Freedom4Nancy started small, just a few people who had one thing in common: a belief that their friend Nancy Jean Brookbank was innocent of child abuse, despite what a Charles County jury said in August 2001.
In a year's time, though, the group has mobilized what local observers say is unprecedented support for a woman convicted of harming a child. Freedom4Nancy now claims 800 members, so large it has become a political constituency all its own in a county where a few hundred votes can swing an election. During this political season, many office seekers have sought the group's support and, in the process, helped raise questions about the jury's verdict.
But some, including the parents of the now 4-year-old La Plata boy Brookbank was convicted of abusing, have begun raising questions about the group and candidates catering to it, saying they are exploiting a tragedy for political gain.
"If it was just a group of Nancy's friends and family supporting her, we could understand that," said John L. Sprague, the father of Jack Sprague, the boy Brookbank was convicted of abusing. "But when people are using this as a political platform, there is just something inherently wrong with that. It's just not right."
Freedom4Nancy members have strained to emphasize that they are not trying to vilify the Spragues or sway elections. They say they are convinced Brookbank is innocent, and their focus is clearing her name.
"This is about an innocent woman sitting in prison, and if politicians have gotten involved, it's on their own," said Brookbank's husband, Steve.
The most notable politician associated with Freedom4Nancy is a candidate who insists he has no affiliation with the group. W. Louis Hennessy, the Republican candidate for Charles County state's attorney, has come under criticism for attending the group's meetings and even visiting Brookbank as she serves a five-year term in prison.
"My opponent has crossed the line," said State's Attorney Leonard C. Collins Jr. (D), who personally prosecuted Brookbank's case. "He's playing with people's lives for political gain."
Hennessy has tried to play down his ties to the group. He does not speak about the case at public events, and he has also spoken to the Spragues, though he would not promise them he would prosecute Brookbank again if she won an appeal, saying he would have to review the circumstances of the case.
Hennessy said he went to the group's meetings because he was intrigued by the number of people so adamant about Brookbank's innocence.
"Innocent people go to jail," said Hennessy, a former D.C. police homicide chief. "I'm not saying it happened in this case, but is it possible? Anything's possible."
Other candidates are less conflicted about Freedom4Nancy. Jim Crawford, a Republican candidate for state delegate, last week called on the Maryland attorney general to investigate whether the state's attorney's office intimidated sheriff's officers who wanted to testify on Brookbank's behalf.
"We think there is evidence the truth may have been compromised in the trial of Nancy Brookbank," Crawford said.
Collins denied the accusations.
Victim advocates say the tide of sympathy and political support for a defendant's cause is unusual, especially considering the injuries Brookbank was accused of inflicting upon Jack in 1998 when he was 11 months old.
On Dec. 4, 1998, Brookbank was babysitting Jack, as she had done for several weeks as a favor to her friend, Robyn Sprague, the boy's mother. In the morning, Jack had a seizure and went into a coma.
At Children's Hospital, doctors determined that Jack had suffered an acute subdural hematoma, meaning blood had pooled in his brain. The hospital's chief neurosurgeon would later testify that such an injury required "tremendous force" -- on a par with a fall from a two-story building. And prosecutors determined the injury could have occurred only in the time Jack was with Brookbank.
At trial, Collins suggested that Brookbank "slammed" Jack against a car seat because he may have hurt her back as he squirmed to get free from her grasp.
Jack's parents say his chances for a normal life are gone: He cannot walk or talk, he must wear a brace on his left arm to keep him from involuntarily biting his hand, and he will need constant medical care for the rest of his life.
"Usually, the support is out there for the victim," said Annette Gilbert-Jackson, executive director of the Charles County-based Center for Abused Persons. "There is nobody out there banging the drums for this poor child who has to deal with these injuries for the rest of his life."
But, like the politics now so intertwined with her cause, Brookbank's case is anything but black and white.
Freedom4Nancy members say Brookbank is also a victim. They say detectives used harsh tactics to make her give statements saying she "tossed" Jack into the car seat. The trial judge, Michael P. Whalen, had co-edited a book on prosecuting child abuse and was biased, they say.
They note the jury quickly acquitted Brookbank of first-degree assault, a more serious charge, before deliberating for 10 hours to find her guilty of child abuse. In addition, she tried to get help as soon as she noticed Jack was in a seizure, said her defense attorney, Patrick J. Devine.
"That conduct is inconsistent with guilt," Devine said.
Freedom4Nancy has also focused on her inherent kindness. The group's core is made up of her old friends from high school or people whose children she baby-sat or regular customers at the La Plata restaurant where she was a waitress.
One friend recalls when Brookbank, now 32, worked at an airline several years ago. A family who was told they could not bring their pet cat on the plane became distraught: How would they get their beloved pet back to Oakland? So Brookbank promised to take care of it for two weeks until she could arrange a flight to California that would accept animals.
Some office seekers, such as John Rutherford, a Republican candidate for county commissioner, got involved in Freedom4Nancy because their wives knew Brookbank to be kind-hearted. She has three children of her own, including one born in prison, and has baby-sat for many Charles County mothers.
"Now do you think she's going to severely damage a child? Come on," said Tanya Redding, a high school friend of Brookbank's.
Prosecutors say such sentiments are common, but misguided. "What people don't realize is that good people sometimes do bad things," said Douglas F. Gansler, Montgomery County state's attorney.
A request for a new trial was denied by Judge Whalen in September, so the group is now hoping that Brookbank will get a favorable ruling from the parole board in December.
Freedom4Nancy's impact on the election is unclear. Although many members do vigorously support Hennessy's campaign, they say they will not make any endorsements.
"It is politically volatile," Rutherford said, adding, "The fact is, there are people out there who don't like it, and that could have a negative impact."