Freed From Prison but Still in Pain

John White's conviction for killing a white teen on his driveway was commuted by New York's governor. He told The Root why the slaying still haunts him and why he believes that he was wrongly imprisoned.

John White, behind son Aaron (AP)

Just days after Gov. David A. Paterson commuted his prison sentence in the fatal shooting of an unarmed white teenager outside of his Long Island, N.Y., home nearly four years ago, John H. White told The Root in an exclusive and emotional interview that he never should have been sentenced in the racially charged slaying.

White shot 17-year-old Daniel Cicciaro in 2006 during a heated confrontation in which the teen and several friends came after White's 19-year-old son, Aaron. White claimed that he was defending his son from a "lynch mob" when the gun went off accidentally.

The case became a cause célèbre for the NAACP New York State Conference and the Long Island branches, as well as other civil rights organizations that saw the decision to prosecute the case as an egregious error of racial inequity. After the trial, the State Conference also passed a resolution calling for the governor to intervene. White served five months in prison before his sentence was commuted.

"The fact that John White is returning to his home and his family shows the power of people getting involved, raising their voice for justice and keeping the faith," Benjamin Jealous of the NAACP said in a prepared statement.

An emotional White told The Root, "My family and I feel exceptionally blessed because I'm out and I'm home. We feel that I should have never gone to prison. These people came to my home and attempted a lynching. I feel remorse for the young man who lost his life, but under the circumstances, there should have been a better outcome."

A better outcome would have been a pardon, he said, which would have expunged his record regarding the point-blank shooting death of Cicciaro. An even better one would have been no arrest or manslaughter conviction at all, said one of his attorneys, Marie Michel. If White were Caucasian and Cicciaro were black, White would never have been convicted, Michel surmises.

"We asked for a pardon, executive clemency or commutation," Michel said. "His entire record should have been expunged. We are very grateful that Gov. Paterson commuted his sentence, because the results are his freedom. Everyone was fighting to free John White. But now, where do we go from here? Mr. White still has a criminal record. He still has a felony on his record. That will affect his life forever. We are thankful, but we would have preferred a full pardon because it would have given him a clean slate to move forward."

White's original sentence of five to 15 years was reduced to two to four years based on his character. The judge cited White's record of honesty and his lack of prior arrests. White, a working-class man who has worked as a paver for 20 years, is a deacon at his church.

But not everyone is happy about the commutation.