For nearly 40 years, the Brinkley family has insisted that the wrong brother was sentenced to life in prison for murder — that it was 14-year-old Ronald who fatally shot egg-delivery man Charles Haag on Dec. 22, 1977, though 15-year-old Kevin was convicted.
But as the Brinkleys crowded into a courtroom Monday morning — so many of them, they could barely be contained on the three rows of wooden pews — they tried to stifle talk about innocence. The occasion was not to weigh overturning Kevin Brinkley’s conviction, but to re-sentence him pursuant to a Supreme Court determination that automatic life sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional.
The new sentence of 30 years to life in prison made Brinkley, now 55, immediately eligible for parole.
His uncle Greg Brinkley said that’s what matters right now.
“We’re sorry that it happened, and that one of our family did it,” he said.
But as for Kevin, “we want him out on the street. That doesn’t mean we’re going to stop fighting for his innocence.”
Missing among the aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, cousins, sisters, daughter, and granddaughter was Ronald Brinkley, who had testified in court in 1994 that he committed the crime. The court did not find his testimony credible.
“It’s an uncomfortable feeling, and it’s a challenge how they re-establish their relationship,” Greg Brinkley acknowledged. “Unfortunately, one brother was locked up 40 years for a crime the other brother did. That’s not easy. It’s not normal. How can it be?”
Brinkley is one of about 300 juvenile lifers from Philadelphia — the largest such population in the nation — receiving new sentences under a 2016 Supreme Court ruling. His new 30-to-life term, by agreement with the District Attorney’s Office, is in line with current state law for sentencing juveniles convicted of murder.
Relatives of Charles Haag were in court, but, through prosecutors, declined to be identified or to comment.
Kevin Brinkley also declined to speak at the hearing.
He’s not the first juvenile lifer who has been resentenced for what he has previously argued in court is a wrongful conviction. Others include Tyrone Jones, who was resentenced last year after more than 40 years in prison for a murder he insists he did not commit; he was paroled even though he did not express remorse for the crime.
For the Brinkleys, this was one more step in a decades-long project of bringing Kevin home. They have held regular family meetings – first to talk about how to advocate for his innocence, then to generate attention and press coverage for his case, and now to prepare for his release.
Latoya Berry, Brinkley’s 40-year-old daughter, has been drafted into that endeavor. She first learned about who her father was when she was 12 or 13.
“It was a little weird — to find out I had a father and he was in prison,” she said at a family meeting in February, at the house that had belonged to Brinkley’s mother, Loretta Davis, who died in January. But, Berry said, it was not hard to adjust to the idea.
“We do favor [one another]. He internalizes a lot, the same way I do. Over time, as I got to know him, I could sense the connection.”
She said her father was pained by the long-distance nature of their relationship, but did not dwell on it. Instead, he tried to do normal fatherly things.
“When I got my first apartment, he made arrangements for me to get this kitchen table set,” she said. He worked hard to connect with her two children, too.
Brinkley intends to live with his aunt Margo Grisson and her husband, David, at their home in Olney. The Grissons, retirees known for their matching tracksuits, have set up a bedroom for him, as well as a home gym. Margo Grisson said she had not missed a court date in all the years Brinkley had been fighting for this day.
“We’ve been going through years and years of letdowns,” she said outside the courtroom, “so this is positive.”