April 18, 2021

“Suave”: New Podcast Follows One Man’s Journey to Freedom After a Life Sentence Without Parole at 17

10 min read

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
We end today’s show with two people who met almost 30 years ago. It was 1993 when the acclaimed journalist Maria Hinojosa met David Luis “Suave” Gonzalez while she was giving a talk at the Graterford State Correctional Institution in Pennsylvania. Suave was there serving a life sentence without parole, after he was convicted of first-degree homicide when he was 17 years old. At the prison, he was part of the largest population of so-called juvenile lifers in the United States.
Suave and Hinojosa stayed in touch through letters and visits and phone calls that she recorded. Those calls are now part of a new seven-part podcast series called Suave, that chronicles his story all the way to unexpected freedom. It includes dramatic exchanges like this one from 2016, when the Supreme Court ruled it’s unconstitutional to impose mandatory sentences of life without parole on juveniles. The ruling was retroactive and gave thousands of people, including Suave, a chance at freedom. This is a clip of the call, his call to announce the good news to Maria.

RECORDING: Thank you for using Securus. You may start the conversation now.

MARIA HINOJOSA: Hello? Hello?

DAVID LUIS ”SUAVE” GONZALEZ: Hello, Maria. How are you doing this morning?

MARIA HINOJOSA: Suave, it is Friday, June 9th, at 10:44 in the morning. What’s going on? I thought we were talking at 2:00. What happened?

DAVID LUIS ”SUAVE” GONZALEZ: I wanted to let you know that the judge told the lawyer this morning we don’t have to wait no longer. June 26, 17 days from today, we bring it in to court, so he could go seek parole in July.

MARIA HINOJOSA: What? So, it’s like — it’s like totally not a normal day for you in prison after 30 years. Today is —

DAVID LUIS ”SUAVE” GONZALEZ: No. And last night — you wouldn’t even imagine — I had a dream, like, that I was eating Chinese food.

MARIA HINOJOSA: What? What were you eating?

DAVID LUIS ”SUAVE” GONZALEZ: Eggrolls and some pork fried rice. And then I woke up, and I went to the head.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s a clip from the podcast Suave. Episode three just came out Tuesday, continues to follow Suave’s journey as he eventually was given the opportunity to experience life on the outside as an adult for the first time. Suave is now in his fifties, living in the free world as an artist and activist, joining us now, for more, along with Maria Hinojosa, president and founder of the Futuro Media Group and the anchor and executive producer of the Peabody Award-winning show Latino USA. She’s executive producer of the podcast Suave.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Suave, if you could briefly — I mean, your story is an unbelievable one. But the significance of going to prison in the ’80s? You lived in the Bronx, moved to Philadelphia. You were convicted, thought you’d be life in prison without parole. Then the Supreme Court made this decision.
DAVID LUIS ”SUAVE” GONZALEZ: Yes. Thank you for having me on.
And it was an experience that I will never forget and don’t wish on no juvenile in the United States. It was an experience that left me traumatized to this day. And I’m just grateful that I was able to meet Maria in 1993 and was able to make that transformation from prison into a decent human being, because at the time, in 1993, I was on a suicide mission. I wanted to die. I didn’t know how I was going to get out of jail. All I knew is that I was sentenced to life in the state of Pennsylvania, which housed more juvenile lifers than any other state in the country. And I was stuck. And here comes a stranger telling me that I could be the voice for the voiceless.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Suave, could you talk about that first time you met Maria Hinojosa and the relationship as it developed over the years, from your perspective?
DAVID LUIS ”SUAVE” GONZALEZ: Yes, I met Maria Hinojosa in 1993. I was just coming out of solitary confinement, and a older gentleman gave me a radio that had three stations. And one of the stations, Maria was on. So I heard it, and I was impressed just to hear a Latina voice on the radio. So, I just told everybody, “We’ve got to get her up here to the prison to speak to the guys. We’ve got to get her up here.”
So, one of my friends was the institutional tutor, and he graduated at Yale, like 27 guys with GED. So, he was given the opportunity to bring a guest speaker. And I begged him, “Bring Maria up here. Bring Maria.” And somehow they got Maria up there. And they told me I couldn’t get into the graduation, because I wasn’t graduating. So, I was fine with that, because I was doing time in a corrupt jail. There was no way I was not going to get into that graduation and meet Maria.
So, I got in, and Maria spoke. And when she took the podium, I just felt that every word that she was — every word that was coming out her mouth, I felt like she was talking directly to me. And even though it was an auditorium filled with people graduating, I just felt like her message was for me. So, when she was done speaking, I went up to her, and I told her, “I’m serving life. What can I do?” And Maria just looked at me and said, “You could be my source. You could be the voice for the voiceless.”
And those simple words changed my life: “the voice for the voiceless.” And at the moment, I didn’t understand what it meant, but then it dawned on me, like, all my life I’ve been told I was mentally retarded, I had an IQ of 56, that I would never amount to nothing. And here is a stranger telling me, a lifer, that I could be the voice for the voiceless. I was lit. I was like excited just to have somebody tell me that I could be something, that I could be somebody. And that’s what changed my life.
AMY GOODMAN: Maria, if you could talk about your experience of first meeting Suave and the relationship that you and Suave had over not the months, not the years, the decades, and what it meant to you when you got that call that this young man, who you expected to live for the rest of his life in prison, who was your source, was now going to be free?
MARIA HINOJOSA: All right, well, listen, I just got to put some credit where credit is due. I learned from the best. I was watching people like Juan González. I was reading Juan. I was watching and listening to you, Amy. You were my boss, remember, way back when, when I was a budding journalist at WBAI. And one of the things that I learned from you and the great journalists in our tradition — Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, Rubén Salazar — is that you also can lead with your heart. You can be the most critical journalist possible, but you can also lead with your heart.
So, Suave likes to give me a lot of credit for the words that I said. You know, “Hey, you’re going to be inside here. Just tell me what’s happening inside a maximum-security men’s prison.” But the point is, is that he was the one who walked up to me. He was the one who asked the question, “What can I do?” He didn’t say to me, “Do something for me. Get me out of here. Here’s my case. Let’s talk about it,” which a lot of the other guys did. Suave said, “What can I do?”
And, you know, I didn’t know Suave. I didn’t know that he was illiterate. I didn’t know that he had been accused of committing a murder against another juvenile. I didn’t know that. I saw that there was something in him that had a question. And as a journalist, if you are aware and you are sensitive and you are working with your five senses, and sometimes your sixth, you have to pick up on that.
Now, look, I’m a Christmas card lady. I should be sending you and Juan Christmas cards, but I just never got your addresses. But I knew where Suave was going to be for the rest of his life, and I started sending him Christmas cards, because I wanted — I don’t know, that’s a human thing to do. And from there, we just — I mean, I never imagined that it would end up being a podcast that is getting this amount of attention and so much love and raising critical issues around justice for young people in our country. And so, I’m so thankful, Amy. And I know that this is a dream come true for Suave to be with you and Juan right now. And so, you’re helping to make his dreams come true, as well.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Maria, the thought process that made you decide to do a podcast once he was out, in terms of what the importance of this kind of journalism is, in terms especially with the national debate going on continually now about criminal justice reform?
MARIA HINOJOSA: Right. So, look, you know, people talk about numbers, and they talk about institutions. But until you actually meet someone who has been in this — I mean, Suave was in solitary confinement not for days or weeks or months, but for years. What does that do to a human being?
Look, I just had a little recorder, Juan. And when I realized that the Supreme Court was going to be addressing the question of whether or not it was inhuman to sentence a juvenile to life without parole, I just started recording every single call that Suave made. I went back, and I reported. I had visited him a couple of times. But I just said, “Something can happen here.”
And, look, this is a message to fellow journalists out there. You need to hold onto your stories. You need to learn from the Juans and the Amys and, in this case, the Marias of the world, who are journalists of conscience in the United States. And we understand that there is not just a human story, but there is a story that we can, with one human story, really uncover all of this injustice.
And so, I never imagined, Juan, that it would be a podcast like this. But you start recording, and that’s where you capture the most dramatic moments, because, you know, Suave and I were just very real with each other over decades.
AMY GOODMAN: Suave, can you talk about the most difficult obstacles you face coming out of prison, and also the high points for you?
DAVID LUIS ”SUAVE” GONZALEZ: I mean, the most difficult things facing when you come out of prison is dealing with housing, employment. You know, even though I came out of prison with an education, with a BA from Villanova University, it’s still hard, to this day, to find sustainable employment, because I’m in a city, in Philadelphia, where they got Ban the Box, but when you get to the next level of that interview and employment, it’s always, “Well, you had a record from 34 or 35 years ago.” So, that’s the most difficult thing.
And being on lifetime parole is difficult, because, on one hand, you know, yes, I’m out in the community, but I’m still tied to the DOC. I’m still tied to the Department of Corrections, where they monitor all of my moves. I have to ask permission to cross city lines. I have to ask permission to be on your show. I have to ask permission to do certain things. You know, so, the question is: Is I’m really free? The United States Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to sentence a juvenile to a mandatory life sentence. Shouldn’t it be unconstitutional to have that same juvenile on lifetime parole? You know, I think those issues still need to be addressed, and they’re not being addressed in the United States. We still have tons of juveniles in the penal system that needs to have the same opportunities that I’m having.
And the high point for me is that I’m able to tell my story and share the stories of other juvenile lifers that were left behind, because I still feel, when I left in 2017, that I was leaving the only family that I knew for 30-something years. You know, and it gets lonely out here. It gets real lonely. It gets depressing. And if we don’t have that support team to help us get through that day, you know, that’s when we see the recidivism rate go up, because, I’m telling you from personal experience, there’s been days when I wish I was back.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we need to a Part 2, leaving it there. Luis David “Suave” Gonzalez, thanks so much for being with us, subject of the new podcast Suave by Futuro Media and PRX. And thanks so much, Maria, Maria Hinojosa, executive producer of Suave and anchor and executive producer of the Peabody Award-winning show Latino USA.
That does it for our show. Happy Birthday, Julia Thomas! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.