For 30 years, Anthony Fair said, he prepared for the day when he would be released from prison in Maryland.

On Jan. 20, 1993, Fair shot and killed Rodney Ross, 17, and William Fortune, 38, in the basement of a stash house in Sandtown-Winchester — a decision, he said, he immediately regretted. He was later found guilty in Baltimore Circuit Court of first- and second-degree murder and use of a handgun during the commission of a crime of violence, and sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole — plus 20 years.

He said he never had a doubt, though, that someone reviewing his case would eventually give him a second chance. And on Sept. 20, Fair walked out of the Patuxent Institution, a prison in Jessup, a free man.

“It’s just like the fulfillment of all the work I’ve been working toward to get to this day,” said Fair, now 45, of Baltimore, an electrician who plans on working for a construction company.

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Fair is one of 14 people in Baltimore who has been released from prison as a result of the Juvenile Restoration Act, which took effect on Oct. 1, 2021. The law created a mechanism for those who have served at least 20 years for crimes they committed as children to get back into court, demonstrate they have changed and ask a judge to reduce their sentence.

“It’s incredibly important for the integrity of our system that we be able to remain confident in decisions that were made a very long time ago. And I think part of that is periodically retesting those decisions,” said Sonia Kumar, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Maryland.

“We’re all better off if people who have turned themselves around are able to put their energy to work in our communities to make us safer,” she added.

‘This is not a get-out-of-jail-free card’

Crystal Carpenter felt the timing was right.

Carpenter, chief program and strategy officer for the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, a national nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., that advocates for banning life without parole and other lengthy sentences for children, said the group had secured legislative victories in other states.

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She said there was a groundswell of support from different coalitions for legislation that would create an opportunity for people who were sentenced for crimes they committed as children to get back into court in Maryland.

Carpenter noted the racial injustice that exists with what she described as extreme sentencing of children.

The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth determined that there were more than 400 people in the state serving life sentences or equivalent punishments for crimes they committed as children who would immediately be eligible for review under the proposal. Of that number, 87% were Black.

Meanwhile, in 2019, the Justice Policy Institute, a national nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., released a report that found that Maryland led the United States in incarcerating young Black men.

During the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Carpenter said, people were at home. They were paying more attention to injustices and wanted to make a difference, she said.

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State Sen. Chris West, R-Baltimore County, who sponsored the bill in the Maryland Senate that would later become the Juvenile Restoration Act, said he listened to advocates and found their arguments compelling.

“I strongly believe that each of us inside us, whether it’s our soul or our conscience or our heart or whatever, has the capacity for redemption,” said West, who noted that science shows that the brain does not fully mature until age 25.

In recent years, the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized the developmental differences between adolescents and adults in a series of opinions. The justices have ruled that it’s unconstitutional for judges to hand down mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole and made that holding retroactively apply to old cases.

West said he knew that he would have problems getting other members of the GOP on board. But West said he committed to doing what he felt was right.

One of those fellow Republicans, Gov. Larry Hogan, vetoed the bill.

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When the Maryland General Assembly voted to override the veto, West supported the effort.

He emphasized that people do not automatically receive a reduction in their sentence under the law. The standards, he said, are stringent.

“This is not a get-out-of-jail-free card,” West said. “Many will ask, but few will be permitted, to get out of jail before their sentence is up.”

Under the Juvenile Restoration Act, people who have served at least 20 years in prison for crimes they committed as children can file a motion to reduce their sentence. They’re entitled to a hearing.

Judges must consider 11 factors, including age at the time of the crime, compliance with the rules in prison and demonstration of maturity and rehabilitation. The court can reduce a sentence if it finds that a person is not a danger to the public and that doing so would better serve the interest of justice.

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The law also bans judges from sentencing children to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

As of Dec. 30, 2020, the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services reported that there were 1,159 prisoners who entered the system for offenses that happened before they turned 18, according to a policy and fiscal note.

Of that number, 47 people were serving life in prison without the possibility of parole. Meanwhile, 189 individuals were serving life in prison with the possibility of parole.

Because the law applies to those who have served at least 20 years in prison, the number of people eligible to file motions can change each day. But the act does not create that pathway for review for individuals who are sentenced after its effective date.

Del. Jazz Lewis, D-Prince George’s County, who sponsored the bill in the Maryland House of Delegates, said he’s excited that many well-deserving people can potentially come home and rebuild their lives because of the Juvenile Restoration Act.

Lewis said there is no reason to keep people incarcerated if they no longer pose a threat to public safety. The issue, he said, is about justice and fairness.

“Policy matters,” Lewis said. “Government can work — if we lean into it.”

‘I do believe he’s fully rehabilitated’

On Sept. 16, Fair appeared via Zoom for a hearing in Baltimore Circuit Court on his motion for a reduction of sentence under the Juvenile Restoration Act.

His attorney, Allison Levine, spoke at length about how he has changed. She submitted an almost 300-page packet that detailed his accomplishments.

Fair is the third oldest of eight children. His mother, Regina, struggled with alcoholism but has since undergone treatment. Meanwhile, his father left home when he was 5 and later died, according to court documents.

When he was in ninth grade, Fair stopped going to Walbrook High School. He became a runner in a drug organization, court documents state, earning $300-$500 per week to supplement his mother’s income. It’s a decision that led to the murders.

But Fair viewed his story as one of redemption and transformation, Levine said.

In 1995, Fair earned his GED diploma. He later received certificates from Anne Arundel Community College and what’s now Coppin State University. That’s in addition to an associate degree from Ashworth College as well as career diplomas in paralegal studies from Blackstone and Stratford career institutes.

He had not received an infraction in more than 20 years.

Levine noted that her client was not even old enough to drive a car when he committed the murders. Fair, she said, had spent more of his life incarcerated than outside of prison.

“This is not an individual who will appear before your honor again,” Levine said. “Mr. Fair has done everything that one can do while incarcerated to become the best version of himself.”

Fair said he immediately started taking courses to improve his decision-making. He said he was the youngest person incarcerated at his facility and realized the importance of education at 17.

“I had to decide early on what I was going to do with the rest of my life, despite the fact that I was incarcerated,” he said. “I decided to make the most of the time to better myself.”

He said he mentored young prisoners, served as president of the Lifer’s Conference at the Maryland Correctional Institution in Hagerstown and hosted events in recognition of National Crime Victims’ Rights Week.

Fair said that he was deeply sorry for the crimes he committed and that there were no words adequate enough to express the depth of his remorse.

His oldest brother, Aaron, was fatally shot on New Year’s Day in 1998 in Baltimore — the first homicide of the year. He was 23. “What I did not know is through that experience, I was learning what I had put the families of the victims through in my own case,” Fair said. “I learned firsthand what a mother goes through when she loses a son.”

During the hearing, Shemel Fortune, the daughter of William Fortune, one of the two people whom Fair shot and killed, said she was emotionally torn. Fortune said part of her wanted Fair to spend the rest of his life in prison. At the same time, she said, she did not think that people should be punished forever for a horrible decision that they made as a teenager.

In an interview, Fortune, 43, a geriatric nursing assistant who lives in Baltimore County, said her father was her best friend.

Though he battled addiction, she said, he was always there. She was 13 when Fair killed her father.

Fortune said she argued with him the last time the two spoke about wanting a new pair of shoes for a party. She hung up the phone and did not go over to his home that weekend because she was upset.

“Growing up, I’ve learned to look at it on the bright side,” she said. “Because if I hadn’t have argued with my dad that weekend, maybe I would’ve been the third body in that house. Because I would’ve been there.”

Fortune said going through the hearing was emotional.

“To this day, I’m still torn. Yes, I’m happy for this young man. I really am, genuinely,” said Fortune, who wants to sit down with Fair. “But I’m also unhappy about my dad. That will never go away.”

Family members of Ross, the other person whom Fair shot and killed, opposed reducing his sentence. They could not be reached for comment.

Circuit Judge Yvette M. Bryant granted the motion and reduced Fair’s sentence to life in prison with all but time served suspended, plus five years’ probation. She said she believed it was the kind of case that lawmakers contemplated when crafting the Juvenile Restoration Act.

“I do find that Mr. Fair is someone who does not pose a risk to society at this time,” Bryant said. “I do believe he’s fully rehabilitated.”

“I believe that even if he had to spend the next 10 or 15 years in prison,” she added, “there would be nothing more for him to learn.”

‘We try to look at the whole picture’

In Baltimore, Assistant State’s Attorney Becky Feldman, chief of the Sentencing Review Unit, said she represents the state in all motions filed for a reduction of sentence pursuant to the Juvenile Restoration Act.

That’s how she first came to look at the case of Adnan Syed, which received international attention in 2014 with the release of the podcast “Serial.” He was found guilty in 2000 of first-degree murder, robbery, kidnapping and false imprisonment in the killing of Hae Min Lee, his ex-girlfriend and classmate at Woodlawn High School.

Syed’s attorney, Erica Suter, director of the Innocence Project Clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law, asked Feldman to take a look at the case for relief under the act.

Following an almost one-year investigation, Feldman filed a motion to throw out Syed’s conviction, reporting that the inquiry discovered that the state did not turn over exculpatory evidence and uncovered information about possible alternative suspects.

Circuit Judge Melissa M. Phinn granted the motion on Sept. 19 and released Syed from prison while the investigation continues.

Baltimore Assistant State's Attorney Becky Feldman, chief of the Sentencing Review Unit, center, leaves the Elijah E. Cummings Courthouse on Sept. 19, 2022, following a hearing to vacate the conviction of Adnan Syed, whose case was chronicled in the podcast "Serial." (Kaitlin Newman for The Baltimore Banner)

Feldman said she conducts an extensive review of these cases, which includes examining the parole file, looking at court documents and reading transcripts. The state, she said, spends a lot of time trying to contact victims or family members of victims of crime to get their input. That’s a factor that holds a lot of weight when prosecutors are coming up with a sentencing recommendation.

Part of the process, she said, involves trying to understand the role that people played in the crime and their level of culpability. If there are co-defendants in a case, Feldman said, she will look at those files, too.

She said remorse is also a key consideration.

Feldman said she writes a lengthy memo that includes a proposed sentencing recommendation and submits it to the executive team for review. State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, she said, makes the final call.

“We just try to look at the whole picture,” Feldman said. “At the end of the day, we will only recommend a reduced sentence or release if we feel that this person has done enough time and is no longer a public safety risk. And it takes a long time to get to that point.”

Meanwhile, Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger said that “most of these cases are so bad that we’re opposing the request.”

Shellenberger testified in opposition to the Juvenile Restoration Act, noting, in part, that there are already numerous mechanisms for people to challenge their conviction and sentence. He said he believes that the judge who presided over the trial or accepted the guilty plea was in the best position to determine the correct punishment.

“When you give someone a sentence of life plus 40 years, your intent was for them to never get out,” Shellenberger said. “The judges have a complete toolbox to deal with these cases the way they deem appropriate.”

Brian Saccenti, director of the Decarceration Initiative at the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, said it is representing about 160 people who are eligible to have their sentences reviewed under the act.

He has been tracking outcomes statewide in these cases, though he said it’s possible that there might be a few of them that he is not aware of at the moment.

To date, Saccenti said, judges have decided 36 motions and granted a reduction in sentence that immediately paved the way for the release of 23 people.

Saccenti said he believes that the implementation of the law has generally been going well. Judges, he said, are finding in a majority cases that people do not pose a danger to the public and that reducing their sentence is in the interest of justice.

He said he believes that misconceptions about the measure stem from the fact that many people are not able to meet or interact with those who’ve committed serious crimes but served a substantial amount of time in prison. It’s hard for some to believe that individuals can mature and grow into model citizens, Saccenti said.

“I feel like it is so woven throughout our culture — this idea of redemption and the capacity of people to change and become much better than they once were,” he said. “And it’s woven through our religions, and it’s woven through our civic life.”

The Maryland Office of the Public Defender, he noted, is located on St. Paul Street. Paul the Apostle, he said, spent most of his early life persecuting Christians but later became a saint. “And yet we seem to have a hard time believing it can really happen,” Saccenti said.

Said Saccenti: “At some point, you have to ask, ‘What more can a person do to atone?’”

‘It means everything’

Fair said he wants to advocate for people to be released under the act and work with the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative to develop reentry programs.

He spoke about one man on his tier who had served 55 years in prison and received multiple recommendations from the Maryland Parole Commission. “He should’ve literally been the first one out of the door,” Fair said.

Baltimore and Prince George’s County, he said, are implementing the law. But Fair said some people are hesitant to file in other jurisdictions.

Some advocates are hoping that lawmakers will expand the measure to encompass the emerging adult population. That’s what happened in Washington, D.C., where people who have served at least 15 years in prison for crimes that they committed before age 25 can ask a judge to reduce their sentence.

When telling his story, Fair said, it’s important for him to emphasize that he accepts responsibility for the decision that he made. He said he refuses to blame other people, minimize his conduct or make any other excuses.

Fair said he wants to make the most of his opportunity. He said he recognizes that he could hinder the release of others if he messes up.

“It means everything,” Fair said, “because I understand everything I do, everything I say, will be viewed in the lens of those who are trying to come behind me.”

Anthony Fair, 45, of Baltimore, said he wants to advocate for people to be released under the Juvenile Restoration Act and work with the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative to develop reentry programs. “It means everything,” Fair said, “because I understand everything I do, everything I say, will be viewed in the lens of those who are trying to come behind me.” (Kaitlin Newman for The Baltimore Banner)

dylan.segelbaum@thebaltimorebanner.com

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