Archive for October 26th, 2007

Michael Austin

jail cellIn 1974, during the robbery of a Royal Farms store in Baltimore, a security guard was shot to death with his own gun. Witnesses at the scene, including the cashier on duty, described the assailant as a light skinned black man around 5 feet 8 inches tall. Michael Austin, a very dark skinned man over six feet in height was arrested for the crime. He was subsequently tried for first degree murder.

The cashier picked out Michael from a book of police mug shots. When confronted with the disparity in size and complexion he claimed to be mistaken the first time.The prosecutors held this witness up to the jury as being a very civic minded young college student and they readily chose to believe him. Besides, although Michael, was now married and gainfully employed he had a significant record of prior arrests and convictions. In spite of his employer providing him with a tight alibi (he was working at the time of the robbery and there were time cards and multiple witnesses) it made little difference. He looked good for the crime.

His family had a little money and they hired an attorney. Unfortunately the only attorney they could afford happened to be a drug addict and alcoholic. Michael assumed that he was drunk throughout the trial. He was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison plus 15 years – no chance of parole.

It turned out later that the cashier was not actually a civic minded young college student but, according to his own family, a violent offender and drug addict. He also happened to be a paid police informant that may have been primarily interested in pleasing his employers and erstwhile antagonists. (Apparently the police wanted Michael for another crime but could not indict him for it.) A few years later this police informant died of a drug overdose.

A few years after the sentencing, the prosecuting attorney on the case went on record as saying that he should never have tried Michael. But nothing was done.

For the first five years of his incarceration Michael was an angry and bitter young man. He bucked the system every chance he could, was often involved in fights and spent much time in isolation. Somewhere in that period of time a change began to take place and eventually Michael began to settle down and take stock of his life and his situation. His says that this change was because of God.

Michael understood that, although not guilty of this crime, his past actions had made him vulnerable. His mother told him once, when visiting, that he only had himself to blame for this situation, that you are only as good as your reputation. And it was true that Michael had not been a good boy growing up.

Having been made a ward of the state he was placed in a foster home where he suffered physical and mental abuse. As a teenager he became involved with drugs and crime and spent plenty of time in juvenile lock up and even a little time in the state penitentiary. But at some point he began to settle down, got a steady job, found a woman he loved and got married.

In prison Michael began to study philosophy and music. He earned his G.E.D. and then later he earned a Bachelors Degree in music theory from Coppin State University, which had programs available within the penitentiary. He became an accomplished trumpet player.

An organization out of Princeton called Centurion Ministries took up his case. Centurion is devoted to that particular part of Jesus’ ministry that addressed freedom for the prisoners, in this case the innocent ones. In 2001 Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke became aware of Michael’s plight and that year he was set free. Michael waited one year to ask for a pardon from the Governor. He wanted to prove first that he could be a contributing and law abiding member of the community. The state of Maryland awarded him 1.4 million dollars in restitution for the 27 years of freedom that he had taken from him. Although his first wife is now remarried (he is happy for her) Michael has met someone and they are engaged.

He was 25 years old the day her reported to do his time and he was 52 years old when he finally walked out the prison doors. Since 2001 Michael has started his own business, a successful recording studio in Baltimore. He also leads a jazz band, where he plays trumpet. His band spends a lot to time playing charity benefits up and down the East Coast. Michael himself devotes his free time talking with young people in schools, churches and civic events.

This is where I met him, as he came to our school to speak to the students and staff. His message is simple; don’t let other people, don’t let circumstances, define who you are or make your decisions for you. At some point you must learn to respect yourself, and even love yourself, in order to start doing those things that will earn the respect and love of others. He also said that they needed to understand that so many of the people that they thought of as being part a dominating system were actually there because they loved them. It was time for them to start showing these people the respect that they deserved.

Most of the students in our school (around 90 or so) are ‘troubled’ youths from blighted urban areas and his message seemed to resonate with them. After he spoke, some of the kids, mostly the hard cases that have done time and are probably close to doing some more, gathered around him, shaking his hand, hugging him, asking him more questions. It touched them that this guy seemed to give a damn about them. I hope they understood that we give a damn about them as well.

At the time of Michael’s conviction, Maryland had no death penalty, but it was reinstated not much later. If the death penalty had been in effect at the time he would not have been able to earn his G.E.D., get his college diploma, learn to read and write music or play the trumpet. And our kids would never have met him.


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