Mark Robinson was 17 years old when he and four friends attempted to rob a convenience store at 12th and Mt. Vernon streets in North Philadelphia.
He waited outside as his buddies entered. They were armed, and shot the store owner’s wife in the chest.
She died and Robinson was later convicted of second-degree murder, conspiracy and carrying a weapon at the time of a crime. He was charged as an adult. Robinson became one of several hundred minors in Pennsylvania to receive mandatory no-release sentences.
On Monday, after 37 years in prison, Robinson was resentenced to 35 years to life. More significantly, however, a Philadelphia judge recommended that Robinson appear before a parole board immediately.
This week’s decision does not necessarily mean Robinson will be a free man. The parole board could keep him in prison for the rest of his life. But his loved ones — 18 of whom crammed into a Philadelphia courtroom, some carrying children Robinson has never even met — hope Monday marks the end of a nearly four-decade nightmare.
“I’m just thankful to God that he gave us the chance to be a family,” Robinson mother, Jane Darrisaw, told NBC10. She sobbed in the courtroom as Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey Minehart handed down his decision.
“To be able to put my arms around him means so much to me,” Darrisaw said. “I’m just so overwhelmed with getting a second chance.”
The family of Robinson’s victim was conspicuously missing from the courtroom Monday. Their attorney, Chesley Lightsey, said they didn’t want to relive the horror of losing their mother and wife. Despite their grief, they were not asking that Robinson serve more time in prison.
Addressing the courtroom in a Department of Corrections jumpsuit, Robinson expressed sorrow for the crime he committed and the life helped take away. He might not have pulled the trigger, but he does consider himself the shooter, he said.
“Even though I may be free someday, you can’t be free from that. You can’t bring someone back from the dead,” he said. “After 37 years … I don’t know how to express my sorrow — it is deep. It is heartfelt.”
Pennsylvania leads the nation in adults serving mandatory no-release sentences for crimes committed as minors, the result of laws that long treated teens charged with the most serious crimes like adults.
After the U.S. Supreme Court barred such sentences for juveniles in 2012, Pennsylvania officials argued that did not apply to those already in prison. Then in 2016, the nation's highest court said the ban must be applied retroactively, triggering new sentencing hearings and parole for inmates across the country.
In Pennsylvania, judges have resentenced more than 100 inmates, many now in their 50s and 60s.
While Robinson was behind bars, the world outside changed. His sister was killed. Other relatives moved, got married, had children and grew up. Computers, iPhones and the internet became ubiquitous. The Eagles won the Super Bowl.
“As a human being, as a man, I don’t know him,” Robinson’s cousin, Marcel Porter, said. “What are we going to talk about?”
Porter was 9 years old when Robinson went to prison. He looked up to his athletic cousin, who often babysat the young boy.
“He always liked gymnastics,” Porter said. “I’m a gymnast now because of him.”
The death of Robinson’s sister is not the only loss his family has endured. Thirty years ago, another relative was killed at the age of 16.
“We can’t hate forever,” Porter said. “For me, personally, I had to channel my emotions and forgive that person. We can’t forget to forgive."
Following Monday’s ruling, Robinson will head back to his prison cell in Coal Township, Pennsylvania. His loved ones, meanwhile, jumped into cars and headed out for a celebratory lunch.
"After you go through the hate and feeling of injustice, you’re tired,” Robinson said. “You don’t want to go through it anymore.”