David Belton stood in the strip mall’s parking lot staring at a gray sedan. He had already asked his friend for parallel-parking tips on their way to the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles. Now he needed a refresher on adjusting the side-view mirrors.
“This will be another first,” Belton thought as he walked to the car. “I drove, but I never had a license. I’ve got to do everything legal now.”
Belton climbed behind the wheel, strapped on his seat belt and, per his friend Larry Gaither’s advice, adjusted the mirrors. A clipboard-wielding DMV employee sat in the passenger seat.
“He says he’s not nervous, but he’s nervous,” Gaither said as Belton pulled away.
It’s natural for people to be anxious before a road test. But Belton was not a 16-year-old learning to drive. He was a 69-year-old convicted killer seeking his first license.
After 40 years in prison, the road test was just one in a long list of seemingly simple experiences Belton has relished during his first year as a free man. Because of a 2012 Maryland Court of Appeals decision, he and about 60 other convicted robbers, killers and rapists whose cases were tried before 1980 have been released from prison early. Now, a second chance at life has launched Belton and men like him into an ordinary world made extraordinary by their decades of confinement.
Before his release last summer, Belton expected to die in prison, withering away as inmate No. 128607. He never imagined texting on a smartphone, ordering burrito bowls at Chipotle or celebrating birthdays with his daughter — a 6-month-old when Belton was locked up.
Belton also never expected the joys of freedom would deliver disappointments.
Minutes into his road test, the sedan rolled back into the shopping center with the instructor behind the wheel.
“I hit the curb,” Belton told his friend.
“Don’t let this discourage you,” Gaither said.
“I just need more practice,” Belton said. “I’ll get it next time.”
As a teen, Belton began stealing cars for cash. By his early 20s, he was drinking, drugging, and cruising down 14th Street NW in his Caddy.
“I was like a small coin being pulled to the very bowels of the earth by a small magnet,” Belton wrote in a book he penned from prison called “Each Night I Die.” “But I was so intoxicated with the wine of youth and the thrills of the nightlife, that I thought this was all of life and the way it was supposed to be lived and enjoyed.”
On a heroin-filled, booze-soaked night in June 1973, Belton and three friends drove from the District to a Maryland liquor store, where they planned to rob a suspected drug dealer. As they arrived, some got cold feet, but not Belton.
“I didn’t come out here for nothing,” he remembers thinking as he thrust a .375 Magnum under his shirt.
They ambushed Robert Brew, forcing him into his own car. Belton got into the passenger seat with the pistol pointed at Brew. As another man clambered into the back seat, Brew seized the moment, going for the gun. Belton fired.
“That was almost like when my memory stopped,” Belton said. “I don’t remember nothing.”
The bullet tore through Brew’s arm and lung. Belton dropped the gun and ran.
Brew died at a Prince George’s County hospital the next morning. His family could not be reached by The Washington Post or by Prince George’s prosecutors to inform them of Belton’s release.
A month later, police arrested Belton in Northwest Washington. It took a Maryland jury less than two hours to convict him of first-degree murder before a judge sentenced him to life in prison.
At 28, Belton walked into prison with inmates calling him “Young blood” or “Hopper.”
Eventually, he answered to “Pops” or “Old man.”
While Belton was in prison, his baby daughter became a woman. His mother died. And his son — who also turned to crime — was slain.
“Prison can be a cursing life, a lonely life and a miserable life,” Belton said. “But it is what we make it.”
During four decades of incarceration, Belton transformed himself into a model inmate. He earned two degrees and became the director of a youth-mentoring program. He rose before the sun each morning for prayer, followed by 100 push-ups and 100 sit-ups — a habit he keeps today.
Guards, administrators and other inmates agreed that if anyone should be released from the medium-security prison in Hagerstown, it was “Mr. Dave.”
“He is a positive role model, an infraction-free inmate, and a good human being,” Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services spokesman Mark A. Vernarelli said in a 2012 letter supporting Belton’s parole. “I hope and pray that he will one day soon be able to leave prison to become a successful taxpaying citizen again.”
Three times, the parole board backed Belton’s early release, but each time, the governor’s office shut him down.
Then in 2012, clemency came. A 66-page decision from Maryland’s highest court determined that Belton and about 200 other felons convicted before 1980 received unfair trials because of flawed jury instructions.
The decision in Unger v. Maryland resulted in retrials for some inmates or — in the cases of seemingly reformed men such as Belton — freedom. Prosecutors negotiated deals to allow men no longer considered a risk to society to be released on probation.
On June 27, 2013, Belton had what he now calls his “Shawshank Redemption” moment. Unshackled and uncaged, he walked out of the Prince George’s County courthouse.
Still in his prison-issued jeans and white T-shirt, he approached a stranger: “Is that a cellphone you got?” Belton remembered asking. “I’ve just been released from prison. Can you call this number for me?”
The man dialed and handed over the phone. Belton struggled to figure out which end to speak into. Panic hit.
“I don’t know how I’m going to get home,” Belton confessed to the man. “I don’t know where I am at, I don’t have any money, and I’m scared to death.”
Six months into his release, Belton began to realize the trouble with freedom.
One January afternoon, he sat at home in sweatpants and a Washington Redskins T-shirt. “Ellen” blared on the television in his sister’s Northeast home, where he lives in the basement.
The glow of spending Christmas and Thanksgiving at home had dulled. And while he was grateful to experience car rides, breakfast with friends and walks around the neighborhood, his new life wasn’t easy.
“All the challenges and things I was confronted with inside can’t be compared to the things out here,” Belton said spreading his long arms wide.
In prison, he was practically a star inmate. Now he was jobless, burning time with hours of daytime TV.
In prison, he gave little thought to what he ate, what he wore and what he did. Now he was able to do whatever he wanted. But with no car and little money, the paradox of freedom presented a new kind of confinement.
Belton’s friends — some of whom have also experienced rebuilding their lives after long periods of incarceration — say Belton gets discouraged because he tries to do too much too fast.
“When you miss that much of life and have been incarcerated for 40 years, you’re trying to get back to life,” said Mark Rowley, who as chief administrative officer of Maryland Correctional Enterprises took an interest in Belton. “Having done it wrong, he’s so anxious to get it going and get it going right.”
That afternoon, with his 6-foot-1 body slumped in a recliner, Belton wrapped his hands around his head and talked about the “waves of darkness” that haunt him. What if he’ll only be defined by the summer night he killed another man? How could he deprive his own family of a father, son and brother for 40 years? What if he didn’t find a job, a car, a wife?
“I have a lot of regrets for taking a human life,” Belton said, silver whiskers woven through his thin mustache. “But I can’t change what happened. I have to live with it.”
Standing in his daughter’s Southeast apartment before dinner one Sunday, Belton said the letters aloud as his finger tapped the silver-and-white smartphone: “L-E-G-E-N-D.”
“What am I doing wrong, Vick?” Belton called to his daughter.
Two days earlier, Belton had gone into a Cricket Wireless store wearing a maroon velour tracksuit he owned from 40 years ago. He danced when he got his phone: “Last of the dinosaurs! I’m the last of the dinosaurs!”
Now he wanted his gadget to play “All of Me” by John Legend, Belton’s new favorite song. Vickie Belton, 41, directed him to the “play” button.
“Just listen to the lyrics!” he yelled.
Navigating his new world has been exciting, frustrating and terrifying.
The first time he went to Costco, Belton stood shaking like a missing child after losing sight of a friend who slipped into another aisle. And Belton has already experienced his first fender bender: “Myyyy, goodness! People drive more aggressive these days.”
Many of the inmates being released under the Unger ruling are in their 60s and 70s and have been in prison for at least 30 years, said Brian M. Saccenti, the chief attorney for the appellate division of the Maryland Office of the Public Defender.
“They’ve literally been shut off from all the things we take for granted,” said Saccenti, whose office has been handling many of the Unger cases.
As the felons rebuild their lives, little things mount into big hurdles: getting identification cards, opening bank accounts, finding jobs. Some men have gone straight to nursing homes, Saccenti said.
After overcoming his winter depression, Belton went back and got his driver’s license and purchased a used car with the help of his cousin. In May, he began working full time as a janitor at the University of the District of Columbia.
“Everything is falling into place,” Belton said, crediting friends and family who have helped him financially and emotionally. In the next few years, Belton hopes to find work mentoring teens and to reissue his book. He also wants to find love.
Remnants of his decades in prison remain. Belton talks a little too loud. Sometimes he eats with his mouth too full. And a new final chapter of his book, the section that comes after one titled “Redemption,” he pecked out on a typewriter.
Belton knows he has more work to do to stay successful in his new life. But so far, he’s proud of himself and grateful for the second chance.
Before heading to work one morning, Belton put on his glasses and read aloud the final chapter of his book: “They said no one could do it; no one could live that long in the belly of a ‘blood thirsty beast’ and live, not even me. And if I ever came out, the odds would be 100 to 1 against me that the rapid moving currents of the technology world would leave me in a state of ‘limbo’ yearning to return to the days of yesterday.
“But I’m still here.”