A prosecutor meets the juvenile lifer he locked up for 40 years - and apologizes

Gerald Dugan (left), the prosecutor who put away Kevin Brinkley for 40 years for a murder Kevin’s brother Ronnie confessed to, meets with Brinkley at his law office in Philadelphia.

Gerald Dugan tried to remain calm as the elevator doors opened and the man at the center of a case that’s haunted him for 40 years stepped into his 14th-floor law office.

Kevin Brinkley — who came home on parole last week after four decades in prison — was there at Dugan’s invitation. Brinkley was just 15 in 1977 when he was charged with the murder of Charles Haag, an egg deliveryman, in North Philadelphia. Years ago, when Dugan was an assistant district attorney, the Brinkley family had come forward insisting that Kevin’s brother Ronald was the one who committed the crime.

Dugan has come to believe they’re likely telling the truth. He wanted to ask Kevin in person for his forgiveness.

Kevin arrived with a half-dozen relatives, but Dugan instantly recognized the wiry, soft-spoken 55-year-old man from the skinny kid at the trial.

“You never saw a sunrise; you never saw a sunset,” Dugan told him. “You never drove a car. You never fell in love with somebody. You never had any of the things that all of us take for granted. And I want you to know I am responsible for that — because I told the jury what they should do, and they did it.”

The uncomfortable realization has been dawning on Dugan over the last few months. He met with Brinkley’s family in August, and then wrote to the state parole board expressing his doubts about the case and urging it to release Brinkley. Dugan said the board told him that his comments were a deciding factor.

Now, face to face with Brinkley, he apologized.

“You have every right to tell me that you hate me,” Dugan told him. He said he didn’t do anything unethical, yet “there were a bunch of things I should have done that I didn’t do. I should have re-interviewed Adrienne” Williams, a witness who later recanted her testimony. “I should have had you and Ronnie both take polygraphs. I should have requested a lineup, with you and Ronnie both in the lineup.”

Kevin Brinkley said he did not hate Dugan. He accepted his apology.

“My being angry ain’t going to change the fact that I did 40 years,” he said.

Nor does Dugan’s remorse change the fact that Brinkley has not been exonerated, and the District Attorney’s Office has not taken up his case for review. Brinkley was released only because a U.S. Supreme Court decision found automatic life-without-parole sentences for juveniles to be unconstitutional, leading to the resentencing of more than 300 men and women from Philadelphia serving life sentences since they were teens.

Though Ronald Brinkley has testified in court, his confessions have not been found credible. In a statement issued when Dugan came forward in August, the District Attorney’s Office said it “has been and remains confident in the conviction.”

Camera icon Samantha Melamed
 Michael Brinkley pushes a cart containing the belongings of Kevin Brinkley (center), walking with his granddaughter Amber Quarles, upon his release from prison.

Greg Brinkley, Kevin’s uncle, said he doesn’t want to cause more pain for Haag’s family. But he’s not willing to let the case go until Kevin’s name is cleared.

“We’ve got to rectify this injustice,” he said. He’s hoping whoever is elected district attorney in November will take on a review. “We’re glad he’s on parole, but that’s not enough. … We’re never going to stop fighting for his innocence.”

For now, Kevin is trying to adjust. He’s staying with his sister, Margo Grisson, in Olney.

“It just feels good, fixing breakfast for him in the morning. It feels so great having my brother back,” she said.

Theirs is a large family, and Brinkley has been spending time with his daughter and granddaughter, nieces, nephews, and cousins. But after all that time locked away, it’s hard for him to unreservedly enjoy it. “Mentally, it took a toll on me,” he said.

He said the meeting with Dugan provided some measure of relief. Dugan urged him to ask for help whenever he might need it; if he could help him find work, for instance, he said, he would try.

The phrase that’s been knocking around in his head lately, Dugan said, is, “Justice delayed, justice denied.” He’s been hearing a lot from colleagues and strangers since he came forward in the case.

“I got an anonymous note that said, ‘What took you so long?’ That’s one that I’ll never forget.”