Set Free from a Life Sentence fora Crime He Didn’t Commit Gene McGuire Reflects on 35 Years in Prison
Sentenced to life without parole. A situation 17-year-old Gene McGuire never imagined he’d find himself in. Yet for this high school sophomore from Pennsylvania, his entire life changed in one eventful night while hanging out with his favorite older cousin. His cousin decided to rob a bar and then murdered the bar owner. Even though McGuire tried to stop it, it was too late. Initially running in fear, McGuire eventually turned himself in to the authorities where he was charged as an accomplice to the murder. Instead, he would spend 35 years in prison. McGuire shares his remarkable story in his recently published book, Unshackled: From Ruin to Redemption. Risen talked with him about that crucial night, how he turned to Christ in prison, and how his story is helping others.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine
Risen Magazine: Begin by sharing a little bit about your life leading up to that eventful night.
Gene McGuire: I grew up in an alcoholic family. I was an athlete. I loved sports. I was always kind of torn between having a disciplined, hopeful future as an athlete, and a home life where you could do whatever you wanted to. My mother was a functioning alcoholic so we were clothed and fed and I wasn’t abused or anything. It was dysfunctional in the sense that there wasn’t a lot of affection. I spent a lot of my time away from home. I grew up around friends that had parents with professional lives. I saw the contrast and didn’t want to be at home. I would look for any opportunity to get out and about and would occasionally sleep over at a friend’s house. Alcohol was a big factor. Drinking at home was acceptable and I was able to drink at 15/16-years-old.
At seventeen, I came home one night and my family was drinking and playing cards at the table. I had a cousin that was visiting from New Jersey. My parents went to bed and my cousin decided that he wanted to shoot some pool. My parents said it was too late, but we sweet-talked them into letting us go. We went to this tavern and we were shooting pool for about twenty minutes and drinking more. My favorite cousin, and the one that everyone loved being around, was 24 years old at the time and he said, “I’m gonna rob this place.” At first, I thought, “Is this for real?” And then I realized he was serious. I knew I wasn’t going to do it and my older stepbrother wasn’t going to do it, so we decided to leave. If he was going to do it, he could do it by himself. We went down the street a little bit and waited. When he didn’t come back, we went back to the bar and heard some banging. He had killed the owner, stabbing him to death. He took the money from the cash box and then we took off to New York City. We were there for a couple of days and then I turned myself in. My parents were on the TV and radio. My stepbrother had called the police so they knew exactly what happened and what went down. That led to my arrest and incarceration.
RM: You were seventeen years old when you were sentenced to life in prison without parole, on a second-degree murder charge. This was unheard of at the time for a minor to be sentenced to that capacity. What was running through your mind?
GM: I felt like I was just going around for the ride. My counsel, a public defender said that there wasn’t much that we could do. He attempted to get me tried as a juvenile, but they declined. He said the best thing to do would be to plead guilty to murder and that I could be out in ten years. I knew I didn’t commit homicide, but I felt guilty that I was there and my cousin robbed the place. So I struggled with that myself. I always felt like I could have stopped him. There I was thinking I would be out in ten years and then they sentenced me to life without parole. The day of my eighteenth birthday they transferred me to the adult facility and I started meeting guys that were doing life without parole and realized what a rude awakening that was. They would say, “Hey young buck, you’re going to die in here like the rest of us. There is no parole eligibility for lifers in Pennsylvania.” I said, “Well my attorney told me…” and they said, “No, he lied to you.” I got on the phone pretty quick with my attorney asking what we could do, if there could be another trial. He gave me every reason why not to [have another trial] and I basically hung up the phone and conceded with defeat and said I would just do my time. It was a pretty rude awakening that I had entered into a sentence of life without parole eligibility.
I had a reputation of how I carried myself with the drugs and thought I was “somebody.” But I felt like nothingcompared to a five-year-old that had a plan for his life.
RM: You spent the first ten years in prison getting sucked into the prison life including drugs and pornography. You made a decision to follow Christ. What was the turning point or experience that drove you to turn to Christ?
GM: There is probably not an inmate, male or female, that doesn’t have a Bible or been witnessed to. It really wasn’t until I got to prison that someone witnessed to me. I just said, “Yeah maybe someday.” I didn’t go to church when I was first in prison. I got involved in drugs and then the gal that was bringing the drugs in got busted. So there was a period of time for about three weeks where I didn’t have any access to drugs.
At that time, I had some people that were witnessing to me and had invited me to a weekend revival. It was a Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the prison chapel. I signed up and then I went to a Friday night service. When I walked into the prison chapel, it wasn’t anything like I anticipated. The music was loud, people were hugging you and telling you, “Jesus loves you.” There were about 100 volunteers from the outside that came to the prison. I’m walking into a prison chapel that is busting with life and strangers coming up and hugging me. But I heard the message that night that, “Jesus died and rose again.” What stuck out was at the end of the service, the pastor asked us to make a commitment to the Lord. I knew I had never made that commitment. My thinking was, “One day I will get out of prison and go to church and become a Christian.” There were a few guys in the prison that were Christians that I had gotten to know and really respected. They would get up in the morning and sing and smile and have joy. I kept thinking, “You’re doing the same amount of time and you have joy. How is that possible?” So those things really impacted my life.
Then I went on Saturday night. I couldn’t believe that this was church. It was exciting. I didn’t make a commitment. There was a time of fellowship at the end and a guy came up to me. He introduced himself and said, “I’m Larry Titus. I have a service down the street. If you ever need anything, give me a call.” I’m thinking, “This guy doesn’t know me from paint.” I asked him, “Are you a Christian?” He said, “Yes. I’ve known Jesus since I was four.” I said, “You’ve known Jesus since you were four?” He added, “At five, God called me to be a missionary.” I’m thinking, “I’m 26; I’ve spent nine years of my [prison] sentence getting high.” I had a reputation of how I carried myself with the drugs and thought I was “somebody.” But I felt like nothing compared to a five-year-old that had a plan for his life. He gave me his card and left. I went back to my cell without making a commitment.
The next morning was the final service. There was music, testimonies and Teen Challenge was there. There were a lot of testimonies about how Christ changed lives. I was very convicted. At the end, there was a time to accept the Lord. I was sweating and nervous. Some volunteers came over and said, “It looks like you want to accept the Lord. C’mon let’s go up to the front.” So with some encouragement, I got up out of my seat and went up front. I got on my knees and prayed for Christ to set me free, forgive me from my sins, and to come into my life. I knew something happened, but I didn’t know what. I just felt different. I felt like this burden was off my back. The guy said, “Go back and read your Bible.” He just kept saying that over and over. When I got back to my cell, I just read and cried. I didn’t have a desire for drugs or pornography anymore. I cleaned up my life. Some of my friends came around and said, “Hey you look different. You’re glowing.” And all I could say was, “I just got saved.” They just thought I was crazy. I wrote Larry Titus, the pastor that gave me the card, and he began visiting and discipling me. He would spend an hour in the visiting room talking and sharing whatever he taught in his church on Sunday. Whatever I learned, I would begin teaching other guys in the prison system. I just felt like it was my calling.
RM: You even went on to develop small groups and Bible studies for the other inmates. What made you decide that you wanted to help others?
GM: It just felt natural. I would spend time with the guys in the yard, one-on-one, or wherever we could get together, and teaching them what God can do and the Word. I began doing it immediately.
RM: How did you stay encouraged? What kept you going?
GM: I learned to be thankful and grateful in every situation. It was never good or bad. I just would always praise God that He was in charge and He was sovereign. Twelve years, I was denied [parole]; seventeen years, I was denied; twenty-four years in the prison system, I was denied. I had job plans, home plans, and resumes. I had accomplishments. I was one of the busiest guys in the prison system in terms of getting involved and doing projects – teaching HIV [awareness], teaching [about] abstinence, and other things for the medical department. I would just go back to my cell when I got denied and praise God for everything that He has done for me. The walls didn’t matter, I felt free in prison. I was free to serve the Lord and serve others. It didn’t matter if they had a brown inmate uniform on or a grey one with the corrections officer. I would serve anybody. When I went up at thirty years, I had a lot of support, including the district attorney who had prosecuted the case. I got an answer of denial. I got denied and it was a blow to my gut. I remember shaking everyone’s hands and asking if there was anything else I could do. They said, “No, we support you and want to help you get out.” I went back to my cell and heard the Lord say, “You just need to praise me.” I just kept feeling that He was saying that.
I felt like I was going to die in prison. I thought “I am 51 years old. I am going to die here, but live for the Lord. Hopefully, I can leave a legacy and invest in people’s lives.” I remember getting on my knees and just feeling broken. I had so many people waiting and supporting me. There I was on my floor crying, and I cried out to God, “Praise you. Thank you for protecting me. Thank you for being sovereign.” Then I heard in my heart, “I’m going to release you.” I looked around my cell, thinking, “Who said that?” It wasn’t an audible voice, but I heard, “I’m going to release you. It’s not going to be based on what you do or who you know.”
I lived for Him. I lived for other people. I lived for my sister and friends. Every day I wanted to live to make a difference. I would get up and say, “This is a new day.” And I’d see what God wanted to do. There were some dark times. There were some depressing seasons. I knew it wasn’t healthy to stay there. I gave myself permission to be angry or upset, but I wasn’t allowed to stay there. My attitude was, “If Jesus could handle it, why couldn’t I? Because He was living through me.” I had a lot of people investing in me. I felt like I had been given a lot. I wanted to be faithful. A reporter asked me how I did thirty-five years in prison. I said, “I really didn’t do thirty-five years. I did a day to a day, a birthday to a birthday, a visit to a visit. Over the period of the time, I lived for that moment, that ministry opportunity.” When you string them all together it equaled thirty-five years.
I would just go back to my cell when I got denied and praise God for everything that He has done for me. The walls didn’t matter, I felt free in prison. I was free to serve the Lord and serve others.
RM: After spending thirty-five years in prison, a judge reversed your sentence and you were released. What were your immediate thoughts and reactions?
GM: I cried like a baby. It was emotional leading up to that period of time. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. The moment he said, “Released immediately,” I was thinking, do I have to go back for a day? A year? The courtroom erupted with applause. I just put my head down and cried. I looked up and the judge walked off the bench and removed himself from the court. The stenographer was in tears. My attorney patted me on the back. I was sitting in the same chair, at the same table, when I had been sentenced to life thirty-four years earlier. This time it was a different judge, a different D.A., and different personnel. It got real quiet and nobody knew what to do. Somebody yelled, “Unshackle him! Release him from his chains. He is a free man.” The sheriff came over and unshackled me. I could hear the sheriff say to my sister, “Hold on Mary.” She said, “No I am not waiting another second. I have waited thirty-four years.” She was climbing over chairs to get to me. It was a celebration after that. I was in awe.
RM: People often say, “You become what you behold,” or “Bad company corrupts good character.” You were in the wrong place, at the wrong time, when your cousin stabbed and killed a bar owner. What words of wisdom do you have on the importance of the company you surround yourself with?
GM: My encouragement is to be on-guard with the people that you hang with and associate with – who you let in your car and who you have meals with. I think it goes back to what’s inside you. I had to decide that I wanted to influence people. I knew that I had that capacity. I had to decide that I wasn’t going to let people influence me for the bad.
RM: Today, you spend your time continuing to do ministry and sharing your story. What message has God laid on your heart to share?
GM: I love going into the marketplace. I am also committed to four guys that are still in prison. I mentor them. One of the things I have noticed since my release, we don’t have to be behind bars or incarcerated to be “imprisoned.” There are people that are professionals, people that are angry, bitter, been divorced, and have businesses [that have] failed. I share my story and people can identify with it. They say, “I’ve been in prison most of my life.” My message is that God doesn’t want us to live like this. He doesn’t want us to walk around angry or hurt. He wants us to forgive others. I learned in prison that relationships are important. I was a project guy and loved being busy, but building friendships was more important than projects. I love talking about the importance of building relationships. Everything else comes after that.
RM: What words of hope do you have for those that might have friends or family members in prison?
GM: There’s a Heavenly Father who is waiting for us. Come to Him with those people. Lay that person out before the Lord. Pray, “They belong to You. You know them. You created them. I pray for their salvation and the life you designed for them in Christ.” Don’t stop praying for them or give up on them. That’s what happened to me. I had a mother that prayed for me. My stepfather prayed for me. I know that it works. My encouragement to those is to continue to love and support them. Share your faith and hope in Christ. Don’t give up. If you want something radical to happen, pray radical. Ask God to change their hearts.
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