Estimated read time: 6-7 minutes
UTAH STATE PRISON — When he was in his teens, Collin J. Carter says his gang meant everything.
"I thought that the gang was what my family was," he recently told the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole. "I had that sense of I needed to fit in."
Then on Feb. 22, 1996, Carter and two others shot and killed Joey Miera,19, as he slept on the floor of the house, 918 S. Navajo St. The shooting was ordered by one of the gang leaders who was incarcerated at the Utah State Prison, in retaliation for another incident.
But Miera was not the intended target. Prosecutors say the man that gang members had put a hit on didn't even live at the house that was targeted. It was later determined that man wasn't even involved in the incident the gang was seeking revenge for, according to police.
Carter and four others were convicted for their roles in Miera's death and were sentenced to prison. Carter was convicted of murder, a first-degree felony, and sentenced to up to life in prison.
Once he arrived at the prison, he continued his gang lifestyle, and for the first decade got into a lot of trouble while incarcerated.
Today, Carter, 43, says that has all changed. He says he has put his gang lifestyle behind him and now mentors teenagers to not follow in his footsteps. In a recording of his most recent parole hearing on April 20, the board noted that Carter has maintained a clean disciplinary record for the past three years, has completed numerous college courses, and was even involved in an incident where inmates saved a corrections officer who had a 600-pound cart fall on him in a docking bay.
During his parole hearing, he stated several times that he's not the same "uneducated 17-year-old punk" he was then, and that he hopes to someday be forgiven by Miera's family.
But Dan Diego Ortega, Miera's father, said that time is not now.
"I thought I had forgiven you guys, Mr. Carter. But I haven't. I can't," an emotional Ortega said during the parole hearing. "You and two other gang members walked up to this house, and you put a shotgun through the window and you blew my son's head off. ... You didn't even know who you were after."
Ortega, who appeared to be well-versed on Carter's record and had knowledge of everyone involved in the incident, had strong words for the parole board and noted that according to his calculations, Carter had served his time for other crimes he had been convicted of, but had only served five years for the death of his son despite being in prison for 25 years.
"Five years for a cold-blooded murder is not enough," he said. "You have been given so many chances, Mr. Carter. You've been given so many chances and never once taken responsibility. You mocked me and you laughed at me at the courts. ... Your street name was 'Monster.' Well, you really are a monster. You should not be out. I hope the board listens to me and puts themselves in my shoes.
"You guys wanted to be the most feared gang in Salt Lake. Well, you succeeded. You succeeded by blowing my son's head off. Then you laughed and said, 'We blew his head up like a watermelon.' I thought I had forgiven you, Mr. Carter. Me and your father were friends growing up in Glendale. I can't even say hi to him when I see him. ... I don't blame your father, I blame you. You had a chance to walk away from this," Ortega continued. "I'm 63 years old and I pray to God I'll be around for every one of your parole hearings."
When asked by the board if he had a response to Ortega's comments, Carter agreed he destroyed both the lives of Miera's family and his own.
"Most definitely I'm sorry. There's nothing I can do to ever take away your pain or rectify what we did," he said. "I've done everything I can to be a better person, be a better man, from a 17-year-old kid who was an idiot, was thoughtless, didn't think about his actions and consequences. Didn't really think about anything. I just wanted to belong to the gang. I am just so sorry."
Carter, when asked to recount his crime, said he joined a gang because he wanted to feel loved and had a need to "fit in." He had relatives who were already part of the gang, so it felt natural. But when he got the order to kill another person, he said he got cold feet.
"When it was told to us that this is what was expected, I didn't want to do it. I was scared. I didn't want to do it. It was either that or 'We're going to do something to you.' And I just went along with it. There's no excuse for it, but that's what took place," he said.
When he first arrived in prison he was placed in maximum security, and the people he was with were the same gang members as before, he said. Carter said the pressure to continue with the gang lifestyle or be stabbed was constant.
"It's like constant indoctrination," he said.
Carter admits he "got a little bit institutionalized" as he didn't see any future for himself, except being a gang member in prison for the rest of his life. It wasn't until a corrections officer started helping Carter with educational packets and started showing him that there was a way out, that he began to slowly change.
As he earned more trust with corrections officials, he was moved out of maximum security to other housing units at the prison. The more distance he was able to place between him and his old associates, the more success Carter said he started having. Carter said he learned that "I don't need them to help me be a man or somebody that I want to be."
Carter soon immersed himself into taking as many college courses as he could.
"Every opportunity I've had to better myself I've taken advantage of," he said. "The further removed I am (from the gang lifestyle), the better my chances are for all facets of my life."
While speaking to the board, Carter said he understands that if he is granted parole, he needs to be able to find ways to continue his success.
"People in prison have the tendency to romanticize freedom and they forget about the responsibility, the job, the responsibility to others. It's not somebody is going to be taking care of you all the time. You got to be accountable to yourself," he said.
The full five-member board will now vote on whether to grant parole.