Jerry Cowan sat at a kitchen table on a recent spring day, next to the Takoma Park couple he now calls his adopted parents and guardian angels.
As they pointed out photos of grandkids and others on the walls, Cowan said, laughing, “I’m not up there yet.”
Just one month ago, he had been serving a 40-year sentence in prison for raping and kidnapping a woman when he was just 17.
For several weeks, Cowan, 49, has lived with City Councilman Terry Seamens — whom he calls “pamps” — and Seamens’ wife, Joyce — whom he calls “mother” — at their home on Ritchie Avenue.
Cowan, now on probation, came to Takoma Park following more than three decades behind bars for a crime he says he cannot remember doing because he had been high on acid.
In 1981, when he was 17 years old, Cowan was convicted of first-degree rape, first-degree sex offense, kidnapping an adult and assault with intent to maim. He was sentenced then to natural life in prison plus 15 years.
When his sentence was later shortened by the court and time shaved off for good behavior in prison, he returned to stay with his mother, but found he couldn’t live with her. As the recipient of a state housing subsidy, she was unable to take in a felon.
The Seamenses, however, lived next door and, as friends of Cowan’s mom, learned of his limited housing options and resources and his desire to be close to his mom.
Both Terry and Joyce said they came to see only one option, though some have criticized their decision to take Cowan in.
“My line to them is, ‘It’s the right thing to do,’” Seamens said. “‘And we don’t get a choice whether or not we do right.’”
After more than three decades in prison, Cowan said he emerged a different person than the 17-year-old who entered.
Cowan said he grew up in different foster homes with various relatives and lacked a stable male figure in his life. Those factors, he said, led to his following the wrong examples.
“I imitated what I saw other people doing, though it wasn’t positive,” he said. “I just wanted acceptance.”
During his sentence, however, Cowan said, he spent his time taking college-level classes, organizing a church, writing books, earning a conflict resolution certificate and leading a yard maintenance team among other things.
Prison, he said, provided him with “an opportunity to learn.”
“Being confined for a long period of time tends to make you want to remove any element of criminal mentality from your psyche,” he said.
The influence of counselors and correction officers, as well as his fellow inmates, also helped him change, he said.
After about 25 years in prison, at age 42, Cowan returned to court in 2005.
Because he had met goals his sister and her husband had set for him in prison, they helped him hire an attorney — support Cowan said he needed to help him pursue a desire to change.
“I just needed someone to believe in me,” he said. “I thought I was never going to come out. I thought I was going to die there.”
Though he had pleaded not guilty in 1981, Cowan said, he admitted guilt in the 2005 hearing, deciding to do so as the best way to try to change his situation.
“I don’t remember the crime,” he said. “I do accept it.”
In the 1980 incident, which also involved two co-defendants in the case, Cowan kidnapped a woman whom he beat and raped.
“In my 16 years on the bench, I’ve not known of a rape case so brutal, so cruel,” then-Montgomery County Circuit Judge Joseph Mathias said, according to a court document dated Oct. 21, 1981.
In a recording of the 2005 hearing that shortened Cowan’s sentence, Circuit Judge Michael Mason said that he thought Cowan’s sentence should reflect the “extremely serious nature” of the crime and that he understood Cowan to be “the prime mover in this whole thing.”
The judge continued, however, that he also took into account factors including Cowan’s performance while in prison, the fact that he was a first-time offender and his apparent change in character.
“You seem to be a substantially changed individual,” Mason said.
Cowan’s sister and brother-in-law testified during the same hearing that they thought Cowan had shown increased maturity and judgment, according to the recording.
Efforts to notify the victim about the hearing were unsuccessful, according to the court recording.
When it came to deciding whether to invite Cowan into their home, Terry Seamens said, he thought Cowan should be given the opportunity and that everyone has good and evil in them to varying degrees.
“Obviously, the crime was horrendous,” he said. “But that was a different point in his life.”
Joyce said she thought God had placed Cowan in their lives and she wishes more people would offer similar chances.
“I said yes,” she said with emotion. “Because if something happened to your own son or your own family member, how would you feel if nobody would accept them?”
Their decision, Terry said, has been met with varying degrees of support from family and friends. Some feel it is was either wrong or risky, he said.
But, Cowan said he plans to show he can make a positive impact on the community, which he has started through frequent service work with the Seamenses.
“Remorse makes you want to give your life for the good of others and that’s the path that I’m on,” he said.
The Seamenses are active in several area organizations — including Adventist Community Services of Greater Washington and Manna Food Center — and have drafted Cowan to help with tasks such as unloading and delivering food for the city’s senior citizens.
In his new home, Cowan said, he has found the mentor in Terry he didn’t have when he was young.
“Pamps has been my mentor,” he said. “I believe that he is leading me in all the right directions, and he hasn’t steered me wrong yet.”
Cowan said he considers himself lucky, as he thinks people released from prison face a stigma in society that results in them being shunned.
While he was in prison, Cowan said, he saw other inmates return after being released.
“I have watched many inmates over the 32 years of my incarceration leave out and come back because they had no re-entry plan and nobody would give them an opportunity,” he said. “Because they committed a crime, no one would give them a second chance.”
Stefan LoBuglio — chief of the Pre-Release and Reentry Services Division of the Montgomery County Department of Correction and Rehabilitation — said that those who leave prison face a challenge when they are released and must have realistic expectations.
While the center offers varied forms of help to its residents, it tells the residents it is ultimately up to them to have a plan upon release.
In terms of housing, he said, some people don’t have enough money saved up or have inaccurate expectations that a family member or someone else will or can take them in — issues the pre-release center addresses with its residents.
Based on his experience, LoBuglio said, the case of Cowan and the Seamenses is unusual, and that he thought that such a “humanitarian gesture” would have to be something people do “very carefully.”
Erin Kelley, a neighbor of the Seamenses, said she appreciates and supports what the Seamenses have done.
“I trust that they wouldn’t take any action that would put themselves, their neighbors or their community in a precarious situation,” said Kelley, who lives with her husband and two young sons.
Kate Phillips of Takoma Park said she and her partner had a conversation with their 14-year-old daughter about Cowan’s past and presence in the neighborhood. Phillips said they are reserving judgment until they know more. She understands the need for rehabilitation.
Phillips’ home was one in the neighborhood that received a notice from Montgomery County that Cowan would be living nearby.
“I don’t feel any imminent danger,” said Phillips’ partner, Cammie Backus.
Beyond service with the Seamenses, Cowan has developed several goals for himself, including becoming a youth counselor — part of a job search he and the Seamenses realize will be difficult.
“Jerry has high hurdles to jump over because of the nature of the crime that he was convicted of and because he is listed in the sex registry in Maryland,” Terry said.
Cowan said he wants to provide a mentor for kids even before they reach the point of committing a crime.
“When the streets become their father, jail becomes their home,” he said. “And if it’s not jail, it’s the cemetery.”
For the last 15 years of his incarceration, Cowan said, he had reached out to younger prisoners.
“Just spending time with them, they would know that you care about them, and then you begin to be a positive influence in their life,” he said.
As he looks for employment, Cowan said he is taking computer classes twice a week, learning to type and planning to fix up an old lawn mower that he could use to earn some money.
Terry said they have all tried to work together to create a plan for Cowan.
“He’s become our adopted son,” he said.
His search for a job, Cowan said, is also part of his efforts to become stable enough to support his wife, Laura Lee Cowan, who currently lives in Bel Air.
Cowan said he is unable to live with her because she also receives a housing subsidy.
Their relationship started with the exchange of letters and the couple married a few years later, in 2009.
Cowan described her as his rock during his incarceration and said he thinks it’s his turn to provide for her.
“I don’t want to keep taking,” he said. “She provided for me since I met her while I was in prison. She was there for me.”
Cowan is also looking forward to growing his relationship with his mom.
Gladys Harvey said she was crushed when she learned her son wouldn’t be able to live with her, but thanks God that Cowan has returned from prison and is living with the Seamens.
“These people have been on my side from day one,” Harvey said. “They are like family.”
Harvey said she hopes the community will be forgiving toward her son.
As a changed man, Harvey said, Cowan has a lot of goals.
“I believe that he’s going to do them,” she said.
Sitting at the Seamenses’ kitchen table, Cowan said he is not going to let anyone down, including himself, the Seamenses, his mom and the community.
Rather, he said, he’s going to be “a poster child.”
“I committed a crime when I was 17 years old. That was over 32 years ago,” he said. “And growth and development is a process that I strive for even today. And I strive to allow the community to know that I’m going to do my best with everything within my power to show that I am a responsible citizen.”