and a half months.
But this is not the whole story about Joe. His diverse talents and hard work enabled him to acquire an impressive set of qualifications in several different occupations – as a scuba diver and diving instructor; as a roofing mechanic, repairman, and estimator; as a highly skilled welder of structural steel and high-pressure pipes, and a welder and builder of army tanks; and as a superb leather crafter (see the photos of his leatherwork) and a sculptor in clay and wood.
Joe was also able to obtain a certain amount of college education. He studied mathematics, chemistry, biology, anthropology, history, economics, social work, writing, and public speaking at Ashland Community and Technical College (Kentucky). He continued his studies at Indiana University Northwest, broadening their scope to encompass art appreciation, philosophy, psychology, sociology, mass communications, and creative writing.
One episode in particular was to have a decisive influence on Joe’s plight. In 1988 he developed a grudge against his neighbor Tony, who he believed was spreading insulting rumors about his (Joe’s) girlfriend. Joe expressed his anger by throwing a rock through a window in Tony’s home. No one was in the room at the time and no one was hurt. Indeed, Joe maintains that it was not his intention to hurt anyone and that before throwing the rock he had checked to make sure no one was home. Understandably, Tony had a different take on the situation. For him Joe was a continuing threat to the safety of his family. He pressed charges and claimed that the house was occupied when Joe threw the rock. As a result, this childish act of vandalism earned Joe another stint in prison for the felony of ‘throwing a deadly missile into an occupied dwelling.’
There was another consequence – a much more important one. Florida law stipulates that when a person commits two felonies with a gap between them of under five years that person becomes a ‘habitual felony offender’ and the second felony is punishable by life imprisonment, overriding the sentencing guidelines for specific crimes. A period of only two and a half years elapsed between Joe throwing the rock at Tony’s window and participating in the robbery. So Joe ended up in prison for life.
Needless to say, he deeply regrets breaking that window. But, he now asks rhetorically, ‘when your judgment is clouded by alcohol and you are filled with hate, anger, disgust, and self-loathing and alienated from normal life and feelings, how can things go well?’
Joe remakes himself
Prison is by no means an environment conducive to rehabilitation. However, prisoners who are determined to further their education have certain opportunities open to them, whether through correspondence courses or private study. Joe has made the most of these opportunities. He has read widely in fields as varied as science, mathematics, sociology, politics, psychology, history, geography, ecology, philosophy, and theology. In 2004—2005 he took a full four-class semester at the Jacksonville Baptist Theological Seminary and obtained all A’s. Through his studies Joe has developed a much more mature outlook on life. His new capacity for self-reflection, for example, clearly owes much to his study of psychology.
Joe has also emerged as a poet, writer, and artist. Some of his poems and articles can be found on this website. In the photo at top right we see him standing in front of a mural on a prison wall that he helped paint as a member of the Compound Beautification Squad, later renamed the Special Projects Squad.
As for Joe’s disciplinary record, he observes that in the last 16 years, i.e., since 2003, he has received only one ‘disciplinary report’ and that was a ‘minor’ one -- ‘failing to follow’ an order, as distinct from the more serious offense of ‘disobeying’ or ‘refusing to follow’ an order. He had made an error while putting away work materials. He doubts whether many prisoners have ‘a record as clean as’ his.
I feel inclined to attach much greater significance to another achievement – Joe’s heroic intervention to rescue a young fellow prisoner from the imminent prospect of gang rape. The intervention succeeded, but Joe was ‘beaten to a pulp’ and ended up in the hospital. The young man’s mother expressed her everlasting gratitude by becoming Joe’s most devoted friend on the outside.
Joe R. Hopkins is now 65 years old. He has spent half of his life confined in prison or mental hospital. His life sentence, imposed without due consideration of mitigating factors, is disproportionate to the degree of his guilt. He is by no means the man that he used to be: he looks back with shame at things he did earlier in his life. Statistics show that recidivism is extremely rare among ex-prisoners aged 65 and over. Joe dreads growing old in prison, for in prison the weak, including the elderly as well as the young, are helpless prey at the mercy of thugs. To exercise clemency and release Joe is the decent and humane thing to do.
I have two purposes in launching this website. I hope that it will help get Joe released. I also hope that it will contribute to public understanding of people who have committed crimes and thereby assist efforts to create a more humane and rational judicial and penal system.
If you would like to correspond with Joe, please write to him at:
Joe R. Hopkins 075523 (K1-208)
Union Correctional Institution
PO Box 1000
Raiford, FL 32083-1000