By Michelle Barclay and Siarra Carr
In 1999, Macon Circuit Superior Court Judge Bryant Culpepper was advocating among his friends and former colleagues in the Georgia General Assembly for state funding to properly fund and improve the position of juvenile court judge across the state. At that time, Judge Culpepper was serving as Chair of the Georgia Supreme Court’s Child Placement Project. He had been deeply moved during the trial of a fifteen year old convicted murderer; he had presided over the trial and imposed the sentence.
The story of this man, Travis, began as that of a child known to the court system. Travis had been involved with both the foster care and juvenile justice systems in Bibb County. Judge Culpepper wrote an essay about Travis which was published in all the major newspapers in Georgia urging the passage of the juvenile court legislation, H.B. 182, which indeed did pass. By 2001, the bill and the funding it provided had resulted in over 100 juvenile court judges being appointed across the state.
Years later in April of 2018, Travis’s wife reached out to Judge Culpepper via email to let him know of Travis’s status. She had read the Judge’s 1999 essay, as had Travis. Travis had written his own essay in the meantime, inspired by Judge Culpepper’s words and his own experiences, entitled Beacon2. Her email outlined how much Travis had positively changed over the years and how, to the best of his ability, he had used his time in prison to make himself a better man so that he could perhaps one day be a productive member of society, even though he had experienced brutality while in the prison system. After discussing Travis’ situation with her, now Senior Judge Culpepper decided to visit Travis at the Washington State Prison in Davisboro, Georgia.
Travis did not look anything like the young man from so many years ago. While they talked, Travis told the Judge that prison had saved his life. Although Travis had a certain resignation about his current situation, he spoke of a desire to help other kids in similar situations that he had been in as a teen. Travis was the child of mentally ill parents, and had bounced back and forth between family members and foster homes his whole life. When he was 15, he committed the violent crime that landed him the life sentence he is currently serving. Whether his crime was a predictable outgrowth from his history or not, Travis is now determined to not let his past determine his future. He earned his GED and several certifications while in prison, wrote essays about juvenile justice and reform, and he wants to write a book on his life story to help other young teens not follow down the same path he did.
“I don’t think I ever have gone to see a prisoner and not come away feeling blessed by the experience. I don’t get many opportunities to go behind bars but have been there as a visitor a few times in my life. Prison often breaks a man and a broken man has no options other than being dead or being healed. I feel Travis has chosen healing over death. He prayed a good prayer as we were saying goodbye. I was humbled by the experience,” said the Judge. “It also was good to let Travis know the end result of our advocacy for HB 182 and he seemed pleased to know that his story had helped.”
Judge Culpepper ended our interview saying, “I also have been reflecting on Governor Deal’s remarks when in speaking about his criminal justice initiatives that ‘we all ought to be in the business of redemption’. I certainly agree.”