By John Block, NBC News Producer
Curtis Lee has been on my mind for the last quarter of a century--from the time I met the then courageous East Oakland teenager who was bent on keeping his besieged high school safe. Curtis was luckier than so many from his neighborhood--a gifted athlete, he had an incentive to stay on the straight and narrow. Back then --the height of the crack epidemic--it was easy to fall off (many submit that it was the drug kings, not the fast food chains, that were his neighborhood's biggest employers).
VIDEO: Brothers try to beat the odds in East Oakland
As Curtis tells it, he took his eye off the ball for only a second--when some other teenagers traded gunfire and he found himself, unwittingly, in the middle. He grabbed an available gun and shot back. Scared and not wanting to be perceived as a coward, Curtis says he aimed high. Somebody died that day, and although Curtis didn't fire the fatal shot, he was found culpable.
Sent to Folsom Prison, one of the toughest prisons in the U.S., many anticipated that Curtis would become a victim of the system--made worse than when he went in, or killed. Sent down a kind of rabbit hole for the next 23 years, Curtis read, by his count, some 1,200 books to educate himself. He also says he used the original NBC Nightly News story that I produced about him in 1988 as a kind of mirror to reflect on his own life and take stock. He says he also "visualized," planning what he would say to his young nieces and nephews and other at-risk children when finally he got out. The parole board denied him parole 8 times before finally releasing him last year. We re-connected when he called me several months ago, asking for a copy of the Nightly story from all those years ago. He wanted to use it in the course of doing his work with youth.
VIDEO: Curtis Lee to teens: 'Defend your future'
I met Curtis toward the beginning of my NBC career. By returning to him (along with my wonderful colleague Lee Cowan), I am making him my final story here. I'm glad that I did, because it's one that I truly got to finish. Moreover, his is a story about possibility and hope.
VIDEO: Teaching at-risk teens to steer clear of trouble