Gov. Janet Mills has denied a petition for clemency by a former Portland man who has served 10 years of a 17-year prison sentence for attempted murder, potentially derailing his plans to complete a doctoral program.

Brandon Brown speaks during a graduation ceremony in prison. He is the first prisoner in Maine to earn a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. Photo courtesy of Mark Brown

Brandon Brown, 33, already is the first-ever Maine inmate to earn an advanced degree and had been accepted into a program at Virginia’s George Mason University to study restorative justice and conflict resolution. He hoped to begin in the fall.

“The quality of a civilization is measured by the degree of its empathy and belief in redemption. Yesterday, on that score, Janet Mills has failed on every count,” said Jeffrey Evangelos, a state representative from Friendship who assisted Brown through the clemency. “If Brandon Brown doesn’t qualify for clemency, no one ever will. Maine does not have parole anymore. This is the only process available to demonstrate rehabilitation and redemption.”

Brown, who is housed at Bolduc Correctional Facility in Warren, could not be reached for comment Friday. His father, Mark Brown, said he had not yet talked to his son but was disappointed.

“I was very hopeful,” Mark Brown said. “Brandon was the poster child for clemency. It’s tragic, not just for him but for every son and daughter who has to go through the prison system and see just how depressed it is.”

Mills’ office declined to comment on the decision or the reasons behind it and would not provide a copy of the letter that was sent to Brown as it’s considered confidential under state law.

“As a matter of practice, the governor’s office does not typically comment on requested or granted requests for executive clemency, outside of the exceptional circumstance of Don Gellers’ posthumous pardon,” said Mills’ spokeswoman, Lindsay Crete. She was referring to a former tribal attorney whose work exposing police brutality, civil rights violations and the looting of the tribe’s trust fund by state officials was derailed in 1968 by a conspiracy organized by the Attorney General’s Office. Mills issued a full pardon for Gellers in January.

Mark Brown said he hasn’t seen the letter denying clemency, but doesn’t believe it includes any explanation for the governor’s decision.

“That absolutely makes it worse,” he said.

Brandon Brown formally petitioned the state’s four-member Board on Executive Clemency in April and said that if his prison sentence were reduced, he would use that time to “significantly contribute to the world.”

Brown was sentenced in 2010 for the attempted murder of James Sanders, a former U.S. Marine, outside an Old Port nightclub in the summer of 2008. Both men were involved in a fight with others when Brown took a gun from his waistband and shot Sanders in the chest at close range. Sanders was partially paralyzed and later had a leg amputated.

At his sentencing, Brown described himself as a “coward,” and said he wished he could apologize directly to Sanders, who did not attend.

Sanders, who now lives in Georgia, did not attend Brown’s clemency hearing in April but communicated to Evangelos that he supported the request for commutation.

Reached on Friday about the governor’s decision to deny Brown’s petition, Sanders said he didn’t have much to say but that he forgives Brown.

“I don’t have anything negative or bad to say,” he said. “We’re living through some crazy times and I did what I could to try and help. We need to embrace empathy and forgiveness.”

Sanders said he hopes that Brown’s request is revisited “as time goes on.” State statute allows a person whose petition was denied to reapply after one year.

Although Sanders supported commutation, three of his aunts spoke in April against Brown’s request.

Rep. Jeffrey Evangelos Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Evangelos

By statute, the state clemency board hears petitions and then makes recommendations to the governor. However, the governor is not necessarily bound by those recommendations and has the authority to commute a sentence even if the board does not recommend it. Board recommendations are not a matter of public record. Commuting a prison sentence is slightly different than a pardon, another power granted to the governor, but the petition process is the same. Commutations reduce a penalty; pardons are when criminal offenses are forgiven.

Evangelos said he tried to get a meeting with the governor Friday to learn why she denied the petition but was unsuccessful. He shared an email from Jeremy Kennedy, Mills’ chief of staff, that read: “The Governor will not be taking a meeting on this topic. The Governor’s Office is also closed for outside visitors due to COVID.”

Evangelos said he believes the only reason Mills chose to keep Brown in prison is “because she could.”

“As the saying goes, power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. While it is clear today that there are no winners in this matter, it is also clear that there is one loser, the state of Maine, which reinforced its image of a brutal and broken criminal justice system, which chooses to break people rather than support redemption.”

During the decade he’s been incarcerated, Brown has been singularly focused on education. He earned an associate’s degree in 2013, a bachelor’s degree in history and human rights studies in 2017 and this spring completed a master’s program in restorative justice through George Mason with a 4.0 grade-point average.

Patricia Maulden, one of Brown’s professor’s at George Mason, said she was disappointed by the decision.

“I guess I wonder what’s the point of having this,” she said of Maine’s clemency process.

Maulden said she doesn’t know if Brown will be able to continue his studies at George Mason or not.

Mark Brown said he can’t help but feel like his son’s bid for clemency was a big waste of time.

“What other inmate would even try after this now,” he said.

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