Justice put him in prison, now justice is his mission

Michael Lenza is a convicted murderer. He is also a father, husband, instructor, doctoral student and death penalty opponent.
Sunday, August 8, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:23 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 17, 2008

Flowers adorn the wooden kitchen table. Silverware flanks neatly arranged dishes. A baby’s high chair sits next to the window. As the father prepares to bite into the roast and green beans supper he has prepared, he looks mournfully at his wife, who has put them both on a low-carb diet.

This is a moment in Michael Lenza’s life. It’s a different moment from those that made up his past. Lenza spent 15 years in prison on a murder conviction. He claims he was “very young” then. Now, he is known locally for his research on the death penalty and for his community involvement. He has an insider view of the criminal justice system and uses it to advance his research.

“My experience allows me to bring a different perspective that most academics wouldn’t have,” Lenza said.

While in prison, he said, he was “faced with the reality of seeing those executed for lesser offenses.” His research on the outside supports the conclusion that a disproportionate number of minorities are sentenced to death.

“The only difference — I had a good lawyer,” he says.

Lenza is a staunch advocate for the abolition of the death penalty. His wife of 12 years, Sherry Lenza, is no less steadfast in her views. “Executions don’t deter; they just brutalize the population,” she says.

Since his release from prison, Lenza has completed college, married, begun pursuing doctoral degrees and become a father. As Lenza takes his son, Michael Jesse, from his wife’s arms so she can answer the telephone, he says that “peace is its own truth” and today is a different day.

While he knows his past will always be part of his life, Mike Lenza concentrates on where he is now. “It’s not like you totally leave that behind,” he says. “It’s been almost 30 years. A lot changes in 30 years.”

Much has changed for Lenza. He says he is trying to debunk the myth that all former violent offenders pose a threat to society. In addition to being a husband and father and pursuing two doctoral degrees, he also teaches a sociology course at MU.

With little Mikey on his lap, he sits in his cramped office in Middlebush Hall that he shares with another graduate student. He simultaneously adjusts the baby, pushes a toy closer to him and discusses the research he’s conducting. A playpen sits behind him, ready with blankets, pillows and a stuffed animal. As class time draws closer, he takes little Michael down the hall to the office of another grad student, who will babysit while Lenza teaches.

This is another moment in Michael Lenza’s life. A look at his student evaluations reveals what kind of teacher he is. He’s consistently called “great,” “excellent” and even “the example other teachers should model their methods by.” Since the fall of 2000 he has taught a social deviance class and received high marks from his students.

At home, he sits at a computer and toggles back and forth to different screens, from the Internet to his research to the written product. Little Mikey is next door with a neighbor while Lenza works on his dissertations, one in sociology and the other in rural sociology. He occasionally pauses for a cigarette, the tapping of computer keys quieted for a moment. This is another moment in Michael Lenza’s life.

He says his research proves race is a factor in who receives the death penalty. He correlates today’s criminal justice system with lynching.

“If you’re poor and black, you don’t count. That’s what our system is telling us,” he says. Institutionalized racism, Lenza adds, has roots in slavery.

“Missouri opposed every progressive civil rights move,” he says while flipping through his research, which highlights slave regions in Missouri where lynchings were prevalent. While neighboring states Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa had a total of 71 lynchings between the years of 1889 and 1918, Missouri by itself had 81, his research shows.

Lenza maintains that the death penalty “was historically presented as a cure for lynching,” and power was simply transferred from the mob to the state. While his research shows the disparity between blacks and whites receiving the death penalty, it also examines socio-economic conditions.

“In Missouri, juries do not sentence the worst murderers to death; they sentence defendants to death based upon their social class and social status,” Lenza said. Lenza says juries treat defendants from high-class backgrounds in a lenient fashion while those from a lower station are treated more harshly.

“Jury decisions reflect social hierarchy,” he adds. Lenza found that people with public defenders and who had prior convictions of any sort were 192 percent more likely to receive the death penalty. “Facts of the case fade off to the side,” he says.

There is another moment in Lenza’s life — perhaps the one that brought him to this point today, where he is a husband, father, instructor and doctoral student.

From 1977 to 1990, Lenza served time in Missouri’s State Penitentiary in Jefferson City, also called “The Walls.” He was convicted of murder in 1975 after confessing to killing his first wife and mother-in-law, putting his mother-in-law’s body in a barrel and throwing the barrel into the Mississippi River.

Lenza says he had a happy childhood while growing up in St. Louis County. In fact, he credits his family for their unconditional love and for never giving up on him. He says he never could have made it through his incarceration without their support.

Although he refuses to speak of the murders (partly because he feels that while he can defend his actions, his victims cannot), Lenza says that when people are in their late teens and early 20s they don’t understand consequences and outcomes the way they do in later years.

“Things seem impossible, overwhelming. You don’t have a long-term view,” he says. He adds that his incarceration showed him the downside of violence.

“My years at Missouri Eastern Penitentiary, The Walls, which is one of the most violent societies in America, certainly showed me the futility in violence in solving issues. You have to find other ways,” he says.

Lenza was a model inmate. He was the chief clerk for the food training certificate program and served as the food service manager for a few months at Pacific Missouri Eastern Correctional Center. He wrote and helped implement the standard operating procedures for bookkeeping and auditing for The Walls and was part of a group of prisoners who helped collect about $50,000 for Kimberly Martin, a girl diagnosed with leukemia.

“It was in the local paper,” he said. “A couple of us got together and said we’d donate $7 a month.” Lenza added that the inmates sent the girl various gifts including Cabbage Patch dolls and got Bally Midway, an arcade company, to donate a Pac-Man game to the prison’s visiting room. All proceeds went to the Martin family. They also held annual events for Martin while she was undergoing her treatment.

Since his release and enrollment at MU, Lenza has organized events and helped those from the university and local community. In 2002, he was inducted into the Rollins Society after Daryl Hobbs from MU’s Office of Social and Economic Analysis nominated him for the achievement.

“He’s more than a graduate student; he gives time and effort, not just for his career but improving the well-being of limited resource kids,” Hobbs says.

Hobbs is a former professor of Lenza’s and says that though they’ve talked about the past, “the only Mike I know is the one here.”

Lenza serves many roles but stays grounded in being a father and the man Sherry Lenza fell in love with on the river by her parents’ house.

He says he’s moved beyond his past mistakes and is going to live his life regardless of what others think.

“I’m going to do good things,” he says. “That’s all I care about.”

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