Exchange-Robbery Reunion

In this Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019 photo, Kenneth Hodge, left, stands with John Hancock Jr. outside the office of the Ohio Justice and Policy Center in downtown Cincinnati. In 2007, Hancock Jr. and his Boy Scouts troop were selling Christmas trees in North College Hill. Hodge and two others robbed the Boy Scouts, including Hancock Jr. and his father. Now 24, Hancock has forgiven Hodge and the others. They exchanged numerous letters while Hodge was in prison. Hancock Jr. spoke on Hodge's behalf at court and a Hamilton County judge released Hodge from prison six years early. (Albert Cesare/The Cincinnati Enquirer via AP)

CINCINNATI (AP) — When John Hancock Jr. met recently with Kenneth Hodge, the man who punched him in the face during a robbery 12 years ago, they embraced.

They talked about their jobs. Hancock, 24, works third shift at a substance abuse facility. The 30-year-old Hodge, who had been out of prison less than a week, said he'd landed a temp job cleaning Great American Ball Park.

They talked about going to a Bengals game together.

It was an unlikely reunion.

The last time they were this close to each other was Dec. 3, 2007. Hodge, then 18, and two others robbed Hancock, another boy and their fathers as they were selling Christmas trees in a North College Hill parking lot to raise money for their Boy Scout troop.

Hancock was 13 years old. The other boy was 10. Hancock recalls one of the robbers -he later learned it was Hodge - punching him in the left side of the face.

"I go down, and the next thing I know, I see a sawed-off shotgun," Hancock said. One of the other robbers had the shotgun.

The incident left Hancock shaken and angry.

He wanted the death penalty for the three robbers.

A lot happened between that day and now. There was forgiveness. Intervention by the Ohio Justice and Policy Center. And the evolution of Hodge from an anger-filled, wayward teenager to a man with a new mindset.

At 18, Hodge said he valued the approval of his friends above everything else. His mindset, at the time, he wrote in a letter to Hancock, "was that of a sad boy who did not know how to be a man, the reason being I was not around any men, only boys."

In an interview, Hodge said there was no true decision made to commit a robbery. They were bored. They had free time.

"It just kind of happened," he said.

When they saw the tree sale in the parking lot, Hodge said, they didn't know they were robbing Boy Scouts.

The case drew national attention because of the circumstances — Boy Scouts and Christmas trees. Court documents say the robbers got away with $130, but prosecutors sought lengthy sentences for Hodge and his two co-defendants. In sentencing Hodge to 18 years in prison and his co-defendants — who had prior felony records — to 19 years, Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge David Davis called it "a very heinous crime."

"How could you even think about robbing a bunch of Boy Scouts selling Christmas trees?" Davis asked, according to Enquirer archives.

For several years, Hancock harbored hatred toward Hodge and the others.

But when he was about 17, his outlook changed. He had gone through family and personal upheaval and eventually came out of wanting to find "a way to peace and joy." He credits faith.

"I was asking myself, do I forgive them?" Hancock said. "I forgave them, and then it was, just like that, over."

Meanwhile, Hodge was going through his own personal transformation in prison. His thinking "evolved," he said.

Among the most important changes was coming to the realization that being in prison is not a normal life, he said.

"Once I did that, I think I succeeded," he said. "I understood where I was. And I understood where I need to develop."

Hodge learned job skills like plumbing and carpentry. He put his mind to work. He earned a GED. He completed classes on victim awareness and anger management. He developed a work ethic that he said had been dormant.

"I developed the tools to get what I want," he said. "I had to understand what's yours is yours and what's mine is mine. And I can't be that type of person who takes what you have just because I don't have it."

He also gained new values, no longer seeking the approval of his friends over everything else.

"The things that I valued before that day — the day I robbed those people— changed," he said. "Once I did that, my prior issues went out the window."

By 2016, Hodge had been in prison for eight years. His attorneys had earlier appealed his sentence to the Ohio Supreme Court, challenging how Hodge's sentence was structured.

Hodge's 18-year prison term is made up of six separate three-year sentences. He was convicted of a gun charge and five counts of aggravated robbery — one count for the two boys and their fathers and another count for the Boy Scouts of America.

The court's ruling wasn't entirely favorable, but in 2011 the state legislature— citing the Supreme Court case bearing Hodge's name, in State v. Hodge — brought back some limits on consecutive sentences, which the state had used before Hodge was sentenced. But the law was not applied retroactively, meaning it didn't impact him.

Attorney Stephen JohnsonGrove, who at the time was with the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, decided to pursue a judicial release for Hodge. He became eligible last year after serving 10½ years. But a judge would have to make the decision partly based on whether the victims supported it.

JohnsonGrove tried to contact the four victims, and heard back from two, including Hancock Jr., who he said was "incredibly receptive."

JohnsonGrove encouraged Hodge to write Hancock. Hodge said writing the letters with sincerity was easy because of the changes he'd made within himself.

In the first letter, sent in August 2016, Hodge wrote: "I know saying sorry may or may not change things, but I want you and your family to know that I am very sorry and that the things I have done were, are, still wrong. And I know I have hurt you and your family in ways I might not ever know."

That letter led to about 20 they exchanged, Hancock estimated. In one, Hancock, who led a church ministry for young adults, thanked Hodge for his apology and let him know he forgave Hodge and the others.

"I want to be friends with you, as weird as that may sound," he wrote.

Hancock also didn't know it was Hodge who had punched him, until Hodge told him in a letter.

"I can laugh at it now," Hancock wrote. "You had a good throw because I had pain in my jaw for almost three days and a bruise for almost two weeks. I haven't been hit a lot in my life, but I can tell that was a good punch."

Hancock was able to convince his father to support Hodge's early release. And eventually, all four victims supported it. The Hamilton County Prosecutor's Office ultimately decided not to oppose releasing him.

At a Sept. 19 hearing, Common Pleas Judge Patrick Foley III ordered Hodge's prison sentence to be suspended and he was let out of jail that day.

Hodge had spent the previous 4,292 days incarcerated.

By 2:30 in the afternoon, he was outside.

"Felt the sun on my skin as a free man," he said. "I couldn't beat that."

David Singleton, who heads the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, said Hodge's case fits with the organization's goal of reducing mass incarceration. Part of that involves finding prisoners who don't present a danger to society, have served a significant portion of their sentence and can demonstrate they have been rehabilitated. He calls the project, "Beyond Guilt."

Singleton said too many people, like Hodge, are locked up too long for offenses that don't warrant it.

"That's an injustice that we need to fix," he said.



Information from: The Cincinnati Enquirer,