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Rodricks: Kurtis Williams and 'a Baltimore thing'

At 35, Kurtis Williams is home from prison, hoping to enroll in business classes and launch a career in finance.
At 35, Kurtis Williams is home from prison, hoping to enroll in business classes and launch a career in finance. (Dan Rodricks)

At the age of 35, Kurtis Williams has spent half of his life in prison. He went in at 17 for second-degree murder. He came out four months ago with the clothes on his back and a manila envelope containing his identification card, his parole papers, a medical report and $50 cash.

After spending 17 years in various Maryland institutions, Williams walked through the doorway of a state building on East Madison Street in Baltimore and stepped onto the sidewalk. He stopped at a pharmacy to pick up some deodorant, soap and toothpaste, then went to a relative’s house.

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Williams has been looking for a job ever since. But you can probably imagine that finding an employer willing to hiring a convicted murderer — no matter that he was a juvenile at the time of his crime — is a formidable challenge.

In February 2001, Williams shot and killed 19-year-old Kevin Grayson. At the time, “Little Kurt” Williams had dropped out of high school, and he was selling marijuana and cocaine to customers in East Baltimore. Grayson and another man appeared near the house where Williams hung out and stashed his drugs. It was about 3 a.m., and the men were making noise. Williams confronted them. There was an argument. Williams says he felt threatened, so he shot Grayson and took shots at Grayson’s friend.

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A couple of days later, Williams turned himself into police. He pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and attempted murder. A Baltimore judge sentenced him to 50 years in prison, with all but 28 years suspended.

Podcast: Kurtis Williams

In an interview, excerpts of which are available as Episode 400 of the Roughly Speaking podcast, Williams expressed regret for the killing and the “nonsense” that led to it. “If I had made a better choice, it wouldn’t have happened,” he says.

Williams speaks of his time in prison and his decision, made while he was isolated from other inmates, to change the direction of his life. That and other factors apparently impressed the Maryland Parole Commission, which granted his release. (No relatives of Williams’ victims came forward to voice opposition to his parole.)

Thousands of felons like Williams earn parole or finish their sentences every year in the United States.

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Never going back to prison — no longer posing a danger to others, no longer being a burden to the state — depends on several things: The inmate being emotionally mature and psychologically ready for release, having a good re-entry plan, having skills to offer an employer, and connecting with local businesses willing to give a guy a chance.

But perhaps foremost among all factors is the nature of the crimes on an ex-offender’s record. Assuming they are not prohibited by corporate policy from hiring someone with a record, employers are most forgiving of the lesser offenses, such as drug-related or property crimes. They take a harder line on anything involving violence.

It’s understandable. No one wants to be sued for negligence in hiring someone who proves untrustworthy or dangerous to co-workers or customers.

So, for the ex-offender, re-entry is challenging, more so when the record shows murder.

But here comes Kurtis Williams, asking for a second chance and presenting a hard reality.

“It’s a Baltimore thing,” he says, when I asked him what he thought the headline on this column should be.

He means that, going back decades, Baltimore has produced a lot of convicted murderers. Many were sentenced to life in prison and will not emerge, if ever, until middle age or older. But many others, like Williams, have received sentences of 25 to 50 years. They eventually earn parole. They come home. They go looking for work.

“As callous as this sounds,” Williams says, “this is Baltimore City, and I’m not the first, and I’m not going to be the last, person that might have a murder charge sitting in front of you. That’s unfortunate. But that’s just the reality of the city that we’re living in.”

While in prison, he developed an interest in money and finance and read books on the subject. His plan is to take business courses at a local college and launch a career in finance. He’s eager to get started, but knows getting there will require determination, patience, and a prospective employer willing to give him an opportunity.

“I would try to let them see the change, let them see who I am now,” he says. “It happened 17 years ago. I can’t change it. I regret that situation. It’s a person’s life we’re talking about. . . .

“I got to survive out here, I got to take care of myself. I don’t want to be out here on the corners, I don’t want to be trying to rob people and create more victims. I’m just trying to right my wrong and move on with my life.”

Kurtis Williams, who has spent half of his 35 years in Maryland prisons for second-degree murder, has earned parole. He's back in Baltimore and facing the formidable challenge of finding a job.

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