When I addressed my first letter to the correctional facility, I didn't even expect a response, let alone a friendship that lasted for a year and a half.
I first read about Brandon's* case in an article highlighting the release of a rather popular threesome who had been convicted of murders they did not commit. The article was written by a friend of Brandon's and it instantly piqued my curiosity. Before long, I was reviewing the available court documents, skimming over possible theories, and — given my empathetic nature — penning a letter to a man I believed was wrongfully convicted of murder.
The next few months were a whirlwind. Being someone with quite the addictive personality and deep desire to right all the wrongs of the world, my advocacy efforts quickly became a staple in my everyday life. Brandon's mother and I conversed almost daily, letters to and from the prison increased with frequency, and anything that wasn't written would be discussed during my weekly 90-minute phone call with him. In a short amount of time, I went from having two jobs, to having three; proving Brandon's innocence became a priority, so much so that I spent my 26th birthday weekend in a maximum security prison.
During this time, many of my personal relationships were tested. While my fiancé, mother, and a handful of close friends supported me, there were others who weren't as understanding of my newfound interest in justice. I was berated in public on various occasions and verbally attacked on social media. And trust me — I know that the whispering at those family get-togethers wasn't about how dry the turkey was. Everyone had their opinions, and until this day, the strain on some of those relationships still remains.
As I expected post-visit, my devotion to the "Free Brandon" campaign remained and my attachment to him as a person grew stronger. There was something endearing about him, and while certain conversations left a bad taste in my mouth and would leave me momentarily questioning my loyalty, my empathy won out time and time again.
Following my initial visit, 90% of my time and attention was spent on preparing for a fundraiser that would be thrown in Brandon's honor in just three months. In addition to the monetary obligations this trip warranted, I was responsible for the development of promotional collateral, selling t-shirts, and the overall marketing of the event — all from 1,200 miles away.
My efforts were considerable, but I wasn't getting any credit. Both leading up to and while in attendance at the fundraiser, it was brought to my attention that another volunteer was receiving all of the kudos for my job(s) well done. While I hadn't taken on this cause and the tasks associated with it for notoriety, I also didn't take them on so that another volunteer could use my work ethic as a stepping stone into a what turned out to be romantic relationship with Brandon.
It turns out that my knowledge of this relationship and my displeasure in being overlooked would ultimately be the beginning of the end.
It had turned out Brandon's mother was unaware of her son's new affair, and I didn't know it was to be kept a secret from her, hence my mentioning it to her in passing a couple months after the fundraiser.
The outcome? A laugh of disbelief from Brandon's mother, and after she apparently repeated what I'd mentioned to her, an exchange with Brandon during our weekly phone call that was rife with tension. In an effort to not sully my character or relationship with anyone involved, I questioned Brandon's motives and dishonesty. I couldn't quite grasp why he would deny his new relationship, and more importantly, why he would make me out to be just a gossipy storyteller.
It was the first real argument that he and I had ever had, complete with raised voices, tears, and hang-ups. And although we would make it through this one instance, in the end, my questions extended past this one instance and into a realm that he was not willing to enter.
For so long, I had ignored my intuition and blindly believed everything I had been told about him and his alleged innocence. Eventually, though, I found my voice, which was full of questions. In return, I received a goodbye letter.
Specific details of the goodbye letter have long been erased from my memory, as I could only bring myself to read it once. I remember it was the shortest of all letters I had received over that year and a half. And since he wasn't going to blame this sudden parting of ways on my new skepticism, he did his best to sugarcoat the goodbye with pleasantries.
But that came after he, his mother, and his new girlfriend asked me for all related documents, contact information for all the influential relationships I had built, and some additional commissary funds. The irony of the timing of it all was not lost on me. It was clear to me that my contribution to the cause, while crucial, was only beneficial if I could also stifle my suspicions.
His mother was sure to let me know that Brandon felt a "huge relief" now that our friendship was over. And although it was painful to hear, I can now say the same for myself.
It has been almost three years since I hung up my advocacy hat, and while I immediately removed myself from the campaign to free Brandon, it wasn't until a recent cleaning spree that I threw out all proof that I had once befriended a convicted murderer: a lousy t-shirt.