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A Baltimore Story: Seeking forgiveness for a false accusation that sent the wrong man to prison | COMMENTARY

Mardell Brawner, left. says he testified falsely against Mark Grant in a murder trial in the 1980s that sent Grant to prison for 28 years.
Mardell Brawner, left. says he testified falsely against Mark Grant in a murder trial in the 1980s that sent Grant to prison for 28 years. (Dan Rodricks)

What do you say to the man whose lie sent you to prison for a crime you insist you did not commit? His perjured testimony led a jury to convict you of murder some 36 years ago. Can you forgive him?

You’re Mark Grant. A judge sentenced you to life in prison when you were 15 years old. Your mother and brother died while you were away. You missed high school. You missed your 20s, 30s and the first three years of your 40s. How do you accept “sorry” from a guy who got to live his life while you went to prison?

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And what if you are the other guy? What if you are Mardell Brawner?

When you were a teenager, you witnessed the murder of a friend. You lied to police and to a jury about Mark Grant, saying he was the killer. You did this, you say, for one reason: Relatives of the boy you first identified as the killer threatened you and your family.

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Now, all these years later, with Grant out of prison, and both of you in middle age, you’ve been prompted by a family member to reach out to the guy you helped send away for 28 of his 52 years. What do you say?

“I deeply apologize for what happened to us,” Brawner told Grant in their first conversation, by phone, two weeks ago. “We both were victims. We were kids caught up in a bunch of foolishness, ignorance. There’s nothing I could possibly do to make up for the time [Grant] spent behind bars.”

I asked Mark Grant if he understands and forgives Brawner. He paused, and said, “Yes,” but I sensed this was just the start of a process for both men.

This Baltimore tragedy unfolded on a winter night in 1983 in Edmondson Village. Mardell Brawner and one of his friends, 16-year-old Michael Gough, had just come from a convenience store when some other teens approached them. One of the teens demanded Gough’s leather varsity jacket. Gough refused to give it up, and one of the boys shot him.

Within hours of the fatal shooting, city detectives questioned Brawner. He identified Mark “Shane” White as the shooter.

Six days later, however, when detectives showed him photographs of suspects, Brawner fingered Mark Grant instead. Police charged him with the murder. Grant insisted he was innocent.

The following year, White, the original suspect, became a prosecution witness. He and Brawner testified against Grant. The jury deliberated two hours before finding him guilty.

Two decades later, during an investigation of the case by professors and students at the University of Maryland School of Law, Brawner admitted that he had lied because White’s relatives had threatened to kill him, his mother and sister. In a 2006 affidavit, Brawner said this: “Over the years I have felt a great deal of guilt about falsely accusing Mark Grant of shooting Michael Gough ... but felt that I had no other choice in light of the threats that had been made against me and my family.”

During the law school’s inquiry, Brawner identified White as the person who shot Gough.

Brawner says he was traumatized from the experience — seeing his friend shot, feeling threatened by adults, pressured by detectives to testify against another teen he didn’t even know.

“I was a kid fighting to survive,” he says. “I never got any kind of counseling or mental health help or anything after that. I became an angry kid. I started getting in trouble, stealing cars, doing dumb stuff. I wound up in prison, came home and started selling drugs. I got locked up again, then I started getting high … and then I stopped all of that.”

It was in 1998, Brawner says, when he turned his life around. He went to college and earned a degree in psychology and went to work in group homes and youth programs.

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“But this thing [the Grant perjury] has been a nightmare,” he says. “It’s been a nightmare for 40 years.”

Shane White was murdered on a city playground in 1992.

Mark Grant remained in prison until his life sentence was commuted in 2012. He’s been employed as a meat cutter ever since. The law school’s investigation concluded that Grant was innocent of the Gough murder, but Grant has never been exonerated.

His formal effort at that came two years ago, when he sought a writ of actual innocence from a Baltimore Circuit Court judge. Brawner testified on Grant’s behalf.

But the judge ruled against Grant, saying Brawner’s recanted testimony did not constitute what the law required — newly discovered evidence. The judge said Grant’s original lawyer had had ample time after the trial, until April 1, 1986, to learn that Brawner’s testimony had been coerced.

That struck me as unrealistic because it’s doubtful young Mardell Brawner would have changed his story so soon after the trial.

Grant still yearns for a declaration of innocence. He’s a strong guy. He works hard, at two jobs. He sometimes expresses his frustrations to me. A couple of weeks ago, he started texting about Brawner. He’d been in touch with him by phone. They met and spoke face to face for the first time Friday morning.

Brawner wants to apologize. Grant is willing to forgive, and that’s a process that has just begun between two men who were once boys caught up in a tragedy. And this story is to be continued.

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