SAN FRANCISCO — In the first four months of 2019, Oakland resident Adnan Khan has gone from serving life in prison, to making history by gaining his freedom, to getting his first executive job.
In January, Khan, 34, became the first person in California to be freed from prison under SB 1437, a new state law that affects homicide cases, restricting when prosecutors can file murder charges against accomplices to crimes who didn’t carry out the killing nor intend for it to happen.
Khan was freed with help from Re:Store Justice, a Bay Area justice reform advocacy group he co-founded in 2017. Then, on April 8, Re:Store Justice announced in a news release it was naming Khan co-executive director.
“From the beginning, (Khan’s) vision for the organization has been clear,” Re:Store Justice’s co-executive director Alex Mallick said in the release. “I have the utmost confidence that his passion and dedication will help propel the organization forward and I am looking forward to our next chapter of impacted people’s leadership.”
In an interview, Khan said his main focus will be organizing a program around the same system he cites as helping him: restorative justice, a set of principles that emphasizes education, reconciliation and amends as an alternative to lengthy incarceration.
“It will be people who’ve lost loved ones or who’ve been affected by harm themselves and found healing through restorative justice, they’ll be working with a survivor who has just been harmed, however long that takes,” Khan said. “And on the other side, the person who has committed the harm will be working with formerly incarcerated people, to help them understand accountability and impact and healing.”
Re:Store Justice not only promotes restorative justice workshops, it also provides legal representation to incarcerated people. It advocates for progressive policy changes and supports district attorney candidates who promote justice reform initiatives, like Contra Costa County District Attorney Diana Becton, who received a campaign contribution from Mallick last year, according to public records.
Restorative justice has been commonly used in diversion youth programs for years. But now district attorneys are warming up to the idea of expanding it into adult court, in the wake of growing concerns over mass incarceration. Common criticisms are that it is too lenient, or that it could let serious offenders off the hook. Khan’s rebuttal is that a justice system that emphasizes incarceration has not improved society.
“Restorative justice practices are not void of consequences, but we also understand that extreme sentencing, extreme punishment, it creates more harm, not healing,” Khan said. “It means understanding and identifying the needs of the survivors, also understanding the needs of those who did the harm. … There’s a huge process that goes on, on both sides, before face-to-face dialogue even happens.”
It is a lengthy process and works best when there is buy-in from both sides, and one of the first outside requests for Khan’s services came in the unlikeliest of places: a district attorney’s office that reached out to Re:Store Justice in a case involving a man who assaulted a police officer.
“From my experience, I’ve seen the opposite of people not taking accountability and blaming others for their crime,” Khan said. “That is what’s shown in media all the time and don’t get me wrong, it does exist. However, I’ve seen tons of men and women taking into account their responsibility, and understanding the harm they’ve caused. … I felt it immediately after my arrest.”
Khan was convicted of first-degree murder in the 2003 stabbing death of Kevin Leonard McNut in Pittsburg. Khan and three others allegedly planned to rob McNut, their marijuana dealer, and during the robbery one of the accomplices fatally attacked McNut with a knife.
In a strange twist of fate, Khan actually ended up getting a longer sentence than McNut’s killer, who took a plea deal and a sentence of 15 years to life. Khan was sentenced to 25 years to life, meaning even with good behavior he was ineligible for parole until around 2024, with no guarantee he would ever get out.
While incarcerated, he came to terms with “the harm I’ve caused, specifically to family members of (McNut), but also to society at large, and to my family as well.”
Khan ended up spending 16 years in prison, splitting his sentence between Corcoran State Prison and San Quentin, where he participated in multimedia training and received critical acclaim as a documentarian. He founded FirstWatch, a media filmmaking project produced entirely by incarcerated men, and says he plans to continue filmmaking now that he’s out.
Despite his accomplishments, Khan’s hopes for an early release seemed impossible. In January 2018, the Contra Costa County district attorney’s office indicated it would oppose his request for the governor’s office to commute his sentence.
But then Khan gained notoriety in other ways, as a poster boy for the need for justice reform. Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, drafted SB 1437 after learning of his story. The law passed in last August, and four months later the DA rescinded its opposition to the clemency request.
Then, in January, Khan was granted an SB 1437 hearing in front of a judge, the first person statewide to do so. His release was approved, and he took his first steps as a free man hours later. Since then, he has met relatives for the first time, traveled the country and even gone to Disneyland.
“I am a workaholic? Sure, yep, I definitely have drive and ambition,” Khan said. “But, I have four uncles and three aunts who — in my 16 years of incarceration — have had kids I’ve never met. I’m building relationships with them, playing basketball, throwing them on the bed and jumping on the bed with them. That’s the stuff you don’t see.”