As he was being processed into the Colorado Department of Corrections, Mitchell pressed to be assigned to the Limon Correctional Facility, saying he had relatives there and hoped to participate in its substance-abuse programs. He was following the advice of an older con at Limon named Marvin, who used to date his mother and could offer him some degree of protection. State officials don't let inmates pick their own prisons, but they evidently took Mitchell's age into consideration and figured he was better off among friends.
Marvin did what he could for the teen, but Limon -- a warehouse teeming with some of the state's most brutal customers -- was a "culture shock" for Mitchell just the same. "I saw people stabbed," he says. "People getting hit in the head with irons. People thrown off tiers."
His mentor introduced him to a tight circle of old-timers and told him to stick close to that group and stay away from the loudmouths in the yard. It was good advice. "I would try to do my own thing, and it wouldn't work out," Mitchell recalls. "I would get a report -- cussing out the police, stealing, doing something stupid."
Another one of the old-timers took him aside and told him that he had to face the fact that he would be there for the rest of his life. He would have to grow up, be prepared to defend himself, be cautious about trusting anyone, even in the inner circle. Everyone around him was a criminal, and he was bound to be tested. "Sure enough, it happened," Mitchell says. "I got into an incident. It went wrong for the other fellow, and after that, I think I got a taste for it."
More incidents followed. Mitchell had only been inside a few months when he was shipped off to the newly opened supermax, the Colorado State Penitentiary. He spent eighteen months in isolation there. He came out no better. After a stabbing at Centennial that landed him in the hospital, he was sent back to CSP in 1996. He was in solitary confinement for the next four years.
Halfway through his time in the hole, he got a phone call informing him of the murder of a teenage cousin in Louisiana. The man who stood over his cousin, firing multiple bullets into his body, got a sentence of ten years. Ten years for premeditated murder!
"I hung up that phone and went upstairs," Mitchell says. "I was shadowboxing. I was screaming. I cursed God and everybody. I was in this fit of rage. And then I heard this voice: 'Who are you? Why are you still in prison?' I stopped dead in my tracks." Other inmates told him he was hallucinating, but the voice got him thinking. Who was he, really? And what was he doing here, with the life he had left?
It was the start of a long, gradual climb out of the box he had built for himself. Over the next decade, Mitchell's prison record dramatically improved. He stopped getting written up for misconduct, took the limited educational and vocational programs available to lifers, completed his GED and some college classes as well. And he took that reckless, foolish boy out of the driver's seat.
A court decision in an unrelated case changed the way the state was required to calculate sentences like Mitchell's, allowing the possibility of parole after he'd served forty years. In 2009 he was feeling confident enough in his progress to apply for a recommendation of clemency from a board that Governor Ritter had appointed expressly to consider the sentences of juveniles in the adult system. His mother, aunt Linda and a clutch of other supporters wrote letters, noting his accomplishments and years of trouble-free behavior.Scott Storey wrote a letter, too, objecting to any reduction in his sentence. So did the grieving mother of the boy Mitchell had killed.
"Every day I think of my son," Monica Goetsch wrote. "I have nothing. No peace. I still cry all the time, 17 years later. I still cry and wonder why...I cannot touch Danny or kiss him, I can't tell him see you later, I love you, because you cannot get a response from a grave. Why should Dietrick Mitchell be set free to enjoy what he took away from Danny and me?" His application was denied. But Mitchell didn't give up hope. Carrie Thompson wrote directly to the governor about the case that had most troubled her during her 23 years in the public defender's office. She explained about the investigation she and Clein had conducted into lighting and other conditions that indicated Mitchell hadn't seen the pedestrians. "Because he was drunk and because he was driving recklessly, Dietrick was responsible for the boy's death," she wrote. "However, Dietrick was not guilty of extreme indifference murder.... I have spent many sleepless nights thinking of a way to right what I perceive to be a tragic wrong."
One morning Mitchell began, on impulse, to give things away. Sweatpants. Appliances. Do-rags. He even packed his bags, much to the amusement of other inmates. He ran into Chuck Limbrick, another juvie lifer, who told Mitchell he was giving away stuff, too. Not long after that, Mitchell crossed paths with Sean Taylor; Taylor said he was going through a similar divestment, on a whim and a hope. All of them were expecting something good to happen.
On a Friday night in early 2011, Mitchell caught a report on the television about Limbrick and Taylor getting their sentences commuted. The next morning, his aunt Linda came to visit him.
"Your cousin said you're going to need socks, drawers and T-shirts," she said. Mitchell fell into her arms. His aunt asked him when he found out. "You just told me," he said.
But Ritter's commutation order didn't call for Mitchell's immediate release. It knocked his sentence down to 32 years; having served more than half of that term already, he was overdue for a parole hearing. The hearing took place a few months later, with Mitchell appearing on a video monitor. It lasted only a few minutes, and then Mitchell was told he couldn't reapply for parole for another five years.
"It was a joke," Thompson says of the hearing. "They didn't really talk to him. The denial was just based on the nature of the crime. Nothing else was taken into consideration. My sense was that there was political pressure on the parole board to not even consider releasing him."
Because of his demonstrated good behavior, Mitchell was scheduled to go to a halfway house. That placement was now impossible; under a newly passed law, a violent offender couldn't progress to community corrections unless he was within six months of his next parole hearing.
The parole board's own guidelines require the use of an assessment tool, known as an LSI-R, to evaluate an inmate's fitness for parole. The data in the LSI-R is supposed to be reviewed and updated on a semi-annual basis. But the data used in Mitchell's 2011 parole hearing comes from 1998, when he was still in solitary and not demonstrating much in the way of rehabilitation; his assessment was apparently never updated because nobody expected him to be facing parole. "Evaluate me on my readiness today," he says. "But to hold on to something from that far back, that's not right. I'm not that."
The dispute over the legitimacy of the 2011 hearing is one of several points of contention in the back-and-forth that's gone on between a pro bono attorney representing Mitchell and the state's attorneys over whether Ritter's commutation order has been subverted. The AG's office initially took the position that the governor's order merely moved up his parole-eligibility date. The DOC refused to award any time off for time served or good behavior -- what's known in Colorado as "earned time" and "good time" -- because such credits usually don't apply in first-degree-murder cases. After Mitchell's attorney submitted an affidavit from Ritter, stating that "both earned time and good time should be applied to Mr. Mitchell's sentence pursuant to my executive intent," the department subtracted four years of earned time from the 32-year sentence, setting his mandatory release date in 2018.
Ritter declined to be interviewed for this article, but his affidavit declares, "It was my intention that [Mitchell] be released from jail as soon as possible." Four years later, he's still inside. Mitchell's attorney has argued that if both earned time and good time were properly applied to Mitchell's case, he would have reached his statutory discharge date long ago -- and that his client deserves a new parole hearing, with updated paperwork, earlier than the one now scheduled for 2016. But the state's attorneys haven't budged on either point.
"He was given a ray of hope, and then it was yanked away from him," Thompson says of Mitchell. "I am incredibly impressed with how he's handled disappointment after disappointment. He still keeps his faith that somehow it will work out."
Linda Mitchell promised her nephew 23 years ago that she would always be there for him, and it's a promise she means to keep on the day he gets out. "He will have difficulties adjusting," she says. "He's never used a computer or a cell phone, not even the kind of car keys we have now. But I tell him, 'Don't let your fear keep you inside.'"
For years, Mitchell toiled over a letter of apology he wrote to Goesch's mother. He still struggles over what he can say or do to ever earn forgiveness for "creating such misery and hate." He figures he can't give back without going forward, and he talks about wanting to go to school and study horticulture, maybe learn how to raise vegetables.
"I truly believe there will come a time when we have to fend for ourselves, provide for ourselves," he says. "I want to learn that."