With new sentence, Philly ‘juvenile lifer’ could gain freedom after nearly 40 years

 Members of Kevin Brinkley's family (from left) nephew James Cade, uncle Kevin Brinkley and cousin Sheldon Stroman, leave court together after a resentencing hearing. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Members of Kevin Brinkley's family (from left) nephew James Cade, uncle Kevin Brinkley and cousin Sheldon Stroman, leave court together after a resentencing hearing. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

For a few moments on Monday, the hallway outside Philadelphia Common Pleas Courtroom 1105 became the site of a family powwow. The subject: Kevin Brinkley, a Philadelphia man now on the verge of freedom after spending decades behind bars.

“As much as we can’t believe it, Kevin is on his way out,” said his uncle Greg Brinkley to the huddle. “We’ve got to be in support mode now. He’s going to need all of us to help him adjust.”

Minutes earlier, Greg Brinkley and more than two-dozen family members and friends were seated before Judge Kathryn Streeter Lewis as she sealed Kevin Brinkley’s fate in the form of a new sentence: 30 years to life.

The sentence, negotiated by his lawyers, means Kevin Brinkley could be released on parole in the coming months. He’s already been in jail for nearly 40 years after being found guilty of murder.

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In 1979, a judge sentenced Kevin Brinkley to life in prison without the possibility of parole after a jury convicted him of killing an egg delivery driver in Strawberry Mansion.

Brinkley was 15.

“For him to come home is like a warm feeling,” said nephew James Cade following the afternoon hearing. “I never actually had the chance to spend real time with him. I went to see him in prison. I talked to him on the phone, but I’m talking about real time with laughing.”

Kevin Brinkley’s older sister, Margo Grisson, can picture it too.

“I would sit out front, put something on the grill and just relax and enjoy my brother,” said Grisson before heading toward the elevators.

Monday’s hearing came courtesy of a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that deemed life sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional.

In January, the justices applied that decision retroactively to cases from before 2012, opening the door for roughly 2,500 “juvenile lifers,” including more than 500 in Pennsylvania.

After the powwow, Greg Brinkley and Cade mulled that new reality and the new life it could give their loved one. But they also mourned the fact that Kevin Brinkley’s parents weren’t able to attend Monday’s hearing and won’t be able to celebrate their son’s eventual release.

Both are gone now. Both wanted nothing more than to see Kevin set free.

Greg Brinkley also said the family isn’t dropping a decades-long fight to clear Kevin Brinkley’s name. He and his family have always maintained his innocence.

“To be on parole for the rest of your life, you’re in jail — just out,” said Greg Brinkley. “You’re still subject to all kinds of things. At the drop of a dime, you know, ‘Come give me a piss test.’ Drop of a dime, ‘I’m just gonna come in your house and search it.’ And that can happen every single day.”

That tension isn’t insignificant.

Generally speaking, parole boards want to hear an inmate take responsibility for his or her crimes before they approve release. If Kevin Brinkley continues to insist he’s innocent, he might not be freed, despite the new sentence.

Kevin Brinkley, wearing a pale-blue Department of Corrections uniform and snow-white stubble, did not address the court, other than to answer routine questions.

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