Jesus Mora has spent more than half of his life in prison.
Mora, 37, was 15 years old when he and his friend shot and killed 15-year-old Isaac Rivera, leaving his body in an abandoned coal storage area in south Lansing — the city’s first homicide of 1999. Court records show Mora fired first. Marcos Rayos, who was 19 at the time, fired next.
At least 16 bullets later, Mora sealed Rivera’s fate with a shot to the head. A passerby found his body the next day. U.S. marshals and Lansing police tracked down Mora and Rayos less than two weeks later after they fled to a Native American reservation in South Florida.
Both pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in 2000. Rayos was sentenced to serve at least 25 years in prison, making him eligible for parole in 2024. Records show prosecutors painted Mora as the mastermind of what amounted to “basically the execution of a 15-year-old child.”
After his sentencing, the Lansing State Journal labeled Mora as a “chubby-faced” killer who stood silently in the courtroom while a judge handed down a sentence of 40 to 60 years. Last week marked 21 years served. He will celebrate his 38th birthday next month in a concrete cell, having spent more time shuffling between at least five state prisons than he ever did in Lansing.
Under state law, it’s a punishment that Mora deserves. Rivera’s family hasn’t offered forgiveness. Mora will be in his mid-50s before he first becomes eligible for parole in 2039.
And while he knows he can’t do anything to bring Rivera back to life, this week Mora is pleading for a second chance to reclaim his own — pushing back against a criminal justice system otherwise stacked against him and begging Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to consider a commutation.
“I’m basically trying to shed light on the idea that not everyone that comes to prison stays bad,” Mora said in an interview from Earnest C. Brooks Correctional Facility, a Level II prison in Muskegon. “Their past doesn’t always make them who they are today. There are people who take advantage of opportunities, take classes and join groups to change themselves. It changes the way they feel, act — everything about themselves. Not everyone in prison is a bad person.”
He added: “There’s no amount of time that I can serve to repay that life. I know that 100%. I know that I caused pain among people: Isaac’s family, my family, the community. I just feel that I’ve changed to where I know I’m not going to be a menace to society. I’m no longer that person. I don’t feel that I have to do 40 years to show the community that I’m no longer the impulsive thinker that I was when I was a kid. After 21 years, even though there’s no amount of time I can serve for taking a guy’s life, there comes a point: How much more am I supposed to give?”
Under former Ingham County Prosecutor Stuart Dunnings’ administration, the answer to Mora’s question was outlined in state law and prescribed clearly by an Ingham County judge: up to another 39 years, unless of course a parole board decides otherwise sometime after 2039.
Absent clemency from the Governor’s Office, there’s no other legal mechanism at Mora’s disposal to pursue his release. He already tried and failed to appeal his conviction in 2001.
“I know this will bring up old wounds,” Mora added. “I just want to express my sorrow. I know that doesn’t take anything back or make anything better, but I really do apologize and I now understand the pain I’ve caused. I understand now that it was never my place to judge anyone.”
Mora hasn’t heard back on his application for a commutation. Under Whitmer’s administration, they’ve been rare. The prosecutor-turned-governor has only granted four commutations since she took office in 2019 — and only after the state’s parole board recommended release.
Much more common at the end of a governor’s term, former Gov. Rick Snyder issued a total of 32 commutations. Gov. Jennifer Granholm reportedly commuted 180 sentences. And former governors John Engler and William Milliken granted 34 and 95 commutations, respectively.
It’s likely Mora will wait until the end of Whitmer’s term for a definitive response to his request.
In the meantime, Rivera’s family would prefer Mora stay behind bars. Rivera’s older brother Ixchel Esquivel said he hasn’t forgiven him. Rivera’s mother, Maria Esquivel, was reportedly too distraught to watch Mora get sentenced. She told reporters — exactly 21 years ago last week — that Mora’s 40-year minimum stint would finally afford an opportunity for her family to “heal.”
Ixchel and Maria Esquivel didn’t respond to requests for a phone interview this week. Multiple messages that were left with other members of Rivera’s family in Lansing were not returned.
“At the time, I never thought what I did would have that effect on them, and I didn’t realize how much pain I’d cause Isaac’s family and my own family,” Mora penned in a letter that he also sent to news outlets earlier this year. “At the time, all that was going through my head was revenge and to protect my family. And to be honest about what I did, it did not accomplish any of that.”
Mora said his sister, Senaida Garcia, is his best friend. The two still talk every day. And only this year — after plenty of counseling — did Garcia finally stop faulting herself for what happened.
Mora and 14-year-old Garcia slept in the same bedroom in their childhood home in Lansing. Days before he was murdered, Rivera had stayed the night. He and Mora were friends — at least before Rivera climbed on top of Garcia and sexually assaulted her in the middle of the night, she said. Garcia timidly tried to wake up her brother, but he slept through the incident.
“Me and my brother were like friends. We told each other everything. I had been molested before that. My brother promised that nobody would do something like that again,” Garcia told City Pulse. “We were little kids. I never took it seriously. I didn’t think it would happen like that.”
A “pretty emotional” Mora told Lansing Police Department investigators that he “really didn’t want to shoot” Rivera — only “scare him,” according to transcripts in court records. Police interrogated him for almost an hour before he admitted to “blacking out” and killing Rivera.
With a clear-cut confession on tape, Mora’s attorney advised him to skip a costly and likely fruitless trial and to plead guilty to second-degree murder, which, unlike a first-degree murder charge, precludes the possibility that he could’ve been sentenced to life in prison without parole.
As court proceedings continued, Rivera’s family flatly denied Garcia’s rape allegations. A police report was never filed. Mora and Rayos, instead, decided to take justice into their own hands. Rivera’s murder essentially ended any chances of him being investigated for a sexual assault.
“My brother did wrong, and I know he did wrong. He knows he can’t take it back. And the reason he did wrong, I still feel some kind of fault for that,” Garcia said. “I really don’t want people to have sympathy for me. I want to be the survivor — not the victim. And some days I’m perfectly fine. You would never know. Other days, I cannot even be in a grocery store. I can’t breathe.”
Garcia stands behind her allegations against Rivera, but she said she has forgiven him for the assault. She also vouched for the rehabilitative progress that Mora has displayed in prison. He never had any violent streaks as a child. Before the murder, Mora had a clean criminal record. Still, he’s a “changed man” who is now set on making positive contributions to society, she said.
“Think about what kind of person you were when you were 15 and how you’ve changed today,” Garcia said. “The mind of a young person and the mind of an adult are totally different. As a mother, I think of his family too. I understand they lost a kid. We did too. They lost one to a graveyard and we lost one to prison. He’s still a family member that is no longer here anymore.”
She added: “I think the system is broken to some extent — and not because he is my brother.”
Supreme Court decisions in 2012 and 2016 retroactively declared all life sentences for juvenile offenders unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment, triggering an ongoing nationwide review that has resulted in the release of hundreds of juvenile inmates after 25 years in prison.
Many Michigan prosecutors have been slow to follow the court’s order to review those cases, but the only two juvenile lifers convicted in Ingham County were resentenced in 2017 and 2018 under Prosecuting Attorney Carol Siemon’s self-declared “progressive” administration.
Former juvenile lifer Calvin Wilson, 40, was granted parole this week and is expected to be released from prison in July after having served about 23 years behind bars. He was convicted of murder in 1997 after he shot and killed a store clerk while robbing a party store in Lansing.
The other, Robert Whitfield, was granted parole in 2018 after his sentence was reduced to 25 years. Much like Mora, Whitfield had also been convicted on a murder charge at 15 years old.
Mora’s situation is a bit different. He was tried as an adult. And because the high court’s ruling on resentencing only applies to juvenile lifers, his 40-to-60-year sentence doesn’t afford him any sort of second-chance review anyway. Had a judge sentenced him to life in prison, he could theoretically be up for parole 15 years ahead of schedule — possibly as soon as 2024.
Siemon is an advocate for second-chance reviews on extremely long sentences and routinely offers lenient plea deals to avoid the future possibility of life in prison without parole. But when it comes to Mora’s specific case, her hands are tied by state law and rigid judicial precedents.
“When the Supreme Court ruled that juveniles should not be sentenced to life in prison without parole, they didn’t also rule that extreme sentences short of life in prison without parole are not justified,” Siemon explained via email. “I wish I had the staff to do this work. It’s really, really important work for those of us who care about overall justice and there is never time to really thoughtfully move forward when we are just so busy reacting to what’s right in front of us.”
Added Ingham County’s juvenile justice coordinator, Scott Hughes: “The problem is, once a case has been convicted and sentenced, the local prosecutor and their office do not have a defined statutory role in the process. A prosecutor can send a letter to the governor and/or the parole board, asking that a case be pardoned/commuted but it’s just that — a letter. The prosecutor doesn’t have legal standing to intervene once a case has been sentenced.”
A preliminary review of state records shows only two others under 18 from Ingham County that have been locked up more than 20 years with a sentence short of life. Any hopes of adding in that layer of formal review for those cases hinges on a change in state law.
“A 40-year minimum sentence means the parole board can’t take a look at this case for 40 years. That’s just not good policy,” said John Cooper, executive director of Safe & Just Michigan, an advocacy organization geared toward a range of reforms to curb unnecessary incarceration. “This needs to be about whether a person is a recurring threat to society.”
Prior to a ballot initiative in 1978, Michigan’s prison systems operated under a “good time” system in which inmates would see an automatic reduction in their minimum sentence for every month served without being cited for misconduct. It has since been replaced by “Truth in Sentencing” legislation that requires inmates to serve every day of their minimum sentence.
Lawmakers tried in 2017 to reenact a form of “good time” credits into state law, but a package of legislation was crushed under strong opposition from law enforcement and county prosecutors statewide. Cooper’s organization is still gunning for ways to reduce mass incarceration, but he remains less-than-hopeful that any lingering momentum remains to enact any relevant changes.
He also said housing each prisoner can take a $35,000 annual toll on the state budget — another practical reason to consider leniency for inmates that have been truly rehabilitated.
“I’m not aware of any legislation that would institute a second look for cases like this, but we would support it,” Cooper added. “We, as a society, need to balance the victims’ demands for punishment, versus the cost, versus the likelihood that someone will actually change over time.”
Over the last 20 years, Mora and Garcia have celebrated holidays and grieved their mother’s death. She visits him as much as she can — or as much as the COVID-19 pandemic will allow. Garcia often shows Mora pictures of nieces and nephews who he has never met. Mora learned to knit in prison, so he sends her back with sweaters and belts for his close-but-distant family. Sometimes he draws portraits. Mora, who sometimes draws paintings, has developed his skill as an artist over his time served.
“Nowadays, prison is a lot different. It’s a younger generation coming, and all they want to do is gangbang and cause mayhem. I’m not trying to get into that. I stay in my room most of the time,” Mora said. “It’s my family that motivates me. They keep me going. I just have to be a better person so I can get out of here and be with them again. They’re my only support out there.”
Mora said he wants those who believe in second chances for inmates with lengthy sentences to write letters to the Office of Parole and Commutation Board in Lansing to lobby for his release. And until then, he’ll stay focused on bettering himself and seeking forgiveness for his crimes.
“I know there’s nothing I can do to give back their son and ease that pain. I really want them to know, I’m sorry. I really am. Even if nobody forgives me, I want to express my sorrow,” he said.