Should we be punished in perpetuity for the sins of our youth?
That’s the question at the heart of Suave, a seven-part series that follows the progression of an unlikely friendship between NPR journalist Maria Hinojosa and David Luis “Suave” Gonzalez, as a rule-change frees the latter from the life without parole prison sentence he received at just 17.
In 2017, after more than 30 years inside, Suave unexpectedly finds himself a free man — and Maria records the whole thing. In fact, she’s been conducting and recording calls with Suave for much of his incarceration. Ever since a chance meeting with him in 1993, just a few years after he was convicted for murder in the first degree and became a “juvenile lifer.”
With host and producer Maggie Freleng as a kind of David Attenborough-esque guide, Suave and Maria’s journey becomes a lens through which listeners can examine a judicial system — and a society — capable of condemning a child for the rest of their natural life.
The narrative arc is strong and richly composed. At first Suave’s sheer delight in life’s simple pleasures is energizing to listen to. “I have options now,” he chirps, “if I wanna eat some fried eggs, I have fried eggs. If I want to eat some scrambled eggs…[I have] scrambled eggs. It feels wonderful. This is what life is all about and I won’t trade.” (And after months of lockdown, perhaps we can even empathize with his reveling in small freedoms…)
But soon it’s clear that for every fresh delight, there is a new challenge for Suave out in the real world.
Initially, these seem trivial, even funny: he doesn’t know how to hold a knife and fork. He’s spent 30 years showering in his underwear. He hasn’t learned how to deal with the advances of women. But then these reintegration problems evolve in a more serious direction. Suave rushes into a relationship that backfires so badly he temporarily lands up back in jail. He is consistently rejected by potential employers. He lives day-in-and-day-out with the burden of parole hanging over him.
It becomes obvious that he isn’t really a free man. Just a convict on the outside.
This raises some intriguing moral questions. Like, if youth is a mitigating factor — as we might assume from US Supreme Court decision to reevaluate sentences like Suave’s because: “it is unconstitutional to sentence a juvenile offender to mandatory life-without-parole” — then should young offenders remain under constant suspicion for their whole lives? Shouldn’t characters like Suave, who have provably turned their lives around, be allowed to exist discreetly and productively among regular society without discrimination? Can America really justify continuing to sentence children, often woefully underprivileged children, to pointless lives of incarceration for committing crimes they don’t understand in (usually) brutal contexts?
There is a lot to mull, and intensely likable Suave’s story sets all of these issues, and more, into high relief.
But for all of Freleng’s careful framing and low-key narration, there is something about Maria Hinojosa’s presence that can feel performative. Overbearing even. Like at any moment she might reach up and wipe food from the corner of Suave’s mouth. She oscillates from mothering to smothering, and develops a kind of blind faith in her beloved charge that can undermine some of the later discussion.
By Episode Five, we’re learning that Suave may not have been responsible for his crime. He tells Hinojosa & co. that he’s taken the rap for someone else — 30 years of rap — and it feels like a sudden and disorientating step-change. We’ve taken a wrong turn at a late stage and now we’re listening one of those true crime podcasts that exist to prove the innocence of convicted felon.
At this point, Suave is no longer about juveniles, or reintegration, or stigma, or the incubating factors for young offenders. It’s about a false conviction, and Hinojosa seemingly suspends journalistic scrutiny and healthy cynicism to buy directly into this new plot twist.
Of course, Suave may well be innocent. But it could equally be a case of his reimagining historical facts to fit with the actions of the person he feels himself to be. The person he has become. Either way, on scant research our podcasters seem easily persuaded of something the court system wasn’t.
The late emergence of this additional conundrum doesn’t ruin what is a mostly stunning piece. Suave is raw and true. It’s about human fallibility and how we process it as a society, and as individuals. About navigating forgiveness and guilt. It is about understanding predicament and fighting our human impulse to essentialize criminality, recognizing that a human being is so much more than a poor choice they once made.