REGINALD Curbeam sat in a chair and struggled to remember Christmases past.
"It's hard to speak about," he said, "being incarcerated like this. It's hard."
But with a little prodding, Curbeam - imprisoned at the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup since the age of 17 - recalled the days when his five brothers and sisters would charge down the stairs on Christmas morning.
"Being part of that family," said Curbeam, is what he remembers. "The joy of the moment. Looking at my mother's face and seeing how happy she was for what she tried to do."
Dec. 25, 1984, was the last Christmas that Curbeam spent with his family.
"I remember being excited because my sister had just had a son - my first nephew," Curbeam said. "It was one of the most exciting moments at that time - having another baby around the house, being with my family."
His family hasn't been able to see him much on Christmas lately. Curbeam's mom used to visit him every yuletide, but now spends much of her time on holidays visiting his diabetic brother, who is hospitalized after suffering a stroke.
Sixteen days after that last Christmas at home, Curbeam was in jail, charged with seriously wounding Larry Thompson and fatally shooting Thompson's friend in one of those nasty drug disputes common to Baltimore's streets. Police picked up Curbeam. Thompson picked him out of a photo array and identified him at trial.
Then a curious thing happened - something that Curbeam's lawyer thought was a stroke of luck. Shortly after Curbeam was sentenced, Thompson said he had seen another man who looked far more like his assailant than Curbeam. Realizing this was a "Whoops! My bad!" of major proportions, Thompson called the state's attorney's office. When no one called back, he grabbed a phone book and randomly contacted a lawyer to see if he would be charged with perjury if he admitted that he made a mistake. He told the trial judge of his error, but he was not believed. Despite widespread knowledge of the unreliability of eyewitness identification, the judge chose to believe Thompson's original testimony.
Thus did Curbeam on Wednesday spend his eighteenth Christmas behind bars. How does he feel each year when that day rolls around?
"I say I don't believe in Christmas anymore," said Curbeam, who recently converted to Islam. "But how can you get over that feeling?"
Gary Washington, who is now in his 30s and is also imprisoned at MHC, remembers his favorite Christmas.
"I was about 12 years old," Washington said. "My father bought us some drums and guitars. He bought us a pool table too."
It was an event that happened on the last Christmas that Washington spent with his family that led to his current situation in Jessup.
On Dec. 25, 1986, three men were standing outside Washington's Barclay Street house. One was his brother-in-law. The second one was Faheem Ali. The third was Washington, according to police, or the man who fatally shot Ali, according to the brother-in-law.
The 12-year-old boy who testified that Washington killed Ali recanted his testimony in 1999 and said that homicide detectives had coerced him into telling them what they wanted to hear. As was the case with Curbeam, the system pooh-poohed any notion of Washington's innocence. How have Christmases been for Washington?
"I want to say it's been depressing," Washington began, "but I think that's a misnomer." No, depression, both men agreed, isn't quite the word for how inmates feel behind these walls, especially those that have maintained their innocence from Day 1.
The feeling is something quite beyond depression, something undefinable, an aching that the rest of us can't possibly empathize with, much less know.
Do other Christians, at the time of year celebrated as the birth of the Messiah, who was crucified between two convicts -one of whom entered paradise with him - forget inmates?
"Not everybody," Curbeam answered.
"People in the immediate family" remember, Washington added, "and friends."
Isn't it the duty of Christians not imprisoned to reach out to inmates, who by definition have sinned the worst and are most in need of redemption?
"I would expect that," Washington said, "and some of them [Christians] do respond like that. But some of them aren't even Christians."
Michael Austin was released in part based on the kind of recanted testimony the system rejected in the cases of Curbeam and Washington. Both men see hope in that.
Both also believe that Christmases will be spent with family once again.