He served time; can he serve on the Cleveland city council?

John A. Boyd feels his rehabilitation makes him a model of hope for those struggling as he did.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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    Testimony to rehabilitation: John Boyd, who served half his life in prison for second degree murder, forgery, theft, and drug trafficking, is now a social worker in his old Cleveland neighborhood and running for city council in the April 22 special election.
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Cleveland's Ward 6 encompasses the sprawling campus of the world-renowned Cleveland Clinic, and the cultural riches of the Cleveland Play House, Museum of Contemporary Art, Karamu House, and Little Italy. But it is also one of the city's poorest areas with boarded up homes and businesses amid storefront churches and convenience stores, a striking canvas of today's economic woes.

Many Ward 6 residents have been touched by the prison system – including John Boyd, who has spent half of his adult life incarcerated for murder, forgery, theft, and drug trafficking.

He's not so different from many others in his neighborhood, except that he believes his life is a testimony to rehabilitation.

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"It's never too late to be what you might've been," says the tall, calm, social worker. He's so convinced of his ability to change people's perceptions that he's hoping to be elected the ward's city councilman in the April 22 special election.

Boyd's story is one of redemption, but not the easy kind that washes everyone clean on a Sunday morning. It's more complex, playing on society's deepest fears about the true nature of forgiveness. As a result, his hope for a future of public service is held hostage by community unease over his past.

Talk shows and bloggers are vociferously critical, saying it's a big stretch for a convicted murderer to win a council seat that pays $70,000 per year. Others say that if residents vote for him, they deserve what they get.

But Boyd wants people to see him as a rehabilitated man, someone worthy of a second chance, of public service.

Whether a convicted felon can hold office isn't clear, but in that debate, Ohio's attorney general has indicated that the law is vague in addressing a convicted felon holding office.

Regardless of that open question, Boyd is running against Mamie Mitchell, a former Cuyahoga County assistant prosecutor. Ms. Mitchell holds the position on an interim basis and enjoys the endorsement of key city leaders, including council president Martin J. Sweeney.

Despite the long odds, Boyd supporters are optimistic. "A lot of people support him because he can relate to people. If people listen to him, he's got 'em," says Frances Caldwell, his campaign treasurer.

And Boyd feels voters recognize that he hears them and cares: "One of the key features of living in oppressed conditions is the assassination of all hope. Prison was like that, but so are the conditions here. Residents in Ward 6 need hope."

• • •

Boyd knows that, just like first impressions of the ward itself, he is more than he seems.

His freshly painted, tidily landscaped home on East 84th Street is one of the nicest in this neighborhood of boarded-up houses and vacant lots. That blight is one reason he's running.

"I was born and raised in this house," he says. "This neighborhood is no reflection of what it was in my childhood. It was a middle-class neighborhood. We would sleep on the front porch in the summertime and leave the doors open year-round."

But his close-knit world was a predominately female one comprised of his great-grandmother, grandmother, mother, and two aunts. Young Boyd had no relationship with his father.

"A woman cannot teach a child how to become a man. So a boy will start looking to other men ... for role models," he says.

Like many other inner-city neighborhoods, Boyd's was not short on colorful characters. "There was a lot of hustling going on. Like a lot of young men without fathers we would gravitate toward the guys with the big shiny cars and the pretty women," he says.

His fate took a turn when he and his friends decided to rob a "numbers house," where illegal gambling took place.

"We didn't go there with the intent to hurt anyone," Boyd explains. "But there was a struggle between me and the owner over a gun. It went off.... We left, and I had no knowledge the other guy had died.

"It was an accident. But I accept the responsibility that as a result of my being there a life was lost," he says.

At age 16, Boyd pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. He served eight years in the Ohio Penitentiary. When he entered prison, Boyd could barely read or write. "My mom made me promise I would go to school." And, indeed, he earned a high school diploma, associate's degrees in business management and social science, and a bachelor's degree in psychology.

Released from his first prison term in 1980, when he was 23, Boyd struggled to fit in.

"I thought I was an adult now, not a child. Man, was I naive. I was labeled as a convicted murderer and couldn't get a job. I would never even get the interview because they'd read my past conviction on my application. [If I] left it off, employers would find out and I'd get fired.

"What do you do when you can't get a job? You go back to what you were doing that landed you in prison in the first place."

His incarceration for theft and forgery in 1992, would be his last: "I realized I needed to get a grip." He didn't want his daughter Amira, then 4, growing up without him.

Faith, absent in much of his adult life, suddenly became a positive force, he says. "I don't wear it on my sleeve, but the fact of the matter is it turned my life around."

Now, to attract voters, he's using all that he's learned about service to others, the problems of absentee fathers, creating opportunities, and commitment to his community.

Recently he visited a senior center. "You could feel the animosity in the room," says Ms. Caldwell. The first questions were about his record. He asked for a show of hands of people who knew someone who'd been incarcerated. "Nearly every hand went up," she says. He asked them to give him the chance they'd offer their loved ones. "By the end they didn't want him to go."

One influential local politician, Cuyahoga County Commissioner Peter Lawson Jones, is complimentary if careful: "Regardless of whether or not I agree with him on specific issues, John's candidacy is a valuable social service in that it heightens our awareness of the barriers to seeking a second chance confronted by ex-offenders." Boyd has worked on Jones's previous campaigns.

Although Boyd didn't receive The Plain Dealer's endorsement, the paper's editorial board did note April 17 that, "Boyd could continue to make a big difference.... He offers a living example of hope to the young people in one of Cleveland's poorest wards."

Boyd was pleasantly surprised by those words, but recognizes the obstacles ahead: "... my city council race is about the larger issue of being marginalized. We pay a lot of lip service to forgiveness, but do we really believe in it?"

He's tenacious in creating opportunities for himself. He works with at-risk youth, assisting with job training, life skills, and counseling as a licensed social worker assistant. But when he was denied licensure as a social worker because of his felony convictions, he stood before the state licensing board to argue his case and won.

• • •

Can a convicted murderer deliver hope? Unequivocally yes, says Boyd, admitting, though, that he tests people's faith and that makes them uncomfortable.

You can't forgive someone halfway, he says: "The Bible is filled with folks who are on the wrong side until God came into their lives. If you say you believe in the power of God to change men's lives, then you've got to believe fully."

His victory, he adds, would be for formerly incarcerated people. "It's larger than John Boyd."

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