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Second Life

After committing murder at 17, a budding entrepreneur lifts ex-offenders into the workforce.

Chris Wilson takes a seat at a long wooden table in the University of Baltimore law library, 12 floors above Mt. Royal Avenue. He has the bright, airy space almost to himself in the mid-afternoon. Wearing a dark business suit, dress shirt, and wide-knotted, royal-purple tie, Wilson is all business as he lights up a MacBook Pro and bows his clean-shaven head to concentrate on the screen. His boyish face and alert brown eyes make him look younger than his 36 years, which is fitting because Wilson isn’t an attorney or law student, but an undergrad at UB’s Merrick School of Business, where he’ll complete his degree in business administration this December. Specializing in entrepreneurship, he has won business plan competitions, been named a Ratcliffe Scholar, and earned a place in the school’s rigorous Entrepreneurship Fellows Program.

In addition to his course load, Wilson is the founder, owner, and operator of the Barclay Investment Corporation—a small general contracting company—as well as the House of DaVinci, a startup furniture repair and upholstery business.

In short, he’s a busy man because he’s making up for lost time. In fact, Wilson isn’t supposed to be here at all. At 17, he killed a man. Tried as an adult for first-degree murder, he was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. By all odds, Wilson should still be serving time at Patuxent Institution in Jessup, where he served more than a decade of the 16 years he spent behind bars.

However, less than four years after his release following a reconsideration of his sentence by a new judge, Wilson is now employing other ex-offenders at both of his enterprises, building on experience gained as a community organizer at the Greater Homewood Community Corporation. He also has become an advocate for juvenile justice and sentencing reform, and counts best-selling author Wes Moore and the former NAACP head Ben Jealous among his friends and clients.

Inside the law library, he takes time to appreciate the sweeping view of Baltimore from the floor-to-ceiling windows.

“I like being high up over the city,” he says. “I can look out and see The Belvedere Hotel, where I restored furniture. I can also see Station North and Barclay, where I do a lot of my work. Across the street is the business school, which is really important to me. It’s where I turned my life around.”

As a boy, Wilson grew up mostly with his grandparents in Northeast Washington, D.C. He loved to read in bed at night, even risking his grandmother’s wrath by crossing a busy thoroughfare to check out books from the East Capitol branch of the D.C. Public Library. But by the start of the 1990s, as crack and killings swept the nation’s capital, he was doing his reading—everything from books on dinosaurs to Aesop’s fables and Greek myths—curled up on the floor where he slept as a precaution against stray bullets.

Eventually, after the shooting death of a cousin, Wilson went to live full-time with his mom, a single parent of five in suburban Prince George’s County. “A nice neighborhood,” Wilson recalls, but not the refuge it appeared to be. His mother fell under the control of a physically abusive boyfriend, who was later convicted of sexually assaulting her. In the process, she turned to alcohol and drugs. Meanwhile, the violence in D.C. began spilling over into P.G. County.

“How can you expect a kid to be normal when people are dropping like flies?”

Against this backdrop, Wilson stopped caring about school, tuning out through booze, weed, and other substances. “I buried a friend every couple of months,” he says, reflecting on his teenage years. “How can you expect a kid to be normal when people are dropping like flies? I’m arming up,” he remembers telling himself. “I’m going to start carrying weapons.” Quickly, he accumulated charges for gun possession, assault, and a string of robberies. His descent was so rapid that the court system had not locked him up for any length of time before he made the worst decision of his life.

Around 10 p.m. on June 29, 1996, Wilson—who’d been smoking marijuana—was walking less than 500 yards from his mother’s house on Allentown Road in Camp Springs when someone came up and told him they had “a message” for him. “Another street dude,” Wilson says. “That’s all I knew him about him.”

A brief, threatening conversation ensued. “I didn’t think,” he says. “I just started shooting.” He was 17 years old.

On June 16, 1997, the Circuit Court of Prince George’s County sentenced Wilson to life and referred him to the Patuxent Institution, a prison with educational and therapeutic opportunities for young offenders. For months afterward, he sat in a haze of smuggled marijuana available at the Baltimore prison where he awaited his transfer to Patuxent.

Although communication from his remaining family members quickly tapered off, a phone conversation with his grandfather, dying of cancer, would stick with him. “I don’t understand how somebody that’s smart would purposely do stupid stuff,” his grandfather told him. “That’s not you, man. Promise me you’ll turn your life around.”

With a life sentence, his grandfather’s advice seemed absurd. But just a few months later, alone with his memories and thoughts, a moment of clarity pierced through the fog. “I saw what I had become,” Wilson says. “I started to have an honest conversation with myself.”

He wrote out what he calls his “master plan” of self-improvement. He traded cigarettes to get a spot in a woodworking class. He devoured the prison library, studied Spanish, and earned his GED, as well as a degree from Anne Arundel Community College. With the help of counselors, he also began to untangle his past and face what he had done. In victim impact group meetings, he rediscovered a capacity for compassion. He wanted to learn more about the man who he’d killed and tried to reach out to his family. “All I did was study, go to therapy, and exercise,” Wilson says.

Though it seemed like a pipe dream, he imagined one day starting his own business and employing other ex-offenders as a means of repaying his debt to society.

On November 3, 2006, after a decade of incarceration, Wilson returned to court to meet with Judge Cathy Serrette, newly assigned to his case for a review and potential reconsideration of his sentence based on what he’d accomplished while imprisoned.

“Even if you don’t give me a chance, I’m going to be 77 years old, still learning another language, running the yard, still running my programs,” he told Serrette. “That’s who I am. But if you give me that chance, just watch what I do.”

“I’ll be watching you,” he recalls Serrette telling him. “That master plan is law.”

“I saw what I’d become,” Wilson says. “I started to have an honest conversaton with myself.”

Wilson eventually re-emerged into the outside world six years later, in 2012, at 33, after spending almost half of his life in prison, and not long after learning his mother had died. His biological father had been killed a number of years before. He had been moved into a halfway house in Baltimore and, drawing on connections made in prison, UB became his refuge. Professor Elizabeth Nix quickly took note of Wilson in a class on civil rights. “He never missed a class and always elevated the discussion,” she says. “Chris was an intellectual sponge. I also saw him around campus all the time,” Nix continues. “He told me later he stayed on campus all the hours he was not required to be back at the halfway house, so he could stay focused.”

Nix was contacted by Karen Stokes, executive director of the Greater Homewood Community Corporation, who was looking for someone to organize dialogue between the community and developers. Nix suggested Wilson, who later began recruiting unemployed men and women, often with criminal backgrounds, into job training programs.

“Chris was personally committed to trying to find jobs for these people, or create the jobs himself,” says Stokes. “[It was] his frustration in finding jobs for people with limited skills and work history, who also might have a criminal record and no high-school diploma, that led him to forming his own company that employs people with this background.”

Two of the men Wilson has hired are Tony Hartley, 42, who has been working home-improvement jobs with Wilson for more than a year, and Derick Lilly, 21, who has been with Wilson’s general contracting company for four months.

“I didn’t really learn about [Wilson’s criminal] record until later,” says Hartley, who shares Wilson’s sense of mission and now helps recruit new employees for the business. “I probably have more convictions than him. We learned about our backgrounds around the same time. It brought us a lot closer.”

Lilly says Wilson gave him an opportunity no one else would. “I’m a hard worker, but I’ve been through the system,” he says. “That’s why we get along.” Lilly began working on clean-up, moving, and janitorial service jobs, and now is also taking responsibility for newer hires. “Chris said leadership is what he wants us to do,” Lilly explains. “I teach other people: Use up all the space in the truck so we don’t have to make as many trips—time is money—but don’t be careless and scratch up furniture.”

Jealous, the former NAACP president, first met Wilson as a customer when he needed help with a move. “He and his guys did great work,” says Jealous, who still works and resides in Baltimore. “When he told me he has a furniture-restoration business, I entrusted to him antiques from ancestors who had been born slaves, very precious stuff.”

Jealous says he found he and Wilson had a lot of interests in common, and admires his drive and ability. “He builds teams from people the rest of us, well, people we have seen fit to discard,” Jealous says.

Today, it’s more difficult for other offenders to follow Wilson’s path. Maryland law changed after Wilson’s conviction and now requires judges to rule on sentence modifications within five years of the original sentencing. In Wilson’s case, as his lawyer, Harry Trainor Jr., points out, “Five years in, it would not have been apparent to a judge that he had changed so much.”

At the same time, justice and sentencing reformers have begun to find support for more flexibility in the way juveniles are charged and sentenced, and Wilson has been sharing his story in Annapolis and Washington. When the General Assembly considered bills to expand juvenile offenders’ access to sentencing review and eligibility for parole, the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth invited him to testify before the state House and Senate judiciary committees.

Wilson later summarized his testimony in an opinion piece, “Allow Children Sentenced to Life a Second Chance,” published this past March in The Baltimore Sun.

“He certainly had an impact,” says Nikola Nable-Juris, policy counsel at the campaign. “As a mentor, speaker, and skilled businessman, Chris represents the loss of talent sitting in prison. Several legislators said at the hearing and in person that Chris’s story is one of the most powerful stories they’ve ever heard.”

The legislation did not succeed last session, but Wilson sees incremental progress. “I felt there was a lot of traction,” he says. “People do care.”

“He had an impact. Chris represents the loss of talent sitting in prison.”

Returning to his hometown, he has also shared his story on Capitol Hill with members of Congress.

To Jealous, Wilson demonstrates that “there are individuals who can redeem themselves, and that our society can redeem itself from its addiction to mass incarceration.”

“I hope that people will look at Chris and think of how much more good he could do, how much faster, if we helped,” Jealous says.

Ultimately, says Wilson, who currently will remain on parole for years to come, he’d like to build a coalition of socially conscious companies that employ people, make money, and have an impact in Baltimore.

In the meantime, he draws strength from a vote of confidence he received after speaking at a 2013 national conference focused on helping prisoners re-enter society.

After hearing his story, many attendees crowded around Wilson with questions, including one woman who waited patiently for an opportunity to greet him.

She shook his hand and smiled, needing no introduction.

“‘I didn’t have to let you out,’” Wilson recalls Judge Serrette saying.

“‘I could have just left you in there,’” she told him. “‘But I had a feeling in my gut, and I believed you. I made the right decision. I am proud of you.’”