CHICAGO – Xavier McElrath-Bey is a man who is proof that second chances can lead to transformation and atonement.
The year was 1989. Xavier was just 13-years-old.
In the city’s Back of the Yards neighborhood, at 50th and Ada, he helped his fellow gang members carry out the brutal murder of a 14-year-old.
“The fact is, he was a child. You know? I mean, I was too, but still that doesn’t take away any guilt from me. It was a very horrific, very heinous incident that took place. And that’s what I have to live with,” says Xavier.
“He was taken to this abandoned building. It was an abandoned building but it’s a vacant lot now, and this is where he lost his life,” he adds.
Xavier tells me he spotted the teen, whom he believed, was a rival gang member, walking on this block.
He helped to lure the 14-year-old into an abandoned home, by offering him marijuana.
“I often wished I had the ability to go back and go to that corner and stop him and say look, you know, don’t go down that street. If you go down that street, you’re going to lose your life,” says Xavier.
Once inside, Xavier says the 14-year-old boy was beaten -- and then stabbed to death—while Xavier stood guard outside.
“I actually heard it. I heard the beating, I heard the stomping, i heard the commotion, I heard all that,” recalls Xavier.
Two weeks later, 13-year-old Xavier -- who hadn’t even finished 8th grade -- was arrested, along with three of his fellow gang members-- and charged with murder.
“We both looked at each other and I don’t know what happened for Xavier, but what happened for me, was he reminded me so much of my son and I was like this is a child. I don’t’ think I can talk him into 40 years. I don’t think I want to talk him into 40 years,” says Herschella Conyers, Xavier’s former Public Defender.
At the time, Conyers asked to step in, to help persuade the reluctant teen to take a plea deal that would sentence him to 40 years behind bars.
But Conyers ended up taking over Xavier’s case, and talking a judge into reducing his sentence to 25 years.
Out of prison for 13 years now, 40-year-old Xavier is working to distance himself from the troubled child who was in and out of the juvenile detention center.
He says his troubles were spurred by extreme poverty, and years of physical abuse.
“I had 19 arrests and seven convictions. My very first arrest took place when I was nine years old. I got locked up for stealing a candy bar. That was my very first arrest,” he says.
While behind bars serving out his murder sentence, Xavier says he grew up deciding it was time to change his course of direction.
“I reflected upon my life as a whole. I thought about the victim. I thought about his family. I started to read the Bible. I started to read philosophy and started to just really question the meaning of my existence.”
He went on to earn several degrees behind bars—starting with his 8th grade diploma and was was released early for good behavior, serving 13 of his 25-year sentence.
He now holds a Master’s degree -- and works for the “Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth”—a national effort, pushing to get rid of “life without parole” for juvenile offenders.
It’s through public speaking that Xavier often shares his life story of transformation and rehabilitation in the hopes of advocating for juvenile offenders, who could benefit from a second chance.
“I think that it’s hard oftentimes for the courts to recognize that these are children, despite what they did. They are undeveloped. Their brains aren’t fully formed. They have the capacity for change,” says Xavier.
Xavier spends a good amount of time in his old neighborhood, to help those formerly incarcerated, launch their transformation.
“If they look at him, he’s successful in every sense of the word, in my world at least, and they can see that in him and that gives them an incredible amount of hope because he came from the neighborhood, says Father David Kelly, Exec. Dir. Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation.
And just days ago, Xavier learned, he was tapped to be a part of a working committee, for the newly-formed “Police Accountability Task Force,” which will recommend reforms for the Chicago Police Department.
Xavier is one of about 50 Chicago community leaders who will be bringing ideas to the table.
“We will be engaging the community. We will be out there hearing these stories, and we will be facing these hard-to-accept truths. But in reality they’re very necessary truths that are going to shed light on how we can change things,” says Xavier.
Xavier will be focused on coming up with ideas that will facilitate a better relationship between the community and Chicago police.
And it seems as if life is coming full circle for Xavier—since he’ll be working alongside his former public defender who is also a part of the task force.
“He’s a marvelous human being. He fought his way back. You know, he fought his way back, and you’ve got to admire that,” says Conyers.
Home life for Xavier includes his four-year-old daughter whom he’s raising with his partner.
But Xavier says he’s committed the rest of his life, to repaying his debt to society.
Xavier also coordinates “ICAN”-- the “Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network,” which is a support group for those who served time as juveniles.
Xavier says it’s important to note, there are lots of people like him, who have turned their life around.
They just need to be given that second chance.
His life story is so inspiring, that a production crew is currently in the midst of creating a documentary on Xavier’s life.
If you’d like more information about Xavier and the “Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth,” click on the link below: