Chyrl Lamar

Chyrl Lamar was given two consecutive life without parole (LWOP) sentences in 1990. In March 2020, Governor Newsom commuted Chyrl’s sentence to 33 years to life. She was found suitable for parole and released from prison soon after. 

Note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

What have you been up to since coming home? Are there specific accomplishments you’d like to highlight?

When I first came home, my main focus was getting off parole. I completed [my five year plan] and was able to come off parole in one year and 25 days. I checked off everything that I said I was going to accomplish. I made sure to follow all the rules. I remember one thing [my parole agent] said, he said, “Continue to program the way you did when you were in prison.” That was uplifting because, not bragging or anything, but I was down for 34 years, and I never received any write-ups. I do have one more accomplishment: I wanted to volunteer for CCWP and now the accomplishment is I work for CCWP. I don’t know which is higher, getting out or getting a job. 

What were your challenges after release? And how did you overcome them?

One was coming out and having to deal with family that I haven’t been around for 34 years. It’s not the same as it was when I went in. I was blessed that even though I left my kids when they were in their teens, they held a healthy respect for me. It wasn’t so bad as I see some people go through. It was different because now they’re grown, they’re married. So that was a challenging moment for me because I had to live with my son who had a wife who just wanted more of his attention. So, I learned how to get over that. The second one was technology. That was one of my check-offs on my five-year plan—to get a laptop and a printer. Because I came out in the middle of COVID, there was not a lot of movement. I’m still working on handling the laptop. I would love to take a class or something on learning the ins and outs of the computer. But right now, I can do what I need to do and if I ever have problems I can always turn to Courtney [from CCWP]. She’s always there for me. So that’s how I overcome a lot of the challenges.

What kind of support did you receive?

I’m going to [mention] another CCWP person who is my friend: Colby Lenz. Colby picked me up from prison, and she made sure that [I had somewhere] to go. I had two transitional homes [in mind], but one place didn’t have wheelchair accessibility. The other place gave the room to somebody else, so I couldn’t go to them. So that’s how I ended up with my son in Vallejo.

My son was very supportive; he had a place for me to live. He was always there for me, and he made sure I got to my doctor’s appointments and everything else. So those were my friends and family who supported me. I’m a go-getter when it comes to taking care of myself. I did get in touch with Social Security because I was 69, and I worked before I came to prison. I was able to get my retirement and a supplement income.

Now I have a position at CCWP, so I’m supporting myself. I just wrote a letter to SSI, and I told them I no longer need their services. It felt like a weight off my shoulders. They want to see everything that I do, but no, I don’t need them micromanaging my income anymore. 

What support didn’t you receive that you wish you had?

What I really wanted was my own place to stay. I wasn’t sure how long I would have to stay with my son before I could move out, but I felt like I had to stay there until I was off parole. But it was hard during the pandemic. I’m waiting on a phone call, for a lady to call and tell me my apartment is ready and I can move in. It would be my first apartment and that would be another accomplishment. To have my own place after 36 years in December. The government, they’re still not helping. … Maybe they’ll pick up later on, but right now, no.

What motivated or inspired you to endure prison, fight for your release, and then succeed afterward?

My motivation came from God. Because I knew what I did was not right. I wasn’t the actual perpetrator, however, I participated. My two victims—I like to call them by their names because I want to give them that honor and respect—Barbara and William, they lost their lives. Their families lost their mothers and grandmothers. And so that was a motivation. It took me a few days being in county jail to come to “this was real.” I started living a clean and sober life. I quit all drugs. People say, “Oh, you can quit drugs while incarcerated.” No, you can continue to do drugs while incarcerated because they bring them in so readily. In the county jails, the girls bring them in; they call them mules. In the prisons, the staff will bring them in. Let’s just keep it real. I saw all of this happening around me, and I chose to no longer live like that. I don’t know if you want to call it my redemption. After that I started reading a lot from my Bible, a lot. I started digging deep inside. Yet I was still at a point of minimizing and denying a lot of things. You hear so many women in there, they talk about you and they down you. I don’t know if they’re on drugs or they’re just miserable. “You’re a murderer, you did this and that.” You have to be strong to endure that. I realized I’m a woman of short stature, I couldn’t let them bully me. Eventually, in prison, I started working more and more on myself. I never gave up hope of getting out of prison. They talk about looking down and seeing a light at the end of the tunnel. There was no light; it was pitch black; I was in a black hole out there in space. And I just knew that I couldn’t give up. I thought a lot about the family, all the pain that I caused them. Not only Barbara and William’s family, but my own family as well. From 1990 to 2017, I was still talking to God, still being in denial, still minimizing.

But after 2017, I don’t know what happened, what turned over in my head, but all of a sudden, I said, let me find out why I did what I did. I started taking classes. I took a class called Incest and Rape, and they taught me that the people who do such things also came up in a bad way. A lot of this probably happened to them, but they ended up just carrying it on. But then they taught you how to forgive them. When I was a child, I was molested by my grandmother’s husband—and by a host of cousins—from 5 until 9 years old, until I started my period. And so I had lost a lot of self-esteem. … To back up the story a little bit, my mother abandoned me at 1 years old and my grandmother started taking care of me. In other words, I got into bad relationships because I was seeking love. I was a child; I was angry about what was happening, but I didn’t have any control over it. I was so miserable, and I turned to drugs and alcohol to numb out those feelings. So that’s how I ended up with my life’s crime. … But I didn’t realize this until I started doing these self-help classes. People would say, oh do the classes, the board is looking at this. I did the classes anyway, but I wasn’t going to board. I’m serving two LWOP sentences, so I’m not going to board. What I did was go there to learn what was wrong with me. … The fight for my release started with my classes. Jerry Brown did not commute with me. You know how when you get ready for commutation, they tell the victim’s family what’s happening? Barbara’s three daughters wrote letters. After I read their letters, I kinda don’t blame them. Because they’re entitled to their feelings, and I took something very precious away from them. But I didn’t give up, though. I turned my life around. One of them had mentioned in their [letter], “She’s going to always be like this; she’s going to never become worth anything.” So my thing was I’m going to prove to you, even if I don’t get out, that I’m worthy. Of helping somebody. That was one of my prayers. “Okay, God, if it’s meant for me to be here until I die, it’s okay. But as long as I can reach out and help somebody else, I’m good with that.” I always say God’s the one who let me out; he just used Newsom as a tool. He seen the change in me, the sincerity of who I really was. I didn’t know who I was. But he saw.

And to this day, I’m still in my Bible every morning, I’m still in it. Letting him know, thank you for all that you have done. … On March 27th, Governor Newsom commuted my sentence. I thank God, he opened the door that no man can close now. I’m out, and here is my success story. There is so much more to it, but we wouldn’t have the time. 

Is there anything you want to share about how you were sentenced to LWOP? What happened in terms of the backstory, and then the court process?

Well, I was sentenced to life without because there were two victims. I wasn’t the person that did the killing. It was my co-defendant. I was sentenced to the same amount of time. As we went through the court proceedings, there were a lot of things that were not brought up in court. My co-defendant had [previously] committed burglary and robbery. When we started going through the trial, they said I was the mastermind of this whole thing. He got up there, like a little country boy, and tried to play dumb. They told him to raise his right hand and he raised his left hand. They figured he was a dumb ol’ country boy and I was a city slicker. They never would bring up that he had already committed these kinds of crimes. And what about me? I never did anything other than write bad checks. But the court decided they didn’t want that to come into evidence, so it didn’t. I was pretty much convicted because I was said to be the mastermind of this [robbery]. When you do life without sentences, you’re also looking at the death penalty. Right before I went to sentence, I got on my knees that day of court, and I said, “Lord, you know I can’t bear the death sentence, so if you’re going to give me one, give me life without.” So that’s exactly what happened. They did take him to the death penalty phase, but they ended up giving him life without, too. I did 4 years in court and the jurors that they picked had to sit there for 4 years and come to court. I don’t know how much they pay them, but I’m sure it wasn’t as much as when they were working. And some of them wanted to move out of state, and they couldn’t move. And I felt like, when it came down to deliberations, what would you do? Would you stay there and fight for me? And you’re trying to move out of state so you can start your life? Or would you just go ahead and say guilty? So I felt that was unfair. As I keep thinking back, I don’t remember seeing anybody Black on the panel. I didn’t see any peers. I think there was a lot wrong with the system. And me being naive, I know that I did smell alcohol on my attorney’s breath one day coming back from lunch, and I didn’t know that I could have reported it. I know it’s come a long way since 1986. But it just seemed like the system got worse in terms of handing out life without sentences at the drop of the hat. Now you don’t need to have two victims. You could have one victim. It depends on the circumstance, but you could get life without. I think there needs to be a big change. 

What would you like to say to others who are coming home? Suggestions on how to succeed?

Well, number one is make sure you get in touch with CCWP or any other coalitions or transitional homes that have a place for you to stay. There is so much [help] out there, especially in the Bay Area. There is a place where you can go, even if your family doesn’t have the space or don’t want to take you in. So, there is no excuse for you to come out of prison and end up going back, saying there was no one or nobody for you.

There are too many places and too many people that can help you. I don’t want to hear that excuse, “Well, I didn’t have this and that.” No, you chose not to do this or that, and that’s why you’re in the predicament you’re in. … So yeah, there is too much help. Look at me, [age] 71 out here working, so don’t give me that excuse that it can’t be done. 

Is there anything else you would like to add? 

Keep your mind open, and you’re always going to learn. I did my NA meetings on Zoom [when I got out]. I did them past my time. I’m not an overachiever, I just wanted to do what’s right. And that’s how you need to think: Do what’s right. You don’t want to end up back there. … I guess one more thing I could add, after all the help that I received, it became a passion for me. I have such a passion now to reach out and reach back in to help all those people I left behind. We probably aren’t going to be able to bring all of them home—but … just do one at a time.