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Cuomo OKs early release for inmate who turned life around after killing a man at 17

One night in November 1997, when he was 17 years old, Buffalo resident Michael Crawford shot and killed a man during an argument over some stolen concert tickets. He was convicted of second-degree murder and other crimes.

According to his attorney, Crawford has spent the past 20 years doing good deeds, trying to atone for taking a human life.

Incarcerated in state prisons, he earned his high school equivalency degree, and three college degrees – an associate in arts, a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in theology. He became a minister, a United Way volunteer, a guide for blind prisoners, a certified peer counselor for HIV patients, and a coach to help fellow inmates with anger management. He even learned to crochet and joined a group of prisoners who make clothing and teddy bears for poor children.

“He’s very remorseful for what he did as a teenager. He has told me many times that he can’t get the moment of that shooting out of his head,” said Crawford’s attorney, Kathrina Szymborski. “He has a desire to do good in the world. He did not want his time in prison to be a waste. He went into prison as a high school dropout and became a great example of how people really can rehabilitate themselves.”

Crawford’s efforts to turn his life around earned him some very good news last week, when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced that he was cutting short the sentences of Crawford and 28 other prisoners.

The governor announced he will commute Crawford’s 22-year prison sentence, releasing him two years early. He is expected to be released around Jan. 23. A job will be waiting for Crawford at St. John Baptist Church in Buffalo.

“I learned that he was up for early release and I told the governor’s office we have a job for him,” said Pastor Michael Chapman of St. John Baptist. “We’ve all had times in our lives when Jesus lifted us up from our lowest point. He’ll probably start out doing some janitorial work and work on the grounds of our campus, and we’ll see where it goes from there. He’ll also have an opportunity to join our ministry staff.”

Crawford, now 38, was convicted of murder, robbery, attempted robbery and possession of stolen property in connection with the shooting of Akai Block, a Buffalo resident. Police said Crawford shot Block at a Niagara Street apartment complex during a dispute over the theft of some concert tickets.

According to his attorney, both Crawford and his victim – who was several years older than Crawford – were associated with “a loosely knit drug group.” She said Crawford had little experience with firearms, and was “panicked” when he shot Block.

Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn did not oppose Crawford’s early release. He said a member of his staff contacted Block’s mother for her input after learning that Crawford was trying to have his sentence commuted.

“I was told she is a very spiritual woman. She told our staff member that, if Crawford is truly remorseful and has turned his life around, she would not oppose his early release,” Flynn said. “She basically told us this is in God’s hands.”

According to the governor’s office, Crawford as a teenager was also a victim of sexual abuse, at the hands of a former Buffalo pastor. Crawford’s testimony against the former Buffalo pastor, Rev. Troy Brown, helped authorities in Atlanta, Ga., convict the pastor, who was sent to prison in Georgia for 70 years in 2001.

Flynn told The Buffalo News on Friday that Crawford “appears to have done everything he could do to turn his life around” after being sent to prison.

“I’m not saying he didn’t do wrong, because he absolutely did,” Flynn said. “But even the corrections officers wrote a letter in his behalf, supporting his early release.”

In announcing clemency for Crawford and 28 other prisoners, Cuomo said the individuals had “demonstrated substantial evidence of rehabilitation and a commitment to community crime reduction.”

Crawford was one of two people on the list who committed crimes in Buffalo. The other was Brian Masterson, 42, who served 12 years of an 18-year sentence for pulling off a string of robberies in Buffalo in 2006. No one was injured in the robberies, the governor’s office said.

Masterson “expresses strong remorse for these crimes,” has earned an associate’s degree from Genesee Community College and “has facilitated both an incarcerated veterans support group and a substance abuse treatment group,” the governor’s office said. “Mr. Masterson has also been an assistant teacher for adult basic education and an active participant in the Youth Assistance Program. He would like to work as a substance abuse counselor when he completes these requirements, but in the meantime has an offer of job assistance from a painters' union in Erie County.”

Szymborski is a business litigator in New York City who does also pro bono work for state prisoners who have bettered themselves during incarceration and are seeking early release.

She said she is thankful to Cuomo for releasing Crawford, but added: “I would like to see the governor do more of these releases on a regular basis. There are some remarkable people in prison, making real strides in their lives.”

Michael Crawford, who has learned to crochet in prison, is being released two years early from a 22-year-sentence for second-degree murder. (Photo courtesy of Jamie Watkins)

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