Sometimes lawyers meet extraordinary people who happen to be living behind prison bars. That is the case with Brown Law client William Mitchell, who earlier this month was freed after a Harford County judge agreed to reduce his sentence to, essentially, time served.
William first contacted me in 2012, through his parents, when he was trying to challenge his state court conviction by filing a habeas corpus petition in federal court. William’s case, at the time, seemed hopeless. He had been an addict, and, in the midst of a drunken, drug-induced stupor, he had gotten into an argument with his wife, who also was an addict, and shot her in the hand and leg. William had always maintained that he had been too intoxicated to really know what he was doing at the time, but the jury found otherwise: it convicted him of attempted murder and various handgun violations. The Judge imposed a sentence of 65 years in prison.
Facing such a long sentence, while still under the age of 25, it would have been easy for William to give up. Prison is an inhospitable place for a young man who is addicted to drugs, and there are plenty of opportunities to fall in with the wrong crowd. But William did just the opposite. He got sober. He found a job. He took every prison program he possibly could, and eventually emerged as a spiritual leader of the inmate population. In sum, he rebuilt himself, from the bottom up.
William also set out on a quixotic campaign to win his freedom. His efforts began with the studying of his own case, poring through transcripts, documents, discovery and anything he could get his hands on. He researched in the prison law library as best as he could, looking for any case that could provide a legal foothold that would allow him to challenge his own conviction. He even reached out to lawyers all over the state, calling from prison phones and seeking their guidance as his pro se litigation slowly moved through the courts. His legal skills won some small victories along the way, but those were always overshadowed by the bottom line: his conviction was still intact, and he was still in prison.
I was one of the lawyers he reached out to over the years. William would call frequently and persistently. He was always polite, always respectful, and he was eternally optimistic. If I was busy and told him to call back in a month, he would do just that, returning the call precisely one month later, full of optimism that I would have a few minutes to talk about his case. I will confess that I did not always like receiving his calls. Lawyers are busy, and we generally don’t have time to field calls from people who are not our clients. Moreover, we are trained not to give advice until we have been retained, particularly when we do not yet understand the full dimensions of a case.
But the more I got to know William, the more I realized there was something special about him. He never got down on his luck, he was incredibly thoughtful, and he could always make me laugh. He was friendly with everyone in the office, and once he surprised us all with homemade “Brown Law/Free William Mitchell” t-shirts. What’s more, his case truly did seem unfair. His ex-wife – the victim in his case – had fully recovered and had written the judge asking for leniency. The 65-year sentence he received seemed disproportionate to the crime he had committed.
After knowing William for years, I discussed his case with another Brown Law attorney, Lily Romero. We felt the same way about it. Enough was enough. We decided we would take on his case even if he could not afford to pay us. Some things were bigger than money, and we thought nobody deserved help more than William.
As we started researching the case, we immediately concluded that obtaining any relief would be a daunting task. William had filed so many motions and raised so many issues in multiple jurisdictions that even understanding the case was a challenge. As with any old case that has been so thoroughly litigated, often with the help of some very good lawyers, it was hard to come up with new arguments, and even if we were able to do so, it would be likely that the issue would be deemed waived.
Then, nearly eight years after we had first met William, one of the attorneys reviewing his case, Lily Romero, found something. She noticed a technical error in his sentence – that one of his gun charges had been filed under the wrong statute, making his sentence on that count illegal. Even though this error did not significantly affect William’s 65-year sentence (it was only five years of his total sentence), it was enough to get him back into court. It was just the break we needed.
The legal journey to capitalize on this technical error was not easy – and the county state’s attorney’s office fought us every step of the way. First, we had to convince a judge that the sentence, as imposed some 18 years ago, was in fact illegal. Once the judge agreed with us, we then had to wait for the imposition of a new sentence. Only after this had taken place did it became possible to file what we really wanted: a motion to reduce the sentence.
We finally got William back in court for a new sentencing before Judge Paul W. Ishak on April 19, 2023. William was brought out in shackles and a blue jumpsuit. The courtroom was packed with William’s family, friends and supporters. We presented overwhelming evidence of William’s accomplishments and rehabilitation in prison, including 15 letters from prison officials who sang his praise and, in some instances, even endorsed his early release. We also presented the testimony of a mother whose son William had mentored in prison, and a former childhood friend who had witnessed William’s remarkable rehabilitation. The prosecutor, meanwhile, opposed our efforts, arguing that all of the legal filings Williams had made over the years – his tireless efforts to win his own freedom – should be held against him, as if it indicated a lack of remorse.
Judge Ishak soundly rejected the prosecutor’s argument, noting that there is nothing wrong with a person exercising their legal rights. He commented that, if William Mitchell did not deserve a sentence reduction, he did not know who did. After carefully considering all of the evidence, and observing that the William Mitchell standing before him in court was not the same man who had committed a crime 18 years ago, the Judge reduced the sentence by an astounding 40 years, leaving a remaining term of 25 years. This was the functional equivalent of time served, and Mitchell was freed just a few days later.