In 1996, Willie Knighten, the oldest son of Laverne Knighten, was issued a life sentence in connection with a drive-by murder in Toledo, Ohio. For any mom this would be devastating news, but what made it even worse was the she knew deep in her heart that her son was innocent. Her first reaction was to blame herself, perhaps if she and her husband hadn’t both worked full-time time jobs she could have stayed home and things might have turned out different. Or maybe she should have been stricter when she realized that he was going astray. Eventually, she was able to see that she had a choice in how she was going to deal with his life sentence and it was a series of choices that kept her sane throughout the 13 years he served in prison, leading to the day he was released.
The first choice that 50-something year-old Laverne made following the sentencing of her son was deciding to end the pity party that had been going full-blast since the moment he was convicted. It was a co-worker at the factory where she worked, who was relentless in getting Laverne to see that blaming herself for what happened was ultimately going to destroy her. She says, “In time, I was able to accept what happened and let God take care of the things that I could not change. I knew that Willie didn’t kill that man, but I had to look at some of the things that he did do. I knew that he was running the streets and doing drugs, so I realized that it could be much worse. At least in prison, I wouldn’t have to worry about a phone call in the middle of the night telling me that I would have to go identify my son.”
Now that Laverne had accepted the situation for what it was, she was able to take the next step. She became ‘Little Willie’s’ biggest supporter, along with her husband of 47 years, Pastor Willie Knighten, and tons of church members and friends. They wrote letters to the judge, signed petitions and showed up to one of Little Willie’s hearings via chartered bus, determined to do whatever it would take to free Willie.
Laverne and her crew were no joke.
But still, the years passed, each one packed with holidays, special moments, and the two toddlers that Willie left behind growing up fast. What does that do to a mother’s faith? For Laverne, the passing years brought with it the opportunity to make another choice.
“I told myself that God may not always be there right when you want him, but he’s always on time. I believed everyday that went by, we were getting closer to the time when he’d be coming home.”
About six years into Willie’s sentence, Laverne received an unexpected phone call from the mother of the man Willie was convicted of murdering. She told Laverne that she didn’t believe that her son had killed her son and it had been weighing heavily on her mind. She was sorry, and wanted to arrange a meeting with the judge.
For Laverne this looked like a turning point. Was it the answer to her prayers? With a mix of anticipation and excitement they met with the judge, armed with information that the victim’s mom had never presented before. However, things didn’t go quite as planned. The judge had doubts. Why hadn’t she presented this information earlier? For now, Willie would remain behind bars. Laverne was devastated again. But again she had a choice to make.
So she dug her heels in deeper, throwing even more love and support behind Willie, making sure that she and her husband were there for every single visit, whether he was at a facility right in Toledo or moved to a prison a few hours away. It was during those visits that she became aware that many of the inmates didn’t have the support that she was giving Little Willie. In fact, Willie told her that some inmates were committing suicide from being abandoned by friends and family. LaVerne wasn’t having any of that, and became a surrogate mother to some of Willie’s friends.
“My husband and I sent packages and little things to the inmates that didn’t have anyone. Sometimes we sent money. One of his friend’s mom had died was while he was locked up, so I adopted him as my son. If you got a loving heart you know that God is going to bless you regardless. It seemed like every time we reached out to them God blessed us more.”
Lifted by his mom’s unwavering support, Willie joined in on the fight, writing letters to the judge, re-proclaiming his innocence, presenting him with new evidence whenever there was a change to the story, which by that time, was happening with greater frequency. More witnesses began coming forward, changing their testimonies, at one point the judge ordered Willie to take a polygraph (lie detector) test, which he passed three times. Even though polygraph tests results aren’t admissible in court, they did however, place doubt in the judge’s mind. Had he unfairly convicted Willie?
Twelve years into Willie’s life sentence, the judge was diagnosed with a terminal illness. Before dying, he wrote a heartfelt letter to the Ohio Parole Board stating that he believed he was wrong in convicting Willie of murder, and in good conscious he could not leave this earth without informing them. Shortly after he died, and sure enough the Governor of Ohio granted Willie Executive Clemency. After serving almost 13 years, Willie was free.
And what did it mean to his mother?
“It meant a new beginning for the whole family, and more importantly for Willie, as I was able to share with him what I learned during those 13 years. He could be anything that he wanted to be; it’s all a matter of choice. ”
This month marks the six-year anniversary that Willie was released from prison. As of today, he is an anti-gang activist who mentors at-risk youth, he sits on the board of directors for the Reentry Coalition of Northwest Ohio, and serves as a member of the African American Leadership Caucus (AALC). To hear more about his story, check out his Toledo TedX Talk.
This article first appeared on Madamenoire 11/3/15