That day in late April, Inez Blue stared into the video chat. Her 63-year-old brother Anthony was lying in a hospital bed, his lungs deteriorating, an oxygen mask strapped across his face.
For more than 40 years, the inmate from Baltimore — blind and mostly confined to his cell — had looked forward to coming home. As the light at the end of the tunnel became brightest, the coronavirus arrived.
Now he was in pain, ready to give up.
“Hold on, Anthony,” Inez, 64, urged her little brother. “Fight this virus so you can come home.”
It had seemed a reasonable dream. Maryland has released more than 2,000 inmates since the pandemic hit, all surely more dangerous than this blind old man who had trouble breathing and couldn’t walk without a helper.
But no relief came for inmate #141205.
“I’ve represented a lot of prisoners. This has disturbed me as much as any that I’ve had any involvement in,” said his onetime attorney, Michael Millemann.
Before prison, Blue had been a kid — he liked clothes, girls and trouble. In prison, he became a man tortured by schizophrenia and blindness, driven to hurt himself. But he attended church, savored Sam Cooke songs, and harbored modest dreams of a hot bath and running a soul food restaurant.
Blue always maintained his innocence in the 1976 murder of Calvin R. Preston, for which he was locked up at age 18. He had a chance to walk free in 2012; all he had to do was admit his guilt and be sentenced to time served.
Blue preferred to fight to clear his name.
This spring, Blue found himself at the Roxbury Correctional Institution, population 1,700. No one at the Hagerstown facility had tested positive for the coronavirus when Blue was transferred to the infirmary in late April with a slight fever.
To this day, Blue remains the only one. Tests showed he had COVID-19 and pneumonia.
His attorneys worked for his release. Inez prepared a bedroom in her Baltimore home. Nobody had to be told the urgency.
“We think it would be a comfort to Mr. Blue to know, if he does pass,” an attorney wrote to the judge and prosecutors, “that he died a free man.”
Anthony Blue did not go into prison blind.
He grew up one of 11 brothers and sisters, raised in segregated West Baltimore. After their mother’s arrest, the siblings were put into foster care. Many of them endured abuse.
Anthony dropped out of school in the sixth grade. Another sister, Sandra, called Anthony a snazzy dresser who had a way with the ladies. He also got into trouble, his sisters said: He was held in juvenile confinement at one point, and in early 1976 was caught breaking in through the roof of a North Avenue clothing store to steal leather jackets.
On Feb. 28 that year, a group of teens were outside a home in Reservoir Hill when, they said, they heard a commotion and saw three people leave. Inside, one of the boys found 31-year-old Calvin “Petey” Preston on the landing of a stairwell. He had been beaten on his head and face, and shot once in the abdomen.
After talking repeatedly to the teenage witnesses, detectives identified three suspects: Etta Myers, then 24, her boyfriend Calvin Richardson, 30, and Blue. He was 18.
There was no known motive, no eyewitnesses to the crime itself, no physical evidence. Blue had been identified only as one of three people allegedly seen running from the home.
All three were convicted at a four-day trial in 1977 and sentenced to life in prison.
His first years in prison were tumultuous. Parole commissioners noted his “horrendous” behavior and 11 infractions in four years, including an assault on a guard that resulted in another criminal conviction.
Blue’s poor “adjustment” was due in no small part to undiagnosed schizophrenia, records make clear. When doctors determined his condition, they regularly failed to get him proper medications — and when they did, he often refused to take them.
Without medication, he turned to self-harm.
In 1986, he was placed on suicide watch after throwing away his belongings and lining his cell floor with toilet paper and making a telephone from Styrofoam containers.
On June 2, 1990, four years after Blue blinded himself in his left eye, the inmate in an adjoining cell said he saw a guard walk up to Blue’s cell and look in through the window. The officer jumped backward: “Damn, he’s pulling out his eye!”
A couple of years later, Blue paid a $120 fee to file his own lawsuit against the private contractor that provided medical services to the prison system. Pierson became his civil attorney.
“It was gross negligence — it was worse than if they were trying to be deliberately indifferent,” Pierson said.
The case was settled. Pierson said the amount was confidential but “enough to last a while.” Blue used some of it to hire attorney Billy Murphy and appeal his conviction, unsuccessfully.
He was part of another lawsuit, years later, in which blind inmates at the same facility described the conditions. Inmates told the lawyers that they were easy targets, vulnerable to assaults and extortion. They were unable to use the law library or write letters home. They relied on others to move around.
When Blue was convicted, it was expected that people who received life sentences would have a chance to one day be paroled. Maryland, however, is one of three states in which the governor has the final say.
At Blue’s 2011 parole hearing, 21 years after he went blind, commissioners noted that he wanted to learn Braille but had been unable to obtain a tutor. He hadn’t had an infraction since the 1990s. But commissioners kept kicking the can, asking for a psychological evaluation that no publicly available records show ever occurred.
In 2012, the Court of Appeals decision in the case of Unger v. State offered a lifeline.
The high court said that before 1981, Maryland judges conveyed improper jury instructions and defendants were entitled to new trials.
In most cases, witnesses had died; evidence had gone lost. More than 200 cases were affected, about 150 of them in Baltimore.
“This was not an exoneration process,” said Tony Gioia, a retired Baltimore prosecutor who was the point person for Unger cases. “We instituted a review process to see if these cases could be retried, looking at it practically … to see if it was in the interest of justice to settle these cases.”
More than 190 people struck agreements to be released; their average age was 64. As of December 2018, just a handful had reoffended, according to the Abell Foundation.
Only one of the so-called Unger prisoners was cleared of his crime, according to Becky Feldman, a deputy chief with the Maryland public defender’s office. The other inmates agreed not to challenge their convictions in return for a sentence of time served. Myers and Richardson, Blue’s co-defendants, took the deal and walked free in May 2013.
Blue had no interest in such an offer.
“He was adamant that he was not guilty,” said Millemann, the attorney who handled many Unger cases and initially worked with Blue.
As Millemann reviewed the evidence, he couldn’t understand how Blue had been convicted. The teenage witnesses initially told police they were drinking wine and smoking dope, and didn’t know the people who left the house. They were brought back for additional interviews by police.
One of the teens never identified Blue and specifically excluded him. The second testified that Blue was not there, either, saying, “I thought [the police] were joking, and I laughed, and I didn’t think they were serious when they said it was Blue.”
The lone witness to identify Blue testified at the trial that he had been threatened with perjury if he didn’t pick out the people detectives believed to be involved.
It wasn’t simply that Blue wanted to clear his name, however. He was generally distrustful and afraid of being sent to a mental institution.
“He would say, ‘They’re going to put me away,’ ” Inez recalled. “I said, ‘They’re not going to put you away. They’re trying to get you out.’ Sometimes he would attack me and say I was with them.”
In early 2018, Anthony, then 60, went before the parole commission for the eighth time. The commission noted that he was “unable to work or complete any programs and needs 24 hour assistance to move around.”
“Panel agrees,” commissioners John Dale Smack III and Christopher J. Reynolds wrote, “[that] subject should be considered for medical parole based on his current medical condition.”
Next Hearing: 2021
But instead of recommending Blue for medical parole, they scheduled another parole hearing for 2021.
Christine Burke, chief administrator for the Maryland Parole Commission, says that to recommend medical parole, the commissioners needed to “believe that he was so physically incapacitated as to not present a danger to society.” Instead, they directed him to apply directly for medical parole.
Parole Commission Chairman David Blumberg said Blue never applied.
It likely wouldn’t have made much difference. Thirty-four such requests were processed in 2018, and only three were approved, one by Gov. Larry Hogan and two others by the parole commission after Hogan took no action.
A fellow inmate named Charles Baxter worked as Blue’s walker and caretaker starting in 2017, cleaning his cell every Saturday and helping him get around the prison. Baxter gave him haircuts, helped feed him and worked with him to learn Braille.
In a letter from prison, Baxter said Blue faithfully tuned in to “60 Minutes” on Sundays and enjoyed Baxter singing songs that conjured thoughts of an eventual release: “Family Reunion” by the O’Jays and Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
Blue mused about how he would like to open a soul food restaurant and looked forward to a nice hot bath.
“He loved for me to talk about him going home,” Baxter recalled.
Restarting the Process
Lawyer Stanley Reed of Bethesda eventually took on Blue’s case pro bono and restarted the Unger process, filing a petition in March 2019.
The Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office responded that it intended to retry the 1976 case and asked for an extension to respond.
Reed filed another motion in December, seeking to jump-start the process. Again, Reed said, the prosecutor told him the case would be retried.
A hearing to undo Blue’s conviction was set for January, but there was wrangling over whether he would appear in person — Reed worried about his client’s routine and medications being disrupted, but Blue was adamant that he attend. It was rescheduled for April 2.
Then came the coronavirus. Court operations shut down, and Blue’s hearing was rescheduled for May 8.
The state did little to release prisoners at first. Hogan said inmates were “safer where they are.” He noted how inmates in Hagerstown were helping keep the general public safe, by assembling masks and producing hand sanitizer.
Defense attorneys flooded the courts with petitions to release defendants, young and old, sick and healthy, saying the coronavirus posed a danger to all. Courts usually denied those requests.
On March 30, an inmate at a Jessup facility and two non-correctional contract employees became the first confirmed cases in Maryland’s prison system.
Over the ensuing weeks, the number of cases grew slowly, particularly at Jessup. But there were no cases at Roxbury or any of the other facilities in Hagerstown. The prison system touted its efforts to avoid such an outbreak, even as it acknowledged that testing had been rare.
Wary that prison staff won’t keep their families informed, inmates arrange with one another to call emergency contacts if something happens to them. An inmate reached out to Inez on April 17 and said her brother had been transferred to the infirmary because of a fever.
Days later, Inez learned he had tested positive for COVID-19 and was at Meritus Hospital in Hagerstown.
It was perhaps his first extended period outside a prison since he was a young man, but Blue couldn’t see the bucolic cul-de-sac out his window. Two corrections officers were stationed outside the room.
When Inez spoke to him, he sounded defeated and broken. He said he wanted to die. “He was in so much pain,” she recalled. “I told him, ‘Just fight. You can’t give up.‘”
Matching Quilt and Curtains
Inez went online in late April and ordered a linen set for Anthony’s bedroom, across the hall from her own. She picked out a quilt with matching curtains.
Reed filed an emergency motion in which he disclosed that Blue had tested positive for COVID-19. He asked that Blue’s petition for a new trial be granted and, no longer a convicted murderer since the Unger ruling, that he be released on bail. He wrote that Inez was ready to take her brother into her home, and that they had lined up a treatment program for him.
The state did not immediately respond.
Blue’s condition deteriorated. At 3:50 p.m. May 5, another attorney at Reed’s firm, Meaghan Murphy, wrote to the judge’s clerk and Assistant State’s Attorney Daniel Salem with the dire outlook.
“I’m writing with bad news, unfortunately,” Murphy wrote. “Stan has been in contact with the doctors taking care of Mr. Blue and he is not doing well. He is on a ventilator, his lungs have stopped functioning, and they predict he has between 24 and 36 hours to live.”
“We think it would be a comfort to Mr. Blue to know, if he does pass, that he died a free man.”
Salem responded an hour later: “The petitioner’s rights are not the only ones at issue in this matter.”
In an accompanying court filing, Salem acknowledged that Blue’s conviction should be overturned, but he said it couldn’t happen until there was a hearing so that a representative of Preston’s family could participate.
The next day, Reed and Murphy were finalizing a motion they hoped a judge would sign to vacate the conviction.
It had not yet been sent when Reed’s phone rang.
Anthony had been taken off the ventilator an hour earlier, Inez told them. The hospital set up a videoconference, a nurse wheeling a free-standing iPad into the room so Inez and Sandra could say goodbye over Zoom. Sandra, who says she found God in recent years, prayed with him.
“When I saw him, I felt joy,” Sandra said later, smiling. “I wanted to see the father take him back to where he brought him from. No more pain, no more suffering, no more nothing.”
Blue died at 12:28 p.m.
Reached for comment after Blue’s death, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office said that despite Salem’s assertions to Reed that he intended to retry the case, “our office was still in the process of evaluating the strength of the evidence.”
It is unknown how Blue contracted the coronavirus. Weeks later, after testing nearly 1,680 inmates at Roxbury, the prison system reports that Blue is the only known case among inmates there, and it refuses to answer questions about whether contact tracing has been performed. He is one of eight inmates across the Maryland prison system to die from the virus.
Polley, who served time with Blue, can’t understand it. “How can he catch a virus when he didn’t go anywhere? He hardly ever left his cell,” Polley said.
After repeated complaints from the corrections officers’ union, Hogan announced May 20 that he was directing state health officials to implement universal tests for inmates and staff.
Inez BIue says her brother’s blindness had long rendered him no threat to anyone. She faults Hogan for not taking greater strides to release inmates.
Blue never got the second trial an appeals court said he deserved, and his guilt in the killing of Calvin Preston remains an open question.
Perhaps the doctors and his family could have kept him alive long enough to see through the symbolic gesture of clearing his name. But given the continued failures of the system, the path taken seemed the only way to emancipation.
“I think in his mind,” Inez said, “it was the only way he could be free.”
A few days after he died, the quilt and matching curtains arrived in the mail. She never took them out of the box, and moved it to the basement.
It took more than a month for the family to cobble together the money to have a proper funeral. When the day, June 8, finally came, 10 empty gold chairs sat socially distanced across from the casket.
In his coffin, Anthony Blue wore a black suit, with a black-and-gold polka-dot tie and handkerchief. He had a beard, and the fingernails on his clasped hands were long. These were tasks Charles Baxter had helped him with until Baxter was transferred in late February.
At first, Inez did not like the idea of having Anthony cremated, but she came around to it and ordered an urn to place in her home.
She thought back to when he was in the hospital, and Anthony had asked her to come get him.
“I promised I was going to bring him home,” she said. “At least I didn’t tell him a lie.”
Justin Fenton, a staff writer for the Baltimore Sun, is a 2020 John Jay/Quattrone Justice Reporting Fellow. This is a slightly abridged version of his Fellowship project. Read the complete version with photos here.