Two decades ago, 23-year-old Charles Francis Watkins committed a series of notorious break-ins, terrifying residents across Montgomery County. He and a sidekick put on black ski masks, broke into homes in the middle of the night and robbed residents at gunpoint. As part of their disguise, they affected British accents, earning a well-chronicled moniker: The “Brit Bandits.”
As the leader, Watkins was sentenced to 48 years in prison. Then, as quickly as the attention had swelled around him, it disappeared.
On Wednesday, inside a nearly empty Montgomery courtroom, a humbled Watkins stood before a judge who eliminated the rest of his time behind bars and set him free.
“I think that there is much reason to believe that the defendant who stands before the court now is not the same person who committed these crimes,” said Circuit Judge Michael Mason, who originally issued the 48-year sentence.
Mason cited testimony from Watkins’s one-time boss at a graphics plant inside the Roxbury Correctional Institution in Hagerstown, Md., who said that Watkins had to regularly walk away from other inmates trying to egg him into trouble so one of them could get his coveted job. He described Watkins’s staving off those pressures, without getting a single infraction on his record, as “one-in-a-million” behavior.
“The self-control that that would take — clearly self-control this person did not have when he was committing these offenses — is just enormous,” Mason said, “and probably is self-control that nobody else in this room would have or could exercise.”
Wednesday’s hearing, following one in December about his release, concluded at 9:35 a.m. Watkins, who is 41, was led out of a side door in the eighth-floor courtroom and then held for about two hours while sheriff’s deputies processed his paperwork.
At 11:22 a.m., Watkins walked out of a first-floor office.
“Oh my God,” his mother said, burying her head into his arms for 20 seconds.
“My turn,” said his father, hugging his son.
The group went across the street to check in with the county’s probation office. Watkins will be on two years of supervised probation. In a brief interview, he said that although he was 23 at the time of the break-ins, he was immature. “I was very young. I was very stupid,” Watkins said.
He said that Mason’s original sentence was fair. “It’s something that I think needed to happen,” Watkins said.
Even though he didn’t get into trouble in prison, it took him a while to realize that he really could change how he thought about life, Watkins said. He credited the state prison system’s correctional industries arm, which taught him not just digital printing work but also — for the first time in his life — the value of holding a job.
“I consider myself a poster child for them,” he said.
Maryland’s prison industries program makes products for state agencies and charities, employing about 2,000 inmates across the state. Prison officials say the jobs cut recidivism rates in half.
Under Maryland rules, there is little chance Watkins would have served all of his remaining 30 years. Inmates get time shaved off for good behavior and participating in programs and classes. Watkins’s release date, prior to Wednesday’s hearing, was 2031, according to his attorney. Also, Watkins would have been eligible to be considered for paroled release in 2021, although there is no telling if that would have happened, his attorney said.
Watkins’s story was widely told in 1997. It started with reports of odd break-ins. By March, there were eight over a two-month period. Accounts revealed that two masked men, speaking with British or Australian accents, broke into high-end homes — four in the Potomac area — and demanded cash.
They were often polite in the midst of their crimes. In one case, they helped retrieve a dog that got loose. In another, they decided not to take a wedding ring after a victim told them of its sentimental value. But they also terrified their victims. On March 27, 1997, the arrest of Watkins and his accomplice, David Timothy Edwards, 20, made front-page news.
Edwards pleaded guilty five months later and was sentenced to 15 years in October 1997. (He has since completed his time in prison, according to court records.)
Prosecutors made no secret that they expected a longer sentence for Watkins, who also pleaded guilty, describing him as the mastermind and noting that he had a lengthy criminal record. At the time, prosecutors called the “polite bandit thing” an “absurdity,” noting in that in one case, a 13-year-old girl awoke to be held at gunpoint.
The 48-year sentence Mason imposed was at the bottom of state guidelines.
Under Maryland rules, convicts can go back to their sentencing judges and ask them to reduce their sentences. The controversial practice was curbed years back, with a new rule mandating that such sentence reductions be made within five years of the original sentence. But older cases are grandfathered in. On Oct. 6, 2014, Watkins’s attorney, Rand Lucey, submitted a motion for a hearing on a new sentence.
Montgomery prosecutors fought the sentence reduction. “He is still a young man capable of picking up his criminal enterprises where he left off,” Assistant State’s Attorney Ray Pilkerton wrote.
Watkins wrote directly to the judge.
“I stood before you in 1997, a veritable child in a 23-year-old adult body, having committed very adult crimes,” he began. “I had absolutely no sense of responsibility, my selfishness knew no bounds and my only interest in life was the pursuit of happiness.”
He spoke of learning how to work at a job inside prison. “After several years and a few angry lectures with accompanying threats of termination from my supervisor, I finally realized that it was time to start acting like an adult.”
He told Mason that he also finally realized, inside prison, what he had done to his victims: stealing their sense of security in the place they should feel safe — their homes. “My life has since taken on new meaning,” he said.