Erik received his high-school diploma in Georgia and was sent back to DC in 2007 to continue his sentence in a group home in Northwest. When he returned, he had a reputation—a “tag,” he calls it. On the street, being convicted of murder wasn’t such a bad thing. People wanted to be his friend.
He got a job with a moving company but hated it. He’d get off work, hang out in his old neighborhood, and take the Metro back to his group home by curfew.
He’d been away from home for four years and felt proud of what he’d accomplished—good grades, a diploma, friends. But the streets hadn’t changed, and as an adult he was expected to fend for himself.
He stopped by his grandmother’s house one night for dinner and told her he couldn’t stay long.
“Why are you rushing?” she asked.
Later that evening, a neighbor knocked on her door to tell her Erik had been arrested a few blocks away. Marva Green was furious. She had asked Michele to move to Atlanta so Erik didn’t have to come back to Anacostia, but her daughter had a stable job and didn’t want to uproot.
You’ve been given a second chance, Green had told her grandson. Don’t mess this up.
Erik pleaded guilty to possession of heroin with intent to distribute and was sentenced to two years in prison.
He was angry at himself. “From that point on it was like, ‘Okay, enough mistakes,’ ” he says.
He read philosophy books and suspense novels in jail. He took real-estate courses and studied Islam. He starting writing. He got to know guys who’d been locked up 20 or 30 years, some of whom were never going home.
I’m still young, he told himself.
He served 20 months, then in 2010 entered a job-training program called Project Empowerment. He was assigned a contract job as a legal assistant in the Office of Administrative Hearings in Judiciary Square, a few blocks from the courtroom where he’d been convicted of killing Devin. He wore a tie to work every day.
There was a moment last year when Erik found himself wondering what Devin would be doing now if he were alive. A trip inside the court building had him thinking.
“I’d never thought about all the time that’s gone by, all the stuff Devin might have accomplished between then and now,” he says.
He doesn’t allow himself to get stuck on thoughts like that. He rarely even says Devin’s name. He prefers to focus on the message, on what he’d say if he were standing in front of a group of kids living the life he lived nine years ago.
“You have to think about the effect your actions can have, the magnitude of what could happen,” he says. “You could take somebody’s life and you could lose yours in the process. Are you willing to sacrifice all of that over a situation that tomorrow you might not even care about?”
Sometimes he wonders where he would be if the shooting hadn’t happened. He recognizes the twisted reality: If he hadn’t fired his gun after the homecoming pep rally and been sent away for treatment, he might never have left Southeast.
“I don’t think I would have graduated high school,” he says.
He might have been murdered. He might have shot somebody when he was 18 instead of 15 and ended up serving life in prison. One of the guys he was shooting at that day is dead, he says. Another drives a Metrobus.
“There’s nothing I can do to change what happened,” he says. “A mother lost her son, and lives were changed forever. I just try to live through it and past it. If I can become a better person, then I’ll feel like I accomplished something.”
Erik says he’s learned how to walk away from trouble. He can visit his grandmother in Southeast and ignore the temptations of the streets. Yet he’s still finding his way.
At 23, he’s living with his girlfriend in Oxon Hill, finishing a novel he started writing in jail, and working part-time for a friend at a used-car lot. Since prison, he’s dabbled in photography and club promotions.
One of his goals is to own a chain of luxury hotels by age 45, though he’s not sure how to make that happen. He enrolled in business classes at Prince George’s Community College last fall but decided to take a break because he couldn’t get motivated. “I’m scared of failure,” he says.
Sometimes he thinks he wants to be a youth counselor, but he worries about that kind of responsibility—worries about having kids look up to him, the influence he could have on their lives.
He’s lost, in a way, though he wouldn’t say that. He says you don’t “find” yourself; you create yourself, and that’s what he’s doing now. He’s creating the person he wants to become, a person who would make Devin’s mother proud. He hasn’t forgotten what she asked of him years ago. Get out of jail and change your life around for me. That way my son can live through you.
“I’m giving myself till my 25th birthday to find out what I really want to do,” Erik says. “I just hope my good outweighs my bad.”
This article appears in the July 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.