- Associated Press - Friday, May 5, 2017

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) - For the last six years, Dont’e Epps and his sister, Jacqueline Spears-Williams, have been doing everything they can to help get their brother released from prison.

Fifty-six-year-old St. Louis County native Paige D. Spears has been locked up for 29 years, sentenced in the late 1980s to life in prison plus 15 years for an armed robbery in Ferguson he committed with another man, who has since been released. Epps and Spears-Williams said they believe their brother got such a harsh term because he turned down a plea deal that would’ve been 13 years and then was found guilty at trial. It also was his third conviction for robbery, and the judge sentenced him as a habitual offender.

Epps, 47, of Columbia is adamant that over the last couple of decades, his brother has completely turned his life around.

“I’m talking rehabilitated to the fullest,” Epps said.

The Columbia Daily Tribune (https://bit.ly/2pxZ1tm ) reports that Spears has completed countless certifications while in prison, mentors young offenders, works with prisoners in mental health and hospice units and teaches certification courses and victim impact panels. He got so good at teaching the victim impact panel, the Missouri Department of Corrections filmed his class a few years ago and distributes the recording to all of its facilities.

The family has lost appeals and a recent bid to the sentencing court and St. Francois County Circuit Court, Spears is imprisoned at the Farmington Correctional Center in St. Francois County. A clemency petition to the governor got lost during the recent administration turnover.

Epps is hopeful that his brother’s story can get out there. A St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial a few years ago highlighted Spears and his unusually long sentence and spread the word that Spears is not the same man he was 30 years ago.

“We still have guys that have been in prison for murder and have been released and have reoffended again with another murder and are on their way back out even before he has an opportunity” to be paroled, Epps said.

Spears is eligible for parole in 2024. Spears, in a phone interview from prison, and his brother and sister point to several facts about his case that would have been mitigating grounds for a lesser sentence: he wasn’t the one with the gun, no one was hurt and he only had one prior conviction as an adult.

They picked the store they robbed, Spears said, because they heard there was a large stash of drug money there - upward of $30,000. But all they got was $650 and were arrested within an hour.

“I thought that it was a quick hustle,” he said.

It was in 1997 that Spears decided to change his life, a couple of years after one of his sisters, with whom he was close, died. He converted to Christianity and started teaching DOC programs, eventually writing some of them. He used to be angry that he got such a stiff sentence while others who committed worse crimes have been released.

“Before I became a Christian, I was really bitter about that because I knew guys who had murdered someone who I came in with and they did 10 or 12 years,” he said.

Now, he is more forgiving and instead concentrates on helping other inmates and trying to secure his freedom.

Spears-Williams, who lives in the St. Louis area, and Epps hope they can see their brother released before anything happens to their mother, who is 80. When he gets out, whether it is this year, next year or when he’s eligible for parole, Spears said he wants to take care of his mother, who has not wavered in her support of him over the years, and maybe start a business or work for family.

Having the support of family members after being incarcerated for such a long time is rare, Spears said. Families of many fellow inmates lost contact with them long ago, but his family continues to be there, doing whatever they can for him, including holding fundraisers, finding an attorney, keeping in touch with him and spreading his story in the media.

When Spears-Williams had to undergo treatment for breast cancer a few years ago, he supported her.

“Paige was that inspiration from prison,” Spears-Williams, 51, said. “He would call me every day, send me cards. He helped me get through it a lot.”

Philip Dennis, Spears’ lawyer, said he plans to file a new clemency petition with Gov. Eric Greitens soon, which will include details of his transformation and letters of support. He called Spears “clearly a different person now.”

“At this point though, Paige Spears is not only reformed but he’s aiding the Department of Corrections in helping other people to be reformed,” Dennis said.

If clemency fails, Spears said he will try and convince the Missouri Board of Probation and Parole to take up his case early.

Before his most recent prison sentence, Spears was a photographer. He’s done so well in prison that staffers at Farmington have said they will help in any way they can for his release, Spears-Williams said.

“My brother, he’s so talented and has so many good abilities that society needs to see and get a chance to get out and do what he does, because everyone deserves another chance,” she said.

In the meantime, Spears and his family will keep doing what they’ve been doing for years, and for him, that includes pretty much anything someone in the prison system asks of him.

“And Paige Spears don’t mind doing it, but maybe they’ll consider letting Paige Spears out of here,” Spears said.

___

Information from: Columbia Daily Tribune, https://www.columbiatribune.com

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