He knew what he had to say, but the words were stuck in his gut. And they weren't coming up. Damned if I do, he thought, damned if I don't. Either way, I look like a liar. So he sat there, silent, in his crisp white shirt, gold tie, and neatly pressed charcoal suit. His bald head glistened. His salt and pepper beard and wire-rimmed glasses made him look professorial, but the shackles around his ankles, just above the black, tasseled shoes, told another story. The seconds passed, and the dull hum of the fluorescent lights filled the room. No one said a word. No one shifted, twitched, or glanced at a watch. It wasn't that he didn't know the answer. This was his life they were asking about. Of course he knew. It was burned into his memory like his birth date, his granddaughter's name, and the terrified face of that young woman he had shot and killed while robbing a liquor store in Dorchester.

For three hours, 23 people had been sitting in this small, windowless rectangle of a room on the third floor of a building in South Boston, and now one question had everyone leaning forward. Aside from the American flag, the video camera perched on a tripod, and the expressionless faces of four men and two women, there wasn't much to look at. Fifty-three-year-old Lewis Dickerson sat perfectly still, wrestling with the most important decision of his life. He could stick by his story, and hope that no one caught him in the lie, or finally face the truth and come clean in front of his loved ones. “I was crying inside,” his sister, Rose, recalls of watching her brother struggle. “I wanted him to tell the truth.” The silence lasted all of 15 seconds, but when a man's life is riding on the next sentence he utters, time ticks by slowly.

The story of how Lewis Dickerson found himself on the morning of June 29 sitting before six people who will determine his future is a sad one. Watch him speak. See the emotion spill out. Listen to others sing his praises, call him “extraordinary,” “a gentle soul,” “a good person.” Only then will his 26 years in prison for first-degree murder seem puzzling. But for him to become the man he is today, Dickerson first had to be the man that he was. And that man was a coward who lived the life others wanted him to lead, not the life he wanted. That man took hold of a gun in the back seat of a car because someone handed it to him. That man pointed it at the chest of a harmless store clerk, pulled the trigger, and ran.

“I was weak back then,” Dickerson says now. “I took the gun and went into the store. I was scared. I knew it was wrong, but I went anyway. I'm sorry.”

He's said those words before — “I'm sorry” — but it's taken him so long to mean it, to believe it. Now he's hoping the Governor's Advisory Board of Pardons will believe him, too, and make him that rarest of inmates to have a life sentence commuted so he can start anew.

On February 7, 1975, Dickerson was lost. He was 27 and living in Mattapan, earning $125 a week working for Lee's Auto Body in Dorchester, but he had no focus, no purpose, no direction. The third eldest of seven children raised in a small West Virginia coal-mining town, he says his father beat him with belts, cords, and fists before dying in a fight. His mother moved her children to Newark, New Jersey, a city that in the 1960s resembled a black and white cookie: blacks on one side, whites on the other. Race riots in 1967 left 26 dead, 1,500 injured, and the city in ruins. It was here that Dickerson's life began to crumble. He was arrested for breaking and entering, and he experimented with heroin. He wasn't out looking to rob and steal, or score some drugs, but if the drugs were there, he did them. If a friend asked for his help breaking into a building, he tagged along. He wasn't the troublemaker, he was simply ripe for trouble to find him. And it did.

Dickerson graduated from high school at the height of the Vietnam War. In 1968, the draft board called, and he was shipped overseas. He was honorably discharged in 1970. A short marriage produced a baby girl but little happiness, and in 1974, separated and frustrated about seeing his daughter so infrequently, he followed another woman north to Boston. It was here, a few months later, while living in a rooming house and working at an auto repair shop, that he landed one night in the back seat of a car with a woman, two men, and a .38 automatic.

It's 9:10 a.m. as Dickerson shuffles into the room behind two guards from the Massachusetts Department of Corrections. His lawyer, Bruce Taub, sits to Dickerson's right. Behind them are a few reporters and interested lawyers, along with Dickerson's friends and relatives. “The board needs to look at what you were as a person compared to what you've become,” Michael Pomarole, the chairman of the advisory board, says to open the hearing.

Each member of the panel has a thick file filled with every detail of Dickerson's life: from his childhood, to his crimes, to the ways he's improved himself in prison by taking college courses, tutoring other inmates, working with schizophrenic patients, joining the Nation of Islam, learning to bake, and restoring antique furniture. Each has letters from people who have come to know him over the years and say he's earned his freedom. Some are even penned by prison guards who befriended Dickerson. And there is the story about the day, when he was on work release at Metropolitan State Hospital in Waltham, that one of his patients hanged himself. Dickerson was distraught, and one of the unit directors was struck by how much he cared. “He was very gentle and kind,” that woman, Kris Dodson, says from her home in Winchester. Within weeks of meeting Dickerson, Dodson had quit her job, begun dating him, and fallen in love, eventually sponsoring his weekend furloughs. “He's dedicated his life to being helpful,” Dodson says.

That's what helped Dickerson get his first commutation hearing 11 years ago. But predictably for a first-degree murder convict, not even the backing of some Concord homeowners whose furniture he had restored or a clinical specialist who oversaw his work with the mentally ill could convince the board to release him. “There was a gentleness about him,” says Margaret Edmands, a Concord resident and professor of nursing at University of Massachusetts/Lowell who met Dickerson when he refinished her antique wood chair. He cooked a meal for her and her husband at the prison in the early 1980s, and she later invited him over for dinner on one of his furloughs. “He brought flowers,” she remembers. Even though he was denied release in 1990, it was by a narrow 4-3 decision, giving everyone hope he would get another hearing. Back at the Bay State Correctional Center in Norfolk, he picked up where he left off and patiently waited for this next shot.

Taub is first to speak as the hearing begins. His long legs crossed in his chair, he speaks slowly, emphasizing every sentence. He, too, was working at Metropolitan State Hospital when he met Dickerson. “In rare instances,” Taub begins, “a person convicted of first-degree murder felony without the possibility of parole gets this chance. The board has the capacity, and indeed the duty, to make a recommendation to the governor as to whether there are exceptional circumstances that would warrant the commutation of a sentence.” That recommendation, he says, should be to reduce Dickerson's sentence to second-degree murder, making him eligible for release with lifetime supervised probation. In the next few hours, he tells them, they will discover that although Dickerson “is a person who is guilty of first-degree murder, he is a gentle soul, a responsible and respectful human being, who has been transformed by this experience, and presents absolutely no danger to the community.”

And then he turns to his client.

A “gentle soul”? It's difficult to hear someone who blasted a hole in another person's chest for $752.10 be called a “gentle soul.” Eva Dodds was 32 when she died of that gunshot wound. Little is known about her. She was from North Carolina. She had a son and was separated from her husband. She was the common-law wife of the store owner, Cyril Miller. And she was working behind his register at Cy's Variety and Package Store on Erie Street in Dorchester just after 10 p.m. when two men walked in.

One with a beard and mustache asked for a pint of Wild Irish Rose wine to distract her, before pulling out a gun and pointing it at her chest. The other shouted, “All right, give it up. Give up the money,” then jumped over the counter to grab the cash, emptying the register of all but a few quarters. Back in the store's cooler, Miller heard the commotion and peered through a peephole. He had two guns to his right — a six-shot rifle and a 12-gauge shotgun — and he reached for the shotgun while watching the men. But before he could point the tip through the hole a single shot ripped through the store and Dodds slumped over the counter. Miller quickly aimed and fired, striking the shooter in the back and tearing some scraps off his jacket.

Dickerson ran out and Miller rushed to the front to find the woman he loved dying on his floor. Miller lives in Florida now, his memory and speech ravaged by two strokes. Eva Dodds is dead. The only person today still whole from the shots fired that night is Dickerson.

“I am so, so sorry for all the pain and suffering I caused Mrs. Dodds and her family,” he tells the board. He walks them through his life, from the beatings by his father to his failed marriage to his arrival in Boston. He's not eloquent. He stutters, at a loss for words. He tells them about his timely returns from dozens of unsupervised furloughs. He talks about his granddaughter, Canice, who just turned 3, the same age his daughter, Nicole, was when he went to prison. He begins to sob. “On February 7, 1975, I shot and killed Eva Dodds. She was shot and killed during an armed robbery. Her death was totally my responsibility. Nothing I do can ever change that. I panicked. I live with the consequences of my actions every day of my life.”

His lips are quivering. “I am immensely ashamed of myself. I'm here today to ask for your forgiveness and mercy. I will never act in any way to draw negative attention to embarrass the board. I am a changed man after 25 years in prison and a trustworthy human being.”

To everyone in the room, Dickerson seems to be saying all the right things. Finally. His defense at trial in 1975 had been that he had no involvement in the killing, that he'd been shot while watching a fight on a street nearby. The jury didn't buy it and sent him away for life. His story changed 15 years later at his first commutation hearing. He admitted shooting Dodds but said the gun went off accidentally after Miller shot him. “A muscle spasm,” he called it. Again, he was not convincing, and his request was denied. Parole boards want to hear admissions, confessions, and apologies, not excuses. At last he's given them what they want. He didn't walk into that store intending to shoot someone. But with his barrel aimed at Dodds, and a creaking sound stretching his nerves, his finger eased back on the trigger in fear.

He looks down at the table as the board members begin to question him. Those who know him say he's shy, and that's becoming apparent.

“Where did your life start to go wrong?” Pomarole asks. The downhill began with his discharge from the military, Dickerson answers, followed by the failed marriage. “I didn't feel good about myself.” Pomarole asks why he committed that breaking and entering in New Jersey, and why he used heroin, hammering away at the friends he made. “I knew they were involved in illegal things,” Dickerson says. “They made me feel okay.”

Maureen Walsh, seated next to Pomarole, continues the theme, addressing the shooting. “Why would you bring a loaded handgun into the shop that day?”

“I was a very weak individual and was easily influenced at the time. I'm not making excuses. I was scared. I knew it was wrong, but I went anyway. I'm sorry.”

Daniel Dewey goes next, but veers off in another direction. A Vietnam veteran, he's curious why Dickerson made no mention in his petition of his military service. At his 1990 hearing, Dickerson included in his request a detailed description of his service, writing, “I came to view Vietnam as one of the most violent places of my life.” He wrote that he was driving a tank when he was struck in the head by shrapnel, suffered a gash from his temple to his mouth, and spent the remainder of his stint in Germany.

“Is all of that true, any of that true, or what?” Dewey asks.

“It's true,” Dickerson answers.

“You had six months in Vietnam?”

“A little less than six months.”

“Why doesn't it show up on your forms?”

“I have no idea, sir.”

Dewey is annoyed. He tells Dickerson, “Part of the basis of your petition is your credibility, and some things from your early days can't be verified.”

The issue fades when board member Doris Dottridge, a Mashpee detective, takes Dickerson back to the shooting. “I had no intention of hurting anyone,” he says. He says he fired the shot only when he started to hear noises — Miller, in the cooler. He says the other people involved that night dropped him off at Boston City Hospital, where he was arrested, and he knew them only as Will, Tony, and Lou. That's why he couldn't help police find them. He didn't know their last names. Dottridge looks skeptical.

The questioning grows more intense with John Kivlan, who returns to Dickerson's service record. Vietnam is a touchy subject with the board. In 1995, the board released convicted killer Joseph Yandle after he won members' sympathies with stories about being a decorated Vietnam veteran. He lied, and when the embarrassed board found out, it revoked his parole and returned him to prison. Now, with Dickerson sitting before them, the board members can't fathom that he might be trying the same ruse, knowing they'd hunt down the truth. Finally, Kivlan asks the question.

“If it turns out that it's not true, what action do you think the board should take on your petition?”

Dickerson hears the tone in Kivlan's voice. He knows what he has to say, but can't get the words out. He desperately wants to put an end to this charade and admit what's become obvious to everyone in the room. The problem is he's told this story so many times, the hole is too deep now. Having his family sitting right behind him only makes it tougher. He's caused them so much anguish already with his crime. The idea of causing them more pain is too much. He looks up at Kivlan through his glasses.

“The board should look at what I did while I was incarcerated.”

“But if your statements are not verified, what action do you think this board should take?” Kivlan repeats.

Again, silence.

“I don't know.”

In a heartbeat the opportunity is gone, but then the questioning continues. Where would he live if released? “I would live in Worcester with family.” But he doesn't have family in Worcester — his relatives are in New Jersey — and the board knows that. The reason Dickerson says Worcester is because Paul King, a corrections officer who has been pushing for his release, lives there, and has offered to help Dickerson. But Dickerson never mentions King, so the board is left to think he'd be thrown into the world without any support nearby.

“Why should we extend you this extraordinary remedy to your case?” Kivlan says.

“I'd be a positive person. All I want to do is give back some of what I've taken away.”

And then he's done. After almost three hours of grilling, he stands up and walks to the side of the room, where he sits and listens.

His brother, Robert, speaks. “I know a life was taken,” he says. “But he's a good person. I wish I could take his place.”

Kathleen Puckett speaks. With pale skin, red hair, a long skirt, and a motherly way about her, she hardly looks like someone who'd stand up for a killer. But she's known Dickerson as long as anyone in the room, other than his family. They met back in the '80s, when Puckett was a nurse at the quarterway house on Fenwood Road in Boston. It was part of a mental health facility, where inmates on work release helped schizophrenic patients. Willie Horton spent time there. So did Dickerson. “He was just extraordinary,” Puckett tells the board. “An incredible person to work with. He stood out from the other inmates. I have no doubt Lewis would be an upstanding member of the community. Lewis is ready to come out. You'll never regret your decision.”

A few others speak. A Los Angeles woman who wanted to write a screenplay. A therapist who worked with Dickerson in prison.

Charles Bartoloni is last. At Dickerson's 1990 hearing, no one spoke out against his release. Not a relative or friend of Eva Dodds or Cyril Miller. Not the police. Prosecutors only wrote a letter. But 11 years later, the Suffolk County District Attorney's Office wants to be heard. “First Mr. Dickerson lied at his trial and said he wasn't involved,” says Bartoloni, an assistant district attorney. “Then he said the weapon went off involuntarily. His credibility is very important. He still has not come to terms with what he did in 1975.”

That Dickerson has been a model prisoner who has improved himself while behind bars is hardly enough to grant him freedom, Bartoloni says. “Someone should not be rewarded for doing the things that are expected of them.”

Pomarole asks Taub if he has anything else, and Taub takes a moment with Dickerson. He walks over, sits next to him, and begins whispering in his left ear. Dickerson whispers back. They stare at each other while everyone in the room stares at them. They might as well be using bullhorns. Their conversation is hardly a mystery. Two minutes pass and Taub walks back to his table. He tells a rambling story about how sometimes people lie, and sometimes people get caught lying, and then become too ashamed to admit it. Dickerson, he says, got caught, and now he wants to undo the mess he's created. Dickerson walks back to the center of the room and takes his seat.

“It's not true about the Vietnam part. The truth of the matter is I was in Germany and that's how I got the scars, when I was in Germany, and I apologize to the board.”

“Why did you lie to the board 10 years ago?” Pomarole asks.

“I was in the military and Vietnam was the thing and everyone had been there. And I so much wanted to be a part of that so I put it in the packet.”

“But why would you lie to the board today knowing the significance of that?”

“I just got caught up in the moment. I was very nervous.”

Pomarole thanks Dickerson and Taub, and the witnesses, and closes the hearing. The board members stand, but just as the room is breaking up Kivlan offers Dickerson a sliver of hope. “Even though we were going to find out anyway, I still want to say I think it took some courage in front of your family and colleagues to acknowledge that you lied.”

Dickerson is escorted away and the room clears out. There is no deadline for the board's decision. After his 1990 hearing, nearly three years passed before his release was denied. But back then, the memory of Willie Horton and the rape and murder he committed while on a weekend furlough was still vibrating through the state's prison system. Times have changed. Dickerson has changed. “I cannot imagine him jaywalking now,” says Puckett.

For the people who sat through the hearing, it was like watching the air rush out of a balloon. Dickerson had been so sincere, finally taking responsibility for the killing. He'd never done that before. That was his downfall in 1990. But in 1990 Vietnam was not an issue. Ironically, in the year he created the lie, no one questioned it, but 11 years later, when he tried to quietly make it go away, it tripped him up.

“I knew the whole thing was a lie,” his sister, Rose, says later. “He was ashamed. At least he finally admitted it.”

But was he too late? Three weeks after the hearing, Dickerson types a letter to his lawyer.

“When the board asked me their questions about Vietnam, I was so shaken up I didn't know what to do,” he wrote. “If I said I wasn't in Vietnam they'd think I was a liar. And if I said I was in Vietnam they'd think I was a liar. I tried to escape their questions about Vietnam, but then I felt I had no choice but to say I had been in Vietnam. I was wrong.”

He closed with the only words he could find after a hearing that had left him tortured. “What will be will be. I'm praying and have my fingers crossed.”