This month marks five years since Mark Farley Grant walked out of prison with nothing but the clothes and shoes he wore on the day of his release. Despite a few re-entry bumps, he seems to have adjusted well to freedom after 28 years behind the walls and razor wire.
He works five days a week as a meat cutter, the job he's held since shortly after coming home. He found health insurance through Obamacare. He owns a car that he keeps clean and shiny. He has a supportive girlfriend, and they live together in Northwest Baltimore. He is outwardly good-natured. He laughs and smiles easily.
But, as settled as he seems, Grant still gets frustrated and sometimes angry. I know. I get his early-morning text messages. In the first two years on parole, he racked up some debts he's still trying to shake, and he beats himself up for getting into a hole. "I grew up in prison, you know," he says. "I think about my life, and how I wasn't taught so many things, like how to save money."
Grant went behind the walls as a juvenile, at 15.
In 2012, when he was 44, he was one of two people whose life sentences were commuted by former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley.
But while his action paved the way for Grant's release, O'Malley never acted on the claim — supported by a lengthy report from his alma mater, the University of Maryland law school — that Grant was wrongfully convicted of the murder that sent him to prison.
So Grant has never been officially declared innocent.
He has not been pardoned.
He has not been compensated in any way — not a penny — for the 28 years he spent in prison.
As reported several times in this column, O'Malley had ample opportunity to read, independently investigate and act on the report. It reached the governor's office in 2008. By then, law professors and students had spent nearly four years looking into the state's case against Grant, who was convicted of felony murder in the fatal shooting of another teenager, Michael Gough, on a West Baltimore street in January 1983.
"Mark Grant did not kill Michael Gough," the law school team concluded 25 years later. "There is now no question about the fact."
Among the report's findings:
The state's chief witness lied about Grant's involvement because relatives of the actual killer took him to Leakin Park, held a gun to his head and vowed to kill him unless he identified Grant as the gunman. The prosecutor in the case has since said he never would have gone to trial had he known of the threat against his key witness.
Another teenager provided an alibi for Grant, but the trial jury never heard it.
And Grant's co-defendant, who was originally suspected to be Gough's killer, pleaded guilty to attempted robbery, accepted a 10-year prison sentence and testified against Grant. But the co-defendant failed a polygraph test prior to the trial — a fact never revealed to the defense.
So while O'Malley ultimately followed the Maryland Parole Commission's recommendation that Grant be released from his life sentence, the former governor never publicly addressed the claim of innocence. He was running for president. He wasn't going out on a limb. He left the Grant case for the next governor.
And here we are, five years into his supervised release, and Grant, now 49, is still looking for resolution. It's possible he'll see something within the next year.
Renée McDonald Hutchins, the law school professor who has worked on his case from the start, plans to file for a writ of actual innocence in the coming months. That would give her an opportunity to present to a judge the new evidence she and her students discovered during their investigation.
The Baltimore State's Attorney's Office could play a key role in the matter. After reviewing the case, including the new evidence, prosecutors might conclude that they could not get a guilty verdict against Grant today, or they might concede that he was wrongfully convicted. That could lead a Baltimore Circuit Court judge to set aside Grant's conviction, grant him a new trial or issue a new sentence.
A writ of actual innocence would help Grant in an appeal for a pardon from Gov. Larry Hogan. And I have to believe that Grant's generally successful reentry would impress the governor, too.
Under Maryland law, a gubernatorial pardon would be necessary before the state Board of Public Works could compensate Grant, as it has in a few other wrongful conviction cases over the years.
In the meantime, Grant stays on the steady. He maintains patience, with the occasional outburst in an early-morning text message. Then he goes to his job — $10.75 an hour, with a 25-cent bump every six months.