Michael Banyard, left, and Spencer Letts meet from time to time for conversation… (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)
The e-mail was to the point: Mr. Banyard, Judge Letts would like to see you in his chambers. Michael Banyard's stomach churned with fear.
He was living at his sister's ranch house in Rialto -- free after eight years in prison -- and he was keeping the vow he had made to stay away from crack cocaine, which had put him behind bars. Now, when he opened his e-mail on this morning in early 2005, his mind raced.
Just what, he wondered, did Judge Spencer Letts want?
Banyard, then 38, an ex-Compton Santana Crip recovering from a terrible drug addiction, owed the judge everything. Convicted of a felony in 1996 for possessing a small amount of crack cocaine, he'd been serving a minimum sentence of 25 years to life under California's three-strikes law.
After state courts and a federal magistrate rejected Banyard's appeals, Letts, who had been appointed to the U.S. District Court by President Reagan, was his last hope. In October 2004, the judge issued a precedent-setting order: Banyard must be released immediately on grounds his lengthy sentence violated the ban in the U.S. Constitution against cruel and unusual punishment.
Now the judge was asking for a meeting.
Banyard was terrified. Had the ruling been reversed? Would his freedom be taken away?
A few days later, he walked through the doors of the judge's large, well appointed chambers in downtown Los Angeles. He'd never been in a room like that, with its mahogany paneling, antique furniture and heavy shelves stacked with old law books.
"Judge Letts," he said, extending a hand. "I'm Michael Banyard."
"Michael," the judge said, "it's such a complete pleasure to meet you."
They would remember their meeting this way:
For a while, they made small talk, sizing each other up. Two men could not have been more different.
Letts wore a gray suit, button-down shirt and a tie. Banyard wore a long, flowing, yellow and black African dashiki, hoping it would signal how much he'd changed.
Letts, then 70, was thin and moved carefully. Banyard was barrel-chested from lifting weights in prison. He had the look of a retired football player.
The judge spoke quietly, rambling in a way that was sometimes hard to follow: He asked about Banyard's family, opined that truth can't really be pinned down, probed for Banyard's thoughts on welfare, then circled back to questions about Banyard's family.
When Banyard spoke, he was so nervous he practically bellowed. His words bounced off the law books and through the room. "Was there some mistake?" he asked. "Is your ruling being challenged? Am I going back?"
"No," the judge said. "No mistakes. That's not why I wanted you to come. I wanted to meet you because I want to tell you in person how proud you should be. Your perseverance won the day, Michael. You've just had a miracle, and I wanted to tell you that when something like this happens in life, don't kick that in the face. You have another chance. You might never get one again."
"I know," Banyard said, "And I promise you I am going to do some good things in life. What I don't know is why you did what you did. Why did you take so much time to consider my case?"
"To think you were going to be in prison for 25 years, at minimum, for what you'd done, that simply was not justice," the judge said. With that, both men relaxed. The judge leaned back in his chair and asked Banyard about his plans.
The two men were tied together: The case was enshrined in law journals. But this was about more than that. The judge was impressed by Banyard's humility and eagerness and thought he clearly wanted to change. He just needed a guide. Banyard's smiling face looked so different from the hardened, scowling faces he often saw in court.
They talked for three hours.
"Michael," Letts said at the end, "from now on I want you to check in with me, tell me how you are doing, and come to me for advice. Know that if you call me, I will return your calls. If you show up at my courtroom, even unannounced, I will do everything I can to see you. I am behind you now. I want you to know that and not doubt it. You have a friend in me."
There were stumbles during his first few years of freedom, but Banyard mostly did well. Before prison, he'd been a high school dropout. Now, based on the work he had done on his appeals, he got an internship at a law firm. He enrolled in community college.
The judge admired how bent on redemption Banyard was. Letts would tell strangers about his new friend and how quickly he learned. "Better than a lot of lawyers," he said.