As Greg Butler's fate lay in the hands of U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz on November 3, his former basketball coach at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute Samuel Brand sat with Butler's family and friends waiting to testify on the 23 year-old's behalf.
In front of Brand and Butler's family and friends, a few police officers and public servants cruelly chuckled.
After pleading guilty to obstructing firefighters over the summer, Greg Butler faced a possible 33 month sentence in federal prison due to his actions on April 27, 2015—the day the Baltimore Uprising erupted into rioting—when he punctured a fire hose on live television. Between this act and images of Butler riding on a bike wearing a gas mask, his fist raised in solidarity with victims of police brutality in Baltimore and beyond, Butler became a minor celebrity at this key moment in the city's history.
"My mission is to support my family and sons, to be the best math teacher, and to represent players to give them chances at college and beyond the limits of Baltimore city," Coach Brand said as he testified as a character witness on behalf of Butler. Brand became tearful as he told the judge that he looks at Butler as he does his sons. Brand recognized Butler's maturity in him taking responsibility in his actions, and stressed that he knew that this infamous moment was not reflective of his character overall.
"He was a great student athlete here at Poly," Brand told City Paper in May 2015. "Super intelligent kid, definitely has gone through his hardships, but at the same time, [he] should be a kid that moves on to college."
As a math teacher and as head coach of Poly's men's varsity basketball team, Brand guides and supports his players both on and off the court. Testifying on behalf of Butler was an extension of this ethos. Butler has helped players with school projects, offered advice to them on ways to improve on the court, stressed the importance of maintaining good grades, and guided seniors through the process of filling out financial aid forms. The support that he and the rest of the coaching staff has given the players gives credence to the "our family vs your team" motto emblazoned across the back of team paraphernalia.
This potential harsh sentence for a day of recklessness could have been a second blow for Butler, who had in 2014 narrowly missed out on a scholarship offer to play basketball at St. Leo University near Tampa, Florida. Butler fell victim to a Baltimore City rule that didn't weigh honors and Advance Placement classes points as heavily as students in other school districts.
The prosecution, meanwhile, painted Butler as a thug who "rode two miles from his neighborhood" looking for attention and nothing beyond that. As the hearing went on, Deputy Fire Chief Karl Zimmerman asserted that Butler's actions on April 27 last year "didn't significantly impact the CVS building burning" before recommending various community service alternatives for Butler. He didn't believe jail was the best answer.
The prosecution pushed Zimmerman and Baltimore City Emergency Manager Robert Maloney, who also served as a character witness on Butler's behalf. The prosecution resorted to questioning their expertise and commitment to Butler after bringing up various surveillance videos showing Butler being lionized by other protesters and Butler seemingly soaking in the accolades.
The prosecution frequently cited a "Bonnie and Clyde" comment made in jest to his girlfriend during a phone call from jail. They suggested that Butler sought camera time and notoriety—that his actions made it impossible for the fire to be put out and were the main reason that the CVS did not remain standing.
As various detectives and other public servants testified, and as the prosecution suggested harsh sentences that were similar to those given to others involved in last year's uprising, Butler remained calm in his navy suit and bow tie.
Before Judge Motz rendered his verdict, Butler gave his account of puncturing the hose. In his statement he expressed remorse for what he had done. He also refuted the prosecution's claim that he rode two miles from his neighborhood, citing that he had lived all over the city and nearby Calhoun Street in particular for seven years. In other words, he was hardly an outsider to Sandtown-Winchester when he came over on April 27. Butler said that he was at a low point in his life, where hopelessness had crept in as basketball was no longer an outlet for him. He, like many protesters last April, acted on emotion during a chaotic time, he said. While a brief moment could have defined him, Butler said he was taking steps in the right direction, working in construction and home improvement and volunteering at youth programs, all of it galvanized by his four-month-old son.
Judge Motz sentenced Butler to three years of supervised probation and ordered him to serve 250 hours of community service while paying $1 million in restitution at $100 a month.
"There have been enough victims. I don't want to make you another victim," Judge Motz told Butler.
As Butler left the courtroom, he hugged those who came out to support him, unable to contain his smile, and his former coach smiled, too. As they left the courthouse, Brand reaffirmed his commitment to Butler's well being beyond the court. Over the weekend, Butler went to the alumni tailgate during the annual Poly-City game, where he reconnected with former teammates, classmates, and coaches.
Poly lost the game 30-28 in double overtime, but for Butler, not serving prison time was enough of a victory for homecoming this year.