After nearly a half-century, lifer Joseph Smith comes home

Joseph Smith, 68, released from Maryland prison system he entered at 19

Joseph Smith's Christmas homecoming took place quietly last Thursday afternoon with his release from the Maryland prison system. By the time his younger sister picked him up for the ride to her house in Baltimore, Smith had spent more than two-thirds of his years inside the walls. He was arrested at 19, went to prison at 20, and came out at 68.

As he ate supper at his sister's house the other night, I tried to wrap my head around time and the man.

His offense occurred one late-summer night in 1968 — Lyndon Johnson was in his final months as president; the Beatles had just released "Hey Jude" — when Smith and three other young men tried to rob a man who had stopped at Calvert Street and North Avenue to make a call from a phone booth.

The victim, a 38-year-old man named George Burgess, stepped from the booth. One of the boys in the group pulled a gun and shot him. Burgess died a short time later at Maryland General Hospital.

Originally three of the defendants, including Smith, were charged with murder. By the following spring, police and prosecutors had separated some of the defendants based on eyewitness accounts of what each had done. Two of the defendants faced only robbery charges. The other two went to prison for Burgess' murder. Smith, who always insisted that he did not fire the shot that killed Burgess, was one of them.

Smith was a high school dropout when he started running the streets with young men a few years his senior.

"My mother used to tell me, 'You hang around with those tall boys, you're going to get in trouble,'" he says.

Those associations led to the Burgess murder, and a life sentence that commenced in April 1969.

By then, Richard Nixon was in his first year as president, and the Vietnam War that he had vowed to end raged on, as did protests against it at home. In Baltimore, whole sections of the city were still recovering from the riots and fires that had erupted a year earlier.

I had never heard of Joseph Smith until his letters started arriving from the Maryland Correctional Institution at Jessup this past summer. Though I receive plenty of mail from inmates — most of them seeking a job after their anticipated release dates — I was struck by the distance between Smith's age at the time of his crime, 19, and his age at the time of his first letter, 67. You'd think that, somewhere along the way, Smith's relative youth as an offender might have mitigated such a lengthy sentence.

But in this state, we have a parole system influenced by politics and governors. The Maryland Parole Commission conducts hearings to objectively assess each inmate's eligibility for supervised release. But even if the commission approves an inmate, the governor still has the final say. Maryland is one of only three states where that is the case.

That's the reason Smith was in prison for so long: At different times, previous governors either rejected the parole commission's recommendation or adopted policies that further delayed Smith's chances for freedom. Both Democrats and Republicans had a hand in keeping Smith in prison for nearly half a century.

But this time around it was Republican Larry Hogan who finally went along with the commission's recommendation and commuted Smith's sentence in time for his Christmas homecoming. Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer said the governor's staff devoted considerable time to reviewing the case for Smith's release, and that included an attempt, ultimately futile, to contact surviving relatives of the victim to see how they might feel about it.

So Smith, who turned 68 in November, left Jessup on Thursday. His younger sister, Rosie, who was just 2 years old when Smith went away, picked up the brother she's known only from prison visits. She took him shopping for some new clothes, then drove him to her house and the comfortable basement living quarters recently remodeled and decorated just for him.

When I first met him, Smith seemed to me a gentle soul, lean and healthy, still a little dazed, yet excited by this relatively sudden turn in his life. He'll probably look for a part-time job, his sister says. I told Smith about a place, Sharp Dressed Man, where he can get a good previously owned suit.

He knew all the twists and turns of his case for parole, going back decades. He recalled advocates, one long deceased, who tried to help him. He expressed profuse gratitude for his late mother's devotion, for his sister's loyalty and support and, of course, for Hogan's decision to approve his release.

"I am rejoicing," Smith said. "God blessed me home in time for Christmas."

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