About an hour into a screening of the Godfather III at New York's Sunrise Cinema on Christmas Day 1990, kids started shooting. As patrons ran for the door of the Queens movie theatre, Lawrence Bartley, 17, decided he had to fight his corner against the rival group. So he blindly fired into the dark, and his life hit pause for 27 years.

At least 25 bullets were found after the shootout. Three people were wounded and Tremain Hall, 15, was shot through the head and killed.

Although the bullet had passed through him and there was no DNA evidence to make a link, the District Attorney decided it was Lawrence's bullet that had killed an innocent bystander, and he was convicted of murder.

Now 45 and taking his first, disorientating steps as an adult in the outside world, Lawrence has had a long time to think about that bullet.

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Lawrence married childhood sweetheart Ronnine while in maximum-security prisons in New York. Photo / Supplied
Lawrence married childhood sweetheart Ronnine while in maximum-security prisons in New York. Photo / Supplied

The teenager had already been shot five times in his life, and from his perspective, "snitching" was not an option. He had to get a gun to protect himself. "I knew it was possible to go in prison for having a gun, doing the things I was doing, but at my age, I never thought it would be me," he told news.com.au. "I never thought I would be in a situation where I could potentially be responsible for taking a life. And when it actually happened, it was like, wow, I wish I wouldn't have done it — but I can't take back that night, and I certainly paid for it.

"I wanted to protect myself and I wanted to look like I wasn't a wuss in front of my friends. I wanted to fire back because if I didn't, my friends would say 'what are you doing? You're supposed to shoot back,' … I didn't want to chicken out.

"Absolutely frightened, scared out of my wits, not thinking clearly, just looking for the positive reinforcement doing whatever I thought would keep me safe. I was just — all those things were just running around my head in a matter of seconds and I just made the decision.

"It was between 25 and 50 shots fired and I was accused of firing only one, and yet still, the conviction of murder was around my neck."

Lawrence now works to highlight inmates' stories, stop the commercialisation of prisons and prevent mass incarceration. Photo / Supplied
Lawrence now works to highlight inmates' stories, stop the commercialisation of prisons and prevent mass incarceration. Photo / Supplied

Lawrence, who now works on decommercialising prisons and sharing inmates' stories, says he always planned to go to college. While locked up in a series of maximum-security prisons, he studied theology and founded Voices From Within to share inmates' stories and tackle mass incarceration. He joined the Correction Accountability Project, which fights the commercialisation of jail by private firms such as prison tech company Securus, which he says targets families and inmates with high charges to make and receive phone calls.

Life in the notorious Clinton and Attica was often dehumanising, too. "Coming off a visit to see family, they'd have me stripped and bent over and spread my cheeks and say, do it again, they didn't see it … and have me herded with 30 different men naked into a shower, just spraying us down for lice and crabs and stuff like that. That was dehumanising.

"I was inside a cell when the inmate next to me was on special watch, where he had to be in the cell naked and he was cutting himself over and over again … I had an officer staring at me, I had no privacy for six or seven days.

"There was a rule change … it was put into effect four months early and I complained about it and as a result an officer attacked me and punched me and I was jumped by about 12 officers and I was written a misbehaviour report for attacking an officer while he was going about his duties, I just attacked him, which was a lie and I was put in solitary confinement. Those are things that I regret that happened, and it was tough."

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Lawrence, right, says he learnt the wrong lessons in his neighbourhood as a teenager. Photo / Supplied
Lawrence, right, says he learnt the wrong lessons in his neighbourhood as a teenager. Photo / Supplied

He still writes to Tremain's family, explaining what happened while taking accountability, apologising for his actions. He heard people often divorce when they lose a child, and if that happened, he is sorry. For the fact they will never have grandchildren, he's sorry.

"I know their son and brother and nephew was a good person, a good young guy and had a promising life ahead of him," he says. "I always think about that family, I always wonder about them and I wish it never would have happened. I can't change the past, the best I can do is always be humble and show my respect to that family."

They have never replied to the letters. "Did I really do it, did I take a life?" he still wonders. "I was racked with that guilt for so many years and then on top of that, what would my life have been if I didn't do it, would I have gotten ten years less?

"Would I have been home much sooner, what would my life have been like? Would my children have been in a better place?"

Lawrence's daughter was born shortly after he was imprisoned. He later married his childhood sweetheart Ronnine and had two boys while inside, but it was hard on his wife and kids, who struggled to make ends meet.

The 45-year-old is trying to make up for lost time with his wife and three children. Photo / Supplied
The 45-year-old is trying to make up for lost time with his wife and three children. Photo / Supplied

"It feels good to be back in (my family's) lives and my children's lives, especially my daughter, she lived her whole life without me, 27 years without me," he says. "It feels good to be back in her life and she could cry on my shoulder and call me when she needs advice about boys and finances and stuff of that nature, it feels pretty good to do that."

In April 2018, he was granted parole from Sing Sing prison, and since then, he's been working for the Marshall Project in communications and is trying to make up for lost time. "I'm essentially starting over like I just got out of high school. I'm just starting my career, I don't have any social security or pension accumulated so I'm doing those things, saving my money, doing my credit in order to purchase a home for my family and maybe save some money so I can invest … I'd like to leave something to my children. But I wish I'd had that time sooner."