Lester Mason: justice or “archaic” penalty?

Lester Mason sister

One of Lester Mason’s sisters holds a photo of her brother that she was able to take at Pontiac Correctional Center where he is serving life in prison with no chance for parole. (PHOTO BY CLARE HOWARD)

Lester Bobby Mason chopped cotton in Mississippi as a youth along with 11 brothers and sisters. But when 14-year-old Emmett Till was brutally beaten to death in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman, Mason’s mother decided in order to survive, she had to move her children north.

The family did well in Peoria, at least until Mason was 16 years old and he made what he calls some “stupid mistakes.” At age 16, he was arrested for physically assaulting a man and stealing $68 from his wallet.

In 1964, at age 20, he was arrested for armed robbery of a gas station attendant who hit him over the head with a bottle of motor oil. Mason dropped his gun and fled with $23 from the attendant’s wallet and cash from the till.

That gas station heist was strike No. 1 that sealed his fate –– only he didn’t know it at the time.

His life continued and included other minor crimes but not an armed robbery until 1969 when he robbed a clerk at the Imperial Hotel at gunpoint. Today, he can’t even remember if the gun was loaded.

Even though the “habitual offender” law didn’t yet exist, it would be applied retroactively when Mason scored strike No. 3.

Mason played a secondary role in the Cleve Heidelberg case; Mason was one of the men who had borrowed Heidelberg’s blue 1964 Rambler the night Peoria County Sheriff’s Sgt. Raymond Espinoza was shot and killed at the Bellevue Drive-In theater. Mason proved to be a belligerent witness at the original trial, taking the Fifth Amendment 35 times.

At one point during questioning, Mason, who was serving time in Statesville, was asked for his address.

He said: “Box 112, Joliet.”

The lawyer asked: “Is that Statesville?”

Mason’s answer: “The Virgin Islands.”

Lawyer: “How long have you been in Statesville?”

Mason: “3,500 years.”

That attitude is part of what Mason characterizes today as “stupid.” He has lots of time to think about it and write to his nieces and nephews warning them not to make the same mistakes he made.

There were some drug charges and robbery but his final act of what he calls “stupidity” was wearing a ski mask and robbing Schock’s Market. The clerk testified a knife had been held to her throat. Mason disputes that. In fact, Mason says he was convinced to plead guilty to these three class X felonies thinking it would help him. Instead, in 1982, at age 39, Mason was declared a “habitual offender” and sentenced to natural life in prison with no chance for parole. The sentencing was the first time the new “habitual offender” label was used in Peoria County.

According to a piece written by Journal Star columnist Rick Baker, Mason was stunned and turned to his mother Victoria who had fled the cotton fields of Mississippi with her 12 children for a better life.

“Mamma, did you hear that?” he asked incredulously.

Years later when his mother died at age 88 after working more than 30 years in the laundry at Methodist Hospital, Mason was not allowed prison release time to attend her funeral.

“We were going to pay all the expenses so he could attend the funeral, but it was not allowed,” one of his sisters said recently.

Attorneys Andrew Hale and Donald Jackson called Mason to testify at a 2017 hearing for Cleve Heidelberg. Mason and Heidelberg fist bumped when Mason walked to the stand and said, “I never killed anyone, never raped anyone, never shot anyone, but I’m serving more time than convicted murderers.”

At 76, Lester Bobby Mason is serving life in prison with no chance for parole at Pontiac Correction Center. He said he watched as Larry Bright, serial murderer of women in Peoria, transferred from maximum security at Pontiac to a medium security prison.

And after nearly 40 years in prison, Mason thinks he’s more than paid for his mistakes. He does not deny his crimes but continues to petition the courts for release. He disputes the record alleging he committed three armed robberies. He says he was misled by a public defender who convinced him to plead guilty when he did not have a weapon.

“I ended up doing some stupid stuff,” he said. “Make an example of me. But not natural life in prison with no chance for parole.”

He says he was armed in just one robbery – armed with an old revolver he took from a brother and he can’t remember if it actually had a bullet in the chamber. At any rate, he never fired the weapon.

“I have to keep myself balanced; I can’t get too emotional,” Mason said during a recent visit. “I was a petty criminal but not a low-down dirty guy. I think what I did was wrong, but I don’t think I got justice.”

Jenny Vollen-Katz, executive director of the John Howard Association of Illinois, said her organization fights for shorter, more humane terms and better prison conditions.

“People age out of crime. People change and grow out of behaviors,” she said. “When someone has already been punished and is no longer a public safety threat, that’s a bad use of public resources” to keep them in prison.

“At 76, that’s really old by prison time. Prison is a very hard way to live. Life expectancies are shorter in prison.”

Attorneys Hale and Jackson talked with Mason while working to get Cleve Heidelberg released after he had spent 47 years in prison. Both lawyers believe Mason’s case should be reviewed by the court.

“Lester has paid the penalty for the crime he committed. Lester was convicted of armed robbery, a crime I obviously do not condone. However, when you consider the time that offenders are receiving today for the crime of first degree murder versus the life sentence that Mr. Mason received for his offense, fairness, equity and justice demand that society give him another chance to show that he can be a productive citizen for the remaining years of his life,” Jackson said.

“There is so much change in criminal justice today that the old notion of ‘three strikes’ needs to also fade away into history like the death penalty, incarceration for cannabis and other archaic penalties.”

Jackson said if the Starved Rock murderer with a sentence of life in prison can be released, there has to be hope for Mason.

During a recent visit, Mason said he follows politics closely, but he’s never voted in his life.

“If I ever get out of here, I’d like to help register people to vote,” he said. “Today, many people feel their vote doesn’t matter, but if everyone voted, change would be tremendous.”

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