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A college student’s project helped free his childhood friend from prison

Brandon Harris, 22, left, with Sura Sohna, 23, who was released from a Maryland prison on Feb. 8. Harris’s independent-study project at Davidson College is part of what compelled the court to reconsider Sohna’s 15-year sentence for first-degree burglary. (Courtesy of Brandon Harris)
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Brandon Harris sat anxiously in an Annapolis courtroom, his head buried in his hands. He took an audible breath as the judge prepared to read the ruling.

The 22-year-old college student didn’t fear his own fate. He was concerned for Sura Sohna, his childhood friend, whose 15-year prison sentence for first-degree burglary was being reconsidered that morning.

“Being in that moment was completely surreal,” said Harris, a senior at Davidson College in North Carolina. It was his independent-study project that was part of what compelled the court to reassess the case.

During the hearing Feb. 8, the judge decided to release Sohna from prison — 12 years early. “I couldn’t believe it,” said Sohna, 23, who had been in the Patuxent Institution, a correctional facility in Jessup, Md., since he was 20. If not for Harris’s efforts, he said, he would have remained in jail until 2034.

Sohna’s friendship with Harris began at Hillsmere Elementary School in Annapolis, when they were in the same fourth-grade class.

“We had a lot of great times,” Sohna recalled. “We were close as kids.”

They did the usual things boys do together: They played video games after school, went on field trips and hung out at recess. They remained close as they moved on to Annapolis Middle School.

“But towards the end of that, we started drifting apart,” Harris said.

As teenagers, they were on opposite paths. While Harris got an academic scholarship to a prestigious private high school, Indian Creek School, Sohna was living in an affordable-housing community, witnessing acts of violence with little guidance or stability in his life.

“We had bad circumstances,” Sohna said, explaining that he felt responsible for looking after his mother and brother. “I felt like I had to be the one to support us, and I went into criminal activity because of that.”

He broke into several houses when people weren’t there and stole property. He would then sell the items for money.

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Sohna got caught and was first incarcerated at age 17 after being charged as an adult with 25 counts, including burglary, theft and multiple gun-related offenses. Many of the charges were dropped in a plea deal, but he still ended up behind bars. When he was released, he continued committing crimes and was again arrested. On Jan. 14, 2020, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison for one count of first-degree burglary, which he had committed while on probation.

“The judge gave him a really hefty sentence,” said Keith Showstack, Sohna’s lawyer, who thinks the tough sentence was due to “a track record of Sura committing a lot of burglaries, and the judge thought enough was enough.”

At that time, Harris and Sohna had lost touch. Harris remembers seeing Sohna’s mug shot in the local news more than once over the years. “I was very scared for him,” Harris said. “That hurt.”

Harris knew his friend was a good person at his core and believed he had committed those crimes as a response to poverty and desperation. “The thought that went through my head was that if our life circumstances were flipped, I might also be behind bars,” Harris said.

While they weren’t in contact, Sohna stayed on Harris’s mind, particularly during his college classes that covered social justice. “It just made me think a lot about him,” Harris said.

But it wasn’t until June 2020, when Harris read about how the coronavirus pandemic was worsening already poor prison conditions, that he decided to write a letter to his childhood friend to check in. Sohna was stunned to receive it.

“It was so shocking to me,” he said. “I saw it said, ‘Brandon Harris,’ and that made me feel warm inside.”

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“He was willing to go out of his way to write me when he could be doing a million other things. That’s a true friend,” Sohna said, adding that when you’re in prison, “you don’t have people on your side.”

Harris’s letter was mostly filled with life updates, as well as motivational messages. Sohna wrote back, starting a pen pal relationship that spanned several months. The letters transitioned to phone calls, and before long, their childhood bond was restored.

Sohna shared with Harris what life was like in prison. “It was miserable. It was shameful. It was angering,” Sohna explained. “I felt like that place was going to define me and make the worst of me.” When Harris resurfaced in his life, he added, it was “at a time when I really needed it.”

Corresponding with Sohna was meaningful for Harris, too. He developed a deeper empathy for his friend, he said, as well as for others in similar situations. “There are lot of people in our society who are ignored and forgotten and not viewed in an objective way for who they are as human beings,” Harris said. “I saw that with Sura.”

As he learned more about Sohna’s life, he was inspired to start an independent-study project through the school’s Communication Studies department. Harris originally intended to focus the project — which he called “Telling Stories of the Ignored and Forgotten” — on six people, but then chose to concentrate solely on Sohna.

Sohna was enthusiastically onboard. It offered him a sense of purpose, and for the first time in a while, allowed him to see himself as more than an inmate.

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As part of the semesterlong assignment that started last January, Harris conducted interviews with Sohna, as well as some of the victims of Sohna’s crimes, prosecutors, law enforcement officers and Sohna’s family.

Harris learned that Sohna’s father was mostly uninvolved in his upbringing, and that his family struggled with homelessness at one point. He also came to understand the violence that Sohna had seen while living in Robinwood, an affordable-housing community in Annapolis, where even this week, two youths were shota boy, 15, and a girl, 11.

“He had to be willing to listen to good things about Sura but also things that were not all that flattering in order for him to actually have the full story, which is not always easy,” said Ike Bailey, a journalist and professor at Davidson College, who mentored Harris through the project. “He did it all.”

Harris contacted Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who gave permission for Sohna to participate in a public interview from prison, which the facility initially had prohibited. It turned into a live Zoom conversation that was publicly broadcast.

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Sohna’s lawyer, Showstack, participated in the discussion — which was promoted by the school and featured in local media — along with hundreds of members of the Davidson community and others. Sohna could feel the support, he said.

His lawyer said the Zoom was helpful, as it “opened his eyes to the realization that there are a lot of good people who are willing to help,” Showstack said. Several strangers followed up to offer Sohna guidance and encouragement, allowing him to establish “a large network of people” in his corner, Harris said.

In December, Showstack decided to try to get Sohna’s sentence reevaluated. After Sohna was handed his 15-year sentence, Showstack filed a request with the judge for the sentence to be modified, but asked to hold the motion in “abeyance,” meaning he could seek a reduction in the sentence within five years of the sentencing date. The judge granted the request.

“When a judge doesn’t deny it outright, my gut tells me that the judge may want to hear from the defendant again at another time and may be open to reconsidering their sentence,” Showstack said. Given Harris’s project, and the ensuing change he had noticed in his client, “I thought it was the right time.”

By the end of the month, Sohna was granted a hearing. While Showstack was optimistic, Sohna was less confident. “I just had really no hope,” he said.

At the Feb. 8 hearing, though, he poured out his heart to the judge, owning his actions and explaining why he was worthy of being back in society. He said he wanted to contribute to his community rather than take from it.

“It was an amazing speech. I was proud,” Harris said. “Hearing him speak that day, it was indicative of a transformation that he had made. There was a lot of growth that he experienced over the past two years.”

Harris also took the stand, outlining the findings from his project, including Sohna’s unstable situation at home and his family’s financial struggles. He reinforced that Sohna’s behavior was a series of bad choices he made rather than who he was as a person — or who he would be in the future.

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“I talked about the progress I’ve witnessed since working with him, what I think is possible for his future and what support he now has,” said Harris, adding that Sohna’s father is back in his life, he speaks regularly with a therapist and, because of the project, he has many prospective mentors in the Annapolis community and beyond.

At one point, Anne Arundel County Circuit Court Judge William Mulford II — the same judge who sentenced Sohna in 2020 — asked everyone in the gallery to raise their hand if they had come to support Sohna that morning, and everyone did.

Then, in a moment Harris and Sohna described as dreamlike, the judge said: “You’re going home today.”

“It was clear that the judge had acknowledged that Sura had matured, that he spoke well, that he made progress while being incarcerated, and that he has a strong support network,” Harris said.

“I feel so blessed that Brandon didn’t give up on me,” said Sohna, who participated in the hearing over the phone. “He always cared about me, and it’s a beautiful thing.”

While the outcome drastically changed the course of Sohna’s life, it also shifted Harris’s path. He initially planned to go into medicine but now wants to expand his legal advocacy. So far he has been accepted to law school at Georgetown University, the University of Virginia, the University of Maryland, Vanderbilt University and Columbia University. He is still waiting to hear from a few programs, he said, and he plans to make a decision in April.

Sohna will complete his General Equivalency Diploma, which he began while in prison, with the goal of enrolling in a film production program by the end of the year.

After the hearing, the two friends — who had not seen each other in years — shared a long, tearful hug at a parking lot near the prison, shortly after Sohna was released.

Working on his project “proved to me what results you can get when you don’t give up,” Harris said. “This is only the beginning of a bigger picture.”

Sohna said he’s ready to start his new life and make his friend, and himself, proud. “It’s go time,” Sohna said.

In the photo of Sohna’s Patuxent Institution identification card, The Washington Post has redacted some of his personal information. An earlier version of this story showed the complete card.

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