In the years after he graduated high school, Brandon Brown said, he lost who he was.

Brandon Brown speaks during a graduation ceremony in prison. He will be the first Maine inmate to earn an advanced degree when he receives his master’s next month. Photo courtesy of Mark Brown

That period, he said, was defined by behavior both “naive and reckless,” and culminated in a violent encounter on June 24, 2008, that left James Sanders, a former U.S. Marine, paralyzed and sent Brown to prison for attempted murder.

During the decade he’s been incarcerated, Brown, now 33, bettered himself through education. He earned an associate’s degree in 2013, a bachelor’s degree in history and human rights studies in 2017 and is now enrolled in an online master’s program in restorative justice through George Mason University in Virginia. He’s on track to graduate next month with a 4.0 grade point average.

Brown will be the first-ever Maine inmate to earn an advanced degree and also has been accepted into a doctorate program at George Mason to study restorative justice and conflict resolution.

He hopes to attend in person.

On Thursday, Brown formally petitioned the state’s four-member Board on Executive Clemency to commute the remaining seven years of his prison sentence.

“I feel uncomfortable saying to anyone that I deserve a commutation,” Brown said. “But I can promise you that if it’s something that’s recommended and given, it will not be regretted.”

The clemency board was expected to vote in executive session on its recommendation, which will then go to Gov. Janet Mills, who will make the final decision.

Several people spoke on Brown’s behalf during a three-and-a-half hour teleconference hearing Thursday, including state Rep. Jeffrey Evangelos of Friendship, who got to know him through his volunteer work at the prison and became his advocate.

It was Evangelos who suggested last year that Brown explore clemency. Evangelos also reached out to Sanders, the victim.

Evangelos recalled that phone call Thursday.

“He said ‘Yeah, I’m good with it. I want him to get out,’ ” Evangelos told the clemency board. “I asked if he was absolutely sure and he said yes, so I asked him to write something.”

The letter was submitted as part of Brown’s petition.

In it, Sanders wrote that he’s suffered a lot since Brown shot him in the chest during a fight on an Old Port street 12 years ago. He’s had a leg amputated, spiraled into drug addiction and even attempted suicide.

Brandon Brown sits with his lawyer, Sarah Churchill, at his sentencing in 2010. Brown says now that his behavior was “naive and reckless” in that period of his life. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“Through all that, I have been meaning to write this letter for a while to say I hope your growth continues and that I’ve let go of anger and pain; forgiveness and bettering ourselves is the way to be. So, with that said, I hope this helps towards an early release for you. Take care my dude. Sincerely, Jimmy Sanders.”

Sanders, who lives in Georgia, did not respond to a phone message left for him Thursday.

Although Sanders’ letter to the clemency board said he supported commutation, three of his aunts spoke Thursday against Brown’s request.

“I question if Brandon really feels remorseful or just knows, through his education, what he needs to say to get what he wants out of this,” said Diana Young.

Young and other members of the victim’s family said they didn’t believe the original sentence of 17 years was enough and urged the clemency board to deny Brown’s request.

Brown, who was given the opportunity to speak again after Sanders’ family members addressed the board, said he understands how the family feels and doesn’t begrudge them.

“I don’t anticipate that my words will ever be enough,” he said.

During his testimony, Brown said he made the decision to grow up in prison, to avoid wallowing in self-pity. But it didn’t happen overnight.

“It took me a long time to let go of the past and to take accountability for what I did,” he said.

It wasn’t until 2015, when he started learning about restorative justice, that he really understand the harm his actions caused, he said, not just for Sanders and his family but for everyone involved who had to witness it, or participate in the trial.

That’s when he started to fully commit to studying conflict resolution. He said he hopes a commutation will allow him to “significantly contribute to the world.”

Many others spoke of Brown’s transformation while incarcerated. In addition to education, he took advantage of opportunities to volunteer, including with the prison’s hospice program.

“There’s something about confronting death in this environment that forces you to look at your life,” he said.

Deborah Meehan, director of University of Maine at Augusta’s Rockland Center, got to know Brown through the college’s program at the Maine State Prison.

“He will not waste his freedom,” she said. “But I fear a decision to insist on more incarceration is a missed opportunity.”

Patricia Maulden, a professor at George Mason University, said she’s been impressed with Brown’s unflinching desire to atone for his mistakes.

“Education has been his lifeline,” said Maulden, who also shared with the board a personal story of her son, who spent time in prison for an act of violence and has not accepted responsibility the way Brown has.

“He lives a bitter daily existence. So, I know the other side of this personally.”

Brown’s father, Mark Brown, spoke emotionally about how his son “lost his way,” during his early adult years “as so many boys do.”

“For three seconds, he made a mistake that he will never be able to forget … that changed two families’ lives forever,” he said.

Mark Brown also thanked staff at the prison for giving inmates like his son the opportunity “to feel human again.”

“The road to redemption is one that never ends,” the father said.

There is no timetable for a decision on Brown’s request by Gov. Mills, but Evangelos said that if anyone deserves clemency, it’s Brown.

“If we’re going to have an executive clemency process, occasionally it has to bear some success, or why have it?” he said.

Brown said the one thing he hasn’t been able to do in all his years in prison is talk to Sanders directly. The conditions of his sentence prohibit contact.

But he thinks about it every day.

“It’s been something I always hoped would happen,” he said.

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