Becoming attuned to a new life

Free: Friends and a love of music help Michael Austin adjust after 27 years in prison.

February 17, 2002|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN STAFF

In the dead of night, long before the sun rises, Michael Austin's eyes flip open and he is suddenly awake, no noise to blame. This has been happening for weeks, two times, three times, more times a night, since the end of December, ever since he was released from prison after doing more than two decades of time.

Nightmares are not to blame for waking him. After all, he could sleep when he was in prison. He does not awaken because he is too warm or too cold or too anything else, really.

"It's like I wake up to tell myself, `This is not a dream,'" he says, then repeats himself with a pause between each word, as if saying it more slowly makes it more true: "This ... is ... not ... a ... dream."

He is really free.

"It's like a new birth," says Austin, 26 when he was put away and now 53. "It's like a whole different life, like I just came into the world."

In many ways, he did. He was freed from the Maryland House of Correction on Dec. 28 after serving 27 years on a murder conviction that was reversed not on technicalities but because there was no evidence that survived scrutiny to indicate he had anything to do with the crime.

The judge who ruled in favor of Austin, John Carroll Byrnes, says in the written opinion that freed him that justice has finally prevailed, which might be true in the context of law. But the judge, understandably, has no words about Austin's permanent loss, the 27 years. After all that time, what could he possibly say?

Nothing that would do any good, says Austin, and that is fine. No bitterness. None.

Put away in 1975, the year Saigon fell to North Vietnam, Austin looks at the world with the curiosity of a child plopped on the moon.

Look at this Baltimore "Inner Harbor Thing," twinkling with lights, people traveling from other states to see it.

"When I went in, it was grease and dirt and nobody," he says. "A bunch of stuff is like that, all these changes - it's almost like things aren't real."

People recognize him in a supermarket, yell to him wishes of good luck. He has been checking out different churches. At one, the Ark on East North Avenue in East Baltimore, Pastor J.L. Carter passed around the collection plate and gave him more than $600 to help him on his way.

Austin plans to begin work next month. He is waiting for the results of his job interview with a group that helps troubled boys. If that falls through, he might work construction. A friend of his from prison is also trying to land him a job. The friend is Leslie Vass, released in 1984 after 10 years in prison for a robbery he did not commit. Strange how things work out, Austin says.

He has not been compensated a dime for all those years. Could happen. Might not.

Not a bitter word

He refuses, still, to be angry about his imprisonment. He will not offer a bitter word about anybody involved or even about "the system" as a whole. He considers the prosecutor who convicted him a friend, the state's only eyewitness, now dead of a drug overdose, a tragic case.

He does not understand why Patricia C. Jessamy, the Baltimore state's attorney, worked so hard to keep him behind bars last year even as the original case against him unraveled in the courthouse, but he will not concede a shred of animosity toward her.

"I don't have time for that," Austin explains. "I'm human and part of me wants to know why this happened, but I can't let that in my life. Everybody wants to know why I'm not angry. It's because, if I let those thoughts come in, what good is that going to do me? Why do I want to be free and waste the time I have left with that kind of stuff?"

Philosophical stuff, no problem. He can answer with certainty how his heart feels. Smaller parts of his new life, the mundane, that is what leaves him with questions.

He stoops his 6-foot-5 frame, closely examines a parking meter, a stingy one, the type put in front of banks and that grant cars only 15 minutes of space. He assumes all the meters in the city are like that.

"Fifteen minutes to park?" he asks. "How are you supposed to do your business in 15 minutes? What if you're shopping or something?"

Dreams of freedom

Michael Austin has had dreams about being on the streets.

One of the dreams he remembers especially vividly. Ended badly. In it, he is fresh out of prison, surrounded by old friends, family. Everybody smiles, laughs. So happy to see him.

In his sleep, he could practically feel the arms hugging him. "Mike! How you been?" Could almost feel the hands slapping on his back. "Mike! How you been?"

The end: reality. A guard woke him up. Mail. The dream was so real, but his freedom was not. On his bunk, he looked at the ceiling and tears fell out of the corners of his eyes.

"I know this is real," he says now, sitting in a home in Northwest Baltimore, picking up a trumpet that he rarely lets rest. "It feels different than that dream did, but it's still kind of like a dream. That's the best I can describe it."

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