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Podcast 'Suave' Explores 1 Man's Life After His Release From Prison

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Imagine following a story for almost 30 years - the ups, the downs and the relationship that evolves between reporter and source. Journalist Maria Hinojosa met David Luis "Suave" Gonzalez in 1993 while speaking at the Graterford State Correctional Institution in Pennsylvania. Suave, as he likes to be called, was serving a life sentence without parole for a crime he committed when he was 17 years old.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "SUAVE")

DAVID LUIS "SUAVE" GONZALEZ: It hit me almost 10 years later that I have a life sentence, that I'm going to die in prison. That's when it hit me. Because I was illiterate, I really didn't understand the process.

CHANG: Now that he has been released from prison, the two of them are sharing their story in a new Futuro Media podcast called "Suave."

Welcome to both of you.

MARIA HINOJOSA: Thank you so much for having me.

GONZALEZ: Thank you.

CHANG: So Maria, I want to start with you because you met Suave back in the early '90s when the conversation around the criminal justice system was so different from the conversation we are having now about the criminal justice system. In the nearly three decades that you've been watching the system evolve, can you just describe what has happened to get us to this point, with Suave released and no longer serving a life sentence?

HINOJOSA: Yeah. I mean, it's kind of crazy. Look. It's ugly to say it, but Suave and I knew it, basically - Suave was going to come out in a box. He had gotten a life sentence as a juvenile without the possibility of parole. That means he was never going to get out. I mean, it was, like, the farthest thing from my mind. I don't know - because, Suave, we didn't even talk about it 'cause it's like you're in for life. Why are we going to talk about you ever coming out? - 'cause it was like it was not going to happen. And so it was like this long-haul battle. And then the Supreme Court says...

CHANG: It did.

HINOJOSA: ...It's going to happen. And it was just the most unbelievable thing, truly.

CHANG: And Suave, can you take me back to that moment? When you first heard the news that juvenile life sentences were going to be reconsidered, how much of you actually believed that you would be released back then?

GONZALEZ: From 1998, '99, I gave up all hope. And then I started believing that maybe there's a possibility because I started seeing different cases happening across the United States dealing with juveniles. But I still didn't believe it to November 20, 2017, when they opened that gate and said, you are a free man.

CHANG: And when you became a free man - I mean, let's just think about this. You had gone to prison when you were a teenager. You came out when you were in your mid-40s. Can you just talk a little bit about that? What was it like to catch up with the world almost 30 years later?

GONZALEZ: Well, whatever I missed in between, I just missed. I'm never going to catch up. It's impossible. But it was new to me because when I went in, I had a complete family. I had grandmother, grandfathers, aunt. When I came out, I had basically nobody. You know, it was scary because even though I went to college, I got my degrees, I educated myself, transformed myself, I never thought about living as a free man, as an adult. Everything I knew up to that point was as a child in prison.

But I always say that there's - lucky for me, I had someone that was there for me. And that someone was Maria. When I met Maria, I was at a point that I wanted to commit suicide. I was on a suicide mission. You know, I was ready to die. And then this lady come out of nowhere and just tell me, you could be the voice for the voiceless. You could be the source - my source. And I was like, wow, somebody really cared because in street term, a source is a snitch. But in journalism, a source is somebody that could report what - the injustices taking place behind these prison walls that society don't know about. And I was honored to be that source. And I'm still honored to be that source.

CHANG: You know, Suave, it's really moving to listen to you talk about Maria the way you do and the role that she has played in your life. And I want to talk to Maria about that because, Maria, you essentially become a character in this podcast, which is a choice - right? - for a journalist to make. You have this dilemma with Suave - trying to keep some journalistic distance from him in the beginning, but then developing a genuine friendship with him, genuine affection. I mean, I was really struck by something you said in the first episode - that, quote, "We have this tool that we journalists can use, which is our humanity" - that if you give humanity, you're going to get it back. Can you talk about - what does that mean to you?

HINOJOSA: That's the thing. I genuinely care. I think that that makes us better journalists. And I'm at a point in my career when I can say it makes me a better journalist. If I had not decided to stay in touch with Suave, decided not to take his phone calls, decided not to send him a Christmas card and a birthday card, we wouldn't have the kind of journalism that we're able to do now. And for me, one of the messages for my fellow journalists is, always stay in touch with your sources 'cause you never know. And that's good journalism.

CHANG: I want to bounce what you just said off of Suave. Suave, you just heard Maria say, he's not a friend. No, no, no, he's not a friend. He's a source. How does that sit with you? Do you feel that you are simply a source to Maria, or is there something more?

GONZALEZ: I always understood what a source meant. You know, and I say all the time, in 2017 when I stepped out that prison, not my family, not my community, not my friends - it was Maria Hinojosa that was there waiting for me.

CHANG: Yeah. Is there a part of you that believes Maria is on your side?

GONZALEZ: What I do believe is that Maria is a journalist that wasn't trying to sensationalize my story, and she was telling it in an educational way where we could get people to understand that prison is not the rite of passage. And I understood that. And I trusted her, and I still do. If you're asking me today, yes, I consider Maria my friend.

HINOJOSA: Because things change, Ailsa. So this is the particular thing about journalists' source - is that it doesn't look like just one thing.

GONZALEZ: And I always tell people, like, we never know who we're going to touch. And to me, it was just them simple words - you could be the voice for the voiceless - nothing else.

CHANG: It is fascinating to listen to both of you describe all the complex layers that come into a relationship between journalist and source. And Suave, you've been talking to Maria for so many years. There are still several episodes to go in this podcast, so I don't know how the story ends up. But I am curious - at this point in your life, going forward, what is the story you want to tell about yourself?

GONZALEZ: That I am a human being that committed a mistake, paid for it and still trying to work on myself. I'm not perfect. I'm still trying to understand society for what it is. And even though I've been home three years, I'm still lost, you know, because this world moved fast. Everything - phones, computers. I'm still learning. I'm like a baby learning how to be a decent human being.

CHANG: David Luis "Suave" Gonzalez is the focus of the new podcast "Suave." And Maria Hinojosa is founder of the Futuro Media Group.

Thank you so much for joining us, both of you.

HINOJOSA: Thank you so much, Ailsa.

GONZALEZ: Thank you.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

And if you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.