Brian Ferguson, who was hand-picked by D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser three months ago to lead a city agency, oversees a staff of seven and has an annual budget of $490,000.
About three years ago, he was serving a life sentence for murder.
Ferguson is the director of the Mayor’s Office of Returning Citizen Affairs, tasked with helping D.C. residents released from prison get back on their feet. The office’s goal is to ease the transition of inmates back into society, connecting them with jobs, housing and other services.
Ferguson faces a tough road. In 2015, the D.C. inspector general found the office to be understaffed, underbudgeted and not fulfilling its mission. Another report, released Monday by the nonprofit Council for Court Excellence, raised many of the same questions about the agency.
Ferguson’s personal story, meanwhile, is worthy of a Charles Dickens novel.
He was a 20-year-old college student in West Virginia when he was accused in 2002 of fatally shooting a fellow classmate — a crime he says he didn’t commit. He was sentenced to life in prison, far from his family in Washington, then set free 11 years later after a high-powered legal team got his sentence overturned.
He found himself in a changed world, surrounded by unfamiliar technology in a changed city, and looking for a job with a murder conviction. It’s the kind of story former inmates know well.
“I’m a proud, successful returning citizen,” Ferguson said. “The things I’ve had to deal with have shaped me as a man and a person.”
A District native, Ferguson grew up in Michigan Park during the crack epidemic that began in the late 1980s, but he says he drew inspiration from his rough surroundings.
“I saw that as much negativity that was going around about that epidemic, there was a great amount of strength and resiliency in neighborhoods and families,” he said.
His parents split before he was a year old, and although he did well on standardized tests, he wasn’t interested in school.
“He stayed out as much as he stayed in,” said his father, James Ferguson.
In 2000, Ferguson landed at West Virginia University in Morgantown. He soon had a 4.0 grade-point average.
“Once he was there, he found out that, ‘Oh, school is not boring,’ ” said his mother, Lynn Bush.
But Ferguson began to clash with a popular graduate student, Jerry Wilkins. Wilkins worked in the university’s sports management program and volunteered in a mentoring program for minority students. Ferguson, who is black, and his girlfriend were members.
About 7 p.m. on Feb. 2, 2002, Wilkins, who was in his final semester at WVU, was shot in the back in front of his apartment. Prosecutors charged Ferguson with murder. They alleged that he thought Wilkins was interested in his girlfriend and that Ferguson had a grudge against Wilkins, stalking and threatening him as much as a year before the shooting. Court records indicate that witnesses gave varying descriptions of the gunman, and Ferguson was arraigned weeks later.
“Jerry was very well liked, very well respected,” said Dallas Branch, a professor emeritus in the WVU sports management department. WVU named a scholarship after him. “He was just a great guy. . . . He had big dreams to work in the NFL, and so it was just a shame.”
In November 2002, Ferguson was convicted of Wilkins’s murder and received a sentence of life without the possibility of parole in 2003. He spent a decade behind bars at the Mount Olive Correctional Complex, about a three-hour drive south of Morgantown.
“It was a very stark reality,” he said in an interview at his D.C. office. “Doing 11 years in any situation is difficult. Doing it when you know you shouldn’t be there in the first place is even more difficult.”
Ferguson searched for a way out.
In Mount Olive’s law library, he researched legal options in hopes of freeing himself. Back in Washington, a high-powered legal team that included future U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. took on his case.
Paul Schmidt, a partner at Covington and Burling who worked on Ferguson’s defense, said Ferguson’s new legal team argued that he had ineffective assistance of counsel during his trial because his attorney failed to interview a man who allegedly confessed to killing Wilkins.
“It’s hard to look at how important this evidence was . . . and not see the problem,” Schmidt said.
In 2013, a West Virginia court granted Ferguson a new trial. Prosecutors allowed him to enter an Alford plea — he didn’t admit guilt but acknowledged there was enough evidence to convict him. The court sentenced him to time served.
Prosecutors remain convinced of his guilt — as did a state Supreme Court judge who, in an acid dissent, said the decision to grant Ferguson a new trial “laid waste to the considerable efforts and resources of the State and the jury in bringing [him] to justice.”
“We would not have prosecuted him if there had been any kind of doubt in our minds,” Morgantown prosecutor Marcia L. Ashdown said. Of the plea agreement, she said, “Once a decision is made, it’s a decision that an office like mine accepts.”
Ferguson’s father picked him up from Mount Olive in 2013. Ferguson moved in with his mother, near Georgia Avenue.
“I didn’t want to stop anywhere until I got back home,” he said. “I spent 11 years dreaming about being back in the District.”
For six months, as part of his plea deal, he wore an ankle bracelet.
He found the resources offered by the city’s Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, which works with people on probation, inadequate after being referred to jobs that no longer existed.
So Ferguson turned his felony record into a strength, winning a fellowship from D.C. nonprofit Halcyon Incubator to develop a database of resources for returning citizens and working on the city’s “ban the box” law, which limits the ability of employers to consider a job applicant’s criminal history.
He also was admitted to Georgetown University as a transfer student in the fall of 2015 — and didn’t shy away from talking about his 13-year absence from school.
“If you’re transferring in and it’s been more than two years since your last class, you have to explain why,” he said. “Normally that’s for people who decided to take a break and travel the world.”
After working at the city’s Office of Human Rights, Ferguson was recommended to the mayor by his predecessor at the returning-citizens agency.
In trying to turn the agency around, Ferguson’s priorities are centralizing information about services available to returning citizens and facilitating family trips to correctional facilities — some of them hours from the District — where D.C. inmates are housed.
“Everything is in place to hit the ground running,” he said.
Ferguson also talks to friends back at Mount Olive every week. When he was married in October, two former inmates, one just released after 27 years, were there.
Just because prison wasn’t good doesn’t mean it wasn’t good for something.
“What it taught me was the importance of reaching back and helping everyone you can possibly help,” he said. “I dislike the term ‘reaching down.’ It’s not a ‘down’ thing.”