The judge slammed the gavel as he read Gene McGuire’s verdict in a crowded Pennsylvania courtroom in 1978. “Second degree murder ... the rest of your natural life.” The other details are a blur according to Gene, who was only 17 at the time but being tried as an adult. How could he have ended up here? He was a football and track star in high school and a good kid with a strong work ethic. During the trial, his defense called upon former coaches, neighbors, and employers, all of whom praised Gene but essentially said, “We never would have imagined he could do this.”
But the truth is, he didn’t.
The previous summer, Gene’s cousin Bobby came to visit from New Jersey. Bobby was a few years older and despite his wild streak, Gene looked up to him and loved him. “He was my favorite cousin,” says Gene. When he came to visit, it offered Gene an escape from his mundane family life. His parents were divorced; his father was an alcoholic who “drank his way right out of our family,” and his mother barely survived on welfare. So when Bobby showed up, the world was Gene’s oyster. One night, the two of them, along with Gene’s stepbrother Sid, went to a bar they knew would serve drinks to teenagers. As they played pool and got drunk, Bobby decided to rob the place. There were no other customers in the bar—just the three of them and the woman who owned the bar—so it seemed like the perfect plan. Gene and Sid stepped outside, but when Gene looked back in, Bobby wasn’t just robbing the place, he was stabbing the woman to death. Gene shouted, “Stop!” but it was too late. Bobby instructed him to search for cash, and after Bobby broke into the safe, the two left with about $1,000 and the woman’s car. Sid, they discovered, had already fled.
After a few days on the run, Gene called the police to turn himself in and Bobby remained in New York City. Bobby spent most of the money on drugs and his escape plan hadn’t panned out. Gene just wanted to go home, but he would not get to see his home again. The police were already waiting for him at the Greyhound station to take him into custody, and police told him Bobby was suspected of various crimes in New Jersey, even murder.
The juvenile detention center was where he first met his lawyer, a young, inexperienced public defender who didn’t seem interested in spending a lot of time on the case. He suggested the best path for Gene was to plead guilty to a murder charge rather than going before a jury. By testifying against Bobby, the lawyer said Gene would be out in 8 to 10 years—maybe fewer. His lawyer was confident in the plan, and Gene, at age 17, decided to take his advice—a decision he would soon regret as he watched his world come to an end in that Pennsylvania courtroom. The rest of my natural life? he thought. He would never graduate from high school, play on the football team, or run track again.
The judge ordered him to be transported to the State Correctional Facility at Camp Hill the next day. Juvenile hall was over—Gene was heading to prison. “Immediately fear and anxiety rushed in,” he says. “I was leaving in the morning for real prison. There was no avoiding it.”
The sound of iron plates slamming together echoed through the prison yard. Lifting weights had been one constant in Gene’s life from an early age, and in prison it’s a great way to blow off steam. During his first 10 years behind bars, he led a double life as a model prisoner with a secret drug habit. “When I told people I was getting high and making my own wine, they said, ‘Really, Gene? You’re clean cut and always working. We would’ve never guessed that about you,’” he says. The two things that brought any semblance of joy to his life were escaping from reality with drugs and women. While there were no women in the prison, he found women who would write to and even visit him. “It validated my manhood to have a girl come visit me,” he says. But to his frustration, all they wanted to do was talk about Jesus. He wasn’t interested in Jesus, but it seemed that no matter where he turned, he couldn’t escape hearing about Him.
The prisoner in the next cell, Warner, used to wake up the men in the cell block by singing loudly, “Great is Thy faithfulness! Great is Thy faithfulness! Morning by morning new mercies I see. All I have needed Thy hand hath provided; Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!” “Knock it off, Warner!” they would shout back. God was starting to do something in Gene’s life, and it was about to culminate at a massive event in the prison’s chapel.
Gene heard about Prison Invasion ‘86 just about everywhere he went in the prison, so he decided to check it out. The loud rock band at the event was unlike the Catholic services he attended as a child. It was overwhelming and he fought against the feeling of love and acceptance offered by the volunteers there. What do they want from me? he thought. But it didn’t stop him from attending the second night. One of the volunteers, a local pastor named Larry, struck up a conversation with him. “Did you make a decision tonight?” he asked at the end of the service. He hadn’t. “I wanted nothing to do with the conversation, but I didn’t want to be dismissive,” he says. As they talked, he found out that Larry had been saved since he was four years old. It touched a nerve with Gene because at age 26 he couldn’t figure out who Jesus was or his own life’s direction.
On the third night of the event, the altar call came and Gene felt a strong urge to stand up and give his life to Jesus. Despite feeling paralyzed in his pew, he found himself standing up and going to the front. That night he gave his life to the Lord, and everything changed. He went back to his cell, got rid of his drugs and pornography, and, in the weeks that followed, even asked forgiveness of the people he had wronged. “I went around from cell to cell for days asking people to forgive me,” he says. He was a new man, and, in the years that followed, Larry would disciple him faithfully. Though he had found freedom in his heart, his journey out of prison would be paved with many victories and many setbacks.
In October of 1989, Camp Hill went up in flames—literally. “It was the second largest prison riot in United States history,” says Gene. Overcrowding and poor treatment of the inmates reached a boiling point, and the riot grew stronger as they moved from unit to unit, leaving a trail of badly beaten corrections officers and prison staff. Eventually, they set fire to several of the units and the state police were brought in.
Camp Hill was vacated, and Gene was transferred to a facility in Arizona. He didn’t know anyone there. His group of believers was displaced to prison units all over the country. Gene knew he was placed there for a reason and began looking for opportunities to minister to people. “I realized I was there to minister,” he says. “I was a missionary to the Federal Correctional Institute of Phoenix.” It wasn’t long before Gene met Frank. The two of them began a Bible study in the yard that grew so large that the prison shut it down. However, Gene continued to find ways to disciple the men.
They looked to Gene as a spiritual leader, and when he was transferred back to Camp Hill a year later, he took his leadership role with him. “We saw healings, men being set free, and men whose hearts went from walking in violence to walking in love,” he says. He saw hundreds of men come to know Jesus while behind bars.
However, as his influence began to grow in the prison, so did his disappointments. He began sending in applications for commutation every few years, and they were repeatedly denied. It didn’t matter who was in his corner. “At one point the senior deputy attorney general of Pennsylvania and her husband offered me a place to live in their home,” Gene says, but he was denied over and over again for about 22 years straight. Each time he returned to his cell to praise and worship God.
On his final attempt—with more than 30 years of prison under his belt—he had a résumé full of letters of recommendation from high-level supporters, and he felt confident in his chances of being released. Still, it took more than two years to hear back from the prison board. One day, he was called to a hearing where he learned his request had been denied yet again. “It’s a political thing, Gene,” they said. “The governor’s not letting anyone out.”
He went back to his cell angry this time. “The Lord told me, ‘I want you to thank Me,’” Gene says. “I got down on my knees in front of my bed and just started crying like a baby. I just knew I was going to die in prison, but I thanked Him anyway. Then I heard Him say, ‘Gene, if you’re going to get out of prison, it’s going to be something I do, not something you do.’”
Two months after having his commutation denied, Gene received a letter from an attorney in Philadelphia saying they were investigating life sentences given to minors. Nearly 500 other inmates received the same letter and began filing petitions. All of them were denied. Gene filed his, and it was the only one granted. Another 20 months went by as his case was investigated, and Gene was taken to a hearing on April 3, 2012. “I was back in a courtroom with shackles and an orange jumpsuit on,” he says. “The district attorney said I had spent 25 more years in jail than I ever should have.” And with that, the judge released Gene on the spot, slammed his gavel down, and quickly left the bench with tears in his eyes.
In a crowded room that was once a funeral parlor in the not-so-friendly side of Fort Worth, Gene speaks to a group of 50 or so residents of the nearby Pine Street Rehabilitation Center. Gene now lives in Fort Worth and attends the Gateway Southlake Campus. Though his time behind bars is over, he is still reaching out to people whose lives are held captive by drugs, hate, and crime and sharing his story of freedom through Christ. If a man with a life sentence has hope, anyone can have hope. That’s the message he conveys when he speaks to groups from churches to prisons all over the country.
One man approached Gene after he spoke and between sobs said something quietly to him. Gene embraced the man and said these words: “I don’t care what you’ve done, God loves you and I love you.” That one moment encapsulated Gene’s entire ministry—spreading the word that no sin is too great to undo God’s love for us.
Speaking regularly now to churches, prisons, business leaders, and anyone else God puts in his path, Gene has reached thousands of people since being released five years ago. Just last month he was invited to go to Pennsylvania for the first time to speak to a group from the largest prison in the state.
Some friends are surprised that Gene would ever step foot in a prison again, but he’s just happy to go where God leads him. “Freedom isn’t just doing what I want, it’s doing what’s right,” says Gene. “Doing what’s right is to be in God’s will. As long as you’re doing His will, you’re free.”
Gene McGuire’s riveting memoir Unshackled is available at genemcguire.org.