In April 1979, Amy Banks, then 17, had the strange, painful experience of picking up a copy of the Bangor Daily News to see two stories about her family.
One, headlining the sports section, was an article about Banks, a star basketball player for Brewer High School, being named to the Maine Girls’ All-State Basketball Team for that year.
The other, on the front page of the paper, was a news story about how her father, University of Maine history professor Ronald Banks, had been murdered on April 12 in a robbery attempt outside a hotel in New Orleans, where he was attending an academic conference.
As grief washed over her and her family, Banks, now 59, recalls the numbness that set in, even as New Orleans police said they had arrested a suspect, a 17-year-old boy named Isaac Knapper. Knapper was tried as an adult and convicted of murder, and sentenced to life in prison at Louisiana State Penitentiary, Angola, one of the most notorious prisons in the country.
“I couldn’t muster up any anger toward [Isaac]. It felt remote and distant,” Banks said. “It always felt kind of off to me, when I thought about him, even when I thought he’d killed my father.”
Banks’ gut feelings were right. After 12 long years in prison, Knapper was released in 1991 after an array of prosecutorial misconduct was uncovered, including the fact that exculpatory evidence and police reports were improperly withheld by the prosecution during the trial.
With their lives inextricably linked by trauma, more than 40 years later, Banks and Knapper and their families have found within each other a path to healing and redemption. Together, Banks and Knapper have written a book, “Fighting Time,” due for a November release, which details their shared struggles and how they have come to understand and heal from them.
“I hope that people will read this book and they will see how two people, from two different worlds, can come together and have a beautiful relationship, and not have any bad feelings in their hearts,” said Knapper, 59. “I want people to understand the problems of systemic racism in this country. And I want people to understand that a person can be forgiven.”
Two lives, inextricably linked
Knapper, a New Orleans native, was at the time of his arrest a promising young boxer, winning a Golden Gloves championship at just 15. Though his career was stolen from him due to his wrongful conviction, he held the Louisiana Department of Corrections boxing title for 11 of the 12 years he was incarcerated, and after leaving Angola in 1991, he restarted his amateur boxing career, narrowly missing a spot on the U.S. boxing team at the Barcelona Olympics. From 1992 until 1998 he boxed professionally all over the U.S. and the world, and today he is the head trainer at the Crescent City Boxing Gym in New Orleans.
Banks had similarly high aspirations, in both athletics and in education. Her father grew up in a working-class family in Camden, and put himself through college, eventually getting a doctorate in history at the University of Maine. As a professor at UMaine, he was a favorite among his students, and became known statewide as a leading Maine historian, eventually publishing the book “Maine Becomes a State: The Movement to Separate Maine from Massachusetts.”
As a child, Amy Banks excelled at school, though her passion lay with sports — softball, field hockey and eventually basketball. She was planning to play college ball for the University of Virginia, but after her father’s death, she chose to attend the University of New Hampshire instead, to be closer to her family.
“My dad was also a student-athlete. He definitely straddled both worlds, in both academics and sports,” Banks said. “He took me to try out for Bangor Little League, I remember, though they wouldn’t let me play because I’m a girl.”
Knapper and Banks were the same age when Ronald was murdered. Losing her father at such a young age changed the trajectory of Banks’ life, and led her to change her field of study in college. She eventually attended Tufts University in Boston, later getting her medical degree from Georgetown University, and she is now a psychiatrist and trauma specialist based in Lexington, Massachusetts.
Knapper’s life was robbed from him, as prosecutors in Louisiana pinned the murder on him despite a lack of evidence and the fact that he wasn’t even in the vicinity of the hotel when the killing occurred. He spent the rest of his youth in prison, until his mother and his lawyer, Laurie White, now a judge, filed a petition to release a previously withheld police report that exonerated him. To date, no one has been arrested for Ronald Banks’ murder, though New Orleans police did have other suspects at the time of the killing.
Time waits for no one
Knapper was released from prison in 1991. Somehow, nobody involved in Knapper’s release thought to contact the Banks family, who did not find out that he had been freed until 2004. Though he was exonerated from the murder, Knapper went back to prison in 1998 on drug charges, and served 17 years of a 20-year sentence, again at Angola.
Learning that Knapper was exonerated from the murder charges brought back a flood of emotions for Banks, and she and her family tried to do research to figure out what happened. Many of the official documents were sealed, however, so much of their understanding of the situation came from reporting done by the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
“We had to do a lot of soul searching, and studying what documents we could find,” Banks said. “It took us a long time to really understand what had happened.”
As part of the process of understanding the situation, Banks began to learn about the problem of wrongful convictions in the U.S.
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, since 1989, more than 2,700 people in the U.S. have been exonerated after wrongful convictions. Of that number, just over half are Black, and 12 percent are Hispanic. According to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, one out of every three Black boys born today can expect to be sentenced to prison, compared with one of every 17 white boys.
“I think, even in the midst of a renewed national focus on systemic racism, people still have a hard time pulling out the specifics of what it is in our society that allows things like this to happen,” Banks said. “As a white person, I have to own that. I have to understand the roots of this. I have to do the work.”
After publishing her first book, “Four Ways to Click: Rewire Your Brain for Stronger, More Rewarding Relationships,” in 2015, Banks found herself at a crossroads in her life. She knew that even decades later, she still had not fully come to grips with the trauma of losing her father in such a horrific manner.
That summer, after many long, meditative bike rides through the mountains in Pennsylvania, she began to realize what she needed to do.
“It became clear that I had to reach out to Isaac. I was frozen, emotionally. I needed to try to unfreeze. And I knew opening up a dialogue with Isaac would help,” she said.
An emotional story
White, Knapper’s former attorney, arranged for a meeting between Banks and her sister, Nancy, and Knapper, at her judge’s chambers in New Orleans back in 2015. Knapper was open to meeting, though he was a little nervous about how it would go.
When they met, Knapper could feel the emotional release. He asked if he could embrace Nancy, the youngest of the Banks children, who was just 8 when her father was killed.
“I could feel her pain. I thought about her so much, when she was just a little child losing her father,” Knapper said. “When we hugged, I felt chills in my body. We didn’t want to let go. All that pain and frustration just flooded out. I appear to be a hard person, but there were tears streaming down my face. We were all crying. It was very emotional.”
Over the next few days, Knapper showed the Banks sisters around New Orleans. He showed them the Ninth Ward, the neighborhood devastated by Hurricane Katrina. And, he arranged to take them to Angola.
“They met the people I was best friends with. They got to sit and eat with them, and talk to them, and learn from them,” he said. “It was an interesting journey for all of us. When we left the prison and we took them to the airport when it was time to leave, I didn’t want to let them go.”
Amy Banks and Knapper have maintained a close relationship ever since. Not long after their first meeting, they began to discuss the idea of writing a book about their shared experiences — something Knapper had already started while he was in prison. He had been in solitary confinement for nearly two years when White suggested he start writing his life story, as a way to use his time.
“I started writing about when I was 9 years old, when I first started boxing, and worked my way up from there,” Knapper said. “It took me a long time, because they would only give me so many sheets of paper, and they gave me a pencil the size of my little finger, because you’re not allowed to have anything bigger in the hole.”
Eventually, Knapper had 400 pages of a manuscript. Banks then began writing her own tale, and over the course of several years, began to interweave both stories into what became “Fighting Time.”
“We connected over our trauma, but over the course of writing this book and learning about each other, we came to realize our similarities as people,” Banks said. “We are both caretakers. We both want to take responsibility for people, whether it’s our family, or for him, the guys he works with that are getting out of prison and helping to transition into life outside.”
Writing the book, Banks said, was liberating, for both her and for Knapper.
“Our lives are interconnected. And looking at that really deeply was incredibly cathartic,” she said. “It’s something that I hope resonates with people. Because it was incredibly meaningful for us.”