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The Rev. Promise Lee's quest for a pardon 

Pardon me

click to enlarge Promise Lee - CASEY BRADLEY GENT
  • Casey Bradley Gent
  • Promise Lee

The Rev. Promise Lee does not want your pity; he wants your forgiveness. Not because he's begging for it, but because he believes he's earned it.

Handsome and immaculate, Promise, 60, stands in a church that he built, first in his imagination, and then as a physical structure atop a hill overlooking the city. Relevant Word Christian Cultural Center is — not by accident — situated in the Hillside neighborhood where Promise grew up.

Draw a circle on a map of Colorado Springs, and you could contain the area that's hosted the majority of Promise's many lives. Here: He's a screaming child reaching for his mother, her blood draining onto the bathroom floor. Here: He's 16 years old, pulling the trigger and watching 20-year-old Daniel Hocking fall in front of him. Here: The minister is preaching as if to him, his heart totters and lands (thump!) in the lap of Jesus Christ. Here: His children drag chairs to Helen Hunt Elementary School, where his first parishioners will soon arrive. Here: He burns the mortgage for the sanctuary he built, thanks to support from donations and grants.

Promise has never shied from telling this story of redemption. Like most ministers, he's an engaging storyteller who knows the value of a raw confessional. In treading this well-worn narrative, however, he doesn't always place the details exactly the same way every time. Perhaps there's a desire to soften the edges of hard truths. Perhaps, over decades of retelling, a man's memory morphs into legend. Whatever the case, when it comes to Promise's life, the meat of the story, at least, has stayed the same.

Promise Lee was a rotten kid. A drug-dealer, a neighborhood tough, a teacher's worst nightmare. At 16, he shot and killed Hocking in a drug deal gone wrong. He went to prison for four years, where he was unrepentant and eager to prove himself through violence — at one point severely battering one inmate's head and face with a metal cafeteria tray.

But, he says, a series of epiphanies changed his life, and he followed each of them with action. The most magical discovery came in the 1980s: a God who welcomed sinners to his sanctuary.

Since then, Promise has lived up to his name, those around him say. He's a minister, a community builder; a mentor, a guide for those exiting prison and looking to reform their lives; a coach in track and boxing; a dog trainer (for service and competition dogs); and a man willing to stand up for and assist those with few resources and little hope.

Promise has eight children, most of whom he raised, with the first two of his three wives. He's earned a master's degree in theology, served as an adjunct professor at Pikes Peak Community College and CEO of Relevant Word International School of Ministry, provided assistance to Hurricane Katrina victims, and helped communities across the world through his missionary work, including mending bridges between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria. He worked for then-Gov. Roy Romer as a community organizer; led and founded nonprofits; rubbed elbows with the powerful in his efforts to improve the outcomes for people in his community. As the president of the Hillside Neighborhood Association, which worked to reduce crime in the struggling neighborhood, he was instrumental in earning Hillside the prestigious All-America City Award by the National Civic League in 1997. Promise traveled to Washington, D.C., to accept the award from then-Vice President Al Gore.

And isn't all that, he asks, enough to earn a pardon from Gov. John Hickenlooper for a crime committed in what seems like another lifetime? His dark eyes unblinking, the Rev. Promise Lee asks, "If not me, who?"

While Promise has certainly earned accolades, he has not received one honor that the governor surely considered: the forgiveness of his victim's family.

While Promise says he has tried in vain multiple times to contact the Hockings, who live in Illinois, and he says he has been told by others who tried on his behalf that they did not wish to speak to him, Ronald Hocking, Daniel Hocking's brother, told the Indy that Promise has never tried to contact anyone in the family to his knowledge.

Ronald says he and his sister, Debbie, are the two surviving members of Daniel's immediate family. Daniel's father, Robert, died in 2011. His mother, Charlotte, passed in 1989.

Ronald, who calls Charlotte the kindest soul he ever knew, says his mother was heartbroken after her eldest child's murder. Her pain, he says, spread through their whole family, and nothing was ever the same.

Still, he firmly believes his mother would have forgiven Promise had he apologized — and she was devastated that she never heard from him. It was Charlotte, more than anyone, Ronald says, who deserved an apology. And now he doesn't think he could ever forgive Promise.

"When I think of him," he says, "I think of her."

And there were other challenges for Promise in his bid for absolution. While the Colorado Constitution gives the governor the right to grant clemency to convicts for offenses with the exception of treason, granting one for murder — in this case a second-degree murder 44 years ago — is an extraordinarily rare move. While Colorado governors sometimes commute murder sentences, they generally don't offer pardons for the crime. In 2011, Gov. Bill Ritter granted the only previous pardon for a murder in Colorado history that the Indy was able to document. The recipient: Joe Arridy, an intellectually disabled man, strongly believed to be innocent of the crime, who was executed in 1939.

Promise, of course, is still alive and inarguably guilty of murder.

Pardoned people, who essentially have their crime voided from their record in an act of public forgiveness, are allowed to do things prohibited to felons: travel freely to countries with visa restrictions, own a firearm, run for public office, work with students, access greater housing opportunities and receive certain government employment certifications or licenses. Promise told the governor it would also allow him to preach more in prisons, where he's sometimes been turned away due to his record.

The governor's press secretary, Jacque Montgomery, explains that convicts must apply for pardons through a special process, and then the Executive Clemency Advisory Board recommends action to the governor. The request then goes to the office of legal counsel, which investigates the case. Counsel attempts to contact the victim's family (Ronald Hocking spoke with them), as well as judges, district attorneys, co-defendants and others associated with the case. After the investigation, counsel makes a recommendation to the governor, and the final decision rests in his hands.

click to enlarge The mortgage-burning ceremony at Relevant Word in 2017. - COURTESY PROMISE LEE
  • Courtesy Promise Lee
  • The mortgage-burning ceremony at Relevant Word in 2017.

On Dec. 14, Hickenlooper issued 46 pardons, for a total 135 (plus six commutations) during his two terms in office, but Promise was not among them.

That's despite the fact Promise counted politicians, pastors and business titans as his advocates (see "What his supporters say," p. 17). In a letter of support for Promise to the governor, Joseph Leininger, of Resource Land Holdings Inc., writes: "The notion that a man who has spent his adult life helping the less fortunate in Colorado should be forced to walk around carrying the scarlet letter of a youthful felony conviction is patently absurd and morally offensive to me."

But even with a dream team of supporters behind him, time was running short by late December. Promise seemed somber. He didn't want to wait as many as eight years for another governor to be willing to give his request a third look. (Governors often save such controversial moves for the end of their terms.)

By then, he would be 68, and his dreams of running for public office might have faded. His days of world travel as a boxing coach, dog trainer and missionary might be behind him. And his mom and dad could be gone, missing the chance to watch him finally close the darkest chapter of his life.

His urgency is clear in his letter to Hickenlooper: "I am coming to you now, in 2018, not as the [16]-year-old boy who committed the crime in 1974, but wholeheartedly, as a changed, rehabilitated and redeemed man; a 60-year-old father of eight and grandfather of 15."

In asking for forgiveness, Promise wrote, "[W]e are all inherently better than the worst thing we have done."

But, as is the case with pardon requests, there was no word. Until there was. Just a few days before Christmas, the governor issued 21 more pardons and 12 commutations. An attachment with all the letters was included.

The pardon of Promise Lee was the very last one.

Promise Lee was born on April 8, 1958, the first of Promise Sr. and Fannie Lee's five children.

He was born in California, the son of an Air Force service member and a Louisiana native. The family also lived in Japan before coming to Colorado Springs in the mid-'60s when Promise Sr. was stationed here. After a few moves, the couple bought a small home on Prospect Lake Drive.

Promise, and the children who came in quick succession after, proved challenging enough for his mother Fannie that she quit her job and devoted herself to raising them. She paints her firstborn as a wonderful child, beloved by his teachers and Sunday school instructors.

Promise remembers it differently. He said he was constantly kicked out of schools, punished for fighting. At times, he says, the fights were justified — he was standing up to bullies. Other times, he was sent to the principal's office simply for engaging in the class.

"I'd always ask questions," he says. "To this day I'm analytical, and the teachers would perceive that as me trying to be smart or pushy or comical."

click to enlarge The mortgage-burning ceremony at Relevant Word in 2017. - COURTESY PROMISE LEE
  • Courtesy Promise Lee
  • The mortgage-burning ceremony at Relevant Word in 2017.

It didn't help that he was sometimes one of only a handful of black kids in a largely white school with all-white teachers.

Meanwhile, Promise says the now mild-mannered Promise Sr. was a stern disciplinarian when he was around. "I tell you, growing up I was scared to death of him," he says.

A 2005 Gazette profile, in which one of Promise's school counselors was interviewed, sides with Promise's version, noting he urinated on a classmate at 10, was suspended often, drank and used drugs, and by 13, was beating his girlfriends "until their faces were bruised and puffy." That same year, he went to jail for two weeks for drunk driving, the article said. When he was sent to relatives' house to straighten up, he overdosed and nearly died.

Promise says there was a lot of pressure. "My dad was gone so I had to man up, be the man of the house, a lot of responsibility, taking care of the other kids, and my mom could only do so much," he says. "She was a good mother — and she still is a good mother — but she could only do so much. And then just the peer pressure in the neighborhood. Everybody was ganstering pretty much in the South Side ... [it] was considered the toughest side of town. There were, you know, gang wars between us and the north side and the west side and what's called K-Mart land and Widefield and Security, so it was extremely territorial...

"The South Side got a bad rap from everybody and we just had to fight to prove that we were human beings. You know, it was kind of a dignity thing at the end of the day. And you look at this neighborhood even today — still bordered by junkyards, very few schoolyards. Liquor stores, you know, no grocery stores."

Promise notes, not without pleasure, that he was a dominant fighter, a quality that earned him a solid reputation with the other youngsters. His younger brother, Charmas, says that reputation also helped his three younger brothers avoid bullying.

Fannie did her best to rein her boys in, but it was a challenge with Promise Sr. gone a lot for work — and for other reasons. Late one night, when Promise was around 12, his mother and father argued. Upset, Fannie cut off the quarrel by heading to the bathroom to relieve herself, locking the door behind her.

While family members disagree on the details, it's clear that Promise Sr. shot through the bathroom door, hitting Fannie in her side.

The younger Promise remembers running to his mother's side. "It was the first time I really stood up to my dad," he says. "I said, 'You got to take her to the hospital right now.'"

Fannie labels the incident "an accident," saying her husband was simply being dramatic — "he did it to scare me" — and was in a state of shock and horror when he realized he had actually shot her. She says Promise Sr. wasn't abusive.

Whatever the case, Promise Sr. hustled Fannie and the kids into the car, and drove her to the hospital. She remembers that he was so upset that he initially drove right past it.

The next day, Promise skipped school. His eyes drooping at the memory, he says he went to the hospital where his mother was, but was afraid go inside. Instead, he paced the grass outside, looking up at the windows, unsure which one was for his mother's room.

"[I remember] thinking maybe she was in this room, and then just sitting there in the grass, up against the building, and just kind of — I wouldn't say it was really prayer — but just kind of thinking about her, hoping she'd be OK, you know."

It's telling that Fannie did get better, giving her eldest son the idea that a person could take a bullet, if a doctor is around to fix them.

In fact, Fannie says, the bullet didn't even sever the Lee family. Fannie and Promise Sr. remained married until some time later, when she left him after he repeatedly cheated on her. Fannie remarried another military man and moved to Germany. Promise Sr. wanted to keep his kids and Fannie agreed with the stipulation that she be able to keep her baby daughter.

Promise recalls that his life took a turn for the worse with his mother gone. "I'd come back home to kind of check on the other kids," he says, "but I was rarely there. I was rarely there. I had this disregard for him [my father], and of course, you miss your mom."

Promise Sr. was also rarely home. "He was gone; he was always gone," Promise recalls. "He was a lady's man back then. Nice lookin', Air Force guy, you know. He was a lady's man."

click to enlarge Lee accepts the All-America City Award from then-Vice President Al Gore. - COURTESY PROMISE LEE
  • Courtesy Promise Lee
  • Lee accepts the All-America City Award from then-Vice President Al Gore.

If the day his mother was shot was the first truly transformative event of Promise's life, the second occurred in on Tuesday, Sept. 3, 1974.

The details of that day are unclear. Promise himself has told various versions of the story — whether on purpose or simply due to what he admits is a bad memory. Whatever the case, the story differs in some ways whether in his 2005 book, Pardoned: A Judicial Memoir, in his defense attorney's investigation at the time of the incident, in news articles, in a YouTube video and in his most recent interview with the Indy. Court documents and decades-old newspaper clippings also differ from his accounts and from each other. However, Promise's book contains the most detailed account of the incident.

He writes that it was around dusk when he and two friends, Larry White and Darrell White (no relation), decided to head to Acacia Park. The boys knew that the hippies at the park had "any kind of dope you wanted."

A man in a van pulled alongside them on Bijou Street and asked them if they wanted to buy speed or weed. They agreed and offered to sell or trade for acid. (Promise explains that the boys would follow the milkman, steal the dairy he left and trade it for acid to the hippies in the park, so they always had plenty.)

The two Fort Carson soldiers in the van, 20-year-old Daniel Hocking and 18-year-old Leonard LaFurge, were game, so the three boys jumped in the van. They drove about a mile away to an alley behind Corona Street, where Larry's sister lived. Meanwhile, LaFurge was passing back the merchandise for the boys to look at, and Darrell was pocketing some of it.

When they got to the house, the GIs made Darrell stay in the car while the other two boys ran in to get the LSD. That's when they knew the soldiers had noticed Darrell was stealing.

While Larry got the drugs, Promise picked up his .22 Magnum, loaded it with hollow-point bullets and tucked it in his pants. (He says in the book that he thinks he did intend to rob the two men, though he may also have simply been scared and worried that there would be trouble with Darrell.)

Promise writes that the two GIs were beating up Darrell when the boys returned. He yelled for them to stop, but they knew Darrell had stolen from them.

When Promise kept yelling, Hocking turned around and started approaching him. Darrell grabbed LaFurge. Larry jumped into the van to steal the drugs and whatever else he could. At first, Promise simply warned Hocking not to come closer. Then he took out the gun and told him to stop.

But Hocking wasn't afraid of the smaller boy. He kept coming, swinging a pair of nunchuks. Promise pulled the trigger, shooting him in the gut. In that moment, he writes, "[Hocking] collapsed without a sound."

Promise yelled for LaFurge to put him in the van.

In an interview with the Indy, Promise says that even in the weight of that moment, he never thought Hocking would die. And Hocking didn't die immediately — in fact, Promise was originally charged with aggravated robbery, conspiracy and first degree assault.

click to enlarge Young Promise (center) visits Santa. - COURTESY PROMISE LEE
  • Courtesy Promise Lee
  • Young Promise (center) visits Santa.

Hocking died from his injuries on Sept. 20, 1974.

Suddenly, Promise wasn't facing an assault charge, but first degree murder. "I remember them telling me that," he says, "and I thought, 'Oh my goodness, I've killed somebody.'"

The lack of clarity as to the exact events does not blunt Promise's culpability in Hocking's death. But there are various accounts of whether the three boys were selling drugs or buying them, what the drugs were, and whether the boys or the soldiers initiated the fight. The courts and newspapers at the time explained the situation as an armed robbery committed by the boys that ultimately led to Hocking's death, and Promise's own defense attorney wrote that Hocking's nunchuks were left on the van's dashboard and that the soldier simply approached Promise aggressively.

Whatever the case, a few things appear clear. Promise was known to deal drugs and he also acknowledges having a violent streak. LaFurge apparently told Promise's defense attorney, Thomas Armour, that Hocking also regularly dealt drugs. The boys' indictment says they stole drugs, money and the nunchuks from the soldiers.

Armour wrote in his investigation, "Hocking was 'up' on amphetamines shot directly into his system. He was determined to sell drugs; he disliked blacks; he wasn't one to walk away from a fight; he possessed a pair of num-chucks [sic], 18 inch sticks connected by a parachute rope made by friends in Illinois. All had combat experience from Viet Nam [sic]. When Hocking confronted the gun held by Promis[e] Lee, he walked directly at Promis[e]. This event is a fact which remained constant in all versions related by LaFurge to police." (For the record, Ronald Hocking disputes the notion that his brother was aggressive or racist and says he had not fought in Vietnam.)

If the various accounts of the killing weren't confusing enough, newspaper articles note that Promise also briefly faced charges, along with Larry White, for raping teenage sisters while out on bond. But Promise was never convicted on the charge and says he is innocent of that crime (see "For the record," p. 19).

(The Indy was able to reach Armour, and other attorneys from the case, but none remembered the rape charge.)

Documents show that Armour fought to get his young client a lighter sentence for the murder, arguing that Promise wasn't suited for the then-very-dangerous prison in Cañon City, which is now called Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility, and that the boy could be confronted by "hardened homosexuals." He notes that Promise admitted to the murder and robbery right away, when the other boys still denied it, and says, "Promis[e] Lee is the most likely candidate for rehabilitation; in this particular incident he unfortunately appears the most culpable."

Promise says much of his memory from that time is a blur. "I don't know how I felt," he says. "You're just trying to make sense of everything. How can this be true? Is this a dream? As a kid you can't really put those pieces together."

But he does clearly remember March 14, 1975, when a judge sentenced to him to 10 to 12 years in prison/reformatory. He heard, he says, "not a sigh of relief, but a sigh of pain," and looked behind him to see his mother.

He felt ashamed.

By the time of the shooting, Fannie recalls, she hadn't heard from her eldest for two weeks, and she was deeply suspicious.

Every time she called home, her ex-husband and other three sons would tell her that Promise wasn't home. Finally, she cracked Charmas, who told her, "Daddy don't want us to tell you." No one knew where Promise was. They hadn't seen him in two weeks. Daddy, Charmas said, had been out looking for him every night.

Fannie called her ex-husband. She and her young daughter, Regina, caught a plane out of Germany as quickly as they could. It didn't take Fannie long to locate her eldest at a friend's house, where she recalls being told that the "funny smell" in the place was marijuana.

After she came back to Colorado, Fannie agreed to divorce her second husband and remarry Promise Sr. She concluded she needed to be with her children. The reunited family relocated to Texas after Promise went to prison, she says, because they were told it would increase the likelihood that Promise would be paroled.

click to enlarge Fannie Lee with Charmas and Promise. - COURTESY PROMISE LEE
  • Courtesy Promise Lee
  • Fannie Lee with Charmas and Promise.

For the four years he was in prison, Promise was in both Territorial and a reformatory for young offenders. At first, he says, he didn't understand that he could get charged with assault for crimes committed in prison, and he sought to prove himself with exceptional brutality. It was necessary to get a reputation for being tough, he says. "When you're placed in a culture like that, you're at the top or the bottom, there's no in-between," he says. "You either become the prey or you prey on the prey."

But later, he mostly kept his head down, meeting the requirements of the youth program, earning his high school diploma and taking boxing classes at the prison.

Prison, he says, "became a way of life for me. I didn't have any hope outside of what I could see. I just thought this is my destiny, I'll probably end up doing the 12 years here. So one day, I was coming back from boxing coming back from the gym, and I'll never forget this, I looked up and I saw the stars.

"And I thought, 'Man, I don't remember the last time I saw the stars outside.' Because you're in a cell, there's no way to see anything like that. And I looked up, and I saw the stars and at that moment I thought, 'I got to get out of here.' ... There's another world out there."

After that, he worked. He made it his mission to get out. He paroled in 1978 (completing it in 1988), and joined his family in Texas. But he says he was traumatized from his time in the prison.

"You look at 16-year-olds now," he says. "Think about a 16-year-old being in a grown-man prison."

Promise didn't have a plan when he returned to the outside. He says he tried for jobs, even training to be a firefighter.

"It was difficult to get employment because of my criminal record," he says. "You go through the application — 'Have you ever been convicted of a felony crime?'— and if you lie they'll catch up with you. You tell the truth, you don't get the job."

He ended up working as a dog trainer for a while — a life-long passion of his, but not one that paid well. Meanwhile, Promise didn't change much about who he was. He was still drinking, smoking, breaking laws. He fathered four children by three women.

The Lee family eventually moved back to Colorado Springs and Promise followed. Back in the Springs, he sought out a boxing gym. After working out, he says he tried to pay the man in charge. The man refused and said he should instead attend his church, House of Prayer.

Promise was raised Christian, but says his parents sent their kids to church, but didn't attend with them — leading to a spiritual dissonance for him. Nevertheless, he agreed to go, not knowing the man was the pastor.

That Sunday, in the early 1980s, Promise heard the Bible preached in a new way. "He was preaching what I now know as the social gospel," Promise says. "... The God that he was describing was different from anything I had ever heard ... he was a God that was concerned and loved and cared for even a murderer, even a drug dealer. You know, that God was concerned even about me. And it pricked my heart and I just stood up and interrupted the service — for them it was crazy, I guess, because who does that? — but I interrupted the service and I said, 'Sir, what do I need to do to know more about this God and to be in right relationship with this God?' And he led me to Christ right there and I continued to attend the church and grow."

click to enlarge Promise with six of his eight children. - COURTESY PROMISE LEE
  • Courtesy Promise Lee
  • Promise with six of his eight children.

This was the most important turning point in Promise's life.

He went home and cleared out all the things he thought would hurt him — drugs, clothes, even a car. He was out to change his life radically, and he wasn't going to let anything stand in his way.

In addition to what he got rid of, Promise sought to build something.

After being haunted by dreams, Promise told his pastor he wanted to preach. Unsurprised, the older man told him he'd deliver his first sermon that Sunday. After that, Promise preached on street corners — often to people who had known him all his life.

He sought custody of three of his children, who were being raised by his parents (the mother of his second child had custody); he took jobs at and contracted with churches, often working in fundraising or outreach; he sought out a Christian wife and found a pastor's daughter, Rhonda Martin, who Fannie says sang "like a mockingbird." They married in 1991 and soon had four more children to add to the Lee brood.

The couple divorced five years later, and Rhonda went to prison on theft and fraud charges. Promise says it was a shocking turn of events, and he admits the divorce left him with unpaid bills he didn't know he had. Records show that Promise was sued over money issues at least 12 times between 1994 and 1997 (see "For the record," p. 19).

Josiah Martin, Rhonda and Promise's eldest son, recalls his father coming home one day and flatly announcing that his mother had been sentenced to 10 years in prison. For Josiah, the transition was rough. While Rhonda had been affectionate, his father was not one to "hug and kiss on" his children. He had high expectations of himself and his boys, and Josiah says, often took his two youngest sons along to complete projects that really should have been done by a crew.

"When I was growing up I genuinely did not believe he got hurt or sick," Josiah recalls, saying that he was surprised when he saw his father react in pain when hitting his head on a pole.

In 1997, the year after his first divorce (Promise remarried twice and divorced both times), Promise decided to start his own church, beginning with a service in Helen Hunt Elementary School.

Promis "Nancy" Bruno, his daughter, recalls those days fondly. The horde of Lee children dragged chairs to the school for service — everyone had to pitch in to make it happen. And the people came.

click to enlarge Fannie, Promise and Promise Sr. - COURTESY PROMISE LEE
  • Courtesy Promise Lee
  • Fannie, Promise and Promise Sr.

In 1999, he went to a field where he and the other neighborhood kids used to party, thinking and praying. A deal to purchase a church property he had his heart set on had just fallen through.

"And I said, 'God, look at the view!'" he recalls. "All that time I had been praying, I never even kind of looked at it, you know. So I went online and I found out who owned the property and I called the guy ... and he said, 'I'm not a religious man, but there must be something going on, because we're putting the [for sale] sign up there today.' And I said, 'No, I think God wants us to have this.' And so we negotiated with them."

The congregation raised money, erecting the church in 2004. Just as he had changed the field from a place of revelry to one of reverence, Promise sought to transform his parishioners.

"People who get out of prison come here and they know that I'm an example, they know that I can relate in many ways, and they know it's authentic, because a lot of those people knew who I used to be," Promise says. "... We're not a judging kind of church. They used to call us 'last chance ministry.' Once you get kicked out of everywhere else you come here. And we appreciate that."

Asked about Ronald Hocking's claim that he never tried to contact their family to apologize, Promise is at a loss. He says he did try. He says a TV show that never got off the ground once wanted to film such an apology, and told him they had reached the Hockings, but that they did not wish to speak to him.

"I'm saddened and very sorry but not surprised that the family is still experiencing pain," he writes in an email to the Indy. "I feel like I'm [reliving] this thing all over again too. But this time [it's] much more amplified and I'm powerless to remove the Hocking [family's] pain.

"Taking a life, on purpose or on accident, is a life sentence of eternal emotional suffering to the parties on both sides."

Promise adds that some years ago his grandson was run over and died after being hospitalized for 14 days with tubes all over his body. Some members of his family, he says, were angry, because it seemed the driver faced few consequences. Some questioned how God could let such a thing happen.

Promise says he knows he cannot explain the pain he caused the Hockings, but he says he does know what such loss feels like: "Pain is pain."

One can imagine that such an explanation would not satisfy Ronald, who says his brother's death seemed to usher in a time of despair for his family that never really ended. Ronald remains angry that his family didn't get the apology they wanted. And while he says it's good that Promise is doing things to improve his community, it has clearly unsettled Ronald to watch his brother's murderer rise to prominence, to read and watch Promise's story told eloquently over and over, even as no one — not a single reporter in 44 years — bothered to call the Hockings. It's cold comfort to know that Promise spent just four years in prison for a crime that's haunted him most of his life.

"We got a life sentence of sorrow for what happened to my brother and it took years off my mother's life," he says.

For what it's worth, Promise believes it was appropriate for him to be sent to prison — no matter his age. "I believe that the penitentiary saved me. I firmly believe that," he says. "Many people that I know are out in that graveyard just a half a mile from here and many of them met their fate when I was incarcerated.

"... How many people really get the opportunity to get to know themselves? When you're sitting in that cell, all those hours of the day, you either go crazy or you learn about yourself. And I have spent more time with myself, deeply like that, and I know many if not most of my limitations. I know my strengths; I know my weaknesses. I know my buttons. And it makes it easier for me to cope with life."

In his letter granting a conditional pardon (Promise still may not possess a firearm) Hickenlooper said he wished he could relieve the Hockings' pain and that he did not make his decision lightly. But he was moved by Promise's work with at-risk youth: "I believe your work can, and possibly has, saved lives." The governor concluded, "Others who have experienced circumstances similar to yours will look to you for guidance and inspiration. Show them how it's done."

Relevant Word recently received a grant of $131,895 to pay for supplies, staff and other expenses for its boys' mentoring program, the SEATO (Southeast Access to Opportunity) Man-Up program, for high-risk boys age 10-17. Promise says the program currently serves around 100 boys with perhaps 20 male mentors.

Mentoring has always been a calling for Promise, who can't help but see his own reflection staring back at him in the faces of troubled young men.

He speaks eagerly of the boy he's currently mentoring. The youngster is in special education for behavioral problems, and recently he beat a teacher so badly she had to go to the ER. He refuses to take instruction or discipline from women, and often sleeps through class.

It's a different story when Promise is there. Suddenly, the boy will fly through his work with little encouragement.

click to enlarge Promise with some of his 15 grandkids. - COURTESY PROMISE LEE
  • Courtesy Promise Lee
  • Promise with some of his 15 grandkids.

And Promise sees something different in the boy too: a kid who has been disappointed by all the adults in his life (all women); whose appearance speaks to a lack of caring; who has little stability at home, no father, and a brother with special needs — a kid who is hurting. "The poor guy, he's competing against all of these factors that most are out of his control," he says.

Promise, says that he too, was once labeled "incorrigible" — in his case by a court-appointed psychologist, when he was facing his murder charge.

Promise laughs when he recalls it. Then he shakes his head.

Promise says he's kept the faith in the child, and — on trips to Triple Threat Boxing Gym, which allows kids in the mentoring program to train free of charge — he has been rewarded with small breakthroughs.

Reminiscing on these moments, Promise's dark eyes, usually so guarded, suddenly dance. In the ring, he says, the boy is transformed in fleeting, ecstatic moments. There, he sheds his difficult circumstances, and stands strong, confident, fully in his element.

Finally, a winner.

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