Close friends Keyon Sprinkle and Chad Higgins ’97 connected over the holidays. They talked by phone (Sprinkle in Boston; Higgins in Yarmouth, Maine) and Sprinkle sent along a holiday collage he’d made. Higgins noted his friend’s taste for stylish clothes. Hint, hint.
“Now,” said Sprinkle, in that faux grumble people save for their best buddies, “I have to get him a sweater.”
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In some ways, this was like other holidays the friends have shared over the past decade. A phone call, a good chat, the best to the family, and a pledge to visit each other soon. This time around that was made difficult by the pandemic. In years past it was impossible because Sprinkle was serving a life sentence for murder.
Sprinkle’s conviction was thrown out last year after a judge heard that prosecution witnesses had recanted their testimony and said that another man had admitted to the shooting, and that key testimony that led to the conviction was coerced by police. “This intimidation denied Mr. Sprinkle due process and a fair trial,” Higgins, an attorney in Portland, Maine, told the court.
The ruling, and the state’s decision to not pursue a new trial, was the successful conclusion of an effort that lasted for more than a decade. Last fall the pro bono legal team received the “Arc of Justice” award from the New England Innocence Project for its “unparalleled commitment, tenacity, and courage” in pursuing the case. The award fails to mention another remarkable part of that arc, which led Higgins and Sprinkle to emerge with a bond and friendship that they say will endure the test of time. “Chad,” Sprinkle says, “is family.”
It seems natural now, that the two middle-aged guys would chat frequently, that the relationship over a decade of interaction would continue after Sprinkle’s release. But it wasn’t a given that the case would end this way. Way back when, it was just as likely that, after a courtroom handshake or even a hug, the two would go their separate ways, meeting for the occasional follow-up Zoom conference as the loose ends were tied up.
“He’s truly an amazing person,” Higgins said. “The perseverance—I’m at a loss for words because I do not believe I would have been able to maintain the level of hope and goodwill that he did throughout the whole process. I admire him, and I aspire to be like him.”
Sprinkle, in turn, says that when he pops in on members of his family, he isn’t at all surprised to find someone on the phone with Higgins. “He has everybody’s number,” Sprinkle said. “I consider him like a cousin.”
They both recall when they were client and lawyer, and Sprinkle was an inmate at MCI-Cedar Junction, a maximum-security prison in Walpole, Mass. He had written to hundreds of lawyers, he said, trying to get someone to take up his cause. Eventually, attorney Peter Parker, Keyon’s trial counsel, recruited lawyers and investigators doing pro bono work for the New England Innocence Project to take up Keyon’s case. Several years in, Higgins joined the pro bono team.
The case had severe challenges. Most exonerations revolve around DNA evidence (Run the test with modern analysis tools and, voila, your client is not the killer). The evidence against Sprinkle was all circumstantial—his relationship with his cousin and codefendant, Clarence Williams (whose conviction was also reversed), that Sprinkle was sent out to see if Charles Taylor, the victim, was on the street corner in Roxbury that night. Witnesses placed Sprinkle there, and one said Sprinkle had shown him a gun.
But several of those witnesses, tracked down by the Innocence Project legal team, recanted their testimony. One said he’d seen only “shadows” at the scene and detectives gave him a name to attach to them. A witness who testified that Sprinkle could not have been at the scene later said police threatened to charge her if she didn’t change her testimony to implicate him.
“The eyewitness testimony was very, very spotty at best,” Higgins said later. “And then people recanted. Everybody recanted. And the quality of the eyewitness testimony on which the jury relied to come back with a guilty verdict is confounding to me.”
So how could Sprinkle have been convicted? “Unfortunately, I fear it was simply because he was a Black man accused of murder in Boston,” Higgins said.
Sprinkle’s attorney for his murder trial all the way to his exoneration, Peter Parker of Boston, said he firmly believed at the outset in his teen-age client’s innocence—and his solid alibi—and was angered by the verdict. As Parker pursued a retrial, Sprinkle showed “a real unbreakable faith rooted in innocence,” the attorney said.
He pressed the case for years, and when Higgins, then an attorney practicing in Boston, joined the case, he was equally convinced that there was no way Sprinkle was the killer. “Once you get to know him,” Higgins said, “he just didn’t have it in him.”
From the day of his arrest to his release two decades later, Sprinkle adamantly denied any involvement, even on multiple occasions when pleading to a lesser offense would have cut his life sentence to a few years. Instead, he went into a maximum-security adult prison at age 19. Sprinkle says his first day behind bars “felt longer than five of the years I spent in prison. I can tell you every moment.” Even now, his reflex when he walks into a room is to look for a potential threat.
“In prison you’re trained to look for all the exits, anything that can be used as a weapon,” Sprinkle explained. “It’s hand, eye, mouth. What is he saying? What is he looking at? Who is he looking at? What is his body language? Because that determines whether you’re the one who is going to be attacked, or if you know who’s going to be attacked, where to stay away from, or whether you have to attack.”
But as he learned prison survival skills, Sprinkle also continued the rest of his education. Part of a large extended family in Dorchester, he had been attending Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School, where he was a strong academic student and a member of the chess team. In prison, he earned his GED, immersed himself in law books, took a Toastmasters public speaking course and a course on financial markets offered by an inmate who had been a stockbroker. He found a way to meet then-Gov. Duval Patrick when he visited Cedar Junction.
That was the person Higgins met in 2009 when he joined Sprinkle’s legal team through the Innocence Project. Higgins had been a litigator since earning his law degree at Georgetown in 2003, five years after graduating from Colby. He’d come to Mayflower Hill from the Maine town of Sabattus, played basketball for coach Dick Whitmore, and was mentored, he said, by G. Calvin Mackenzie, the Goldfarb Family Distinguished Professor of American Government, emeritus.
Mackenzie had a role in Advancement at that time and invited Higgins to tell his story about being a student for whom financial aid made Colby possible. “I traveled around the country telling of my journey from small-town rural Maine to Colby and what it meant to me,” he said. “That opportunity opened a whole new world.”
Fast forward to the visiting room at Cedar Junction. Higgins saw a young man whose opportunities had vanished, who would likely spend the rest of his life behind bars. Sprinkle had a wife and child; every year he promised he’d be home for his daughter’s birthday. Year after year after year.
But Sprinkle wasn’t a passive client. In some ways, he wasn’t a client at all. “His eye was always on the prize,” Higgins said, ‘Let’s think about this. … Have you looked at this case? … Can we use the arguments in this other exoneration?’ He was just as much a member of the team as anybody when it came to figuring out the strategy that he wanted to pursue.”
And in countless phone calls and visits, Higgins proved to be not just an effective attorney, but a valuable instructor, a legal coach prepping for the next courtroom. “I was very involved in watching him,” Sprinkle said. “I was trying to learn the law and he was taking the time to explain. He’d say, ‘Yeah, the law is written like that, but if you look at this case, this is how it’s applied.’ It was like, ‘Well, yeah, if you had a liberal judge in there, but right now there’s a conservative judge.’ He started explaining the dynamics I hadn’t paid attention to.”
In countless phone calls, visits, and court appearances, Higgins’s advice and skills proved valuable. “He brought tenacity, and writing, research, and negotiating skills,” said Parker of his team member. “We would not have gotten this result without Chad.”
For years, though, all of the skill, all of the strategies didn’t get Sprinkle exonerated. Asked how many times he’d been to court to plead his case, he replied, “Let’s see if I can count ’em. One, two, three …” He counted aloud for a full minute. “Fifty times,” Sprinkle said. “I might be under.”
But as the case wound through the courts, something else was happening, something that went beyond legal arguments and law books. “The time he took to help me develop myself so we could have a conversation formed a type of bond between us that allowed us to be really truthful with each other,” Sprinkle said.
Higgins saw that when the case hit a roadblock, it was always Sprinkle who kept the legal team’s spirits up. Instead of becoming discouraged, Sprinkle was rallying the group for the next strategy, the next legal chess move in his bid to prove his innocence and go home. “I appreciated his demeanor and his dedication and his intellect and his dedication to his family,” Higgins said. “I mean, he never wavered.”
“I would have a hard time after twenty years, just climbing the mountain to have the rock roll back down. Every time something disappointing happened, some avenue of evidence didn’t come the way we’d hoped, he just maintained. I suppose it was his undying faith in his innocence that drove him and continued to drive us.”
Sprinkle explained that he always speaks in terms of faith, and never in terms of hope. And he recalled that their conversations began to range wider and wider, beyond the case, the judge, the witnesses. “Chad shared parts of his life, and I would also share in ways that would allow me to continuously keep building the relationship,” he said. “And he would be vulnerable in certain areas of his life as well.”
In those last months in prison, the phone conversations began to have more than one purpose. “A lot of times, if we had a half-hour, we’d spend the first 10 minutes talking legal stuff and everything else was just talking,” Sprinkle said. “We’d talk about parents, children, wives, siblings. Things that were going on in the prison around me, things that were going on around him.”
And now that he’s released and back home in Boston—working, managing his investment portfolio, which he started with savvy stock picks made in prison and conveyed to his wife, and considering pursuing becoming a financial planner—they talk about regular things, what Sprinkle calls milestones.
They had planned to have a big party marking the biggest one of all, Sprinkle’s release last May, but the pandemic put that on hold. In the meantime, Higgins called for Sprinkle’s daughter’s birthday in January. Sprinkle was giving Higgins’s nine-year-old daughter chess lessons so she could beat her dad. As this story readied for publication, Higgins admitted that day had already come.
So they chat regularly, and all the while Sprinkle continues to refuse to become embittered, saying, “Life is a journey, and this is mine.” But he is very aware that he is not the only falsely convicted inmate in the justice system, that there are many others just like him who have not been heard, much less released.
The opportunities for those inmates to be heard will be greater in coming years.
Co-Litigation Practice Group Leader at Bernstein Shur in Portland and Manchester, N.H., Higgins is taking steps for his firm to partner with the New England Innocence Project. In cases with what appear to be valid claims of innocence, his firm will develop legal strategies in order to pursue new trials and exonerations. “I am thrilled with the number of folks who have raised their hands and want to be involved,” he said.
With that involvement, Higgins said, there is the promise of having a profound impact on the life of someone who has been tripped up by “the hurdles in society that have been created for them.”
“Keyon’s case is the most rewarding thing I’ve done with my legal career,” he said. “To be able to pursue righting a real wrong, a real injustice, and to have it result in a relatively young man’s freedom—it’s indescribable how important this work is.”
A cell block in MCI-Cedar Junction, a maximum-security prison in Massachusetts, where Keyon Sprinkle was incarcerated for 20 years before his conviction was overturned. Boston Globe / Contributor via Getty Images.
New England Innocence Project (NEIP) is an independent social justice non-profit that works to correct and prevent wrongful convictions and fights injustice within the criminal legal system for innocent people imprisoned for a crime they did not commit.