Kahlil had his first encounter with the court system at the young age of 16 – unaware of the dreadful experience he was about to have within the setting. A series of altered stories, misinformation, and lack of evidence affected the trajectory of his life in these pivotal years. Even when pleading innocence, his public defender did not have his best interest at heart. This left him having to pay unnecessary fines and doing three years of probation.
Q & A
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: Good afternoon. Let’s start with the basics – your name, age, and background.
KAHLIL: My name's Kahlil Straxson. I'm 34 years old. I'm from North Philadelphia, born and raised.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: And what do you do for work?
KAHLIL: I'm a union construction worker, but I'm also a co-founder of a nonprofit.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: Tell us a little about the non-profit. What it is, what it does, and your role in the company.
KAHLIL: The name of our company is GoBelieve Culture. We're a nonprofit that empowers through entertainment and apparel. We tour high schools and colleges – teaching kids how to get through college, about financial literacy, entrepreneurship, and just how to shift their minds from being in a reactive state into a proactive state.
I'm on the board. I'm co-founder. I help run it. I help with the marketing. I do speaking engagements there and I do the training on the different entrepreneurship skills.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: How long have you been doing that?
KAHLIL: So our company has been a nonprofit for three, nearly four years. Since the end of 2018. But, we've been doing this type of work since 2009.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: Let’s talk about your first encounter with the court system. How old were you?
KAHLIL: My first encounter with court, I was 16 years old. A kid who got robbed said we took his headphones that were $100, his CD player that was $50, 26 school tokens, and money out of his pocket.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: What was that process like and how did you feel about your experiences dealing with the court system at that time?
KAHLIL: I felt the same [about the court system] at that time as I do now. They ran it horribly. They weren't good at deciphering who really did a crime and who didn't. They treated everyone like they were at the bottom of the totem pole even when you explained things. I had a situation inside my court case at the preliminary where the guy that actually did the crime admitted that he didn't know me or the other person that was caught. They just never took down the note saying that he said that.
At the real court date, the same guy who actually did the crime was on the run from the cops. So only me and the other innocent kid were there to do the court case.
I felt the same [about the court system] at that time as I do now. They ran it horribly. They weren't good at deciphering who really did a crime and who didn't. They treated everyone like they were at the bottom of the totem pole even when you explained things.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: The court system has a legendary history of failures in terms of just, young people. How did you feel about the outcome of that case?
KAHLIL: It was a horrible outcome. It didn't make any sense. I got three years of probation and had to pay fines…even though there was no evidence shown. The [accuser] didn't produce any receipts…he just stated the price. So, the judge just wrote it down and split the price between me and the other kid within our fines.
KAHLIL: I actually almost got sent to the Youth Study Center when it happened because this kid said I did it…even though he changed his story three times in the court case.
I thought I was going to win the case because I was at work an hour away from the place when the incident happened. I had proof of that, but I still lost.
It was like, "Wow." He still won somehow. So it was a horrible court case.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: Wow. Did you have a public defender at the time?
KAHLIL: I had a public defender. He didn't say anything during the court case. He didn’t even put down the right witnesses. The way he handled the case was horrible because he kept telling me they had deals if I just pleaded guilty. Every time we had a conversation, he asked me to plead guilty.
I was like, "I'm not going to plead guilty to something I didn't do."
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: So, it went to trial?
KAHLIL: Yeah. I didn't even know I had the right to ask to be tried before a jury. If I would have been tried before a jury, maybe I wouldn't have lost. But it was just the kid's word against me and the other kid’s word.
The other kid that was with me had an attorney. His attorney was doing pretty good up there. But, my public defender didn't say anything until the end when I told him I had character reference letters.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: Yeah, that's ridiculous. Just dealing with the system, how did that affect your daily routine? What did you have going on that this kind of derailed you from?
KAHLIL: Well, it derailed me from just having faith in the justice system. I grew up in the projects, so cops are always around. There's a lot of craziness going on. But then I had PTSD afterwards. I would shake whenever I heard the cop sirens coming because it was like, "Oh snap, are they coming to get me?"
Then being on probation for three years, it's like, "Wow. They said if I do anything, I'll go to jail."
So it's like, "Wow. Now I have to worry about going to jail even though I didn't do anything. Now I have this on top of me."
It just messed me up. It messed me up a whole lot. It changed my whole world.
You know how parents say “wrong place at the wrong time”? The situation with me, it's just I was the “wrong race at the wrong time”. I was in the right place. I was at work an hour away.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: It's crazy enough that as a person, even with an alibi, it still somehow wasn't able to help. I've heard so many of these types of stories where a judge just takes the case on their own and makes the law what they want to make it.
Throwing the evidence to the side and saying, "Yeah, I'm going to just say I'm going to agree with this person." That's something super ridiculous to have to deal with.
KAHLIL: Yeah. That's just a testament to how ridiculous the system is. I feel like these types of things are probably still happening now. I feel like back then it was a lot easier for these types of things to happen because there weren't any forums for people to speak on it anywhere.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: I appreciate you sharing this story with us.