Published: Tuesday, November 08, 2011, 6:30 AM Updated: Tuesday, November 08, 2011, 10:33 AM
For many teens coming of age in the early 1960s, the world looked large and growing.
President John F. Kennedy battled communism abroad, Walter Cronkite made world news accessible, and John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth.
But for Sheldry Topp, the world was small, with detention homes and mental health facilities and whippings at home when he dared stray out to play.
And when Topp thrust a kitchen knife into a stranger’s neck, the world began to look even smaller.
He has spent the past 49 years behind bars.
Now 67, Topp is Michigan’s oldest inmate serving life without the possibility of parole for a crime committed as a minor.
“Basically, I was raised in prison,” Topp said recently at an Upper Peninsula prison, speaking in quiet tones and measured cadence as he described his crime, life and hopes for the future.
“But I’ve changed,” he said. “I’m confident I can be a productive member of society. That’s what I want to be more than anything.”
Topp’s story cuts to the heart of the debate over the state’s mandatory sentencing laws: Can young killers grow into responsible adults? And if they can, is it good policy to keep them in prison for the rest of their lives?
“Nobody wants to see this happen,” said Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper. “Nobody wants to live in a state where we spend more money incarcerating people than we do educating them.
“But there are some people — I tell you this as a prosecutor and former judge — that need to be incarcerated.”
One path to freedom
Topp was 17 when he ran away from the state mental hospital in Pontiac, broke into a nearby residence, and stabbed the homeowner four times during what he described as an unexpected scuffle. He grabbed a set of car keys and fled the state.
His victim — whom he later learned was a respected attorney for Oakland County named Charles Davis — bled to death. The FBI caught Topp in Chicago, and he was convicted of first-degree murder.
Barring a successful appeal, a prisoner serving natural life faces a single, unlikely path to freedom: A governor’s commutation.
Topp attempted that several times, most recently in 2008, when the Michigan Parole Board heard testimony during a public hearing at G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility near Jackson. Transcripts detail the proceedings.
“He’s a rational person, he’s an intelligent person, and I believe that he, if given the opportunity, he can make a difference in some young men and women’s lives,” Raymond Topp told the board, explaining how his brother had matured since his incarceration.
No one from Davis’ family spoke. The prosecutor and judge from his trial died long ago. But representatives for the Oakland County prosecutor and Michigan’s attorney general opposed release.
“There’s just a nagging feeling in me that, that there’s something that could snap in this individual again,” Oakland Assistant Prosecutor John Pallas said, citing medical experts who had suggested Topp was a social psychopath before finding him fit to stand trial. “There’s just too much of a history here; you know, the history of violence, the history of mental health.”
Topp told the board he had a hard time remembering details, but said he thought Davis’ house was empty when he entered. That differed from his 1962 admission, when he told authorities he waited two hours for Davis to retire for the evening before breaking in, an omission Pallas characterized as an attempt to downplay premeditation.
In either case, Topp said Davis surprised him. Using a knife he grabbed from the kitchen, Topp stabbed the lawyer four times in the neck and chest. He did not expect Davis would die, he said, but mimicking scenes he’d seen in movies, he dismantled the phone before leaving, cutting off his victim’s chance to call help.
Assistant Attorney General H. Steven Langschwager pointed out two pre-arrest transgressions in Topp’s file and said he did not believe the prisoner felt remorse.
“I’ve always been remorseful,” Topp said, even as he admitted he had difficulty expressing his feelings. “People might not perceive me as being remorseful. And I never understood how people go about showing remorse. I could break down and cry and so forth. People say that’s crocodile tears. I could yell and scream, and people would say that’s putting on a show.”
Eight of 10 parole board members recommended Topp’s release. Then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm denied his request.
Life without parole
At 5-foot-9, bald and sporting a gray mustache, Topp looks less a murderer than a grandfather. During the interview at Kinross Correctional Facility, he chooses a far corner of the visitor room, speaks quietly and often spends several seconds before responding to questions.
Born in 1944, Topp grew up in a middle-class Mount Clemens household under what he says was the heavy hand of an abusive father who whipped him with an extension cord when he left the yard to play with neighbors.
At 14, he began bouncing around youth detention and mental health facilities, where he says he acted out any time he feared authorities might send him home.
By most standards, Topp was almost an adult when he killed Davis, less than four months before turning 18. But by his account, his childhood prevented him from maturing until he received help in prison.
He credits instructors he encountered as a young inmate for significant strides after entering the system.
“I learned to think in here,” he says. “No one had ever taught me to reason logically, and I did most of my thinking with my feelings.
“I had no self-esteem whatsoever, but I got it from talking to other people and realizing I wasn’t the worst person in the world.”
Topp earned certificates in welding, plumbing, machine shop, drafting, reading, drawing, auto mechanics and basic computer programs. He took courses in impulse control, completed the Dale Carnegie leadership program and earned a handful of college credits before the option was eliminated.
“I was lucky,” Topp says. “Rehabilitation isn’t part of the corrections vocabulary anymore.”
Nearly a half-century into his sentence, Topp spends most days struggling to pass the time. He works on a yard crew, reads fiction, enjoys the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, plays jazz piano whenever he can and watches sports on the TV he shares with three roommates.
Even after eliminating many of the rehabilitative programs Topp praised, Michigan spends more than $32,000 a year on each prisoner, according to a 2008 report by the Pew Center for the States. Conservative math suggests the state has spent far more than $1 million on Topp.
“I don’t think it does anybody any good to have me in here for 50 years,” he says. “I was at a minimum security prison (in Marquette) and I could have ran away at any time. I didn’t want to run. I tried to do that before and look what happened.”
While he holds out hope Gov. Rick Snyder — any governor — will commute his sentence, he knows he does not have many chances left. Even then, he is not entirely convinced he has earned the opportunity.
“I can’t say that I deserve freedom,” he says. “How can you say that when you know what you did? But I think I deserve it based on sentences of other prisoners I’ve seen. People who committed crimes, with more intent, do less time than me and get out.”
Speaking on the phone several days after the visit, Topp says he does not want to see other minors suffer his fate.
“If you’re not an adult, if you can’t vote, if you can’t drive, if you don’t have the right to make decisions on your own, how can you be prosecuted as an adult?” he asks.
“I mean, to me that just seems really inconsistent with … with reality.”
-- Jackson Citizen Patriot reporter Danielle Salisbury contributed to this report.
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