The way it is now: Mark Farley Grant steps out of the room he shares with three other men in a big rowhouse on St. Paul Street, grabs his backpack, and steps into the 6 a.m. darkness. He takes the No. 13 bus, transfers to the 54, then the 53, grabs breakfast at the kosher Dunkin' Donuts on Reisterstown Road and walks to work at the kosher supermarket two blocks north.
"It's a real busy time right now," he says of his job as a meat cutter at Seven Mile Market. "You know, with the Jewish holidays coming."
Seeing Grant in this routine the other day — and happy about it — came as marvelous shock. The last time I saw him, we were in the visiting room at the Maryland Correctional Institution-Hagerstown.
Here's a 44-year-old man who was arrested in 1983, at the age of 14, for the murder of another teenager in Baltimore. Grant was convicted on the word of two eyewitnesses — one who had failed a pretrial polygraph test and one who had lied in fear of retaliation by the real killer's drug-dealing relatives.
Of course, the poison and perjury in the state's case did not become known for more than two decades.
So the presiding judge at Grant's jury trial in 1984 sentenced him to life in prison. He was 15 when the Division of Correction issued the 5-foot-4 Grant a jumpsuit and sent him into the state's adult prisons.
He exhausted all appeals many years ago, then started writing letters to the few overworked, understaffed organizations committed to helping inmates with credible claims of innocence.
In 2004, two professors and their students at the University of Maryland law school took Grant's case. They spent four years researching it and interviewing witnesses, struck by how little evidence the prosecution had had.
Students of professors Renee Hutchins and Michael Millemann became convinced that Grant was not the person who had shot Michael Gough during a street robbery in West Baltimore on a winter night in 1983.
They learned that the original suspect in the killing had failed a police-administered polygraph test — a fact never revealed to Grant's defense. They obtained affidavits from witnesses who identified the real killer of Gough. And they had a confession by another key witness that the real killer's relatives had put a gun to his head in Leakin Park and had forced him to lie about Grant's involvement.
The report on Grant's wrongful conviction and a plea for clemency went to Gov. Martin O'Malley in 2008. The governor did nothing about it for three years. An opponent of parole for lifers, O'Malley went about his business — governing the state, appearing on Sunday talk shows, schmoozing his way to national attention (which led to that lame speech at the Democratic National Convention the other night).
It wasn't until late March, a year after the Maryland Parole Commission recommended that Grant be released, that O'Malley finally acted. He commuted Grant's sentence, and that of another lifer, while rejecting 57 other recommendations from the parole commission.
Of course, O'Malley never acted on the matter of Grant's claim of a wrongful conviction. He simply allowed the parole process to play out, then cut Grant a break.
"I'm not too keen on the politics," Grant says softly over coffee at the Dunkin' Donuts. "I don't know what was going through [O'Malley's] mind. I felt a little frustrated, but at the same time grateful that I made it to this point."
"This point" is two months into his parole, a shared room and meals at a St. Paul Street facility operated by Threshold Inc., a nonprofit under contract with the state to provide transitional services for male inmates from Baltimore. Grant can't say enough good things about the mentoring support he gets from the staff at Threshold.
He had help in applying for jobs and found one over the summer at Seven Mile Market. Grant, who had taken some meat-cutting classes at Hagerstown, works in the kosher meat department, trained and supervised by Chaim Fishman.
"He seems like an honest individual, eager to learn, very attentive," Fishman says of Grant. "He comes early to work and stays late to finish if he has to."
Giving ex-offenders a shot at employment and a new life seems to have become a Seven Mile Market tradition over the years. Grant likes that he's one of the younger men who work there — "Be patient, they tell me," he says — and he notes that the older guys all drive their own cars to work.
That's what Grant wants now — the driver's license he never got as a teenager. And then, he says, he'll save his money and buy one of the good used cars he sees on the lots along Reisterstown Road during his bus rides to work.