Brandon Brown at Maine State Prison in Thomaston Jan. 17. (The Portland Phoenix/Jordan Bailey)
advertisementSmiley face

A Maine State Prison inmate is hoping for a rare commutation of his sentence after being accepted into a doctoral program at a Virginia university.

Brandon Brown, who is serving a 17-year sentence for attempted murder and elevated aggravated assault for shooting a man in Portland’s Old Port in 2008, is the first inmate in Maine to enroll in graduate school while incarcerated. He completed his coursework online and is poised to receive a master’s degree from George Mason University’s School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution this spring. Brown learned March 3 that he was accepted into the school’s Ph.D. program. 

Because the Ph.D. program does not offer an online option, Brown would have to attend in person in the fall, but his earliest release date, with reduced time for good behavior, is not until 2023 – unless his petition for clemency is recommended by the Governor’s Board of Executive Clemency and approved by Gov. Janet Mills. 

In a letter in support of the clemency petition, Associate Professor Patricia Maulden, Brown’s mentor at George Mason in Fairfax, wrote that Brown’s scholarship is “of the highest level,” and that he has “the potential to do important work in venues that few others could or would access, with individuals often forgotten or underserved.” 

Maulden said she has had many frank discussions with him and knows “he feels true remorse, and works to make amends through his work inside (the prison), as well as through his educational trajectory toward restorative justice, peace building, conflict analysis and resolution practices.”  

State Rep. Jeff Evangelos, I-Friendship, learned of Brown’s work and approached him in October 2019 about applying for clemency. Brown said he had not considered it because he has never heard of anyone in prison in Maine having their sentences commuted. Evangelos encouraged him to try, so Brown filed an application with the clemency board on Jan. 10.

Applicants must list “exceptional circumstances” that would justify the board’s consideration, and Brown wrote of his possible acceptance into a Ph.D. program. 

Though commutations are extremely rare, in 2008 the clemency board recommended commutation for Carol Graves, who shot and killed her father in 1996 after years of abuse. Then-Gov. John Baldacci approved the decision and reduced her prison sentence by 18 months. 

Evangelos helped gather 27 letters of support for Brown and was even able to obtain a letter from Brown’s victim, James Sanders, supporting Brown’s early release. 

Brown said he is grateful for the letter, and though he is not permitted to have any contact with Sanders, he wishes he could communicate with him. 

“I wish … that I could make him understand that supporting this is bigger than just whatever the supposed accomplishments that I’ve achieved since I’ve been in prison,” Brown said in a phone interview March 4. “I think it’s more important that I’ve been able to grow up and look back and really understand how severe my mistakes were, and really try my best to understand, even though it’s impossible to, the effects that it’s had on him.” 

Attempts to reach Sanders for comment were not successful, but his aunt, Diana Young, described the changes in Sanders’ life as a result of the shooting in an email to The Phoenix.

“He has gone through a lot since being shot; addiction, infection, amputation, and just a completely different life in a wheelchair versus the life he had prior,” Young wrote. “He is trying to now make the best of it and is currently in the process of training to compete in the wheelchair bodybuilding competition in Florida in March. So, he is attempting to put all of this in his rearview mirror. But the pain, infections, addictions, loneliness, depression has been difficult for me to watch over the years and know that he will never have any part of a life he could have had if it wasn’t for Brandon.”

Young said she and other relatives of Sanders have sent letters to the clemency board and to the governor, urging them not to approve Brown’s request. 

Probe begins

Brown’s petition cleared its first hurdle when the clemency board met in late January and recommended a hearing, opening an investigation by the Department of Corrections’ Division of Probation and Parole. Brown had to submit written answers to several questions including his life story from birth to the present, and on his version of the events of his crime. 

Brown wrote about how his life turned 180 degrees after an injury in high school dashed his hopes for playing basketball in college. He soon left home after a fight with his father, began drinking, couch surfing or sleeping in his car, and selling marijuana. He started hanging out with a group of people who would often get into fights and altercations outside of bars in the Old Port. 

He said his personality changed: he became more rebellious and confrontational, and took on a “tough guy” attitude. When he was 21, he bought a couple of handguns to protect himself from robberies as a marijuana dealer, but he started carrying a gun with him on occasion and developed what he called a false sense of power.

Brown was having a drink with a friend at Cactus Club, a Fore Street bar that has since closed, around midnight the night of June 23, 2008, while waiting for pizzas to be delivered, according to his description of the crime he submitted to the clemency board. A group of people they were familiar with entered the bar (one had allegedly stolen from the friend’s girlfriend), and things became tense. Brown went to his apartment above the bar to get his gun, and returned to wait for his pizza.

Back downstairs, after his friend chased off a member of the group who confronted him, others from the group came outside. A cigarette was thrown at Brown, and when he turned to see where it came from, he was tackled. He was held down and kicked in the head, Brown wrote. He managed to get to his feet and reached for his gun. He saw his knife on the ground between him and a man whom he said he later learned was James Sanders and pointed his gun at him.

He noted that at trial his lawyers had him emphasize that he saw Sanders lurch for the knife, but that is not emphasized in his written statement. He described the next moments as being in an emotionless state, with “no conscious process.” 

“I do not recall feeling fear, I do not remember feeling anger,” he wrote. “I was numb. I saw James, I saw the ruckus behind him, felt the gun in my hand as I pulled it out, saw the knife, chambered the round, pointed the pistol, saw his (angry) facial expression, saw him make a movement, and then fired one single shot at him. I did not have any intention of shooting Mr. Sanders in a specific spot. I had no desire to end his life. I had no intentions or desires at all, I simply pulled the trigger at the moment.” 

Since then, he said March 4, he has come to understand that the lifestyle he was living created a mentality that didn’t allow him to walk away from conflict. 

“When I reflect back about how that has happened, there are a million better ways that it could have turned out,” he said. “And I wish in hindsight that if I really was afraid of something happening that instead of getting my gun that night, I would have just stayed home.” 

He said he is disappointed that the justice system encourages offenders to deny their guilt and tell the self-defense story, which leads to victims feeling more angry and vengeful. He would rather have gone through a restorative justice process, where he could admit culpability, listen to his victim, and explore how and why the event happened.

It is through exploring stories of all those affected by a crime, he said, he has come to realize healing can occur. 

As part of the investigation, Brown was also interviewed several times by probation officers.

Research, courses continue

In the meantime, he has been keeping up with his coursework and conducting research for his thesis project. He is interviewing other inmates to study the impact of stereotype, stigma, shame and humiliation on the stories prisoners tell of themselves, to determine whether these impact reintegration into society.

He said he would like to continue similar research at the doctoral level to explore the stories of other players in the criminal justice process. 

Brown is scheduled to defend his Master’s thesis April 16 via teleconference. Because of the groundbreaking nature of his work – institutional-review-board-approved research by a prisoner on prisoners has not been done before – and the interest his work has generated, his thesis defense will be open to the public. Instructions for how to view a livestream of the event online can be found at https://scar.gmu.edu/events. 

Brown’s clemency hearing, also open to the public, is scheduled for April 9 at 1 p.m. at the Department of Corrections offices in Augusta. If the board recommends clemency, Brown’s request will go to the governor for a final decision. 

As of March 16, neither the thesis defense nor the hearing had been canceled or postponed due to the coronavirus.