Davidson College senior Brandon Harris sat in a Maryland courtroom Tuesday as a judge decided the fate of a lifelong friend.
Sura Sohna already served two years of a 14-year sentence for several first-degree burglary convictions.
Now the court was reconsidering that stiff judgment, thanks to Harris’s tireless advocacy on his friend’s behalf.
Harris is a 22-year-old Davidson College Belk Scholar and two-time president of the school’s student government association. He focused on Sohna’s life for his semester-long independent study project last year, “Telling Stories of the Ignored and Forgotten.”
Harris sent personal letters to every one of Sohna’s 12 victims. He interviewed the prosecutor, police and Sohna’s family. And he got the Maryland governor’s permission for Sohna to appear from Patuxent Institution in Jessup, Maryland, when Harris presented his friend’s life story to the public via Zoom last April.
On Tuesday, a judge in Annapolis, Maryland, lifted the rest of Sohna’s sentence and released him after Harris, Sohna’s mom and, by phone from prison, Sohna, urged the court to reconsider the sentence.
Harris’ “incredible advocacy” through his independent study project “played a significant role in the court’s decision to re-evaluate Sohna’s sentence,” college officials said in a post on the school’s website, Davidson.edu.
Sohna would otherwise have waited until 2034 to be with his family again, school officials said.
“It’s a miracle, a blessing,” Sohna told The Charlotte Observer on Wednesday after Harris hooked him into a three-way phone conversation with a reporter. If not for Harris, he said, “I wouldn’t be talking to you today from the outside. God works in mysterious ways.”
“It was surreal,” Harris said of his immediate thoughts when the judge said he was freeing his friend.
We’re all still processing it. It’s an amazing moment.”
‘So quick to judge’
Last year, in a college announcement about Harris’ planned public Zoom meeting about his friend, Harris said he was “amazed at the lack of understanding so many people have about people and their situations.”
Unlike Sohna, Harris said he was offered mentorship opportunities and a scholarship to a “prestigious” high school.
When Sohna, on the other hand, stole a bicycle at age 12, Harris said a police officer and the victim told Sohna that he deserved a life sentence.
“We’re so quick to judge a person based on one action or one decision,” Harris said at the time “… Sura has great potential in his life; he just needs people who believe in him.”
Sohna told the Observer he will now complete his GED and pursue professional photography, a career he dreamed about as a boy.
Harris once planned to pursue pre-med studies but switched to law as a result of his project. He’s been accepted to the law schools at Columbia University, the University of Virginia, Vanderbilt and the University of Maryland so far, and is still deciding which to attend in the fall.
Harris completed the project under the guidance and mentorship of Ike Bailey, the James K. Batten professor of public policy who graduated from Davidson in 1995.
“I was a Black man attending Davidson while a loved one was in prison, and I know the shame that can come with that experience,” Bailey said in last year’s college announcement about Harris’ Zoom presentation. “… If I could help a student deal with this burden he is going through and guide him through this process of investigation and journalism, I knew I had to help.”
Bailey said he was jogging Tuesday morning when Harris called him with the news that Sohna had been ordered released.
“My first thought was that this is a very good day,” Bailey said Wednesday. “When you work on issues like this, things don’t always turn out like this.”
‘Ready to drink’
Harris said he spoke before the judge for 20 minutes about his friend. The judge seemed to silently agree with each of those who spoke in Sohna’s behalf, he said.
At one point, however, the judge expressed possible doubt: “You could lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink,” Harris said the judge told the court.
To which Harris said he replied: “Sura Sohna is ready to drink when able to.”
The judge issued the order releasing Sohna on Tuesday morning, but Sohna didn’t walk from the prison until about 5:30 pm His family and friends greeted him with hugs and well-wishes, and a plastic bottle of water, Harris said.
“I’m going to save that bottle,” Sohna told the Observer, saying he only drank about half of the water that afternoon.
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