Lawrence Bartley can testify to the power of love.
He believes it pulled him through more than a dozen years of the 27 that he spent behind bars for killing a 15-year-old boy in a Long Island movie theater. And now he feels it pushing him to seek redemption by doing good with the rest of his life.
“I wished it didn’t happen … that it ended a life,’’ he said. “I am not that 17-year-old anymore.’’
The love comes from a woman named Ronnine, who Bartley insists never gave up on him — not even through hour-plus-long bus trips to see him in prison, not through the four months he did in solitary, not through six parole hearings.
Today, at 46, Bartley is married to Ronnine and they have two young sons — both born before he won his freedom a little more than a year ago. And together, they are working to make a difference in the lives of inmates, especially at Sing Sing, the maximum security prison outside New York City where Bartley served most of his sentence.
All of Bartley's remorse, though, won't make a difference in the lives of George and Brenda Hall, whose son Tremain was the one killed.
"Do I forgive? No. Do I forget? No," George Hall said. "This young man can do all he wants, it doesn't change what happened."
On Christmas Day of 1990, Bartley and his buddies went to see one of the holiday season's hottest movies — "The Godfather Part III." The theater, Sunrise Cinema in Valley Stream, was packed.
Across the aisle was another group of guys who had guns, too. Bartley remembers they wouldn't shut up during the movie. The two groups had words. Well into the film, the shooting started.
Everyone else made a run for the exits. Moviegoers — innocent bystanders — found themselves in the crossfire.
One, 15-year-old Tremain Hall of Queens, died from a bullet to the head. Another bullet struck an Island Park couple, Marco Candelaria and his wife, Patrice — passing through Marco's arm, then lodging in Patrice's neck. Both were 23. A high school basketball star from Queens, 17-year-old Turane Haines, lost an eye.
When all was said and done, Nassau police officers recovered more than two dozen bullets but couldn't determine exactly who fired the shots.
Bartley maintains he pulled the trigger once. He started carrying a gun after being hit four times in a drive-by shooting in his neighborhood.
“I never saw myself as a violent person,’’ he said. “The gun made me feel safe.’’
Bartley and three others in his group faced a laundry list of charges, including second-degree murder, assault and criminal possession of a weapon. They all ended up in prison; Bartley ended up with the longest sentence — 27 years to life.
The Bartleys became boyfriend and girlfriend more than four decades ago, when they were in middle school in Queens.
They drifted apart in high school after Bartley's parents split up and he moved with his father to a neighborhood infested with crack and shootings. He started hanging out with a bad crowd, tough guys who took drugs and settled their differences with guns.
They reconnected shortly after his arrest. Ronnine went to see Bartley at the Nassau County Correctional Center.
“He was going to prison and he ends up consoling me," she said. "I made a great connection with someone who made a mistake.’’
But her life was marching on; his was at a standstill.
Ronnine graduated high school and enrolled in York College in Queens. She landed a teaching job at a public school — and met someone else. Their relationship lasted years but eventually faded.
After the breakup, Ronnine wrote Bartley a letter, asking if she could come to Sing Sing.
Their first meeting after more than a decade apart lasted five hours.
Ronnine put all of herself out there. She talked about rekindling their love affair. Bartley held back. She didn't want to give up on what they had, or what they could be together.
“I always knew there was a good man inside,’’ said Ronnine, 45, who teaches science and restorative justice to middle schoolers in the South Bronx.
She wrote him between visits, sometimes four or five letters a day. She reignited something in him. He wanted to think about a tomorrow. The possibility of a life on the outside became something real. He started taking college classes at the prison and tried being a better prisoner.
Ten years in, Bartley had to do four months in solitary for hiding contraband — two $20s. He was going to spend the cash on sneakers for a friend’s daughter if she aced a math test.
Those four months were the first time that Bartley was truly alone: “I had to think deeply and reflect on my crime.’’
And during those long days, he thought about Tremain and his parents, the Halls. He thought about the Candelarias and Haines. And he decided he needed to apologize to them, in writing. The letters went unanswered.
For the Halls, nothing Bartley says or does can change what happened that Christmas nearly three decades ago. The couple, both 72 and retired, now live in Chesapeake, Virginia.
"It is not going to bring back our son," Brenda Hall said. "He took something away very precious to us."
On Dec. 6, the Halls will quietly celebrate what would have been Tremain's 44th birthday.
"He was a good child — he wasn't streetwise," Brenda Hall said. "He was kind."
In their house is what the Halls call Tremain's room, filled with mementos of his short life.
"It's not easy because of the memories. There's always something to remind you," George Hall said. "Sometimes we feel he's here, walking around."
Two of the injured, Haines and Marco Candelaria, have vastly different reactions to the shootout now.
Haines doesn't like to talk about it. He's 46, the same age as Bartley, and still lives in Queens.
“It’s too sensitive and it's resurfacing right now,’’ he said
Candelaria is open about how that night nearly 30 years ago changed his life. He lost most of the use of his arm and saw his marriage crumble.
Now, at 53, he lives in Poughkeepsie and does what carpentry work he can handle with his chronic pain. His ex-wife couldn't be reached for comment.
"I don’t think even think about that day anymore," he said.
As far as Candelaria is concerned, Bartley should be able to move ahead with his life.
"That’s a good thing," Candelaria said. "Do I have hatred over what’s happened? Yeah. But that he came out and he hasn’t been in trouble ever since …that's a good thing."
Life on the outside
Solitary was what started Bartley to really think about his life, but Ronnine was his driving force toward redemption.
He earned a bachelor's degree in behavioral science from Mercy College. Then, he earned a master's degree in professionals studies from New York Theological Seminary — offered only at Sing Sing. The courses focused on accountability and service to the community.
Any hope for redemption needs a human connection, said Julie Faith Parker, Bartley's graduate school professor.
"Our minds and hearts need to change,’’ she said. “We need someone to believe in us. Like Ronnine does for Lawrence.’’
Almost 13 years ago, Bartley and Ronnine got married — in Sing Sing. Their sons, 11 and 6, were born out of conjugal visits in a modular home on the prison grounds, where inmates can spend two days at a time with their wives.
“In a weird way," she said, "Sing Sing became home.’’
These days, Ronnine sits on the prison museum's executive board. She is determined to get the message out that prisons aren't filled with bad people — they're filled with people who made bad choices.
"There are real people behind those prison walls who are doing well and families who support them,'' she said.
Bartley is an adviser to the Parole Preparation Project, which advocates for inmates serving life sentences who are eligible for parole, and he sits on the board of Prisoners' Legal Services, another nonprofit that represents indigent inmates in all kinds of cases — from disciplinary actions to clemency.
And he writes for a magazine for prison inmates launched by the Marshall Project, a nonprofit journalism outlet that covers the criminal justice system. He tells his story to help raise money to take the publication, News Inside, nationwide.
He landed the job after writing an essay last year for a Marshall Project series called Life Inside. He talked about his upcoming parole and what he learned about himself in prison — how the way he lives with himself is to work toward forgiveness without any expectation of getting it.
"With my new lease on life," he wrote, "I still remember the one I took."
— With Caroline Curtin