During his decades behind bars for murder, Donald Braxton kept busy. He earned his GED, associate’s degree, and 74 credits from Coppin State University. He mentored other inmates and troubled teens who visited prison. He joined Narcotics Anonymous and wrote for the prison newsletter.
“You have come a long way,” the warden wrote him, “I would like to see you get a break.”
After nearly 40 years locked up, Braxton got his break last week.
On the recommendation of the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office, Circuit Court Judge Philip Jackson re-sentenced him to time served and five years of probation. At 56 years old, Braxton was free.
He was 16 when a group of teens attempted to rob prominent Baltimore surgeon Dr. George Franklin Phillips in September 1981. The doctor was 72 years old, and on his way to the hospital to prepare a patient for surgery. Phillips was shot and killed. Prosecutors said Braxton pulled the trigger, and a jury convicted the teenage boy of the murder.
“When asked why he had shot Phillips, appellant [Braxton] explained that he had to because the doctor had seen his face,” judges wrote in a 1984 Maryland Court of Special Appeals opinion.
Braxton feels no bitterness over an adult life spent behind bars. He’s grateful instead.
“If there’s any bitterness, it’s the bitterness I created toward myself and the hurt I put on my family and the victim’s family,” he said by phone Wednesday from his mother’s house in West Baltimore.
“By the grace of God, I made it out while [my mother’s] eyes are still open,” he said.
Braxton becomes the sixth prisoner set free through the cooperation of defense attorneys and the Sentencing Review Unit of the city prosecutor’s office. Formed last December, the unit headed by former deputy public defender Becky Feldman aims to set free some of the oldest men and women locked up in Maryland.
Prosecutors asked the courts to release Eraina Pretty, 61, who had been locked up since her teenage years for being an accomplice to murder. She was the longest-serving woman behind bars in Maryland when she was released in December.
The unit reviews cases of men and women older than 60 who have served 25 years in prison or more on a life sentence, or those who have served 25 years or more for a crime committed before the age of 18.
Attorney Gwendolyn Waters worked with Braxton for years to try to achieve his release. The formation of the Sentencing Review Unit brought their chance.
“I do not think Mr. Braxton, or any other person who commits a crime as a juvenile, should spend 40 years in prison,” she said. “It’s an extremely long time.”
Waters recalled the phone call in which she broke the news to him that prosecutors would not fight his release. He served time at the state prison in Western Maryland, and it was difficult for his aging mother and family to travel the distance for visits.
“He was tearing up,” Waters said. “The question he asked was, ‘Do you think I’m going to be able to hug my mother?’”
Judges, lawmakers and attorneys have been rethinking the way the criminal justice system treats children who commit violent crimes. Earlier this month, the Maryland General Assembly abolished prison sentences of life without parole for children convicted in state court. The Juvenile Restoration Act also allows people convicted as children to seek reductions in their sentences after serving 20 years. The bill waives mandatory minimum sentences for juveniles, too.
Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, who supported the act, issued a statement saying Braxton’s case demonstrates that authorities must reconsider the long prison sentences imposed on children.
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“Mr. Braxton served nearly 40 years in prison and exemplifies what redemption and rehabilitation can look like in the criminal justice system,” she said. “He recognizes more than anyone, the loss and grief he caused Dr. Franklin’s family and friends, and has remained committed to partaking in restorative justice support needed to ensure healing for this family.”
The grief and anguish endure today for the Phillips family. The doctor was beloved in his neighborhood and known to provide medical care for free when families couldn’t afford to pay, his granddaughter Nicole Benton Mainor said. She was 14 at the time of his murder.
She said her family is keeping an open mind about Braxton’s release and trusting in God.
“I do want to hear from him and see what kind of closure this could bring for me and my family,” she said. “I hope that his reform is productive, and I hope that he comes back to society and pays it forward. We hope he is truly remorseful.”
Five other teens were arrested for the murder. Two cooperated and were tried as juveniles. A third was acquitted by a jury. A fourth teen accepted a plea deal to attempted robbery and gun charges. The last was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, but had his sentenced reduced in 2015. He’s been released. Braxton was the last one still in prison.
Braxton recalled walking through the prison halls on his final day. Other men watched him go. A mentor to so many, he raised his hand to gesture goodbye. “It’s my time, y’all. Stay strong.”
He saw on their faces big smiles and tears and something else. Braxton saw hope.