BALTIMORE – Holiday cheer can be pretty difficult when you are behind bars for a murder you didn’t commit, as Michael Austin was for 27 years.
“You’d say, ‘Happy Thanksgiving’ to someone and they’d look at you funny, like you were crazy, like, ‘Who you kidding, nothing happy about it,'” he said.
But these days, Austin has plenty to be thankful for.
He is thankful for Centurion Ministries, the non-profit legal defense group that took up his case, and for Larry Nathans and Booth Ripke, the Baltimore lawyers who helped him win his freedom on Dec. 28, 2001. There is Yvonne Rahman, the prison volunteer who urged him to contact Centurion and later became his girlfriend.
And there is the $1.4 million that the state of Maryland last week said it would pay Austin as restitution for those 27 lost years. He plans to use some of that money, which will be paid out over the next decade, to realize the dream of a music career that was sparked when a cellmate taught him to read music and play the trumpet and keyboard.
Austin was 25 when he was accused in the April 29, 1974, murder of Roy Kellam, a security guard at a Baltimore grocery. Eyewitnesses described a killer who had lighter complexion and was 7 inches shorter, but Austin was convicted on March 27, 1975, after a trial that was later judged to have been plagued by faulty use of evidence and incompetent representation.
In 1994, Austin took Rahman’s advice and sent a letter to Centurion, a New Jersey-based nonprofit that helps prisoners it believes are innocent.
Centurion has three criteria for taking a case: The facts of the case have to point overwhelmingly to evidence of wrongful imprisonment, the inmate must be poor and out of appeals, and it must be likely that he would lead a productive life and not get in trouble again if released.
“Right away, this case stood out,” said James McCloskey, Centurion’s executive director. Austin’s case easily met the first two criteria, he said, and the discipline that Austin displayed in earning his general equivalency diploma and learning to read and play music indicated that he was a good risk for the third.
After interviewing potential lawyers, Centurion tapped Nathans, who said his firm consequently spent “hundreds of hours on the case.”
“The system is not friendly to reopening these matters,” Nathans said, noting initial opposition to looking into the case.
But the case was eventually reopened and Austin was freed. Since then, McCloskey said, Austin “has been a model.”
“We wish all the people we freed were Michael Austins,” McCloskey said.
On Nov. 17 the state Board of Public Works awarded Austin $1.4 million, the largest amount ever given an exonerated prisoner in Maryland.
Austin plans to use the money to buy a house and invest. But Austin, who also plays at jazz bars in the area in addition to speaking engagements, said this week that he might use some of the state money to market a demo compact disc of his music and try to get a recording contract.
Descending a flight of stairs into the basement of a Baltimore house he shares with Rahman, Austin walks past walls lined with pictures of Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday, and approaches a keyboard cluttered with sheet music.
“This is my joy,” he says, gliding his long fingers over the ivory keys, leaning toward a microphone and softly crooning the words to “My Funny Valentine.”
He reaches into a cabinet and pulls out a copy of a CD with three tracks that he composed himself.
“They’re sort of a mix between (rhythm and blues) and jazz,” he says. He acknowledges that the market would be hard to break into. “But after what I’ve been through, I don’t think that anything is impossible.”
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