Regarding the apparent beating death of 18-month-old Zaray Gray in Baltimore, two facts jumped off the page: Francois A. Brown III, the man accused of killing the boy — his girlfriend’s son, according to police — had been convicted of child abuse in the death of his own son, a seven-month-old boy, just a few years ago.
And Brown served only about three years in prison for that crime.
Facts that jump off the page, and prompt questions: Why the soft sentence in the first case? Why did Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Timothy J. Doory suspend 11 years of a 15-year sentence? If he hadn’t, would Zaray Gray still be alive today?
There’s an answer to that last question, and I’ll get to it later in this column.
First, as to the question of Doory’s sentencing of Brown in 2014, I have pieces of an answer, mostly from court records.
Doory declined comment. (Judges rarely talk about the cases that come before them.) The Maryland public defender’s office represented Brown, but it also declined comment. However, the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office looked at records from 2012 and 2013 and shed some light on the case.
Originally, the state had charged Brown with murder in the death of his son, Kendall, in December 2012. But the prosecution did not win convictions in two tries. Both attempts were mistrials, according to Melba Saunders, spokeswoman for the state’s attorney’s office.
After that, prosecutors entered into a plea agreement, and that resulted in Brown’s entering an Alford plea to a charge of child abuse resulting in death. (With an Alford plea, a defendant claims his innocence but acknowledges that the state has enough evidence to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.)
Doory is an experienced and respected judge who, before going on the bench, prosecuted homicides in the city for many years. In the Brown case, with two mistrials, the sentence Doory imposed in 2014 might have been the strongest possible at the time. Prosecutors and defense lawyers frequently strike such deals in Baltimore and other busy circuits.
So, facts jump off the page, and they incite strong reactions, especially when the victims of violence are children, and particularly babies. We want these cases to be simple, open and shut. But, under our system, the state has the burden to prove guilt. Cases are often weak; convictions are hard-won. Criminal justice is complicated, and sometimes the results are unfair, frustrating or infuriating.
But now to the question I raised above: In the Brown case, would a longer sentence have made a difference?
Answer: Not unless Brown experienced real transformation while incarcerated — that is, time that made a difference, that changed him.
Though Brown’s stay behind the walls was relatively short, Maryland taxpayers should ask: What happened to him in there? Did he just sit, take his three squares and sleep? Did he get some help? Did he ever see a psychiatrist?
We all understand and accept that some percentage of a prison sentence is for punishment. But while there has been, and still is, disagreement on what that percentage should be, rational people can easily agree on the ideal outcome: An offender who does not offend again, who becomes a “returning citizen.”
That, to me, represents true success: a man or woman who committed a crime — even the most heinous of crimes — but who emerges from incarceration a profoundly changed person, equipped with professional skills, a support network and a workable plan for re-entry.
If not, then we should stop calling it the “corrections system.”
Over the last 13 years, since I’ve been reporting on the challenges ex-offenders face in returning to free society and making a decent living, some readers — a vocal minority, judging from my mail — get the idea that I’m soft on criminals. I’m not. I think murderers, rapists and repeat offenders should serve the long prison terms the law demands. But, for the many inmates who ultimately earn their freedom from our federal and state systems — and 97 percent of them get mandatory release or parole — incarceration without rehabilitation is ultimately a waste of time and money.
That’s why Marylanders should demand to know what happened. What kind of help did Brown get while incarcerated?
Maybe his first sentence should have been longer. But, under a system devoted to changing lives, three years should have been enough for a psychiatrist or counselor or peer group to have some influence on the man, or at least make a start.
Without transformative programs, five, 10, 20 years — it doesn’t matter how long we keep any man or woman locked up; their potential for causing problems and pain after parole remains.
What a big, bold project this would be for a Maryland governor — to turn the system inside out, remake some prisons as hospitals, hire dozens of new counselors and specialists to change hearts and minds. It would save money. It would save lives.