Human connection has the power to change lives.
27 years ago, Debbie Baigrie was shot in the face during an attempted robbery. Her assailant was a 13-year-old boy.
Ian Manuel was the youngest of three boys who threatened Baigrie that night, but despite his age, he was the one holding the gun.
Ian Manuel in grade school. All photos provided by Starbucks.
"I heard from behind, 'I’m serious, give it up,'" Baigrie recalls.
As she turned around to look at Manuel, he accidentally fired.
She felt an awful pain shoot through her face and saw one of her teeth land on the ground. The terrified boys took off, and Baigrie managed to run back to the restaurant where she had just eaten dinner to get help.
Later she learned all the teeth on the bottom left side of her mouth had been blown out. If the gun had been pointed slightly higher, she would've suffered a traumatic brain injury. All things considered, she was very lucky.
A few days later, Manuel was arrested for riding in a stolen car, and he immediately admitted he was the one who shot Baigrie.
Baigrie didn't learn her shooter was only 13 until she read about his arrest in the paper.
"I’m like 13?! There’s no way a 13-year-old kid shot me. He’s just a child," Baigrie says.
Even so, Manuel was charged with attempted murder, armed robbery, and attempted armed robbery as an adult. The maximum sentence was life in prison.
His mother and lawyer urged him to plead guilty in order to get his sentence cut, but the judge was determined to make an example of him and gave him life without parole.
Baigrie could not believe it. "The punishment didn’t match the crime."
Two weeks before his 14th birthday, Manuel started serving his sentence. A year into it, around Christmas, he decided to reach out to Baigrie.
The first thing he said to her was, "Miss Baigrie, I called to wish you and your family a Merry Christmas and happy holidays. And to apologize, you know, for shooting you in the face."
Needless to say, it was a difficult conversation. Manuel asked if he could continue it by writing her letters, and she said yes.
One of Manuel's letters to Baigrie.
Over the next 15 years, the two corresponded regularly and struck up an unlikely friendship.
Baigrie was impressed by Manuel's writing abilities, which seemed to her to far exceed the abilities of a 13-year-old of his background. He also sent her his report card from prison school to show her how well he was doing. She encouraged him to keep improving himself, despite his circumstances.
While she doesn't recall saying or writing it, she eventually forgave him and did what she could to remind him there was someone outside who cares.
The exterior of the Equal Justice Initiative.
Aside from Baigrie, Manuel also wrote letters to civil rights groups in hopes that one would take up his case. In 2006, one finally responded.
The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) told him they were interested in challenging the constitutionality of life sentences without parole for children. They had recently won a similar case to save a minor from the death sentence, so they thought they had a good shot.
It took four years for EJI's case to reach the Supreme Court, but sure enough, the judges ruled in their favor.
Seven years later, after the same judge who first sentenced him to life re-sentenced him despite Baigrie's support, Manuel won his freedom.
"I told the judge me and Debbie have been waiting for years for the judicial system to catch up to my remorse and her forgiveness," Manuel recalls.
After 26 years in prison, 18 of which were spent in solitary confinement, he was released, and his first meal as a free man was pizza with Baigrie.
Manuel's first night of freedom with Baigrie.
The EJI then helped Manuel get a Social Security card and an apartment and even offered him a job in their offices. It was a major leg up, but he still had a lot to learn, having never been an adult out in the world.
Thankfully he had people like Baigrie supporting him along the way.
"I see Ian for who he is," Baigrie says. "I’m not saying he wasn’t responsible for his actions, but when you’re 13, you should be given the opportunity to change, to grow."
Remorse and forgiveness saved Manuel on so many levels and brought Baigrie peace.
Few stories more clearly prove that human connection has power — sometimes enough to right the egregious wrongs of the past.
Watch Manuel and Baigrie's whole story here: