When he was 12 years old, Lee Horton needed help. It was 1977, and he’d just moved to town when he was jumped by a group of boys looking to pick on the new kid. Help arrived in the form of Robert Leaf, also 12, and the two became fast friends. The friendship, though, would prove to be Lee’s undoing. Years later, his friendship with Robert would precipitate the worst event of his life, an event that would put Lee and his brother Dennis in state prison for life.
In 1993, Robert Leaf shot a man dead in the course of a robbery. Although Dennis and Lee had nothing to do with the shooting, a series of extremely bad luck and even worse decisions pulled them into the crime’s aftermath. The brothers were eventually charged with second-degree murder, found guilty, and sentenced to life. They have spent 27 years in prison. Robert Leaf was charged with third-degree murder and was paroled in 2008.
Growing up poor in Philadelphia, the brothers thrived in a household filled with love, respect, and kindness. Their parents split but worked hard to keep a stable environment. “Our mother was a kind, compassionate, giving person who welcomed anyone in need into our home and shared whatever we had, no matter how little,” they explain. “Our grandmother kept us entertained by telling us stories, food was always present, and friends were always welcomed. Everyone in the neighborhood called our grandmother ‘Mom Mini.’ Our father was a good but stern man, who understood the value of honesty and hard work. From him we learned discipline, integrity, and dignity.”
Lee described the essence of their childhood in a poem he wrote in prison, “A River of Memories.” “The river runs near the woods…A river where grandmothers took kids for walks/Where teenagers went to kiss after dark/The river next to the woods/The woods near my old house/My old house in the projects/Where joy fell in love with pain/Where music and laughter was in every room/Where up through the floor the flowers of happiness bloomed/Where up through the floor the flowers of happiness bloomed./I remember the river/I wonder if the river remembers me.”
Childhood was followed by adolescence – more rocky for Lee than Dennis, but not overly difficult – and then both men made their way in the world as adults, finding loving relationships of their own and solid jobs. Life was going well, until they ran into Robert Leaf one evening. He rode in their car, and unbeknownst to them, had a gun that he’d just used in a shooting. The brothers were arrested and charged. Prosecutors offered the brothers four to ten years to testify against Robert. Because they hadn’t seen the crime and knew they had no role in it, they refused. By exercising their right to trial, the Horton brothers were penalized and sentenced to mandatory life without parole.
You might think in reading this that this is where their story ends. In fact, it’s only the beginning of what has been an incredible journey to find meaning, purpose, and hope in the darkest of places.
“Prison was hard,” they explain, “and in the beginning we complained a lot. Until one day on a visit our maternal grandmom said things would get better for us. In response, we told her that prison was a cold and dark place and she didn’t know what she was talking about. She admonished us to stop feeling sorry for ourselves and help change things if we don’t like it. She said, ‘If it’s dark in there, then light up the darkness with hope, and if it is cold, heat it up with love. Help somebody.’ Our grandmom died a few years later but we have been following her advice ever since, helping others as we try to help ourselves. We decided to be the men we were taught to be.”
The brothers each have read more than 1,000 books. They have taken more than 80 classes, mentored countless other men, formed support groups, written articles, organized advocacy and victims’ rights conferences in the prison, conducted restorative justice workshops, formed reentry support groups, and are both certified Peer Support Specialists who help prisoners in crisis – and this is only a small selection of their accomplishments during decades behind bars.
They remain in close touch with their family over all these years. Lee has been married to his childhood sweetheart, Joanna, for 29 years, and they been together since they were 17. They have four children together – Lee Jr., Christopher, Joanna, and Kalief. Dennis has a twin sister, Denise, and everyone in the family is supportive of the brothers and their efforts.
The lesson taught to them by their mother back in childhood – to give freely even when you have so little – is something they live by. “It is not that we are perfect,” says Lee. “We definitely are not. But what went wrong is not our story. Our story is about finding our purpose in helping others and inspiring hope.” The Horton brothers live and breathe integrity, hard work, and kindness – in a place where these things are in very short supply.
For all of their efforts, Lee and Dennis have been recognized by the media, prison staff and officials, lawmakers, advocacy groups, and many others. But, tragically, the criminal justice system and most recently the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons have not seen these remarkable men for who they really are. In December of 2019, the Horton brothers were denied clemency by the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons. The denial was the latest in a long series of appeals they’ve made over the years, “but time after time we have come up short,” says Dennis. This latest attempt for mercy had the support of many, including Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman. In an article for the Philadelphia Inquirer following the board’s denial, he wrote, “these souls are all but guaranteed to die in prison.”
The Horton brothers exude positivity and hope in the darkness. What is absent from their story – a key missing piece – is our justice system’s foundations of mercy, redemption, and second chances. Clemency, the fail-safe remedy of the system designed for people just like the Horton brothers, should be used as it was intended. Dennis and Lee Horton, now 50 and 54 respectively, deserve a second chance. Remarkably, they still hold out hope that they will get it. “This,” says Dennis, “is not where our story begins or ends.”
Do you think the Horton brothers deserve a second chance? Please join us to fight for reform so they and so many others can get a fair shake.