The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As a teen he killed a man. A new law has given him a second chance.

Kareem McCraney, 38, who was convicted of murder at age 17, is the first D.C. inmate to have his sentence reduced under a 2017 law that aims to give second chances to those who committed serious crimes as juveniles. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Since his release from prison weeks ago, Kareem McCraney has spent time wandering around Washington, barely recognizing the places where he grew up. The apartments and homes he knew have been replaced by upscale shops and condos.

He has been marveling over his first smartphone, a gift from an aunt. And he spent two straight days flipping through hundreds of satellite channels on his mother’s TV.

After two decades in prison for murder, McCraney has emerged to find himself in a changed world. McCraney said he has changed, too — growing into a person far different from the brash teenager who shot a man multiple times many years ago.

“There are so many differences from who I am now from when I was 17. First of all, I was a child, but I thought I was a man,” said McCraney, 38. “I thought I knew everything I needed to know in order to survive in this life. I was reckless. I look back on that stuff and I’m like, ‘Man, I did that? I was living like that?’ I didn’t know nothing.”

That attitude, and time in prison spent pursuing educational programs and avoiding violence, are part of the reason McCraney has become the District’s first inmate to have his sentence reduced under a 2017 law aimed at giving second chances to people who committed serious crimes as youths.

The D.C. Council crafted the Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act on the basis of a growing consensus that juvenile criminals, whose brains aren’t fully mature, should not receive adult sentences of decades in prison.

The law has given McCraney the chance, once seemingly out of reach, to rebuild his life. After being convicted of first-degree premeditated murder while armed, McCraney was sentenced to 35 years to life in prison. In July, a judge released him after 21 years, putting him on five years’ probation.

“People need a chance to evolve from being a child,” McCraney said.

Not a 'slap on the wrist'

There are about 60 other inmates waiting for a judge to determine whether their sentences should be reduced under the law, according to the nonprofit Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, which worked with lawmakers on the bill. That group, along with the D.C. Public Defender Service, has been scouring cases to find defendants who may be eligible.

In addition to being younger than 18 at the time of the offense, the inmate must have served at least 20 years in prison. The case must have been heard in D.C. Superior Court and must not yet have come before a parole board.

Jody Kent Lavy, executive director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, said many young offenders have the capacity to turn their lives around. Many come from violent neighborhoods or difficult family situations, she said, and didn’t fully appreciate the seriousness of their actions.

“They are more impulsive,” Lavy said. “They don’t think of the consequences of their actions. They don’t have the ability to escape their home environments, and those factors should be considered in how to evaluate and how to hold a child accountable.”

Judges look at whether the inmates have made an effort to better themselves behind bars, taking advantage of educational options and staying out of trouble. The court can release an inmate, keep them in prison but lessen their sentence, or reject the petition. If a petition is denied, the inmate can reapply in five years, as many as three times.

D.C. Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) said the law recognizes that people can be rehabilitated. “This isn’t about giving people a slap on the wrist,” he said. “It’s about giving people consequences that are age-appropriate.”

'Reopened so many wounds'

But the requests to lighten sentences have not come without some passionate objections.

One recent day, relatives of two men fatally shot outside a D.C. nightclub in 1994 filed into Judge J. Michael Ryan’s courtroom to protest the killer’s petition to have his sentence reduced.

David E. Bailey was 17 when he was convicted of second-degree murder in the slayings. He has been in prison for 24 years.

A forensic psychologist testified that Bailey, now 42, was no longer a danger. She said Bailey grew up with a drug-addicted mother, was homeless as a child and, as a youth, spent time at St. Elizabeths, the District’s psychiatric hospital.

Prosecutors pushed back, pointing to fights Bailey had with other inmates as evidence that he was not reformed.

Family members of the victims were outraged that Ryan was considering the petition.

“This is selfish and has reopened so many wounds for us and our entire family,” said Shontese Harrell, sister of Kevin Harrell, one of Bailey’s victims. “The justice system has let us down. We should not have to worry about seeing this man out on the street again.”

The judge said he will issue his decision in the coming months.

An opportunity to change

At McCraney’s hearing, though, the niece of his victim told Judge Patricia A. Broderick that she did not oppose a sentence reduction. Marquieta Bagley was 13 when McCraney killed her uncle, Mark Rosebure.

“I was hurt, but I was brought up to forgive, and not forgiving him won’t bring my uncle back,” Bagley said. “I hope he has learned from his mistakes, and I hope he works with our youth now that he’s out to make sure they don’t make the same mistakes.”

It was New Year’s Day 1997 when McCraney went to an apartment building in Southeast Washington where Rosebure hung out. The two got into an argument, according to court papers, and McCraney pulled out a .357 revolver and fired it at the 22-year-old’s head and back.

At trial, prosecutors said McCraney had lost money to Rose­bure in a dice game and killed him for revenge. McCraney’s attorneys argued that their client was innocent and that police arrested the wrong man.

McCraney now admits to the killing and says it was a “mistake” going to meet Rosebure with the gun he kept stashed outside his mother’s home.

“It was an act I should have never committed,” he said. “It was a situation neither of us should have been in.”

In recent court papers, McCraney said Rosebure had repeatedly beat him and robbed him of money won in dice games. McCraney also claimed that two weeks before the killing, Rosebure shot him in the leg during an altercation and then threatened his mother.

“At that point, I felt like the only thing I could do is see this man face to face to see if this can be reconciled,” McCraney said.

McCraney said as the two were arguing, he saw Rosebure reach toward his waistband. He believed Rosebure was reaching for a gun, so he pulled out his gun and fired. Rosebure was unarmed, court papers say.

Prosecutors opposed McCraney’s petition, noting that his self-defense account came only as he was seeking early release.

McCraney’s “asserted admission to this murder is diluted by his attempts to justify emptying a revolver into the victim’s back and head,” federal prosecutor Jennifer Connor wrote in a May filing. “Once again, defendant feigns acceptance of responsibility and remorse, while attempting to place the crux of the responsibility for his actions on others — in this instance, the deceased victim.”

McCraney said he and his mother told his attorneys at the time of the trial about his violent encounters with Rosebure, but the lawyers told him not to use that as a defense because the jury might think he shot Rosebure in retaliation.

“I was just a kid. I had no choice but to do what they said,” he said.

His frustration with his attorneys, McCraney says, inspired him to study law. While in prison, McCraney secured his GED and then 14 years later earned an associate degree in paralegal studies through a correspondence program at Ashworth College in Norcross, Ga.

McCraney spent hours in prison libraries writing legal documents for himself and other inmates. “For me, I felt like law was something I needed to know. My life depends upon this. And who better to fight for your life but you?” he said.

As discussions about the juvenile justice bill began in the city, McCraney encouraged his mother, Dora, to attend hearings. The two then linked up with the Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth.

Broderick ultimately decided McCraney had been in prison long enough, ruling that “the defendant is not a danger to society and that the interests of justice would be served by a reduction of the defendant’s sentence.”

McCraney has been accepted into a 13-week Georgetown University paralegal fellowship program this fall. He works with a Southeast youth mentoring program and hopes to return to college to earn his bachelor’s degree and then go to law school.

“You have to give a person who made a mistake as a child an opportunity to change,” McCraney said.

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