When Kevin Brinkley was locked up four decades ago at the age of 15, he had never heard of such a thing as a mobile phone.
On Thursday morning, as he stepped blinking into the daylight outside of the State Correctional Institution-Forest, he was surrounded by the unfamiliar devices. His uncle Greg and nephew James Cade were streaming Facebook Live video to friends and family. His granddaughter Amber Quarles and daughter Latoya Berry snapped photos and pulled him in for selfies. His sister Margo Grisson and aunt Ethel Brinkley fielded nearly constant calls from those who couldn’t make the trip but wanted to hear Kevin’s voice.
Everyone wanted to capture and share what, for the family, felt like a turning point in a 40-year journey — though nowhere near its conclusion.
In that time, Brinkley and his family have never stopped fighting for his freedom — insisting that he did not kill Charles Haag, an egg deliveryman, in a botched robbery Dec. 22, 1977, in Strawberry Mansion, and that, in fact, his younger brother Ronnie committed the crime. Even the original prosecutor in the case, Gerald Dugan, has recently said he believes that to be true.
But Brinkley, now 55, has not been exonerated, nor has the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office agreed to review his case. In August, the office issued a statement that, based on evidence presented at trial, it “remains confident in the conviction.” Instead, Brinkley has been paroled thanks to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that automatic life-without-parole sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional.
So, in the pitch-black of 2 a.m. Thursday, Brinkley’s weary relatives left to pick him up. They congregated at sister Margo’s cozy Olney rowhouse, where a small room with a pullout couch and a flatscreen TV has been set aside for him. Then, they piled into a 15-passenger van for the long drive to prison — a journey they have made more times than anyone can count, to nine prisons scattered across the state.
Greg Brinkley, the de facto family leader, drove the entire five-hour stretch; the others, most of whom had found themselves unable to sleep over the last week, tried unsuccessfully to nap.
“I can’t wait to see him walk out of those gates, man,” Cade said to no one in particular.
A cousin, Troy Brinkley, 49, tried to imagine where Brinkley was. “They’re taking him out of his cell now,” Troy mused around 6 a.m. Was he receiving his paperwork? Were the corrections officers finally giving him the gray tracksuit his family had sent a few weeks earlier? (“He hasn’t worn street clothes in 40 years,” Grisson explained, so a track suit was easy. “Nobody knows his size.”)
Finally, as the sun shot golden rays through a line of trees, the van swung off the road and into the driveway of SCI Forest, about two hours north of Pittsburgh. Yolonda Brinkley, 47, who had flown in from Atlanta for the day, was waiting in the parking lot, where she’d been sleeping in a rental car since 6 a.m.
To her, this was about witnessing a miracle.
“My cousin has been incarcerated for 40 years for a crime he didn’t commit. I felt just as strongly about coming here to see this and witness this as I did about going to see Barack Obama when he was elected in 2008. This is a big deal,” she said. “While his name is not cleared, he’s still out.”
They had to wait 10 minutes in the silent waiting room, then 20, then 30 — so long that Ethel Brinkley, 73, joked, “Maybe he got cold feet.” Troy shook his head. “That’s one thing I doubt. The thing about prison: It’s so easy to get in, hard to get out.”
Finally, Brinkley emerged, a quiet man with a shy, timid smile, silently hugging his family members one by one. On a wheeled cart packed in a trunk were all the earthly possessions he’d accumulated over 40 years: a small television, his asthma inhaler, a file box containing his legal papers and a few personal documents.
A natural introvert whose 40 years behind bars only enhanced those tendencies, he calmly assessed the sudden expansion of his universe from a cell about the size of a bathroom to the whole wide world outside prison walls. “I’m all right,” he said succinctly.
The family wanted to stop for a group photo; he wanted off prison grounds.
So, they settled for a Denny’s down the street. Brinkley stared at the menu, struggling to process the abundance of options fanned out before him. In prison, he said, breakfast was white bread one day, cake the next. To complicate matters, he didn’t have reading glasses — people kept passing him theirs to try on, but they were too strong. He analyzed the pictures instead and eventually decided on a Grand Slamwich, but nothing to drink. He was worried he would have to go to the bathroom — and had to be convinced by family members who insisted that, unlike in a prisoner transport van, they would stop whenever he needed to.
There was nothing in particular he’d fantasized about eating, though. Nor does he have a career path in mind. He said he wants to work, but has no real skills. In fact, when he tried to envision what his life might be like, he had come up blank.
“I got to go out here and experience it for myself,” he said.
His family has plans for him, though. Quarles, 25, his granddaughter and “his princess,” expects to help him navigate technology. She works for American Airlines and wants to help Brinkley travel; he’s too afraid the plane would crash, he said. Berry, Brinkley’s daughter and nearly his equal in reticence, is a caseworker by profession and expects to help him navigate the minutiae of daily life. “I’m sure he’ll have lots of questions because of how young he was when he went in. He never had a chance to do any adult things.”
Grisson, 58, meanwhile, has been learning about the requirements of parole, which, under his new sentence, Brinkley will remain subject to for life. “He’s on restriction — from me,” she said. “I lost him for 40 years. I’m not trying to lose him for 40 more.”
His brother Ronnie, who, after his confession was rejected by the court, mostly withdrew from the family’s advocacy efforts, texted that he would be at the house, where he later showed up to pull Kevin in for an embrace.
Meanwhile, Greg Brinkley, 58, and Cade, two of Kevin’s most single-minded advocates, are already focused on reaching out to whichever candidate becomes Philadelphia’s next district attorney, to seek a long-awaited conviction review.
“I’m planning right now as we speak,” Cade said. “I’m thinking exoneration, so he can really be free.”