James Sanders tends to his bandages during a Spartan Race for disabled veterans organized by veteran suicide prevention group 22Kill in 2016. Sanders supports the bid for a commuted sentence for Brandon Brown, the man who shot him in Portland in 2008. (YouTube)
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The Governor’s Board on Executive Clemency held a hearing by conference call April 9 to consider recommending commuting the sentence of a prison inmate serving 17 years for attempted murder and elevated aggravated assault.

The final decision lies with Gov. Janet Mills.

The inmate, Brandon Brown, shot former U.S. Marine James Sanders in Portland’s Old Port in June 2008. Sanders, who is now paraplegic, supports Brown’s request for clemency. 

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

After graduating from a University of Maine program at the prison, Brown became the first inmate to enroll in graduate school remotely. He is set to graduate in May with a master’s degree from George Mason University’s School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution. He has been accepted into the school’s Ph.D. program, which does not offer an online option, and is seeking a commutation so he can attend the Virginia university in person in the fall.

Without a commutation, Brown is scheduled for release in 2023. He has recently been transferred from Maine State Prison in Thomaston to the minimum security Bolduc Correctional Facility. 

Rep. Jeff Evangelos, I-Friendship, who serves on the Judiciary Committee and volunteers at the prison, said he suggested that Brown pursue clemency, and offered to assist. When Brown agreed, he sent a letter to Sanders, who now lives in Georgia, to see how he would feel about it. Sanders called Evangelos a few days later. 

“He told me ‘Yeah, I’m good with it,” Evangelos said.

He said he and Sanders talked about the effect of the shooting on his life. “I asked him if he was absolutely sure that he wanted to proceed in helping with this and he said, ‘Yes I am.’”  

While 10 other supporters including a district attorney, professors and academic administrators spoke in favor of Brown’s release, three of Sanders’ aunts opposed the commutation for the crime that forever altered their nephew’s life.

They acknowledged Sanders supported Brown’s release in order to move on. But they also said they wanted everyone on the call to know their nephew has suffered and described his life of pain, depression, addiction, bouts of infection, and hospitalizations they thought he wouldn’t survive. 

In his opening statement to the board, Brown talked about the programs he participated in while incarcerated. The most significant, he said, was a restorative justice group he joined in 2015 because it helped him to acknowledge the harm he caused his victim and the community, and set him on his educational path in conflict resolution.   

He said he is seeking to learn how the criminal justice system can better help offenders get to a point where they can take accountability for the mistakes they’ve made and work to repair them, rather than immersing themselves in the counter-cultural elements of prison life. 

James Sanders. (Courtesy Diana Young)

Brown said he conducted interviews of his fellow inmates to learn about what parts of incarceration affect prisoners’ identities and their ability to productively re-enter society. Among other things, he said he found that society’s expectation of silence from inmates leads to feelings of hopelessness because the inmates think that no one will see them change or believe any evidence of change presented. 

Masters candidates are not typically asked to defend their theses, but because of the interest among faculty and students at George Mason and beyond, the university is hosting an online public defense of Brown’s thesis April 16. 

Brown said that while he was uncomfortable implying he deserves to be released, a commutation would allow him to continue his research. He plans to expand his studies to other elements of the criminal justice system for his doctoral work. 

Natasha Irving, district attorney for Waldo, Knox, Lincoln, and Sagadahoc counties, said Brown’s situation is exactly the type of exceptional circumstance that clemency is designed for and that prosecutors need his work. 

“Mr. Brown has dedicated his life to learning how to end violence,” she said. “All of us prosecutors strive for thinkers to establish those programs, those policies and those preventative measures that bring justice to victims, and take an offender and make them a productive, healthy and safe member of society.” 

Brown’s academic adviser and two professors at George Mason spoke highly of his academic achievements, not the least of which is his 4.0 grade point average. 

Associate Professor Patricia Maulden researches patterns of violence and the shift from violent to non-violent action, and has studied prisoners who come to accept responsibility.  While not the norm, when that shift occurs, she said, it is “almost miraculous in its impact for all parties concerned, and this is certainly the case with Brandon’s work.”  

Deborah Meehan, director of the University of Maine at Augusta’s nine off-campus centers, said that by being the first to successfully complete a master’s program, Brown “has forever changed the culture at the Maine state prison and raised the aspirations of other inmates there,” some of whom are now applying for post-graduate programs. 

During questioning by clemency board members, the focus was not on the crime or trial, but on Brown’s later appeals. Board member Carletta Bassano, a retired district attorney, asked if it was a fair assessment that Brown had “pretty aggressively exhausted” every legal option he had available, to which Brown answered that he had. 

Later Brown said he has learned that going through the criminal justice system tends to create an adversarial “need-to-win” mindset. 

“Through writing these appeals and fighting for a different sentence,  I’ve minimized the harm that I created, and that’s not something that I’m happy about or that I’ve ever been okay with,” he said. “It’s something I felt I had to do.” 

Board Chairman Fernand LaRochelle asked about Brown’s contention in an appeal that Sanders was able to walk with the aid of a prosthetic limb. 

Brown explained that he had heard conflicting information about Sanders’ mobility and asked his lawyer to investigate. Because he is not permitted contact with Sanders, he said he does not know his current condition but that whatever it is he takes full responsibility. 

He said he’s had difficulty imagining the effect of his crime, and said he wished for the opportunity to have a conversation with Sanders and his family. 

Brown was about to hear in excruciating detail what life has been like for Sanders since their encounter in 2008. 

Testifying against the petition for clemency, Sanders’ aunts confirmed that Sanders is paraplegic, and said the shooting “mutilated” his body. They said that part of his abdominal muscles had to be removed to patch an infected area. They said one of his legs was amputated and the other cannot support weight. He does have a prosthetic limb, they said, but only to give the appearance that he has two legs; he cannot walk on it. 

“The only reason why James is alive today is because he does have resilience, because he is a Marine, and because he fights to stay alive,” said one of the aunts, Catherine Fitzer of Washington. 

She said that not wanting to accept weakness, her nephew has thrown himself into weightlifting and fitness and has made many friends through that interest. A video of him completing a Spartan Race obstacle course in 2016 with the assistance of the veteran suicide prevention organization “22Kill” can be seen on YouTube. 

Another aunt, Diana Young of Georgia, said Brown also took Sanders’ dreams of a career away from him. Just before he was shot, he had applied for positions with the FBI, the CIA, and the U.S. Marshals Service but has not been able to work because of his pain and the limitations caused by his injury. 

Young said Sanders does receive full Veterans Administration benefits and can live relatively independently, but he needs help with such things as laundry and grocery shopping. 

She questioned whether Brown is truly remorseful, or if he was telling the board “what he needs to say to get what he wants out of this.”

“We were upset when the court decided to suspend 10 years of his 27-year sentence,” Young said. “Seventeen years isn’t enough, 13 years isn’t enough.”

Lynne Fredericksen, of Georgia, said if she had heard the words “I’m sorry” from Brown, it would have made it easier for her and her sisters to let it go.  

Brown was permitted to speak again after the public comment period. He said he wants to apologize to James, but that “sorry” would not be enough.

“I consider myself to be somebody who can compose words in a way that means something and that makes people understand what I’m feeling or what I’m thinking,” he said. “And this is the one thing in my life that I don’t think there are words for. I don’t believe that there are words to convey my sorrow and my remorse and my acceptance of responsibility for what happened.”

Earlier, Brown’s father delivered emotional testimony about his son’s work toward redemption. Choking up, he thanked Sanders for calling him at Christmas, for his honesty, sincerity, and compassion, and for writing the letter in support of his son’s release. 

“I will never forget the words you wrote,” Mark Brown said. “‘Forgiveness and bettering ourselves is the way to be.’”