Prisoner of Love

In the end, it all came down to the girl.

A 13-year-old girl with long, curly hair who captivated and charmed the heart of an older boy who should have known better.

But love has a way of making danger appear distant, of bridging the gap between age and family, of blinding hearts and binding souls.

Everyone warned the young man, then a 17-year-old high school student from rural Rainbow Valley. His family and friends tried to tell him: She's too young, too controlling. She's the sister of your best friend. Nothing good can come of it, no matter how much you love her.

Such is the story of Tremell Collins and Kristen de Sousa, two Buckeye teenagers whose union set in motion a series of events no one could have predicted.

What began as young love became a feud between two families. It culminated with an accusation, a conviction and a man being sentenced to 101/2 years in prison for a crime he says he didn't commit.

All because of a girl, the boy she dated and the color of his skin.

Race was never an issue for Collins' family and friends. They didn't care that he was black and she was white.

But de Sousa's family did, and told the girl so. When she kept seeing her black boyfriend, the threats turned toward him.

Kristen's older brother, Joseph, severed his friendship with Tremell, but refused to let the issue rest. He and his friends made threats. Tremell's friends and family retaliated. Both sides alleged near-fistfights, break-ins and car chases.

Back and forth it went for nearly two years, until one of Tremell's cousins had had enough. He says he decided to end the feud by scaring Joseph de Sousa so badly that he would leave the couple alone.

On January 27, 1997, the cousin, aided by another relative and a friend, conducted a poorly planned burglary at de Sousa's house. They broke in, tied him up and robbed him at gunpoint.

And they gave de Sousa the perfect opportunity: A chance to get rid of Tremell Collins by implicating him as leading the violent siege upon his home.

Four years later, Collins is turning 24. There is little celebration because this birthday is his second spent in prison. He likely will sit behind bars until he turns 31 if he is unable to convince a court to grant him one more trial.

Collins could have avoided all this.

He could have walked away from the girl once her family got involved. He could have skipped prison by pleading guilty to a lesser crime in return for probation.

But faith, like love, is blinding.

And Collins has never wavered in his faith. He maintains his innocence to this day.

His only hope is that someday, someone will hear his entire story. That he will have the chance to show why he believes he was falsely accused by a man whose family could not tolerate the color of his skin.

That a jury will finally hear the evidence he hopes will prove he was never even at the house the day Joseph de Sousa was robbed.

Given the evidence brought against Collins by the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, it's hard to accept his word.

Even though it took three trials to secure a conviction, the prosecution's case remained strong at the same time the defense faltered.

There were fingerprints, an eyewitness account from Joseph de Sousa and the lack of a foolproof alibi for Collins' whereabouts during the time of the crime.

Detectives and forensic experts believed there was little doubt that Collins had been involved. Alibi witnesses for Collins wilted under cross-examination. Collins himself was a terrible witness, stumbling over the events and impeaching his prior testimony. He contradicted his mother's story, making both of them look confused.

After two days of deliberations, the third jury returned a guilty verdict on all charges -- armed robbery, kidnapping, aggravated assault and first-degree burglary -- and he was sent to state prison in Yuma.

In most cases, that would be the end of the story.

But Collins has continued to fight. He has written letters to the Superior Court judge who sentenced him, to Senator John McCain, to anyone who might listen.

In June, the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency rejected his bid to be freed. His first appeal for a new trial was denied in February. A petition for a review of that decision, submitted in May to the state Supreme Court, is pending.

All Collins and his mother have asked is that someone take a closer look at the facts.

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John W. Allman