Editor’s note: This is one of the episodes in the second season of Upstanders, a collection of short stories that asks what it means to have courage in today’s America. Produced by Howard Schultz and Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Upstanders help inspire us to be better citizens.
Debbie Baigrie was standing in a downtown Tampa parking lot at eight o’clock on a muggy July evening in 1990, chatting with a friend who had walked her back to her car, when three teenagers ran up to them.
“Got any change?” one of them asked Baigrie, a vibrant 27-year-old mother who had been out to dinner for the first time since the birth of her second child.
She rummaged in her pockets.
“I’m serious,” another one shouted. “Give it up.”
He was standing behind her. As she turned to look at him, she heard a boom and felt a searing pain in her mouth. She looked down and saw one of her teeth on the asphalt. She had been shot.
She and her friend took off running back to the restaurant where she had eaten, while the assailants scurried off in the other direction.
At the hospital, Baigrie learned that much of the inside of her mouth on the left side had been destroyed by the bullet. But it could have been far worse. The bullet didn’t disfigure her face. And had the gun been pointed ever so slightly higher, she likely would have suffered a traumatic brain injury.
“It’s a miracle you’re alive,” a doctor told her.
Ian Manuel had been sitting on a porch with a girl named Peaches earlier that evening when a couple of older teens approached him. “Jim-Jim, man, I got a gun,” one of them said to Manuel, using his street nickname. “Let’s go downtown and rob somebody.”
Manuel had been hoping to make out with Peaches, but she didn’t seem interested.
“Let’s go,” he told them. “Ain’t nothing going on here.”
The stick-up in the parking lot was a disaster. Manuel hadn’t intended to fire the gun. It had gone off by accident. And the whole thing went down so fast, he wasn’t even sure if he had hit anyone.
The robbers didn’t net even a cent.
A few days later, the police apprehended Manuel in a stolen car driven by a friend. As he was being hauled to the juvenile detention center, he sought to unburden his conscience.
“Man, you know that lady that got shot downtown three days ago?” he asked the officer.
“Yes,” the cop replied.
“It was me,” Manuel said. “I’m the one that did the shooting.”
A few days later, Baigrie was reading her local newspaper when she saw an article about her shooting. The perpetrator had been apprehended. And named.
“Ian Manuel, 13,” the paper stated.
Thirteen, she thought. There’s no way a 13-year-old kid shot me. He’s just a child.
“I was in total disbelief,” she says. “And curious. Like, what would bring him to this point?”
The state’s attorney decided to charge Manuel with attempted murder, armed robbery, and attempted armed robbery — as an adult. The maximum sentence was life in prison.
Manuel’s court-appointed lawyer urged him to plead guilty and throw himself on the mercy of the court. “If you take this plea,” Manuel remembers his lawyer saying, “he’s gonna give you no more than 15 years.”
Even his mother, who had served time in prison, implored him to plead guilty. “Ian, do what your lawyer say, baby,” she told him.
By then, Manuel was less than two weeks into his 14th year of life. He did as they urged.
The judge was unmoved. He told Manuel that “sometimes there are no second chances” and that he intended “to make an example of him.”
He sentenced Manuel to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Baigrie felt no satisfaction. “The punishment didn’t match the crime,” she says. “He was so over-sentenced.”
She wished she could give the judge a piece of her mind. Why would you make this 13-year-old child die in prison? It doesn’t make sense.
A few weeks before Christmas during the first year Manuel was in prison, Baigrie’s phone rang.
“You have a collect call from Ian,” the operator said.
Baigrie had a friend named Ian in Montreal, but he wouldn’t be calling her collect. “What’s his last name?” she asked. The operator queried the caller.
“Manuel,” the operator responded.
The boy who shot me. Why is he calling me?
Her surprise gave way to morbid curiosity. “I’ll accept the charges,” she said.
“Ms. Baigrie, I called to wish you and your family a Merry Christmas and happy holidays,” he told her. “And to apologize for shooting you in the face.”
Stunned that her shooter would reach out from behind bars – he had found her phone number in court documents – and express contrition, Baigrie stammered a follow-up question.
“Why did you shoot me?”
This is a question no 14-year-old should ever have to answer, Manuel thought.
“It was a mistake,” he said. “It happened so fast.”
“But you did it,” she replied.
Their conversation was strained. But as his time was expiring, Manuel asked if he could write her a letter. She said yes.
A month later, a letter arrived. And then another. And another.
One of them, a card depicting a hand offering a rose through prison bars, looked creepy to her. But the rest of his correspondence was fascinating.
The letters were beautifully written, with the sort of sentence structure, vocabulary and grammar one might expect from a student at an elite high school. This can’t be some thug who isn’t educated, she thought. Somebody must be writing them for him.
Then Manuel was moved to a different prison, but his letters remained just as good. No one was helping him, she realized. Wow. This kid is smart.
Baigrie began writing back in earnest, encouraging him to keep studying, to keep writing, to keep his spirits up. He responded by sending copies of his report card from the prison school he attended.
Many of her friends and even some of her close relatives thought she was crazy to correspond with her assailant. “He’s a sociopath,” one person wrote in response to a newspaper article about her. Another accused her of suffering from Stockholm syndrome.
Because he was so young when he arrived in prison, Manuel was kept in solitary confinement for his safety. But that isolation, coupled with the onset of puberty, caused Manuel to act out in small ways that extended those months into years.
Through it all, he began to take comfort and strength in the correspondence with his victim, whom he called “Mrs. D.” And he took pride in sharing his small accomplishments with her.
“Mrs. D, I’m doing my part to obtain some of my goals. You told me to be good and to learn all I can. And you’d do everything you could to help me,” he wrote to her during his fifth year of incarceration. “Mrs. D, call up here and ask … how well I did on my recent test. I scored a perfect in reading and English.”
He closed the letter with an explanation for his less-than-exemplary behavior. “Mrs. D, there’s something you must understand. I can’t be released from prison for being good. If this was the case, I would’ve been a model inmate from day one. But since it wasn’t, I chose to do the opposite.”
During their correspondence, Baigrie doesn’t remember saying or writing, “I forgive you.” Rather, that sentiment was implicit. Not only did she turn the other cheek, but she sought to mentor and comfort Manuel – “to do whatever I could do to help him.”
He hadn’t meant to kill her, or even to harm her. She saw him as a misguided, troubled kid who didn’t deserve the punishment that had been meted out to him. Forgiving didn’t feel like an act of courage to her. It was common sense.
“I wanted to let him know that there is somebody on the outside who cares about his future,” she says.
Manuel wrote to others, too, among them a range of civil-rights and legal-defense groups, seeking help in challenging his sentence. None of them wrote back.
In the fall of 2006, though, after 15 years in prison, he received an unsolicited letter from an organization called the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). He had never heard of it, but what he read filled him with hope.
The group’s founder, Bryan Stevenson, noted that the Supreme Court had ruled the previous year, in the case Roper v. Simmons, that it was unconstitutional to issue a death sentence to a defendant under the age of 18. On the basis of that case, Stevenson wrote, he was challenging the constitutionality of sentencing juveniles to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He wanted to know if Manuel wanted EJI to take on his case along with several others around the country.
Manuel immediately wrote back and invited EJI lawyers to meet him.
It would take four more years for Stevenson’s legal fight to reach the Supreme Court. The case the justices heard involved an inmate who had committed an armed robbery in Florida while a minor, but the decision would apply to anyone who had been sentenced to life without parole as a juvenile.
Manuel heard the decision – six to three in support of the defendant – while in solitary confinement, on a small Sony Walkman tuned to National Public Radio. At first, he couldn’t tell if his ears were lying to him. There was no way to call his lawyer. He had to wait an agonizing 30 minutes for the next news update.
When he heard it, he thought he would be going home right away. His lawyers told him otherwise. He would have to be resentenced by the same Tampa judge who had sent him away for life.
On the appointed day of the hearing, in December 2011, Baigrie showed up in court and took a seat. On the defense side.
It was an unambiguous signal to the judge that she supported Manuel’s request to be released.
The judge was unmoved. He resentenced Manuel to 65 years in prison.
Manuel was dejected. Stevenson and his team at EJI resolved to keep fighting. And Baigrie kept hoping.
Finally, in November 2016, Manuel was brought back before the judge. An appeals court ruling in another case had forced a recalculation of his sentence. Before he issued his ruling, the judge allowed Manuel to make a statement.
“Your honor,” he said, “we’ve been waiting for a long time for the justice system to catch up to my remorse and Debbie’s forgiveness.”
He was released that day. He had spent 26 years in prison, 18 of them in solitary.
His first meal as a free man was pizza – with Debbie. They hugged. He kissed her on both cheeks, not wanting to miss the side he had shot.
Had it not been for Baigrie’s support, Stevenson is convinced that Manuel would still be incarcerated. “If she had been hostile to him, if she had been insisting that he get more time, it would have been very hard to achieve some of the sentencing outcomes we were able to achieve,” Stevenson says.
Yet the most significant impact of her forgiveness may not have been in the courtroom. “The impact on Ian is immeasurable,” Stevenson says. “Her forgiving Ian made it possible for him to think about himself differently. And his ability to succeed, his ability to write, his ability to thrive, his ability to stay human despite the horrors of 18 years in solitary confinement, required more than character and perseverance. It actually required an affirmation of his own human dignity. Debbie’s forgiveness did that in a really profound way.”
Baigrie’s courage to befriend Manuel set her life on a new course, as well. Soon after the shooting, she began to train and compete as a bodybuilder. As she got to know Ian, she decided to organize bodybuilding shows to raise funds for the All Sports Community Service Foundation, a nonprofit organization that offers college scholarships to at-risk teens.
“A lot of people can say, ‘I forgive somebody,’ but it was the fact that she cared so much for him. She would get frustrated if he got into trouble at the facility – frustrated like he was her son,” says Tyrone Keys, a former defensive end for the Chicago Bears who founded the scholarship program that Baigrie helped support. “It took courage to help him, when everyone in her circle was telling her that she was wasting her time.”
After his pizza dinner, Manuel rode with his attorneys to Montgomery, Alabama, where EJI is headquartered. The organization put him up in a hotel, and then in his own apartment. They showed him how to get a Social Security card and, eventually, a driver’s license. They offered him a job as an intern in their offices. An EJI social worker helped him with the minutiae of life as a free man: how to get a mobile phone and use the Internet; how to do laundry; how to cook for himself.
Although Baigrie lives in Tampa, she stays in close touch with Manuel. Nowadays, they don’t have to exchange handwritten letters. They text nearly every day, and they speak by phone at least once a week.
“I ride him like nobody’s business,” she says. “He’s been given a second chance. I want him to do it right.”
Six months after Manuel’s release, Baigrie traveled to Montgomery to visit him, knocking on the door of his second-story apartment and embracing him as he welcomed her inside.
He showed her around excitedly, and she offered motherly suggestions – more fresh food and fewer prepared meals in the kitchen – before they sat down on the sofa to catch up.
“Since that day we met in November so much has happened,” he told her. “It’s an adjustment for someone re-entering society, period, let alone somebody who’s been locked away since they were 13 years old.”
He described how he was turned away from a bank when he sought to open an account because he did not possess three separate forms of identification. And when he applied for a job to sell shoes, he said he performed so well during the in-person interview that he was asked to fill out a background-check form.
“How do you tell someone, ‘I went to prison for shooting a lady in the face’?” he asked Baigrie. “I wanted to say, ‘This is what I did, but this is what has happened since then. You know, me and my victim became friends, and my victim forgave me.’”
“I can imagine that would be very frustrating,” she replied. She reminded him that while many ex-convicts face similar challenges, he wasn’t left to fend for himself upon release, with just a bus ticket and the clothes on his back. “You have EJI,” she said. “And you have me.”
She opened up about her life, telling him that one of her friends had urged her not to keep up contact with him. “And I said, ‘I don’t think you should give me unsolicited advice.’”
“I’ve known you from when you were a child, and now you’re a 40-year-old man,” she reminded him. “I know you don’t have a criminal mind.”
“I was viewed as a monster based on something I did when I was 13,” he replied. “It hurt. It hurt.”
But, he added, “You had the courage to see the real Ian.”
Later that afternoon, he recited a poem, titled “Remorse and Forgiveness,” that he had written for Baigrie while he was incarcerated. He took a deep breath before delivering the final line: “If anyone doesn’t believe in miracles, all they got to do is just look at us.”