‘Now the dream is a reality.’ Formerly incarcerated man graduates from UC Irvine

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By Yosi Yahoudai
Founder and Managing Partner

A student, who spent nearly half of his life in prison for first-degree murder, was among the more than 8,200 graduates at UC Irvine Friday.

Shawn Khalifa, 35, received his B.A. in Sociology Friday at the Bren Events Center on campus.

The formerly incarcerated father of two said he never imagined he’d be able to put on a cap and gown.

“Oh my god. It always existed as a dream,” said Khalifa from his apartment on campus. “This was always a far-fetched dream. And if you said it out loud, you would get skepticism. You’d probably get one person saying, ‘Good for you to have to dream. Keep it up.’”

As a young teen, Khalifa began serving a 25-year sentence for murder.

“I was never accused of committing a murder,” explained Khalifa. “I was accused of committing a burglary. Under the law, if you’re responsible for the burglary, you’re responsible for the murder.”

In 2004, Khalifa was a 15-year-old with a group of friends when they broke into a home in the city of Perris. One of the teens shot and killed the homeowner. Under California’s felony murder rule, which allowed for anyone involved in certain kinds of serious felonies that result in death to be held liable for murder, a jury convicted Khalifa of first-degree murder.

In 2018, the law changed, allowing for Khalifa to serve a shorter sentence for robbery, instead.

He served 16 years in prison where he said he spent a lot of time thinking about his future.

“Now the dream is a reality, so it just speaks to the fact you can’t see it, but you can hope and dream about it. Then it can happen,” said Khalifa. “Just don’t extinguish your own hopes and dreams because, nine out of 10, folks don’t see your hopes and dreams.”

Khalifa is one of 17 students graduating with UC Irvine’s Underground Scholars Program, which gives recently released inmates a pathway to college.

For Khalifa, it also gave him a second chance at life.

“I’m so proud of him because even though he’s against all odds, everything was going against him, the tenacity that he has, the passion he has for the kind of work that he’s doing is just so inspiring,” said Maria Moreno Khalifa, his wife.

Khalifa plans to pursue a master’s degree in restorative justice from the University of San Diego in the fall. He hopes to inspire his 9-month-old and two-year-old daughters.

“I hope they get that sense of resiliency when they get older, and they do learn dad’s story. They know that anything is possible, and nothing can shake them,” said Khalifa.

Overall, UC Irvine will grant 11,034 degrees this academic year, including 9,336 undergraduate, 1,146 master’s and 552 doctoral degrees.

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About the Author
Yosi Yahoudai is a founder and the managing partner of J&Y. His practice is comprised primarily of cases involving automobile and motorcycle accidents, but he also represents people in premises liability lawsuits, including suits alleging dangerous conditions of public property, third-party criminal conduct, and intentional torts. He also has expertise in cases involving product defects, dog bites, elder abuse, and sexual assault. He earned his Bachelor of Arts from the University of California and is admitted to practice in all California State Courts, and the United States District Court for the Southern District of California. If you have any questions about this article, you can contact Yosi by clicking here.