Erik turned on his Discman and listened to Kanye West and Jay-Z on the flight to Georgia in June 2004. It was his first time on an airplane.
His fears were different than they’d been at Oak Hill, where he had made straight A’s in classes. He was going somewhere unfamiliar, far from his mother and grandmother, and he wouldn’t be going home for a very long time.
A judge had convicted him of second-degree murder and committed him to the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services until age 21. At sentencing, the judge told Erik that he needed to start taking responsibility for firing at a car with two human beings inside, aiming to kill them, and that it was time to accept that the bullet that hit Devin came from his gun. Ballistics evidence had proven it.
“It is particularly horrible and tragic that someone not involved in the beefing, who was by all accounts an outstanding young man, is now dead,” she said in court. “You have a good mind. You have the support of your family. You are alive, in a city where all too many young people are not. And maybe you will be able to put that together in some positive way.”
The residential treatment center, a gated community outside Atlanta, looked like a plantation to him. He was used to rowhouses in Southeast; he’d never seen a house with pillars out front and a circular driveway. The guys in his dorm looked at him as if they were trying to figure him out. Other kids from DC were there, but he believes he was the only one who had killed somebody.
For the first few weeks, Erik kept to himself. Classes were easy for him—some of his peers couldn’t read—and teachers let him take lessons back to his room. He liked art class and English. After school, he’d play basketball or go swimming, then meet for Life Skills classes about how to cook or how to manage his anger.
A counselor named Natacha started bringing books so Erik could read about people who’d made mistakes and changed their lives. He rarely talked about the shooting, and sometimes she would forget what he had done. He asked her once why he had to grow up so soon.
In 2005, when Erik was 16, he moved to an independent-living program in Georgia as part of his sentence. He went to a public high school, where he played basketball and football and ran track. Friends invited him over for dinner, and for the first time in his life he saw mothers and fathers living in the same house. A friend’s mother altered his suit for the senior prom. He studied for his learner’s permit and went on dates. A counselor took him to poetry readings at Morehouse College.
I want this kind of life, he thought.
Erik once heard a staff member at his program in Georgia say, “The only thing you should be able to do is work. You’re a murderer.”
Devin’s mother, Marita, has never thought of Erik that way. She believes he’s a good kid who had something missing in his life and went down the wrong path.
“He turned himself in,” she says. “A lot of people would have kept running.”
Soon after Erik was sentenced, around Mother’s Day 2004, Reverend Motley invited both Marita and Michele to a dinner event at Greater Southeast Hospital called From Both Sides of the Tape. He wanted mothers who had lost children to homicide to talk to the mothers of the young men responsible. Both, he believes, are victims.
He invited two other moms, Pearl Boykin and Michelle Richardson-Patterson. Boykin’s son, T.J., had shot and killed James Richardson inside Ballou Senior High School three months after Devin’s death. Erik’s mother, Michele, didn’t show up. She told Motley she wasn’t ready.
A few weeks later, Marita saw Michele at one of Erik’s review hearings. The judge checked in with Erik by phone every few months to see if he was staying on track in Atlanta; Michele and Marita would sit in the courtroom listening. After one of the hearings, both of them stood up and walked toward the door. Then they stopped.
“I’m sorry,” Michele said.
“That’s all I really wanted to hear,” Marita told her.
Motley sent the mothers on a weekend retreat to a farm in Anne Arundel County, and they drove in the same car.
“I grabbed her hand and said, ‘I’m gonna hold your hand all the way—it’s gonna be all right,’ ” says Marita. “I said, ‘You lost, too. You lost the son you thought you had.’ ”
The two women started talking often and going out to dinner. With Motley’s guidance, they helped form a group called Forgiving Mothers Straight From the Heart and hosted teas at the Willard Hotel for women who had lost children. They traveled to Atlanta to speak to a group of churchgoers about forgiveness. Michele went to candlelight vigils in Devin’s honor.
Marita and Erik recently met for the first time. Marita—who at age 49 is battling Stage IV throat cancer—had always planned to meet him in person. They’d spoken by phone more than once, and Erik had told her how sorry he was.
“It was nice,” she says of meeting Erik. “We just had a regular conversation. I could see the difference in him, the maturity. He’d grown.” Erik says he didn’t feel prepared to meet her, but he went with the hope that it might be a step toward closure. For both of them.