About Inside The Crips
The situation with the birth and launch of Inside the Crips is so complicated and dramatic it deserves a book on its own. My agent put Colton Simpson and me together to write his story. So why did I, a white, middle aged, middle class, woman living in middle America write a book on the life of a black gang member? I thought we would be able to bring light and curtail the continued inner city black on black violence, racism, the problems of our prison and justice system. I looked forward to the challenge of writing as a black man. Colton hoped to use the book as a launching pad to help stop gangs. Unfortunately, Colton was charged with a crime that occurred a quarter of century after the misdeeds detailed in our book. His trial was set for a week after publication and, worst of all, the book was admitted as evidence. I tried to stop what seemed to me a breach of our constitutional rights and loss of freedom. But energies were being consumed by the Patriot Act. The trial was delayed until shortly after the publication of the paperback. I was subpoenaed and testified for a day and a half. Colton was sentenced, unbelievably, to 126 years to life in prison. Colton’s case remains on appeal.
The excerpt is the chapter I wrote for the paperback while Colton awaited trail.
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“There once was a time when the terrorist threat against America came from within, when L.A. street gangs were one of law enforcement’s top priorities. Cotton Simpson, who says he’s the son of an absent major-league baseball player and an abusive mother, chronicles a good chunk of that time in his arresting memoir, Inside the Crips (authored with Ann Pearlman). In search of family bonds, Simpson joined the Crips when he was 10 (the year he killed his first man). Within five years, he was sentenced to the first of several stints in jail. The book’s most revealing passages recount his 12 years in prison, when (he claims) racist guards antagonized inmates as a precursor to beating them. Simpson, now 40, mostly avoids the urge to glamorize his gang years, offering a sometimes boastful but ultimately regretful tale of a life half wasted. Grade: B+” —Entertainment Weekly
“…Simpson shows us exactly how and why a bright, personable kid comes to join a gang and why that same kid would choose to stay despite the lethal risks, the constant soul-battering violence and the inevitable incarcerations…Simpson also documents urban warfare with unflinching intensity… ” —Celeste Fremon, LA Times (8-28-05)
“Simpson’s book paints a stark portrait of life in prison as the conflict between the Crips and its rival gang, the Bloods, is magnified by the claustrophobic surroundings.” —John Pomfret, Washington post (march 2, 2006)
“After being physically and emotionally abused by his mother and her live-in boyfriend, Colton Simpson moved in with his grandmother. She took care of him and brought him to church, but Simpson still became Li’l Cee. This was his name among the Crips, and on the night he was initiated into the gang-the same day that he hit a home run in Little League-he shot two men at a gas station. He was ten years old. In this often enthralling and emotional memoir, Simpson takes readers inside his life with the gang, from the time he joined through his 16-month prison sentence and to his leaving the Crips. Some passages are quite graphic and can drag on a bit too long, and some of Simpson’s turns of phrase can seem a bit awkward or overdramatic. (“The tumbling dominoes of my life events lose their velocity.”) But the world Simpson evokes with Pearlman’s help is fascinating, and his narrative is clearly heartfelt. For those readers willing to look, the book provides a window into an often misunderstood way of life.” —Publishers Weekly
“Though gritty, Simpson’s story is by no means hopeless. “Life is something to live and do, not to verbalize,” he says shortly before signing off with “In Struggle, Little Cee (Loc, no more).” This unvarnished portrayal of gang life is enlightening and even inspiring about a subject badly in need of illumination.” —Mike Tribby, Copyright American Library Association. All rights reserved
“A raw account of Los Angeles gang underworld and his life as a thief, thug and triggerman in the bloody battle between the Crips and the Bloods.” —Calgary Herald
“This book tells the story of Simpson’s life, from his childhood to his adulthood. It covers abuse at the hands of his mother; his induction into the Crips, the notorious Los Angles-based gang; and his time in prison. It’s brutal and filled with dramatic, nearly unbelievable, scenes. ” —The Ann Arbor News
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And so the story goes….
Two policemen, one in uniform and another in plainclothes, pound my front door and insistently ring my bell. Alarmed, I answer their clamor. A black and white police car sits in my driveway. Instantly, I fear my daughter, driving home from a nearby city, has been in an auto accident. The detective asks if I’m Ann Pearlman. When I say yes, he hands me an envelope. “Here’s a subpoena,” he says firmly.
The District Attorney in Riverside, California summons me to appear at the trial of Colton Simpson charged with being a getaway driver in a robbery. The book you have just finished reading submitted as part of the evidence against him. If found guilty, the prosecutor has alleged Colton’s prior plea bargain as strikes pushing the judge to use this crime as a third strike. At stake is Colton’s freedom. He faces life in prison.
My heart pounds. How can I testify against Colton? More than my co-author, Colton has become my friend? What mean irony if the most positive thing Colton has accomplished with his life is used to stab him in the back.
The crickets begin their nightly hum and the fireflies stroke their embers on this Friday in early July, 2005. The officer in the corporate-casual summer outfit suggests I may want a lawyer. They look around my porch at the flowering roses, heavenly blue morning glories, and the metal sculptures. The detective shakes his head and asks, “How does someone from Ann Arbor get involved with a gangbanger from Los Angeles?” He pronounces “Los Angeles” as though it exists in a different country, oceans and continents away. His eyes narrow as he wonders how a middle aged, mid American white woman living in the middle of a forest in a middle class suburb got involved with an O.G. from a Black gang.
“Now I know where to have my copy autographed,” the uniformed cop jokes.
After they leave, I read the subpoena. In March, 2003 two men committed a robbery of the jewelry department of a department store in California. No weapons were used. They stole one earring worth eight hundred dollars. Following the robbery, they fled to a vehicle waiting in the parking lot. Allegedly, Colton drove this car.
In March 2003, Colton stopped at the San Clemente border patrol station. With a gun at his head, the police arrested him for attempted murder and parole absconding. After searching Colton’s car, the police confiscated pages from a draft of this book. Then, they turned Colton over to the Riverside Sheriff’s Department. There were no warrants for his arrest. Instead, they were for Damon, Colton’s brother. Ironically and unbelievably, Colton faced charges for his own attempted murder. After the authorities resolved the confusion, they charged Colton with driving a getaway car.
In October 2003, Colton posted bail and returned to work for Ice T and various musical groups. In Feb 2005, the bail bondsmen revoked his bail. Since then, for a year and a half, Colton waits his trial in jail.
Clipped to the pages of subpoena are a check to cover the 55 miles I must travel to the nearest airport and a reservation for a plane to California. The publication date for Inside the Crips is August 1, only a few weeks away. Instead of touring around the country talking to teenagers about the tragedy of gangs, instead of talking to reporters and being on TV trying to publicize a national problem and disgrace, Colton sits in jail. Is he accused of smashing the case, of holding a gun and threatening the customers, of grabbing the loot and running through the mall as described in these pages? No. No one has seen him or accused him of being at the robbery. He is accused of driving the getaway car. The two men who snatched the earring have not been found.
I follow the officer’s suggestion and hire a lawyer, calling one the next morning. By the time I’m in his office, he’s on the phone with the ACLU. “This abridges the sense and purpose of the first amendment,” he tells me. “It hits at freedom of the press. Such a thing, a book admitted into evidence would not happen in many states. It would be considered pejorative and prejudicial. But California, well, California is different.”
I know how different. California incarcerates at a higher rate than any place in the world. 626 people out of every 100,000 are in jail or prison in the sunshine state. In the US, 517 of every 100,000 people are currently in custody. The next highest country is South Africa with 355. We imprison at an increasingly high rate even though our crime rate declines. The crime rate decreased 16%, but 33% more people serve time. Fanned by politicians’ manipulations, our culture responds with fear. If violent criminals are locked up, we are safe. Thus, we buoy a sense of control over brutality and aggression. But, of the top ten reasons for incarceration, only one, the sixth, is for a crime of violence. (assault with a deadly weapon.) The others are for drugs, unarmed robbery, or burglary.
I appear before the judge that Monday morning. The prosecutor in my city says that the book shows a pattern of behavior; Colton has been a getaway driver before. I jerk at his statement. As far as I know, he’s never been a getaway driver. My lawyer later tells me, maybe that’s what the California prosecutor told him. Maybe he’s lying to convince the judge. The surprise must register on my face because he says, “Defense attorneys and District attorneys can mislead. Only you, the witness, cannot lie.”
The judge peers through his glasses at the pages, scanning each one. He says the subpoena seems to be in order, I must go to California. It’s part of being a citizen. It’s up to the California judge to decide if the book is inflammatory and prejudicial to Colton’s right to a fair trial.
When I talk to Colton, he tells me that the jail personnel intercepted our letters and passed them to the District Attorney’s office. A letter from him explained his arrest. A letter from me accompanied one of the drafts of the book proposal. Both are evidence. I thought that the United States protects mail as sacred and inviolable that it’s a federal offence to open someone else’s letter. But this shelter dissolves if one person is in jail. Then, mail belongs to the state from the time it arrives at the jail until it’s delivered to the prisoner. Allegedly, this is to protect the safety and security of the inmates and workers. I guess it’s also to gather evidence against the accused. Colton seems energetic and anxious as the trial comes closer. With a half-hour free from his cell each day to shower and make crucial telephone calls, his words erupt a mile a minute. “I love you. God bless you,” he says his customary goodbye before ducking in his shower.
I met Colton through my agent in the spring or summer of 2002. “I have a fabulous project for you. It’s the story of Colton Simpson, an OG of the Crips. He served 22 years in prison, 3 in solitary.” Her voice sailed with excitement.
“I don’t want to write someone else’s story. You know I’m working on another project.”
“Write the proposal. Just the proposal.”
“I don’t know anything about LA. Get someone there.”
“You’re perfect. You worked in prison, you worked with gangs in Cincinnati, you know about race, and you’re a therapist. Who better? Just meet him, talk to him.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“Meanwhile, talk to him.”
“Okay,” I reluctantly agreed.
We talked and he sent me his manuscript. I realized his story reveals the America we seldom see: racism, police brutality, use of prisons to house the Black poor, what goes on inside our ghettoes and prisons, the civil war that rages in our cities. Two million Americans are currently in our prisons. Three quarters of them are Black. Colton is a face behind the numbing statistics, a person behind the gloomy headlines.
The weekend of Super Bowl in 2003, I flew out to LA, and interviewed Colton, his father, his friends, ex wife, girlfriend. I toured the houses, schools, alleys, corners of his South Central, the ‘hood of the Rollin’ thirties. Before New Years of that year, he visited me with my family and we completed our interviews. Then, I showed him my world. He met my children and grandchildren, went to a party with my friends. When in New York, my daughter, a student at a University, and he spent time together. Over the course of the four years I have known him, we have become friends, included with my family.
An ironic tragedy in Colton’s life occurs now. Inside the Crips, which may be the most redeeming and positive act of his life, is exploited as a weapon to put him in prison for the rest of it. If found guilty, the three-strike law may doom him to 25 to life in prison. The third strike law in California is not with out controversy. Passed in 1994, it allows courts to sentence defendants to life if they have two violent felony convictions and an additional serious conviction. Already, the cost strangles the California taxpayers. Corrections consumes more money (5.6 billion) than higher education. (4.3 billion). Designed to hold 100,000, 178,000 inmates stuff the California prison system. 23 more prisons must be built to cage the inmates. This overcrowding provokes increased violence and troubled medical care ( 34% of inmates are over the age of 50 requiring additional medical treatment. 40% of men have unprotected sex in prison spreading AIDs not only in the prison, but throughout their communities.)
Though originally intended to protect citizens from repeat violent offenders, the three-strike law has increased the sentences of more than 35,000 people who never committed a violent crime against another person at a cost to the taxpayers of more than eight hundred million dollars. ($800,000,000.) (FACTS Families to Amend California three strikes.) A man whose previous strikes were for residential burglary received a life sentence when he stole razor blades. For another man, the third strike was for perjury. The crime: lying on a driver’s license application. The sentence: life.
The ballot in the presidential election of 2004 proposed to change the three-strike law. The corrections union, the most powerful union in California, spent their advertising budget to defeat the law. A correction officer in California can earn over $100,000 per year. The governor backed the union. The proposition limped to defeat.
The L.A. County District Attorney recommends restricting the law to those whose present crime is violent. LA County has followed his suggestion for the last two years. If Colton’s arrest took place in L.A. County, the third strike would not be considered.
As you know from reading this book, Colton took a plea on his previous cases. Both of his previous charges resulted from one incident and he served sixteen years for that crime. During the plea negotiations, agreements and waivers he signed, the state promised Colton that a future felony conviction could result in a one to five year enhancement. The three-strike law alters five years to 25 to life. The courts have made it clear that all plea agreements be construed according to state contract law. Thus plea agreements are contracts between the state and the accused. When the state unilaterally changes previously agreed contracts made during plea bargains, it violates its own promise. In fact, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has said, “As a defendant’s liberty is at stake, the government is ordinarily held to the literal terms of the plea agreement it made ….so the government gets what it bargains for but nothing more.” The state of California disagrees. Recently, the courts at the state level (in fact in Riverside) handed Riggs, half way through a twenty five year sentence for stealing a bottle of vitamins, a get out of jail free card. “… he struck a deal with prosecutors and dropped a hearing before the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals…If Riggs had won, it could have opened the way for some inmates to get a similar second chance at an easier sentence. Prosecutors were concerned enough to make their offer…” (Press Enterprise, June 16, 2006) rather than allow his case to set a precedent on which others could climb from similar circumstance.
So here we are: a book on its way to the stores, one co-author in jail, the other co-author subpoenaed in his trial. Saint Martin’s Press, the publisher, is in a quandary. They prepared a wide sweeping publicity campaign with Colton at the helm using his life as an exemplar of the evil, danger, the agony of gang life to stop its spread. In respect for Colton’s right to a fair trial, they pull back publicity. But the local press in California picks up the story. A barely recognizable photo of Colton appears. A sidelong hostile glance, clenched jaws, sucked-in cheeks, and turned down mouth portray an alien expression. Headlines describe the book as boastful. Select passages bolster the perception of Colton as lacking regret and illustrate his mentality as a nineteen-year-old who had not yet transformed from the gang. Written in the present tense, the lines sound as though he thought this way, felt this way yesterday.
Publicity, negative publicity, has started. The book is the star witness for the prosecution. As I fly over the Grand Canyon, I think I am a two-edged sword witness. I reinforce the case for both the defense and prosecution; I damage each one. I am no one’s witness. And Colton, my friend and co author may be buried in a cell for a non-violent crime at the cost of well over a million dollars to the citizens of California.
At the airport, a man from witness protection meets me and drives me to a hotel. It’s noon in California. He instructs me to wait in my room for the prosecutor’s call. Instead, I give the witness assistant my cell phone number and tell him I’ll probably be climbing the nearby hills. The prosecutor calls around four to interview me in my hotel room that contains nothing but a queen-size bed. I am uncomfortable with this, so we talk in a Starbucks for two hours. With a warm, congenial, comforting demeanor, the prosecutor argues that Inside the Crips proves Colton’s intent to participate in the earring theft. I cannot mention the name of the book on the stand. He quotes lines admitted as evidence from the book describing Colton’s thoughts and deeds from a quarter of a century ago to prove of his lack of remorse and his intent for the current crime. We review the admitted text as I try to tease apart which are my words and which are Colton’s. Part contains a rap song. “You mean I’m supposed to rap on the stand?” I ask.
“I’ll sing the backup,” he jokes.
At the end of the interview, he says, “You know this is an amazing story from everyone’s point of view.”
I think how right he is. Each of us has his story, a culmination of our values, stereotypes, individual histories, and beliefs in personal transformation. Each of us reads the book and interprets the lesson. To him it is the bragging of a cold-blooded gang member. To Colton, it is a way to try to do something positive with his pain and to help curtail gangs. To me, it is a tale of redemption, proof of individual growth and change which details the factors creating gangs and the cruelty in American prisons.
Colton’s attorney interviews me by telephone. At the pretrial hearing that day, Colton broke down on the stand and began crying, trembling. The tears and his cracking voice seemed authentic. The newspaper adopts a cynical tone describing the scene.
The next morning, while dressing to testify, I receive a call that Colton’s attorney quit. Information, revealed on the stand the previous day, indicated a conflict of interest. The trial is postponed.
As I fly home, I pick up Entertainment Weekly at the airport. Inside the Crips received an excellent review.
Colton ran out of funds and a public defender must represent him. The months wear on. At each hearing, the prosecutor summons the media. The trial repeatedly delayed as the new lawyer must investigate, and file motions. Subpoenas arrive in the mail every few months. I receive calls in the fall, in the spring, in early summer asking me my availability. Then the public defender quits beginning a private practice. A new lawyer, Colton’s third, assigned. They start all over again. The judge transfers to another court. While writing this chapter, I learn the prosecutor receives a promotion and a new one is appointed to the case. Colton has been in jail 23 months. The cast of characters has entirely changed except for Colton. (and me.)
Television wants to interview Colton. These interviews are cumbersome to organize, but each one is blocked. In one, Anderson Cooper arranges interviews: Colton’s uncle and aunt wait in their home. I am supposed to be interviewed via satellite. But the interview is suddenly cancelled. The producer was informed there’ll be a plea and the case settled. Later, I hear the prosecutor told the public defender he didn’t want a liberal interviewing Colton. Cooper might make Colton look good.
Using Inside the Crips as evidence displays Colton’s previous crimes to the jury and may be unprecedented. As John Pomfret from the Washington Post states: “While U.S. law forbids the mention of prior convictions in the prosecution of a new crime, (the prosecutor) convinced the judge that Simpson’s book—about crimes that occurred more than two decades ago—was relevant to the current case because it showed a behavioral pattern.”
“’Simpson’s case appears to be the first in which prosecutors have relied on a defendants’ book as evidence of intent to commit a crime,’ said Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School. Prosecutors have used journals and letters to attempt to show criminal intent,… Santa Barbara County prosecutors unsuccessfully tried to use holiday cards (Michael) Jackson wrote the alleged victim to prove the singer’s guilt. But the Simpson case, Levenson said, ‘is the first I’m aware of in which some of the key evidence against a defendant—the most damaging –is in his own book.’” (Ital. mine.)
Thus, the book Colton and I wrote appears to be the best evidence the DA has against him. Inside the Crips may be exploited to put him away for the rest of his life in a retroactive ambush to his prior contracts with the state in spite of the fact no violence, no weapon occurred in the crime of which he’s accused. Never before has a book been admitted into evidence in this way, and this would not be happening 94 miles farther to the west where the third strike law is restricted to violent crimes. In other words, one particular court in one particular county establishes an enormous precedent. And the ambitions of a publicity hungry prosecutor benefited from Colton’s situation.
There’s a principle that’s at stake here and a freedom that may be lost that will affect publishing. Inside the Crips is a story of redemption; it details crimes that Colton committed and for which he paid with years of his life; six in solitary. If admitted into evidence, it would curtail publication of biographies which deal with stories of recovery and personal change. Certainly Malcolm X’s Autobiography, in which he discussed being a pimp and a burglar, Bill Ayers’ Fugitive Days, in which he discussed his activities in SDS and the Weather Underground, Nathan McCall’s Makes Me Want to Holler in which he discussed his participation in a gang rape and other misdeeds would not be published. This is contrary to Justice William Brennan who wrote in New York Times v. Sullivan in 1964, the First Amendment provides that “debate on public issues … [should be] … uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.” Books such as this one produce a positive social good as well as impact on individual hopes and aspirations. Cautionary tales serve as warnings to some and give hope to others suffering from similar circumstances that they, too, can transform their lives.
The use of Inside the Crips as evidence against its author and the chilling effect it would have on biographies proving transformation would be another in the list of lost personal freedoms. That Colton’s attempt at amends and our effort to do something positive to curb gangs and urban violence could result in grave consequence provides an excruciating mockery.
Colton and I know that everything we write each other is copied. When I write about my family, or make small talk about the weather, I assume he understands I’m letting him know I think and care about him. My message is the medium.
In a recent letter to me, Colton wrote…It’s almost as if people in jail get angry and become violent toward law enforcement or they become depressed and turn to suicide. Prison has nothing to offer, no educational opportunity, no programs—nothing. For many, opting to commit suicide rather than take yourself and your family through a lifetime of expense and grief is a quick and easy way out. Others ingest every kind of drug and homemade drink to get high and escape the time.
The cell I’m housed in has a bug/pest problem. I’m told two people hung themselves in this cell. Apparently their bodies were found hours later.
Just two days ago Big BJ, one of the founders of the Rollin’ 30’s who had pieced together the first Crip Car in prison, a General of C.C.O. and highly respected in West LA and prison, committed suicide. He had accomplished everything that the parole board requested. His sentence was 7 to life and he’d been eligible for parole since 1983. Imagine. A quarter century of parole eligibility. He had done decades of time without a write up. Apparently, he appeared before the parole board a few days before and was denied again. This year marked his 30th year in prison. 30 years and he hung himself. He left a wife and kids behind and many men who admired and loved him. Ann, many people are tripping off BJ committing suicide as a way to escape doing time. But I’m not. I understand the pressure he had to deal with. The pains. I’d never commit suicide because of my faith in God and all I have to live for. But I do understand how sorrow can defeat people.
Meanwhile, I pray God puts a spirit on the court and releases me.
A year later, it is all eerily familiar. Inside the Crips, now in paperback, is going to press. Colton is still in jail, beginning his 24th-month. Now, he has high blood pressure and takes medication. Attacked while he slept, Colton lives on a different floor, in solitary. He prefers the solitude and quiet. Still, the admission of this book may hurt its author and change the face of American publishing. And I wonder when, once again, I will be summoned to fly across the Great Plains and mountains to be a witness in the trial of my friend and co-author.
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