On the morning of Nov. 19, Marvin Williamson was 41 years into a life sentence for killing a man as a teenager in 1967.
By late afternoon, he was several hours into freedom, bending his 6-foot-3-inch frame to fit into an old friend's comfortably cramped living room in Baltimore's Pen Lucy neighborhood.
He had been unceremoniously set loose from the Hagerstown correctional facility after a brief hearing in Baltimore Circuit Court, when Judge Marcus Shar modified his prison term by suspending all but the time he had served.
"I've agonized over this, because I do not find this easy. For someone who has been found guilty of taking another's life, the thought of releasing them has not rested easy with me," Shar said. But, he concluded, "if there is such a thing as rehabilitation in our system ... I am convinced that this is the right thing to do."
In jail, Williamson got sober. He learned to read and write and earned his eighth-grade certification, then his high school GED. He became a working man and gathered skills in nearly every vocational area the Maryland correctional system offers, including wood shop, metal shop and sanitation. He most recently worked as a master upholsterer, a designation gained after completing 12,480 hours of skills training.
He grew up, and he grew better, fulfilling a promise he made to himself when he went in.
"He is a model inmate and one which others should emulate," a shift sergeant wrote in a letter to the court, one of many that helped convince the judge that Williamson deserved a second chance at life, despite the gravity of his crime.
Justice, Shar determined, had been served.
And so, after having been recommended for parole five times to no avail - each instance either ignored or denied by the sitting governor, whose approval is required - Williamson was let out, effective immediately. But if he slips up, he could be remanded back for the full term.
His lawyer, Gary Proctor, took Williamson out to a bar to talk about the future after the hearing that Thursday, a week before Thanksgiving. Proctor had a Heineken, and Williamson had a ginger ale. He hasn't had a drink in 42 years.
"It's a problem for me," he said, a few days after he'd been released.
Estelle Jacobs, his 86-year-old hostess and his eldest daughter's grandmother, was nestled into a beige recliner to his right, eating her breakfast, while his lawyer sat to his left in a wing chair. The TV was on in a corner, tuned in to a game show.
"If I drink," Williamson said, "I get crazy."
He was drinking that night in 1967 when he asked Joseph Caslow for a light.
Robbing, stealing, drinking
Williamson grew up on the 500 block of E. 20th St., near Green Mount Cemetery in a desolate section of Baltimore. That's where he met "Miss Estelle," whom he sometimes calls "Mom." She's taken him in now. His real mother was an alcoholic, and his father a disciplinarian - "abusive" is the term used in court papers.
"There wasn't a day that went by that my father didn't beat me," Williamson said. "I hated him."
He was a willful and wild kid, who dropped out of school and never learned to read or write. He was drinking by age 10 and violent by age 16.
"I would wake up drunk and go to bed drunk and run the street all day," he said. "My parents never really cared what I did. ... My life was robbing, stealing and drinking."
In the early morning of Oct. 14, 1967, Williamson was walking down 27th Street, drunk, with a 15-year-old friend. On the same block, Caslow, 45, was making his way home with a six-pack of beer tucked under one arm.
Williamson approached the man, who drew a knife, afraid the boys planned to attack him. But after they assured him they just wanted a match, Caslow slid the blade into his back pocket.
"He said that he was sorry and wanted to shake my hand," Williamson told police, according to a 1968 Baltimore Sun article. And then Williamson pounced.
"I grabbed his right hand with my left and twisted it up and grabbed him by the throat," he said at the time. Then he and his buddy robbed Caslow of the beer, $12 and the knife. Then they told their victim to go. But he put up a fight.
"He grabbed me, and I turned and stabbed him," Williamson said, according to a decades-old police statement he signed but couldn't read.
Williamson still remembers Caslow's wife at the trial, sitting there, devastated.
The state tried to find Caslow's family before the Nov. 19 sentence-modification hearing, but couldn't. Too much time had passed. They never came to Williamson's parole hearings, either.
"I was hoping to find them so I could apologize in person," Williamson said. "I know I caused a lot of pain."
On June 25, 1968, a jury found Williamson guilty of first-degree murder. Six days later, he was sentenced to life imprisonment; he'd been locked up since his arrest in October. The friend who had been with him was given a 10-year sentence for robbery.