On Aug. 19, 1992, the world changed forever for James Hough. Two bullets was all it took to end the life of 39-year-old Ronald Davis, and Hough was responsible.
Davis was unarmed, standing on a street corner in Pittsburgh’s Beltzhoover neighborhood when Hough and a group of friends approached Davis and knocked him to the ground before Hough killed him.
Hough was only 17 at the time. He will turn 43 this August, meaning he has lived in prison for more than half of the days he’s been on the earth.
He is currently serving a mandatory life sentence for his crime of first-degree murder. In the coming months, however, he will have his sentence revisited by Judge Terrence O’Brien of the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, who will decide if he can eventually become a free man.
The Art of Rehabilitation
By: Casey Chafin
Hough’s resentencing hearing is due to a U.S. Supreme Court 2016 decision, which states that it is unconstitutional to sentence a juvenile to mandatory life in prison without the possibility for parole. Hough is one of 37 men in Allegheny County who will have resentencing hearings.
He believes his story is one that should be heard by others.
"People can change for the better—lives can’t be replaced, but they can be redeemed;
in order for society to heal we need that."
- James Hough in a letter to the Lifelines Project on July 31, 2015.
What is that story exactly?
Here’s what it isn’t: A story of innocence.
Hough does not deny the facts of his crime. He owns up to them. When he was 17 years old, he took the life of Ronald Davis.
Instead, Hough’s story is one that raises more difficult questions. Ones that address the topics of remorse, change and whether or not criminals can be rehabilitated.
Growing up on the North Side of Pittsburgh, Hough faced negative factors including a broken family and negative peer pressure from a bad group of friends.
"I’ve always been an artist, as a kid I’d draw and my eyes were very sensitive to visual stimuli. I was also encouraged by my family,
school art teachers and comic books prior to my crime and incarceration. I had drifted away from art and into the street underworld:
drugs, drug selling, weapons, sex, violence. In retrospect I went through a process of intense spiritual death."
- James Hough in a letter to the Lifelines Project on July 1, 2014.
This “spiritual death” culminated with Hough committing the murder that landed him in prison. After his trial and conviction, Hough had admitted that he struggled to accept his new life in prison. He carried the anger and hostility from the streets into his new life in prison.
"Initially I was unable to adjust...as a ‘criminal-outlaw’ it was my duty to attempt to ‘break out,’ which I unsuccessfully tried.
I was charged up and put in the hole for my last attempt in ‘96 and that was when the real ‘work’ began – I got serious about resurrecting my skills, which had been dormant from not practicing. I would write/draw all day and I would meditate and visualize my past."
- James Hough, in a letter to the Lifelines Project on July 31, 2015.
Returning to art was his first move at salvaging something good that existed in his life before his downward spiral which landed him in jail, he has said.
Once Hough began the process of self-reflection, he says that he began to change from the man who murdered an innocent person. Although some will doubt the legitimacy of his changed-man claim, his prison record offers some evidence in his favor.
After receiving three additional charges from 1993 to 1996, which included sneaking in a weapon, conspiracy and an attempt to escape, Hough has stayed out of trouble. That’s a 20 year stretch.
Though he claims that many other prisoners who are currently serving life sentences are rehabilitated and should be released, he does not argue that all are ready.
"Every lifer in PA can not and should not be released. Some are not rehabilitated and others haven't earned the second chance. However there are many - easily over 2,000 juvenile and adult lifers that have over the past 20, 30, 40, even 50 years,
continuously demonstrated remorse and responsibility for their actions, transformed themselves into the exact opposite of whom
ever they came to prison as, and transformed the lives of others."
- James Hough, in a letter to the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia on April 15, 2015.
He is currently awaiting his re-sentencing hearing, which has been postponed by his lawyer twice since December. At the hearing, Ronald Davis’s family will have the option to express their feelings on Hough’s possible release on parole.
Judge O’Brien will decide if Hough has been rehabilitated and determine if and when he can be eligible for parole.