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A second chance

Baltimore Sun

On the morning of Nov. 19, Marvin Williamson was 41 years into a life sentence for killing a man as a teenager in 1967.

By late afternoon, he was several hours into freedom, bending his 6-foot-3-inch frame to fit into an old friend's comfortably cramped living room in Baltimore's Pen Lucy neighborhood.

He had been unceremoniously set loose from the Hagerstown correctional facility after a brief hearing in Baltimore Circuit Court, when Judge Marcus Shar modified his prison term by suspending all but the time he had served.

"I've agonized over this, because I do not find this easy. For someone who has been found guilty of taking another's life, the thought of releasing them has not rested easy with me," Shar said. But, he concluded, "if there is such a thing as rehabilitation in our system ... I am convinced that this is the right thing to do."

In jail, Williamson got sober. He learned to read and write and earned his eighth-grade certification, then his high school GED. He became a working man and gathered skills in nearly every vocational area the Maryland correctional system offers, including wood shop, metal shop and sanitation. He most recently worked as a master upholsterer, a designation gained after completing 12,480 hours of skills training.

He grew up, and he grew better, fulfilling a promise he made to himself when he went in.

"He is a model inmate and one which others should emulate," a shift sergeant wrote in a letter to the court, one of many that helped convince the judge that Williamson deserved a second chance at life, despite the gravity of his crime.

Justice, Shar determined, had been served.

And so, after having been recommended for parole five times to no avail - each instance either ignored or denied by the sitting governor, whose approval is required - Williamson was let out, effective immediately. But if he slips up, he could be remanded back for the full term.

His lawyer, Gary Proctor, took Williamson out to a bar to talk about the future after the hearing that Thursday, a week before Thanksgiving. Proctor had a Heineken, and Williamson had a ginger ale. He hasn't had a drink in 42 years.

"It's a problem for me," he said, a few days after he'd been released.

Estelle Jacobs, his 86-year-old hostess and his eldest daughter's grandmother, was nestled into a beige recliner to his right, eating her breakfast, while his lawyer sat to his left in a wing chair. The TV was on in a corner, tuned in to a game show.

"If I drink," Williamson said, "I get crazy."

He was drinking that night in 1967 when he asked Joseph Caslow for a light.

Robbing, stealing, drinkingWilliamson grew up on the 500 block of E. 20th St., near Green Mount Cemetery in a desolate section of Baltimore. That's where he met "Miss Estelle," whom he sometimes calls "Mom." She's taken him in now. His real mother was an alcoholic, and his father a disciplinarian - "abusive" is the term used in court papers.

"There wasn't a day that went by that my father didn't beat me," Williamson said. "I hated him."

He was a willful and wild kid, who dropped out of school and never learned to read or write. He was drinking by age 10 and violent by age 16.

"I would wake up drunk and go to bed drunk and run the street all day," he said. "My parents never really cared what I did. ... My life was robbing, stealing and drinking."

In the early morning of Oct. 14, 1967, Williamson was walking down 27th Street, drunk, with a 15-year-old friend. On the same block, Caslow, 45, was making his way home with a six-pack of beer tucked under one arm.

Williamson approached the man, who drew a knife, afraid the boys planned to attack him. But after they assured him they just wanted a match, Caslow slid the blade into his back pocket.

"He said that he was sorry and wanted to shake my hand," Williamson told police, according to a 1968 Baltimore Sun article. And then Williamson pounced.

"I grabbed his right hand with my left and twisted it up and grabbed him by the throat," he said at the time. Then he and his buddy robbed Caslow of the beer, $12 and the knife. Then they told their victim to go. But he put up a fight.

"He grabbed me, and I turned and stabbed him," Williamson said, according to a decades-old police statement he signed but couldn't read.

Williamson still remembers Caslow's wife at the trial, sitting there, devastated.

The state tried to find Caslow's family before the Nov. 19 sentence-modification hearing, but couldn't. Too much time had passed. They never came to Williamson's parole hearings, either.

"I was hoping to find them so I could apologize in person," Williamson said. "I know I caused a lot of pain."

On June 25, 1968, a jury found Williamson guilty of first-degree murder. Six days later, he was sentenced to life imprisonment; he'd been locked up since his arrest in October. The friend who had been with him was given a 10-year sentence for robbery.

So at 17, when most boys are dreaming about sports, girls, college or careers, Williamson was rethinking his life. He didn't have much of a future to fantasize about, not one that offered any hope, and he'd taken away the future of someone else, an almost unbearable reality. He wrote to his father, saying he finally understood why he was so hard: He was trying to knock some sense into him.

"I promised myself if I ever left alive, I'd be a better person," Williamson said.

It was a start.

Working and learningIn prison, Williamson was a cocky kid without a place. Most his age weren't staying long, and those who were weren't interested in helping him.

But then there was Walter Lomax. He was 21 in 1968, four years older than Williamson, whom he knew through a kid brother. As a teen, he'd been convicted for "unauthorized use of a vehicle" and of assault and robbery for participating in the group beating of a man walking home from a bar.

He, too, had just begun a life sentence for a murder, one he says he didn't commit (Decades later, a judge would hear him out).

He saw intelligence and potential in Williamson and befriended him, drawing him into his circle. "Marvin didn't really have a criminal mind-set," Lomax said in an interview.

Lomax was a born organizer who said he believed he was biding his time until the real killer - the man whose sentence he was serving - was caught and he was let go. So, Lomax said, he made the best of it. He lobbied for educational programs and recreation, and helped organize the Youth League, which he describes as a "social, self-help club" that arranged sports competitions among inmates.

Williamson excelled in basketball. He still has a picture of himself from that time, when he was about 20, sitting on a bench, holding two basketball trophies. He's got a full Afro and 1970s street clothes: a shirt with big pink flowers, red pants and heeled dress boots.

On the back of the photo is a message he wrote long ago to a girl, Miss Estelle's daughter - "a woman of [whom] my heart shall always be with as long as we both shall live," it says.

"She was my first love, and she's been one of the greatest loves of my life," Williamson said. The couple conceived a child before Williamson's arrest, naming her Yolanda, but the relationship didn't last, and they never married.

Williamson would marry and divorce twice while in prison. He fathered another daughter, Lakeshia, in the late 1980s, while out on a family weekend leave program. He earned those weekends, 34 of them, slowly and diligently.

"Marvin really took advantage of opportunities," said Lomax, who kept up with his friend over the years as they were transferred to various places.

In 1972, Williamson began his education. Five years later, he earned his eighth-grade certification. That year he also chose to get a diamond-shaped prison tattoo beneath his right eye, only to feel instant regret.

"I was still kind of wild," he said.

A year later, he got his General Educational Development certificate, the equivalent of a high school degree, and he enrolled in available college courses in 1979 and in 1991.

"Mr. Williamson is a very reliable and conscientious student ... very sincere and hard-working," one evaluator wrote.

And he tested out nearly every job available, working in food service, laundry and maintenance, on labor details and in the upholstery shop. He was called a "respectful," "dependable" and "excellent" worker by supervisor after supervisor and was approved for work release in 1985. However, work release, along with the weekend program, was discontinued in 1993 for inmates convicted of serious crimes.

Decades later, a free manThree years ago, Williamson had reason to hope he might get out again. Lomax had finally persuaded a judge to hear him out, and though his conviction remained, he was set free in December 2006.

"There is a significant likelihood, definitely a possibility, that Mr. Lomax would be acquitted" if on trial today, Baltimore Circuit Judge Gale E. Rasin said at the time, concerned about a lack of evidence.

That inspired a jailhouse lawyer named "Sonny" Jackson to write on Williamson's behalf to Michael E. Lawlor, a Greenbelt attorney known for his post-conviction work. Lawlor agreed to take the case.

Williamson cleaned out his bank account - he earned about $4 per day at prison jobs and saved anything not spent on his girls or at the commissary - to pay Lawlor initially, though the attorney later worked for free. Lawlor's associate, Gary Proctor, came on pro bono.

The legal team filed a petition in July 2007 for a post-conviction relief hearing, citing ineffective counsel by Williamson's defense attorney 40 years earlier. That petition was initially dismissed as having missed a 10-year filing deadline but was later allowed by an appeals court, which rendered a precedent-setting opinion that those sentenced before October 1995 were not subject to the 10-year rule.

A hearing on the issue was held in September 2009, and the court determined that Williamson's attorney had erred by not filing a motion he was asked to file. Williamson was allowed a 90-day window to file a new motion, this one for modification of sentence.

A hearing on that motion was held Nov. 19.

"The state believes that justice in some form has been meted out," Assistant State's Attorney Charles Blomquist told the judge.

"Mr. Williamson appears to be one of those individuals who have been able to benefit through the programs that are offered and truly became a different person than he was back in 1967 as a 16-year-old without the benefit of being able to read or write," Blomquist said. "I believe that the defense has given every reason to modify the sentence."

Williamson was ordered to undergo three years of supervised probation.

After some paperwork, he was done, not even allowed back into prison to pick up the eight boxes' worth of stuff in his cell - pictures and letters, his TV and radio, chips from the commissary. He would have to get that later.

He was a free man, in a completely different world.

Earning his keepIn the 42 years since Williamson had entered jail, astronauts had walked on the moon, MTV had influenced a generation, and the Internet had changed communications. Wars had begun and ended, terrorists had destroyed New York's twin towers and a black man was elected president.

And the price of everything had gone up, many times over.

Williamson moved in with Estelle Jacobs, who had known him as a boy when he was chasing after her daughter, and began earning his keep.

"He's working all the time, cleaning up and dusting and mopping and carrying on," Jacobs said. "He has a place to stay as long as I have one."

He spent Thanksgiving at his elder daughter's home in Cedonia, visiting with cousins and others he hadn't seen since he was a boy and sampling food like it was his last - or first - meal. He spent Christmas with friends in North Carolina, and planned to spend New Year's Eve - his 59th birthday - with a brother.

"It's great, you know, having him home, just having a father, period, for the first time. It's really nice," said Yolanda Jacobs, 45.

"It's just weird," said his younger daughter, Lakeshia Williamson, 20. "It just feels really weird to have him walking the streets with me, going to the market, normal stuff girls do with their father. ... I've never done it before."

Both women, who have different mothers, have had long relationships with their father. They visited him in prison, wrote letters and talked to him frequently on the phone about everything from boys to school to hard knocks. Now they talk in person, often about the grandkids - Lakeshia has infant twins, and Yolanda has a teenage daughter.

They're teaching Williamson to use the computer and text on his cell phone, a constant companion.

On a recent morning in Miss Estelle's living room, he showed off a new pair of size-13 boots - a gift from Lomax. He had also gone shopping for a suit the day before with his former co-defendant and was expecting a visit from another lifer who'd been set free that afternoon.

But he was still learning to balance the fantasy of life with the reality. Already, some of the annoyances of the real world were settling in. He was having trouble getting the identification and Social Security cards he needs to work, and he was tired of not being sure how to get around, which bus leads where.

"It's a headache, it's frustrating. I'm trying to do all the things I need to, but I don't know where I need to go," he said.

He doesn't like depending on other people, and he's aching to have something of his own.

His childhood friends are dead, from running the streets or overdoses, he said. And but for jail, he would be dead, too. "That's why I say, prison is hell, but it saved my life."

He speaks too harshly to others, Lakeshia said, sometimes to her. And he can come across as condescending.

"He's so confident in the way he does things, and, I don't know, it's just really awkward to see him interacting with people now like it's the '60s when he got locked up. It's a totally different world," she said. "I really want for him to get adjusted first, to the life now, the world and how it is now."

She adds that he's been "doing a pretty good job of it."

Yolanda dreams of their father finding "a nice, decent woman to live with" and a home of their own.

Williamson said his dreams have already been met.

"I don't have big aspirations," he said. "I just want to get a job, be able to care for myself, and help my children."

On Wednesday, he made a trip to the Motor Vehicle Administration to have his picture taken for a new ID. The gray was gone from his hair, his daughters said. He looked like a new man.

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