A lawyer's lost bags lead to a juvenile lifer's redemption

Jeffrey Branch, (left) found Mark Cedrone’s briefcase on the street. He returned it, beginning a story of friendship and redemption.

The briefcases lay on the South Philadelphia street, abandoned, one neatly leaning against the other like a couple of downed dominoes.

At first, Jeffrey Branch, 53, thought someone got robbed.

Nope, he told himself. Not touching those.

He took another look. Something about the way the bags sat neatly just over the curb on the 2600 block of South 19th Street that July day made him reconsider. More likely that someone, rushed or distracted, leaned them against his car and drove off.

One quick look inside revealed he was right. Someone was definitely missing these bags. He stood there, unsure what to do next.

A man who had grown accustomed to accounting for his every move for decades, he called his wife to tell her where he was and what he found.

Wait a few minutes, she told him. When no one came back for the bags, he walked them back to his house. Inside were a pricey computer, a good amount of cash, and some important-looking papers.

There was also a stack of business cards:

Mark E. Cedrone of Cedrone & Mancano LLC, Attorneys at Law.

A lawyer. Branch thought back to his past and couldn’t help but think this was a test, one he’d been preparing for exactly 35 years and eight months.

He dialed the number, never dreaming that his act of good citizenship would spark a fast friendship between the lawyer and the former juvenile lifer.

It had already been a blessing to be able to do the right thing, Branch told me when the three of us met at Cedrone’s Center City office. But the relationship that developed brings him to tears.

“You know, people judge you . . .,” he said, before being overcome by emotion. “He trusts me.”

Cedrone, seated next to him, smiled. “I consider him a friend,” he said. He’s already invited Branch and his wife for Thanksgiving dinner, and he sends whatever odd jobs he can find Branch’s way while trying to help him land full-time work.

Just as Branch guessed, the day Cedrone forgot his bags, he had been trying to juggle them and his dog. One of the bags was packed with money and clothes for a trip with his wife to the Shore. Branch was in Center City when he called, cashing a check from his part-time work at a supermarket.

Cedrone offered Branch a ride home. Along the way, he learned that his Good Samaritan had a story that made his actions even more commendable.

Branch was 17 when he went to jail for second-degree murder — he was an accomplice in a robbery that left a man dead. Eight months ago, he was among the first wave of juvenile lifers in Pennsylvania to be resentenced and released on parole after the U.S. Supreme Court found mandatory life-without-parole sentences for minors to be unconstitutional.

He’d just been out for four months when he came across the bags.

“You know, not many people would do this,” Cedrone told Branch.

Branch’s response was unequivocal. “I’ve been given a second chance in life and I want to make sure I make the best of it.”

Here’s how he put it: “I was a bad kid. This was a first test that I am not that bad kid anymore.”

Cedrone, a criminal defense attorney, has heard plenty of hard-luck stories. Branch’s sincerity touched him.

“We as a society generally don’t leave any room for the notion of forgiveness or improvement in  people,” Cedrone said. “Here’s a guy who made a big mistake when he was a kid, and paid a dear price for it.”

Cedrone called Branch’s parole officer and then wrote a letter to the judge who presided over his resentencing and the Board of Probation and Parole.

“I tell this story because every day, all around us, we find reasons for disappointment in humankind,” he wrote. “To the extent the court may have harbored any doubt concerning Mr. Branch’s entitlement to the second chance offered as a result of changes in the legal landscape, I hope this story disabuses such doubt.”

For Branch, every decision he’s made in his eight months as a free man reflects not just on himself but on many of the men he left behind.

“I’m not saying everyone should be released,” he said. “But there are more people like me that don’t have a chance and have changed their life and deserve one.”

Branch’s release wasn’t supported by a friend of the man who was killed. When I asked Branch what he’d say to the friend if he could, he teared up.

“You can’t come back from that,” Branch said, crying. “I’m sorry. That’s all I can say, and I’m going to be better. I’m not that kid anymore.”