"We are responsible for them." Victim's sister wants life without parole outlawed for juveniles
Valencia Warren-Gibbs remembers the first time she saw the boys who killed her older brother.
Of the group, “he was the smallest,” she said of 15-year old Bobby Hines. He couldn’t have been more than 100 pounds soaking wet, she said. “You could clearly see that he was a child.”
Warren-Gibbs was devastated when her brother, James Warren, was murdered. There were five kids in their family, but Valencia says she and James were extremely close. Born a little more than a year apart, she says they’d connect their fists together and shout “Wonder Twin powers, activate!” like the brother and sister cartoon superheroes they watched on TV growing up. “He was fearless. I loved him dearly,” she said.
In an interview with Michigan Radio’s Beenish Ahmed, she shared how her brother struggled with drug addiction before he died. She recounted the events leading up to his murder one night in May 1989, and the agony of losing her Wonder Twin.
She says no one at her house slept that first night. As police started piecing together what happened, the next day Warren-Gibbs remembers praying for all of the families involved. “Because I could not imagine waking up and having my son deal with that or dealing with that with my child,” she said. Warren-Gibbs imagined a world where the roles were reversed. Where James was on the other side of the gun, and Bobby was dead instead.“I just felt … that it could have been the other way around. There was so much going on at that time in the … communities that were struggling with drugs.”
So she was stunned at the sentencing hearing later that summer, when she realized this 15-year-old Black boy was never getting out of prison. “We got him,” she recalled hearing the prosecutor tell her family, when they walked out of the courtroom.
“I just burst out in tears because it didn't make sense to me,” Warren-Gibbs said. The equation of crime and punishment didn’t add up. “My brother didn't reappear. It didn't change the outcome. It didn't change anything. But you're killing this other person in place of my brother's life.”
“But I was too ashamed to tell anybody why I was really crying,” she said.
It would take Warren-Gibbs several years to broach the topic with her parents. As Bobby Hines fought to get re-sentenced, Warren-Gibbs remembered asking her mother if she thought maybe Hines should get out of prison at some point. Her mother shot down the possibility immediately. Embarrassed and ashamed for asking, Warren-Gibbs hesitated to bring it up again.
“It makes you feel isolated, so you really don't want to share it,” Warren-Gibbs said. “I felt this way the entire time.
That feeling lingers now, six years after Hines’ release from prison. When Warren-Gibbs tells people she’s forgiven Hines for his role in her brother’s murder – even forged a friendship with him – she braces herself. “People will be like, ‘Oh, you're better than me, because I wouldn't be able to do that.’” But Warren-Gibbs cringes at that notion. "I don't think I’m ‘better than.’ It's a human rights issue. It's a civil issue…He was a kid.”
In early October, Warren-Gibbs traveled to Lansing to support legislation that would outlaw life-without-parole sentences for people younger than 19 in Michigan. It appears unlikely the bills will get a vote before lawmakers adjourn for the year. But Warren-Gibbs said it’s the job of adults to protect children.
“We are responsible for them as much as they are responsible for themselves, but we are even more culpable and responsible for them,” she said. “And so therefore, we need to protect them in every way possible.”