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Dan Rodricks: I watched David Gordon go to prison at 17. Now, at 51, he’ll be freed because of criminal justice reform. | COMMENTARY

David Gordon was sentenced as a juvenile to life in prison in the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse in 1987. On Tuesday, a judge granted a request for his release at age 51.
David Gordon was sentenced as a juvenile to life in prison in the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse in 1987. On Tuesday, a judge granted a request for his release at age 51. (Baltimore Sun staff)

A trip back in time, through the archives of the long-gone Baltimore Evening Sun, jarred loose vivid memories of David Gordon’s sentencing in 1987, and they came in a cascade — the baby-faced boy weeping at the trial table and wiping his eyes with a tissue; his stammering to deny that he had killed the homeless man; his mother telling him, “David, pull yourself together,” then hunching up and crying herself.

The judge in Baltimore Circuit Court that day was a tough one, Tom Ward. He sentenced Gordon, who was 17 but looked much younger, to prison “for the rest of [his] natural life.” Then I heard the rattle of handcuffs, and, as men in uniform led Gordon into the fourth-floor hallway of the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse, the boy dropped the tissue with his tears.

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Gordon’s sentencing is one of dozens I’ve attended and described over the 44 years of this column. I’ve reached the point where I can no longer remember all of the stories. But a headline, name or phrase launches a memory, and that was the case with Ward’s sentencing of David Gordon 34 years ago.

Even more vivid was the memory of Gordon’s crime, described in a column that ran on the front page of The Evening Sun a year earlier: In April of 1986, a 60-year-old homeless man, Benny Sidney, had been shot to death in the stairwell of a Reservoir Hill apartment building. Sidney was eating cold chicken soup from a can when he was shot. I remember the crime scene, the remnants of the soup. Though David Gordon was later arrested and convicted of murder, the killing was never explained.

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Until this week.

In court papers filed under a new law that allows someone convicted as a juvenile to seek a modification of his sentence, Gordon admits to shooting Sidney. He was an angry adolescent with a gun. And that’s a combination responsible for a lot of deaths in Baltimore over the years.

According to the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office, Gordon spent April 13, 1986, playing craps but “became angry at the game and left, shortly thereafter encountering the victim.” Gordon “impulsively shot at the victim because he thought it would give him a tougher reputation.” Gordon never intended to rob or kill the homeless man.

Gordon is now 51. He has spent 34 years in prison. The Juvenile Restoration Act, a criminal justice reform enacted by the Maryland legislature over Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto, allows a person like him — convicted as a juvenile, with at least 20 years in prison — to request a reconsideration of his sentence. Becky Feldman, chief of the State’s Attorney’s Sentencing Review Unit, and attorneys from Steptoe and Johnson (Charles Mills, Katie Dubyak and Lisa Southerland) joined in asking Judge Robert Taylor to modify Gordon’s sentence to the time he’s already served.

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The state says it tried, but was unsuccessful, in contacting Benny Sidney’s next of kin, a fact that brought back memories of his sad, lonely death. To learn, as we did later, that a teenage boy had killed Sidney, and for no reason, compounded the tragedy.

At the hearing Tuesday afternoon in the same courthouse where he was sentenced in 1987, Gordon arrived in shackles that the judge told correctional officers to remove. He was no longer the skinny, frightened kid I once saw weeping at the trial table. He was a middle-aged man, a denim mask over his face and what appeared to be a goatee.

He’s been a model prisoner, without a rules infraction in 17 years, at the Western Correctional Institution near Cumberland. “He’s been transformed from an impulsive, reckless teen to the mature, thoughtful man you see today,” Dubyak told the judge.

When it was his turn to speak, Gordon stood at the trial table and held a statement he’d written on yellow paper. In a soft voice, he expressed remorse for his crime. “To say I was naive, foolish and outright stupid would be an understatement,” he told Judge Taylor. “I was just a stupid kid who committed a foolish crime, a terrible crime.”

Gordon carried his anger issues into prison, but in time matured and received recommendations for parole. The judge focused on that point before he gave his decision. The sentencing judge would not have expected to see Gordon still in prison 34 years later, Taylor noted, because once upon a time lifers in Maryland prisons had a shot at parole. Things changed in the 1980s.

In fact, a year after Gordon’s sentencing, the nation learned about Willie Horton from a presidential campaign ad. Horton was a felon who committed violent crimes while on furlough from a Massachusetts prison, and the cynical use of his case in Republican George H.W. Bush’s successful campaign pushed Democrats everywhere into a tough-on-crime phase that peaked in the Bill Clinton presidency. In Maryland, Democratic governors refused to parole lifers. And it was only in recent years that courts and legislatures started to recognize the cruel and unusual nature of sending immature teens to prison for life for violent crimes.

A little after 3 p.m., Judge Taylor granted the request to modify his sentence, and David Gordon smiled; old friends from prison hugged him. He will soon be released into a supportive plan to help his transition back to freedom after spending two thirds of his life in prison for a crime he committed when he was a foolish, angry boy with a gun.

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