Re-entering society to a changed world
The man marvels at the furniture in an ordinary coffee shop, its armchairs and couches arranged just like someone’s living room.
On Baltimore’s streets, all the cars look strange to him, their edges round and their headlights square.
He is stunned that a lollipop costs 25 cents.
After 42 years behind bars, Saleem El-Amin left a Maryland prison this summer to find a changed world. He hadn’t been free since he was a teenager, when a judge issued a life sentence for his role in an armed robbery that left two men dead.
But he got out in July — with $600 to his name and a faith that has sustained him for decades — because the state’s top court found problems in the jury instructions in hundreds of murder and rape trialsheld before 1980.
That ruling sparked anger among crime victims’ relatives, who believed that the convicts would die in prison. Prosecutors across Maryland, meanwhile, began reviewing cases to decide between letting the offenders go free or retrying them. One prominent offender — the plaintiff in the appeals court case — was convicted in a retrial. Dozens of others, like El-Amin, were released after officials determined that they were not a danger to the public, even though their convictions were not overturned.
Since then, the 60-year-old has confronted a life of joy and uncertainty. El-Amin has reconnected with relatives and friends through a whirlwind of family dinners and high school football games, but he has faced headaches over getting an identification card and getting rides to his appointments.
Panic comes on sometimes, a bubbling feeling that starts in the pit of his stomach. He needs a job and a place to call his own. He lives in his brother’s tidy rowhouse on a quiet street in West Baltimore, but as much as they love each other, he can’t stay there forever.
“I got to prove to myself that I can succeed,” says El-Amin, who tries to stay grounded through daily prayer, family and a network of mentors. “I got faith. I got family. I got friends. I want to prove that this man I’ve become is real.”
Since the first Maryland prisoners were released in May, a team of social workers, lawyers and students has been working to help them re-enter society. “We’re hoping to make it a community,” says Elizabeth Smith, a social worker handling many of the cases through a grant from the nonprofit Open Society Institute.
Smith calls the former prisoners a group of time travelers, landing smack in the middle of a strange world that can leave them disoriented. A single cellphone holds more technology than anything that existed when they first got locked up, she says.
El-Amin, for example, was convicted when Richard Nixon was president, some candy could be purchased for a penny, the Chevrolet Vega was Motor Trend’s car of the year and there was only one Starbucks store.
On a July afternoon less than a week after his release, Saleem leaned forward at a long table in a University of Maryland Law School auditorium to get advice about what was awaiting him.
“I want to welcome you to the real world. The real world is no cakewalk,” Walter Lomax, the head of the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative, told the audience of dozens of ex-prisoners and their relatives.
Get a day planner, said Lomax, a stickler for punctuality. If an event starts at 11 a.m. and you get there then, you’re late. You can call me for advice, but never after 8 p.m.
“Now, don’t call me just to be chatty. Get a girlfriend,” he said, drawing chuckles from the crowd.
For many, coming home causes intense stress — both for the former prisoner and his family, social worker Rebecca Bowman-Rivas told the group at the law school.
The rhythm of eating and sleeping is thrown off. Skills learned in prison, like hiding emotions, can confuse people on the outside.
“Maybe you don’t seem as excited or as happy as they expect you to be,” Bowman-Rivas said.
In the days after El-Amin returned home, he wore his underwear into the shower of his brother’s green-tiled bathroom — a habit from prison. He cut phone conversations with family members short, because his mind was still stuck in a place where calls were timed.
He was teased when he pulled out a phone directory to record numbers — he didn’t know a cellphone could store them.
“I thought I had a real hip one, too,” he says.
Although his brother, Kevin Cook, is younger, El-Amin has always looked up to him because is a retired city worker and has his own family. The two stayed up talking until 6 a.m. when El-Amin was released.
“It’s like having your brother home for the first time,” Cook says.
El-Amin, who stands nearly 6-foot-4 and has a graying beard, appears to see the world with the wonderment of a child. He smiles easily, beaming when he describes the huge plates of food at the Cheesecake Factory and a trip to the Reginald F. Lewis Museum downtown.
El-Amin “knows that he has been blessed,” said Lomax, who met him in prison. “He has no hostility. He has no anger. He has no bitterness.”
El-Amin longs to connect with others. But he is surprised to see so many choose to separate from the world, their heads always bowed toward cellphone screens. The phones are everywhere — on the buses, the sidewalks. It’s as though people don’t see each other, and don’t even want to, he says.
“If anything, I was expecting more interaction,” he says. “It’s like people are secondary.”
While the releases have brought joy to many defendants’ families, they have shocked and angered victims’ loved ones, who feel they haven’t had a voice in the process, says Russell Butler, executive director of the Maryland Crime Victims’ Resource Center.
“What we’ve seen is a lot of anger, a lot of resentment that the system isn’t working — and it clearly isn’t working for the victims and survivors,” Butler says. “[The defendants] get to go with their loved ones, but the victims’ loved ones are deceased, and they never get them back.”
He adds, “There are some victims that feel that re-victimization by the system is actually worse than the offense. You know that this person has done a horrific, violent act in the past. You’re concerned that if they did it to my loved one, will they do it to me?”
"It all started with me"
At 7:30 p.m. on an April evening in 1971, David Lermer, Nathan Lermer and their mother were getting ready to close Jerry’s Food Market in Northwest Baltimore and two neighborhood kids were sweeping outside. Nearby, a group was planning a robbery.
One man walked in and headed to the frozen-food case; 18-year-old William Collins — who would later change his name to El-Amin — followed, and asked Nathan Lermer for change. Two more men entered the store and ordered everyone to put their hands up.
One of the robbers held a gun on Nathan Lermer and his mother while another stuffed money from the cash register into a brown bag. Shots rang out. David Lermer, 27, and James Wilson, one of the robbers, were killed. Nathan Lermer and another robber were shot and survived.
Prosecutors said Collins was the shooter. He was sentenced shortly after Thanksgiving in 1971, by a judge who said he looked as though he “couldn’t care less.” During the trial, a witness had testified that he stopped briefly under a streetlight after the shootings and combed his hair while his accomplices were carrying Wilson into the hospital.
“If he has human emotions, he hasn’t displayed them, from the evidence in the case or his demeanor in the courtroom,” the judge said, according to a news report at the time.
“I think he might have misread my expression,” El-Amin says, recalling the courtroom scene. The prosecutors, judge, jurors and bailiffs all were white, he says, adding, “I felt out of place.”
from prison after 42 years
He and the others owe their freedom to a Maryland Court of Appeals decision — known as the Unger ruling — issued last year. The court found that juries before 1980 had been given unconstitutional instructions when weighing cases because they were told to interpret state law as they wished.
“Juries were invited to make up their own legal rules,” said Michael Millemann, a University of Maryland law professor representing El-Amin and others with similar claims. “This was a profound error, and much more substantial than any other error that has resulted in the reversal of a criminal trial in Maryland in the last half century.”
So far, about 50 people have been released under agreements with prosecutors, and the ruling could affect more than 200 cases.
Victims’ families are struggling to understand how one court ruling could affect so many cases involving violent crimes, Butler says. Decades after the original trials, witnesses are dead and evidence is gone, so it is impossible to guess how the legal proceedings would have turned out today, he says.
“We’re never going to know,” says Butler, whose center has worked with a handful of victims’ relatives. “But to open the gates and let people out without an individualized determination of whether there was unfair prejudice is not what a lot of these victims and survivors really consider just.”
For them, the court’s decision “reopened old wounds, and perhaps wounds that had never healed anyway,” he says. The cases are particularly troubling because they are so old that prosecutors and the center have been unable to locate many of the survivors.
“I know a lot of the prosecutors have been trying, but people move, people die, people remarry,” Butler says. “It is not an easy position that state’s attorneys are being placed in, and we are trying to work with them to the extent possible to minimize the further trauma on survivors.”
Prosecutors said they could not locate the relatives of the victims in El-Amin’s case
El-Amin has wondered how their lives turned out and hopes they can forgive him “so they can heal.”
He adds, “I want them to know how sorry I am for the loss of their loved one. I know there’s nothing I can do to change their situation. ... In my later years, I’ve been exposed to a lot of that myself — the loss of loved ones to the streets of crime.”
Butler has spoken with people who are helping the ex-offenders and discussed the possibility of arranging meetings between the defendants and the victims. So far, no victim or relative has wanted to set up a meeting.
El-Amin admits to taking part in the robbery. He was never identified as the person who fired shots, according to court documents filed upon his release. In 2011, the state’s parole commission called for shortening his sentence, but the governor did not sign off on the recommendation.
El-Amin says his trouble stemmed from poor decision-making, and he wants to share his story with youths so they will avoid making similar mistakes. He struggled to learn to read, dropped out of school in eighth grade and stole his first car at age 14. It was exciting, a thrill.
“Bottom line, it all started with me,” he says.
“Tip and top,” El-Amin says, chopping the ends off a big carrot. “Tip and top.”
He wears black jeans and a white apron. His task is to slice off a sliver of the carrots’ tips and tops, leaving as much of the vegetable as possible. Saleem has an apprenticeship at the 2 AM Bakery in Woodlawn, where carrot cake, the signature item, is sold in large orders to local restaurants.
The kitchen is freshly mopped, smelling of bleach and sweet spices. It’s in the basement of a store at a shopping center where many of the businesses cater to Muslim customers — Al Madina Halal Meat & Spices and an Islamic funeral home.
El-Amin points to his conversion to Islam as the turning point in his life. Raised a Roman Catholic, he became Muslim in 1980, changing his name to Karriem Saleem El-Amin, meaning generous, calm, trustworthy. (He goes by his middle name these days.)
El-Amin stuffs a pile of carrots into an industrial-sized food processor and gives it a whirl.
He’s puzzled for a moment when the carrots come out in orange discs, not shreds. He realizes he had put the blade on backward.
“It’s no big deal,” Greg Carpenter, co-owner of the bakery, says later as Saleem is repeating this step.
Since his release, El-Amin has counted on the help of the local Muslim community, including the men who gave him the bakery job. He’s gotten so many clothing donations that he is giving some to others who were recently released.
“When people see you trying to do what’s right, they help you,” he says.
Months after leaving prison, he has started therapy and is still is trying to figure out how to get housing assistance. His conviction remains on his record.
He enjoys routines such as a Sunday morning trip with friends to the Baltimore farmers’ market, where he usually gets a turkey burger.
On one late summer morning, he sat there at a plastic table and watched the people walk by. Onions were frying at an omelet stand and rows of produce lined the tables set up under the Jones Falls Expressway. One table was full of mushrooms, some shaped like pancakes, others with long, tangled stems.
He spotted a man carrying a fluffy dog like a baby and laughed as the animal stretched out its pink tongue. It was an ordinary Sunday, but El-Amin watched hundreds of people move around him and felt like he was taking a trip around the world.
As the JFX traffic rumbled above the crowds, El-Amin walked amid the noise and the smells and the warm afternoon air. Finally, he was part of it all.
Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.
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