*Some names in the story have been changed for the sake of the people involved.
Escaping the death sentence meant signing a plea bargain for a forty-year sentence, so Keech wrote a full confession and went before the court to give a detailed account of all that had occurred. While his accomplices blamed Keech for the crime, they later confessed to committing the crimes themselves.
The small town of Charleston Ark., located in the Northwest corner of the state south of Fort Smith, has a population 2,653. In November 2000, Jonesboro police discovered a crime that contradicted this small town’s safe atmosphere. Inside a car sat a baseball cap spattered with blood. Then, on Jan. 9, 2001, when law enforcement received an anonymous tip regarding the death of a Fort Smith teenager, the police had a lead.
Police discovered that John Kwon, 18 years old at the time, drove to Ricky Gonzales’s house in Charleston, Ark., expecting to trade laptop computers for $1,000 worth of meth between James Fisher, 19, Ricky Gonzales, 18, and Keech, 18. After he entered the house, Gonzales struck Kwon twice in the head with a baseball bat. Fisher choked Kwon with a dog leash—the one he asked Keech to throw to him. Fisher continued striking him on the head until he presumed Kwon dead.
Fisher and Gonzales then stuffed Kwon’s body into a sleeping bag. Keech said he refused to dispose of the body unless they knew for sure Kwon was dead. Fisher ordered Keech to shoot Kwon, but he didn’t have the stomach for it, so Fisher shot him in the head several times with a .22 caliber gun and they dumped him down a well just outside city limits. All three then piled rocks, bricks and other items on top of the body to cover it. When Gonzales took the police to retrieve the body after he turned himself in, it took law enforcement officers and volunteers more than four hours to uncover the body.
Keech, now 36 years old, has served almost 19 years in prison, less than half of his current sentence of 40 years—four hundred and eighty months. Fisher, who received a 25-year sentence, got parole after 17 and a half years for good behavior, while Keech still sits behind bars, knowing that he was the least responsible.
Bruises tell the story
Keech’s mother Melinda Cunningham, his grandmother Betty Ramsey and his girlfriend Kayla Sisk gathered around the kitchen table at Ramsey’s house. Cunningham’s face lit up when she talked about Keech as a child. “When he was a kid, he was the joker. He was always laughing. Of course, he loved to pester other kids,” Cunningham said. Keech’s life took a turn, however, when his mom remarried.
Cunningham’s second husband Ryan Allen was abusive to her and to Jason, and that’s when Keech’s carefree, light-hearted demeanor began to change, Cunningham said. “When me and [Ryan] got married, Jason was about five. He was verbally, mentally abusive to me and Jason. Jason, he would do different things to try to get Ryan to like him. It didn’t matter what Jason [did]. He would have his hair grow out or get his ear pierced. Just different stuff to be more like Ryan. Nothing mattered,” Cunningham said.
One of Keech’s teachers eventually noticed the bruises on his arms. She called the school counselor, Karen Eufurd, to talk to Keech. After confiding in her about the abuse at home, Eufurd notified the police and the Department of Human Services. Keech lived with his grandmother until his mother divorced the man who made Keech want to numb the pain. Keech said to forget his troubles he started smoking weed at age 14 and taking methamphetamine when he was 15. He was addicted and dealing drugs by the age of 16.
Unmarked by prison life
“My two fall partners got the words unforgiven tattooed on their stomachs because they thought God could never forgive them for what they did,” Keech said.
Tattoos, in fact, are common in prison. Many state prisons “feature public, searchable databases of their inmates. The data usually include their names, height, weight, demographics, criminal histories, and sometimes, whether or not they have any distinguished markings, including tattoos,” according to the Economist.
Data collected regarding prisoners and tattoos showed that 75 percent of convicts who are reincarcerated have tattoos, according to the Economist, and “just 30 percent of the former convicts who have managed to stay out of prison were noted as having tattoos.” Inmates with tattoos are 42 percent more likely to be re-incarcerated for committing violent crime. Keech, who said he already feels like a statistic with no first name—just a number in the Arkansas Department of Correction database—refuses to invite further speculation or opportunity for people to stereotype him … he refuses to have any marks from prison on his body.
“I want to walk out of here not marked by this place. Some people glorify this stuff so when they set out, they get more cool points. Some people let this place put a mark on them inside and out. I made a promise to myself to walk out of here unmarked.”
He said that people who work in the prison make notes and take pictures of any tattoos convicts get, and it goes in their file. When the parole board looks at his jacket—a prisoner profile with records documenting behavior, reputation and even any significant markings a prisoner has on their body—Keech doesn’t want to have anything unnecessary against him. When he first got to prison, Keech did consider getting a tattoo, and one of the inmates offered to give him one free of charge. “I started looking into art. Everything I wanted to get tattooed on, I would put on cards,” or canvases instead, Keech said.
“I’m stepping out into a world that will always judge me for my past. All of the things I have accomplished, [but] they will still judge me for what I’ve done, even though I’ve changed,” but Keech said that prison, with all its high highs, low lows and grave disappointments, has prepared him to cope with the negativity he may face. “If a person can’t endure the criticism, they become a victim to the judgment.”
Set the captive free
After he received his 40-year sentence, Keech was waiting in jail, and he said, “They put me in the suicide cell. Six or seven guys have committed suicide in there before.” Keech felt hopeless, so much so that he wrapped a sheet around the shower rod and was contemplating suffocating himself. The only thing in his cell besides the sheet was his Bible. After taking one look at the Holy Book, Keech said, “I told myself, ‘You’re either going to kill yourself or read that Bible. The first story I read was about the lost son that spent all his money and came back home. Then I read about Saul and everything he did. Then he wrote so many books of the Bible. I forgave myself in the jail. The world may carry my past against me, but I don’t carry it against myself.”
Keech continued reading about Paul and said he thought it was inspiring that a man who had wronged so many wrote books of the Bible that are treasured by believers to this day. He said it showed him anyone could accept salvation and use their experiences—good and bad—to inspire others. If he could not experience freedom physically, Keech decided he wanted to experience freedom in spirit. He decided to make a commitment to serve and follow the Jesus he had read about, the same one who saved Paul.
Keech said his faith has given him hope and has driven him to stay busy in prison and push himself. Keech taught himself leathermaking—creating wallets, keychains and purses—and he made money to support himself, help his mom and invest in the stock market while in prison. He also paints, makes cards and writes poetry. Sisk, Keech’s girlfriend, said Keech is one of the most hard-working individuals she has ever met. “You can see people in prison, and they can go and just not do anything … But he has made sure that that’s not who he is. He’s done the classes. He’s worked his butt off. I tell him all the time that he needs to get more rest. He’ll get up at 4 o’clock in the morning and he may not go to bed until 11 o’clock at night.”
In addition to leatherworking, Keech counsels his peers who struggle with substance abuse and counsels teens from drug courts who come to the prison struggling with substance abuse.
Keech has impacted others while in prison, and he has inspired and influenced the lives of many. Cunningham said that Keech’s ever-cheery demeanor inspires her, and he made her want to go back to school and become a social worker so she could help children who have suffered from abuse. “How do you see somebody in prison accomplish so much whenever you’re out here free and not even pushing yourself to be better than what you are? He keeps up with it. He’s constantly asking about my grades … seeing if I am doing my homework,” Cunningham said.
Living the dream
Keech plans on submitting his case for reduced time served to a parole board in the next two months, and he said it will take between eight and nine months for the parole board to sort through his paperwork. This means Keech will most likely be going before the parole board in September of 2019 to state his case. As of right now, Keech must serve at least 70 percent of his sentence—at least 28 years—before he is eligible for parole as part of his sentence. However, he wants to have justice and closure, and he said it is only fair if he receives the same sentence as his fall partners. “It was wrong what I did, but it’s also wrong that I am still in prison. I am a convicted murderer, but I never killed anybody. The man who strangled and shot John is walking free, and I am still in here,” Keech said, “I have a vision and a purpose, and prison is holding me back from that.”
De Anna Schmalz, a County Clerk in Ozark, Ark., has known Jason since he was young. She is one of Keech’s biggest advocates, calling people and asking them to write letters. Schmalz said that she has kept up with Keech “through letters, and he has accomplished so many things, more than I will ever accomplish. That’s what’s so crazy about Jason. He goes from one thing to another and he excels at just about everything. I think he could do some good work being out of prison, I think he would be an asset to the community.”
Keech’s high school principle Jeff Stubblefield also said he didn’t feel like justice was served in Keech’s case, especially considering the fact that he was willing to present evidence to the court. “I don’t support that, I think that’s a misrepresentation of justice. He was not any more participatory than others, I see that our justice system has not been consistent there. I think he should have gotten the same sentence. I would hope that his parole board would reflect on that.”
Not only does Keech push others to pursue their dreams, but he dreams of becoming a certified counselor and helping youth who struggle with substance abuse. He said helping save one person from the fate that has befallen him would make the 19 years he has spent in prison worth it. He also dreams of walking out of prison in a white Adidas windbreaker with black stripes down the side. Cunningham said she can’t believe he would ever want to wear white again and insists, “He ain’t wearing white, he’ll have to pick another color.”
He said the first thing he would do after walking out of the concrete walls that have detained him for so long is, “hold my mom, hold my granny and tell them thanks. Then, I would go get some soft tacos and go home.”
Home is something Keech said he hasn’t had in almost 19 years. “It would be nice to have a place to call home. It’s a natural thing in here to hear doors slamming, keys jingling, people yelling. Not to hear that would be great. Sitting in a normal chair … sleeping in a normal bed and not a mat would be good. To walk in my front yard unhandcuffed and without guards … that would be freedom.”