By Linc Leifeste | July 24, 2014
Director: Joshua Rofé
“I just wish I could go back in time,” says a tearful Brian Draper near the end of Lost for Life, director Joshua Rofé’s arresting documentary on U.S. juvenile “lifers.” And with those words, Draper apparently offers the only good solution, albeit an impossible one, to a complex and heartrending state of affairs. Brian and high school classmate Torey Adamcik, both 21 at the time the film was made, were arrested at the age of 16 for the brutal and senseless stabbing murder of fellow classmate Cassie Stoddart. Both were tried, found guilty and sentenced to life in prison, the result being that their heinous acts robbed our society of not just one young and promising life, but three such lives. And that sad situation is at the heart of Lost for Life as it probes the challenging and complex issue of whether it is appropriate to lock away juvenile offenders for life, without even the possibility of parole.
One gets the sense that Joshua Rofé’s answer to that question would probably be no, but only if he was forced to give a yes/no answer. His approach to his subject matter makes it obvious that he’s intelligent and thoughtful enough to know there are no easy answers to be had here. In that vain, we not only hear from convicted killers but also their grieving parents and siblings as well as victims’ relatives. And the sentiments expressed range from heartbroken acceptance of fault to obstinate denials of guilt, from angry longing for justice to humble, heartbroken struggles to forgive.
Other perpetrators interviewed by Rofé include 34-year-old Jacob Ind, who was arrested at the age of 15 for killing his mother and step-father and Josiah Ivy, who participated in a double-murder at the age of 16 along with a 19-year-old accomplice. In both of these cases, while the crimes committed were without a doubt unconscionable, the boys’ (let’s not forget we’re talking about minors here) actions are complicated by allegations of physical and/or sexual abuse at the hands of their parents. As a mother of one of the boys’ classmates eloquently states at one point, “Jacob is serving a life sentence for the sins of our community. Nobody helped him.” And that is another point the film drives home, that it is not solely these juvenile offenders who are guilty of their crimes, but it also their families, their communities, their society (all of us) who play a role in both sitting idly by while their young lives derail but also when we allow them to be locked up afterwards, out of sight and out of mind, with no hope for rehabilitation or redemption.
The film subtly and convincingly makes the case that for at least some violent juvenile offenders there are other possible alternatives, illustrated movingly via the story of 38-year-old Sean Taylor. Arrested at the age of 17 for a gang-related murder, after years in prison, he realized the errors of his way, converted to Islam and changed his life for the better. Along the way he sent a letter to Colorado Governor Bill Ritter, who eventually commuted his sentence, allowing him a second chance at life outside of prison walls.
A sign of the complexity of the issue as well as a sign of Rofé’s accomplished, nuanced and understated style of film-making, the viewer’s sentiments are likely to ping-pong back and forth throughout the film between empathy for the young criminals and sympathy for their victims, who sadly are not able to lend their own voices to the film’s discussion. The takeaway being that there is not a one-size-fits-all solution to the issue of violent juvenile offenders. Some might never be fit to freely walk among us while there are others capable of change. But considering that these terrible crimes have been committed at such an early age and so often with mitigating circumstances, it would seem appropriate that every one of these young lives be worth at least an attempt at rehabilitation.
Distributed by SnagFilms, Lost for Life is available on iTunes now.