Fatal Mistake: A Teen Killer Looks Back

The day after he turned 15, Erik Postell fired a gun into a crowded school parking lot and killed Devin Fowlkes, a nice kid he barely knew. Nine years later, he’s still trying to make sense of what happened and to fulfill a promise he made to Devin’s mother.

By: Cindy Rich

On the morning of October 30, 2003, Devin Fowlkes couldn’t decide what to wear. The high-school junior had a big day ahead: the homecoming dance at noon, then a pep rally, where he’d be introduced as starting tailback for the Anacostia High football team. He put on jeans and a white T-shirt and went into his mother’s room.

“Ma,” he said, “you like this?”

“Not really,” she told him.

He trusted his mom, Marita Michael, when it came to fashion. She was the one who’d picked out his tuxedo for the prom and made sure the color of his shirt matched his date’s dress.

“What about this?” he asked. He’d changed into a red-and-black shirt that looked good with his new Air Jordans. Homecoming at Anacostia was a casual affair.

That’s better, Marita said.

He took a shower, made himself an egg sandwich, and grabbed his books.

“See you later,” his mom said. She knew he wouldn’t be home till early evening, after football practice. “Love you.”

“Love you, too.”

Devin's mother, Marita, got angry when she heard someone say Devin was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was at school, she thought.

About two miles away, a baby-faced Anacostia ninth-grader named Erik Postell slept late and got a ride to school from his older brother. He’d spent the previous night, his 15th birthday, hanging around outside with friends in Butler Gardens, an apartment complex in Southeast. Erik liked being with older boys, doing things he wasn’t old enough to do. He hustled dime bags of weed and drove his own ’88 Cadillac Fleetwood, even though he didn’t have a license.

Erik’s days revolved around girls and clothes, and he had plans to try out for the junior-varsity basketball team. But on the day of the dance he had other things on his mind. A fistfight in the school cafeteria a few weeks earlier had turned into something serious, so he’d bought a gun and stashed it in the bushes near school.

Nine years later, what Erik remembers about that October day is that he didn’t see Devin standing there in the parking lot when he started shooting. All he saw were the guys who’d been hassling him. He was aiming for them.

“I can visualize it. I remember everything I had on,” he says. “But I can’t put together my thoughts, my whole thinking process at the time.”

The “Devin situation,” as Erik calls it, had started weeks earlier, over a girl. A friend of Erik’s had a girlfriend, and someone was flirting with her.

“That dude’s fakin’,” Erik’s friend said.

When someone’s “fakin’,” that means he’s taunting you, messing with you, trying to act tough. Erik barely knew this guy, but in high school you take on your friends’ battles.

He and his buddy walked up a school stairwell and found the guy who’d been flirting, waiting with his friends. The two groups beat up on each other in the cafeteria, then scattered. The security guards and the principal rounded them up and had a mediation, Erik says.

He thought it was over, but a week later he was riding in a friend’s car when he saw one of the guys from the cafeteria fight running behind the car waving a gun.

Erik says his own car was shot at a few days after that, blocks from school. The back window shattered, and a bullet hit the trunk. He was in it at the time but wasn’t hurt.

Erik talked to a security guard at school but never called the police. He didn’t see the point. Even if he snitched, these guys had friends, and their friends had friends.

“I weighed my options,” he says. “I could continue to go to school and hope it might end, or I could deal with it head-on.”

After the homecoming dance and pep rally, around 3 o’clock, Erik says he and a friend were walking home and saw the white Cadillac of one of the guys he’d been arguing with coming toward them; two guys were in it. They pulled up beside him. Erik had the pistol in his bag. He was sure these guys were after him again. They made eye contact, one guy looked at him and laughed, and Erik thought he saw one of them reach for his pocket. He took aim as the car was pulling away, missed, and ended up firing into a parking lot filled with kids.

Two hours later, Devin Fowlkes, a nice kid he knew from art class, was dead.

Devin was the tenth youth killed in the District in 2003 and the 207th murder that year. Since then, another 130 juveniles have been killed in DC, many at the hands of other teens.

Devin’s name went on a brown file folder at the Metropolitan Police Department’s homicide branch in Southwest DC.

The case was solved quickly: At his mother’s urging, Erik Postell turned himself in a day later and confessed. Because he was a juvenile, his name was never released to the media.

Now 23, Erik has served his sentence and is trying to piece together a life for himself. He’s hoping he can help keep his young nephews out of the street life that sucked him in, a world where R.I.P. shirts—with a dead person’s face on them—are in style.

Erik arrives for an interview on an early-spring evening wearing dark-blue jeans, a sweater with buttons, and a crisp green Oakland A’s baseball cap. He chooses his hats based on style, not teams. He’s always nicely dressed for interviews, always articulate, always introspective. If a killer has a look or a tone, it’s not Erik’s.

He isn’t used to talking about Devin. He’s told a few of the friends he’s met in recent years, but only if he thinks they’ll be in his life awhile. It’s part of who he is, he says, and he can’t pretend it isn’t. But it’s not like he robbed a house. He killed somebody—that’s not something you go around sharing.

Erik doesn’t have flashbacks or see Devin in his dreams—perhaps because he never saw Devin get hit, never saw him lying unconscious in the school parking lot. He has looked at photos of Devin on Facebook and felt something. Not guilt, exactly—more like regret. He wishes he had known how to walk away from a bad situation. But in that place at that time, he did what he felt he had to do to protect himself.

“I made a bad decision,” he says. “People from all walks of life make bad decisions.”

Erik chose a long time ago to move forward, not backward. He’s hoping he can do what Devin’s mother asked of him soon after the shooting: “Get out of jail and change your life around for me,” she said. “Then my son can live through you.”

T o make sense of what happened, Erik says, you have to understand his life at the time. He was living with his mother, but she was working and going to school. For him, that meant late nights outside. No rules, nobody calling him in for dinner. He was running the streets at age 14, so when he ran into trouble at school, a gun was the easy answer.

Erik’s grandmother, Marva Green, had cared for him from the time he was two because his mother, Michele, was an addict and his father wasn’t around. Erik adored his mother.

You're just a kid, Reverend Motley thought when he met Erik. How could you do something like this?

“Take me with you, Mommy,” he’d say when he saw her fixing her hair to go out. Green didn’t want her daughter dragging Erik and his brother, Daryl, into her self-destructive lifestyle, so she helped get Michele into rehab and said she would take the boys. For a while, everything was fine. Erik’s grandma filled his lunch box with homemade fried chicken and cookies, and he talked about becoming a doctor when he got older. In elementary school, he would come home, do his homework, and run around with the neighborhood kids until dark. He had his own bedroom, but in the morning Green often would find him curled up at the foot of her bed.

When Erik was 11, he and a friend wrote their names in graffiti on the exterior of their middle school. Erik’s grandmother couldn’t help but laugh. “Why would he write his name?” she thought. Her grandson started hanging around older boys she didn’t know and telling her she was too strict. Michele was sober by then, so Green told Erik it was time to go live with his mother.

His mom had an apartment on 25th Street, Southeast, a few blocks from his grandmother’s house. She was working too much to keep tabs on him. He’d always liked brand-name clothes, even as a little boy, and the guys he knew who were dealing drugs seemed to have the best of everything.

Erik made a good profit on the corner because he never smoked what he sold. As a boy, he’d spent weekends with his mother at the Oxford House—an addiction-recovery group home in a nice neighborhood in Northwest—and sat with her in Narcotics Anonymous meetings, where he saw men without teeth and heard people with AIDS talk about sharing needles.

“People really don’t understand how much a kid can comprehend at a young age—a five- or six-year-old can soak in so much from just listening,” he says.

He made so much money dealing that he might go to bed at night with $600 in his pockets. A few hundred for a gun was no big deal.

B en Clark (not his real name), a community activist who does youth-violence work in the District, has met lots of kids like Erik. Most buy guns because they’re afraid, he says: “Eight times out of ten, when you try to kill somebody, it’s because you fear that if you don’t kill them, they’ll kill you.”

He once tried to shake hands with a middle-schooler he passed on the street, and the boy wouldn’t take his hands out of his sweatshirt pocket because he was trying to conceal a machine gun.

“What the hell are you doing?” Clark asked him.

“Man, they coming through my neighborhood,” the boy said. “I’m gonna do that to them.”

Do that meant kill them.

“No, you’re not,” Clark said. “Give me some time to talk to you.”

Two decades ago, when Clark was growing up in DC, he says, you could look at certain guys and know they were dangerous. The thugs stood out. Now everybody blends together and you never know who might be carrying a weapon.

“Years ago, there were rules to this,” Clark says. “Somebody’s with their mother, you wouldn’t shoot them. If somebody’s in their house, you wouldn’t go shoot up the house. Nowadays, they don’t care about the rules. The rules are ‘I live—you die.’ ”

People call Clark, who has served time for attempted murder, when something bad is about to happen. His job at the nonprofit he works for is to step in and try to quash beefs before they become violent. It’s not the type of work you want to bring attention to, Clark says. If your name is out there, the kids will stop trusting you: “You’re not supposed to hear about the truces.”

He’s especially busy after a shooting, when there’s word on the streets that someone is going to retaliate. Many fights start at school and spill over into the community. The key, Clark says, is to get to the kids before they get to each other.

“Somehow, God has blessed me to be able to de-escalate. I can talk to kids and they’ll listen,” he says. “I’ve been in instances where I didn’t even know a guy, and I ran and pushed another kid out of the way so he didn’t get shot, and the guy pointed his gun at me. The other kids were like, ‘Nah, that’s Ben,’ and he put the gun down.”

He recently got involved with a feud between a neighborhood crew and a group of high-school football players.

“Someone called me and said, ‘Man, we need you to come over and deal with this before it gets into gunplay,’ ” Clark says. “We negotiated, and I had to settle for someone getting beat up.”

A colleague of Clark’s once received a call from a member of DC’s Trinidad crew. “The E Street dudes are in our neighborhood right now,” the guy said. “We’re about to do that.”

“No, no—hold on!” he said. He made a couple of calls and found out the E Street guys were in Trinidad checking out girls—they weren’t looking for trouble. Nobody got hurt. “A lot of times we’re able to stop these things,” Clark says. “Sometimes we find out too late.”

When Erik fired his pistol, Devin Fowlkes and his teammates were hanging around in the parking lot, waiting for football practice.

Willie Stewart, who had coached the Anacostia High Indians for more than two decades, was finishing some work in his keyboarding classroom when he heard two loud pops. He thought someone was messing around with firecrackers. Then one of his players banged on his classroom door.

“Devin got shot!” the boy said.

Stewart ran outside and saw Devin lying on his back, eyes closed, bleeding through the football jersey he’d worn to the pep rally.

“Who’s riding with him?” a paramedic asked.

A father of three sons, Stewart got into the ambulance and prayed. He’d already lost other players to gun violence: Anthony Butler, Rodney Smith, Lashon Preston, Donald Campbell. Preston was killed on his front steps the night before a game; Campbell was hit twice over a small bag of marijuana.

You don’t have to settle your problems with guns, he would tell his team. A gun is so final.

After a hearing, both mothers walked toward the door, then stopped. “I’m sorry,” Erik’s mother, Michele, told Marita.

Stewart’s players had told him how easy it was to get a gun—a “burner,” they called it. You could rent, buy, or borrow one. It’s not that it was cool to carry one, they said; sometimes you just had to. When someone disrespected you—on the basketball court, in the hallway at school—you had to straighten it.

“What are you gonna do about that?” he would hear students say. “You gonna take that?”

Devin, a junior, wasn’t one of the players Stewart worried about. He had a B average. His mother, Marita, came to all of his football games and rang a cowbell in the bleachers. After practice, he would go home and play video games with friends. He’d call Marita at the Verizon Center, where she was a cook, ask her to bring him a half-smoke or a hoagie, then meet her at the bus stop to walk her home. He was a good kid, polite, the kind who helped elderly neighbors take in their groceries.

But in Anacostia, good kids still caught bullets in the chest. “You need to work your butt off, get a scholarship, and get out of here,” Stewart would tell his players. “Get out of DC.”

A year earlier, when snipers were terrorizing the area, DC public schools had canceled some high-school football games to keep teams out of harm’s way. Stewart couldn’t understand why. A reporter asked him if his players were afraid of the snipers.

“Afraid?” Stewart said. “These kids see guys shot in their neighborhoods or find dead bodies in cars. They live it every day.”

Devin, now unconscious, was in his third season playing for Coach Stewart. Though he was small, he’d convinced himself he could play college ball. He had pictures of NFL running backs in his locker and liked to tell his mom that one day he was going to buy her a new house.

Erik’s mother, Michele, was at work at the State Department when she saw the news on television about a shooting outside her son’s school. She couldn’t reach Erik on his cell phone, so she left work to look for him. She wanted to make sure he hadn’t been hurt.

For a few hours after the shooting, Erik says, he didn’t realize he had hit anybody. He’d fired and run. He never saw one of his bullets pierce Devin’s chest and another graze a young girl’s arm. He’d gone back to Butler Gardens as if nothing were wrong.

“One of my friends told me, ‘Somebody got shot down at the school,’ but it didn’t really sink in,” Erik says.

His mother reached him later that evening. By then, friends were telling Michele that her son may have killed somebody.

“Where are you?” she asked Erik. She was terrified. Homicide detectives had kicked in her front door. She didn’t want her son’s picture on television.

“I’m okay,” he said. “I’m around.”

She had missed a lot of Erik’s life while she was in rehab, but she was back on track, working and going to Strayer University at night. She couldn’t always control her son—he stayed out past curfew and got in trouble for stealing cars—but she checked his coat pockets and dresser drawers.

This was the kind of thing she had always feared, the reason she watched the clock waiting for Erik to come home and why she checked his room in the middle of the night to make sure he was there. She had no idea her son had a gun, but she knew they lived in a place where some teenagers went out and never came back.

“We’re going to the police station,” Michele told Erik. “You need to turn your-self in.”

Former police captain Michael Farish, who headed DC’s homicide branch until his retirement earlier this year, got tired of hearing young people make excuses for killing one another.

I thought he might shoot me.

I thought his crew was gunning for my crew, so we strapped up first.

“When I was younger, kids got in fistfights,” he says. “We’ve lost something somewhere along the way.”

Farish doesn’t buy the idea that a teenager like Erik could shoot someone and not realize what he was doing.

“They know what the consequences are—they’ve seen it. Because I’ve seen them, at 10, 11, 12 years old, standing out on the front stoop watching the police roll over the dead body,” he says. “They heard the gunshots, maybe even saw the shooting. They know dead.”

Farish has never forgotten the young guys who shot a kid with a 9-millimeter, a .45, and a shotgun while he was waiting at a traffic light in Southeast because they didn’t like the way he’d looked at them outside a barbershop. But most of the teens he deals with are decent kids who weren’t raised to value human life, often boys who grew up without fathers and turned to the streets to get attention.

Farish remembers a 17-year-old who robbed a dry cleaner’s shop and killed a Korean woman who worked there. An older lieutenant interrogated the teen while Farish watched from another room. The lieutenant spoke calmly and respectfully, as if talking to his own son, and asked the boy why he’d shot the woman.

The young man started to cry. “I’ll tell you everything,” he said. When the officer stood up, the kid jumped out of his chair. Farish thought he was going to attack the lieutenant, but he put his arms out and hugged him. “No man has ever spoken to me like that,” he said.

Devin’s mother, Marita, wanted to be the one to close her son’s casket. She didn’t want someone from the funeral home doing it.

“Go sit down,” she told Devin’s grandmother. Thousands had gathered for the service, including DC mayor Anthony Williams and police chief Charles Ramsey. “I need to do this by myself.”

Marita was used to hearing from her son two or three times a day. A friend had told her once that she’d never seen a teenager call his mother as often as Devin did.

“What you doing?” he would ask on the phone.

“Same thing I was doing two hours ago,” Marita would say. “Boy, why don’t you go have fun?”

She always knew where he was. The one time he tried to sneak out, she got out of bed, walked to the party she knew he had gone to, and banged on the door.

“Dang, Ma,” Devin said. “How’d you find me?”

Coach Willie Stewart got into the ambulance and prayed. He'd already lost several players to gun violence.

She was there for her son’s last breaths at Howard University Hospital, and she was going to be the last person to lay eyes on him. Some people got shot ten times and survived; her son had taken one bullet and died. She told herself God had better plans for him.

She got angry when she heard someone say Devin was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was at school, she thought.

Friends of Devin’s had told Marita what happened in the parking lot that day. She knew that the young man who shot her son wasn’t aiming for him and that he had turned himself in. She also knew that one of Devin’s best friends was serving time at the Oak Hill Youth Center, where Erik was being held. The facility, since closed, had a reputation for violence.

That boy is not safe there, she thought. Someone is going to kill him for what he did to Devin.

Marita called Reverend Anthony Motley, a family friend who volunteered at Oak Hill, and asked him to get Erik into isolation. She didn’t want Erik’s mother to go through what she’d been through. One dead child was enough.

A t the Oak Hill Youth Center, Erik stood on his bed to talk to other inmates through the vents. Being in isolation meant about 20 hours a day in his room.

For a while, Erik believed that the bullet that hit Devin, ricocheting inside his chest and tearing through his aorta, came from someone else’s gun. He was sure the guys he’d fired at had shot back. He thought he’d heard their gunshots.

“They were saying I killed somebody,” he says. “I didn’t want to accept that.”

He had spent three months in a juvenile facility in Baltimore when he was 13 after he and some friends filled a minivan with stolen dirt bikes. But the place in Baltimore seemed like summer camp compared with Oak Hill. Now 15, he was small for his age. The kids here knew what he was accused of doing and taunted him during bus trips to court. When his mother came to visit, she noticed bald spots on his head. His hair was falling out.

He hadn’t been at Oak Hill long when Reverend Motley came to see him. Motley, who had known Devin since he was seven, practiced redemption ministry, which meant everybody got second and third chances. He had suggested to Marita that she reconcile with Erik and his family, an idea she didn’t resist.

An officer led Erik into a room where Reverend Motley was waiting.

You’re just a kid, Motley thought. How could you do something like this?

“Devin was like my grandson,” he told Erik. “Now I have to come and face his killer. How do you think that makes me feel?”

Motley talked to Erik about accepting God into his life. Erik didn’t say much—he listened—and Motley saw tears in his eyes.

T here was a point during Erik’s trial in March 2004, five months after the shooting, when the gravity of what he was accused of hit him. He was on trial for first-degree murder.

“His mother was on one side, my mother was on the other side, but he was nowhere around,” Erik says. “I had to come outside of myself and realize: Her son is no longer here.”

In court, where Erik was tried as a juvenile, his mother and grandmother sat behind him every day. Michele would go to work in the morning and leave early for the trial, hoping coworkers wouldn’t figure out where she was going. She stopped answering her phone and hid from television reporters.

“Just leave me alone,” she’d tell them. “Somebody’s child has died.”

She exchanged looks with Devin’s mother in the courtroom, but the two didn’t speak. Marita was angry, but not at Michele.

It’s not her fault, she’d think. She didn’t shoot my son.

She was mad at whoever had handed Erik the gun, a person whose identity she’d never know.

“Every child out here that gets killed with a gun—killed by another child—some adult is responsible for that,” she says. “Whether they sold it to him, gave it to him, or told him to hold it. Why would you give a 14-year-old child a gun?”

Marita moved from her home because she couldn’t bear to see Devin’s bedroom, where friends had left messages on the walls and ceiling. She became an advisory neighborhood commissioner and helped reopen a recreation center that had been closed for a decade.

“There’s nothing for kids to do,” she says. She’d relied on places like that when she was a child. She saw violence in her Southwest DC neighborhood—a friend was killed in an alley after playing cards at her house in junior high—but she always had somewhere to go after school.

“I was in the rec center till it closed at 8, then we was in the house stimulating our minds,” she says. “Kids don’t do that no more.”

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.

(Clockwise from top) Marita wanted to be the one to close her son’s casket. She memorialized Devin on her license plate and has forgiven Erik, shown in a school picture, and his mother. Reverend Motley brought the two mothers together.

“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.

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.

Erik's grandmother, Marva Green, had cared for him from the time he was two. When he was young, she often found him curled up at the foot of her bed.

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.