After serving three decades of a life sentence for a murder committed when he was 16, James McKeldin Simms walked out of a Howard County courtroom a free man yesterday.
He is celebrating Christmas in Sunderland, the tiny Calvert County tobacco town where everyone remembers the crime, and where Simms can expect an uneasy holiday welcome.
Simms was set free after a brief hearing before Circuit Judge James B. Dudley, who carried out a three-judge panel's earlier ruling that the 46-year-old prisoner had served enough time for the December 1967 shooting of store clerk Doris Mae Gibson.
"The good Lord has blessed me," said Simms, beaming, as he stood in an Ellicott City parking lot surrounded by his family, pastor and friends. His father, William Simms, quietly embraced his son, dabbing his eyes repeatedly with a crisp white handkerchief. The group of about a dozen people joined hands in prayer.
"Jesus, we thank you for this moment," said the Rev. Irvin Gross, pastor of the Church of God Plum Point Road, to a chorus of amens. "We know that there are adversaries prepared to knock this blessing down, but we know you have all power, and what we're going to do is enjoy this day."
Unlike Nathaniel Hurt, whose five-year sentence for manslaughter will be commuted by Gov. Parris N. Glendening on Jan. 6, Simms had to turn to the courts for his freedom. His attorney, Ralph S. Tyler, asked the governor's office to intervene in Simms' case but got no response.
A three-judge panel ruled last month that Simms' rights were violated 28 years ago when his previous lawyer failed to tell him he could have his sentence reviewed. After Tyler argued that the average Maryland prisoner serving a life sentence is paroled after 21 years, the judges ordered Simms set free.
Simms could have faced an additional six-month sentence stemming from a 1980 escape, when he left a work detail and went home to Sunderland. But corrections officials, guided by a 9-day-old appellate court ruling in an unrelated case, decided Simms' otherwise spotless prison record had earned him more than six months worth of credits for good behavior.
No one opposed Simms' release at yesterday's brief hearing. Calvert County prosecutors were not there, and neither were any of Gibson's relatives.
"Perhaps divine providence" had a hand in Simms' release, Dudley said, adding, "Good luck to you."
"Thank you, sir," said Simms, who said outside the courthouse that he feels no bitterness for the years spent in prison. "I &L; learned a lot," he said. "I got a GED, I got an education, I learned how to deal with people."
Simms said yesterday he hasn't decided whether to settle permanently in Sunderland, where he expects to get a wary welcome.
People there remember Simms as an ordinary teen-ager who had never been in trouble with the law, and Mae Gibson, a friendly clerk at the local store. But they say they don't know the 46-year-old, balding, soft-spoken man who will be returning home after so many years in prison.
"If he's done the crime, he's served his time for it, but he should be watched," said Maurice Hardesty Jr., 41, whose father owns the country store where the killing took place. "If he was brave enough to do it once, he might be brave enough to do it again."
"When things happen like this, some people hold on to it for a long time and some people let it go," said Clarence Duppins, a 54-year-old bricklayer and, like Hardesty, a lifelong resident of the area. "I'm sure people will remember. But I expect they'll let bygones be bygones."
Simms' father, mother and most of his three sisters and three brothers live within a few miles of town. His father farms tobacco nearby and has offered his son a farming job.
Although a few newcomers have built houses in the area, Sunderland remains largely unchanged since 1967: a dozen country lanes, seven churches with their graveyards set on rolling hills, an auto body shop and Hardesty's Store.
The white frame building with its high ceilings and wide front porch is the hub of the community. Back then it was called the Robert King Store after its then-owner, who lives on a hill just above.
Gibson, King's sister-in-law, was shot three times while she tended the counter at a general store Dec. 19, 1967. Townsfolks figure Gibson was leaning over to scoop the hand-dipped ice cream that was kept behind the counter, next to an old-fashioned walk-up window, when she was shot in the back.
"I have nothing to say about the Simms case, thank you," said King. Hardesty, King's neighbor for 40 years, said King is "very upset" about Simms' release.
"He just doesn't think he should ever be let go," Hardesty said.
Simms' family, on the other hand, is upset that it took so long.
"McKeldin's story should have been told long ago," said Mary Augusta Green, his maternal aunt. Green wondered why the press didn't take more of an interest in 1969, when the teen-ager was convicted of first-degree murder on evidence the family views with deep distrust.
No witnesses to the shooting were found. The gunman got away with $51 and three cigar boxes filled with coupons and state tax collections.
Witnesses testified that Simms bought .22-caliber bullets from the store that day, went back later to buy soft drinks for two friends and then told the friends he had shot Gibson.
When he was arrested the next day, he had 11 .22-caliber bullets in his pockets. Officers who searched him at the Prince George's County Jail found a derringer pistol capable of firing .22s, according to court papers. The cigar boxes were found in the neighborhood dump, where Simms' friends had said they would be.
His first trial in February 1969 ended in a hung jury, but a second jury convicted him of first-degree murder that June.
Since his arrest, Simms has insisted he is innocent. Family members point out that in the late 1960s, all of the county's law officers were white -- as was Gibson -- while Simms and his two friends were black and young.
"Prejudice, oh yes, that had something to do with it," said Green.
Friends of the Simms family worry that his release will divide the community along racial lines. But outside the family's inner circle, blacks and whites say they doubt that will happen. In tobacco towns such as Sunderland, people have developed a tradition of working together and respecting hard work, said Hardesty.
Simms' aunt agreed that Sunderland doesn't have racial tension "any more than any other place." People here divide their days between two places: work and church, Green said. She expects her nephew will do the same.
"This is what we've all been praying for for 30 years," Green said. "It's because of God he's getting out -- because of God and the lawyers."
Pub Date: 12/25/97