Childhood friends Brandon Harris and Sura Sohna grew up together in Annapolis, Maryland, attending the same elementary and middle schools, hanging out together at recess and playing sports like football and basketball. But from there, their paths diverged.
Harris graduated from a private high school and went on to Davidson College in North Carolina, where he receives a full-tuition scholarship as a Belk Scholar, which recognizes academic achievement and leadership. He was elected student body president twice and expects to graduate this year with a bachelor's degree in philosophy.
Sohna, however, began to have run-ins with law enforcement when he was just 12 years old when he was arrested for stealing a bike. He said a police officer and the victim of the crime told him he should spend the rest of his life in jail for stealing that bike.
By 2018, Sohna was facing 15 years in prison after being charged as an adult with first-degree burglary for breaking into a home along with an additional burglary.
However, Sohna's fate began to change after he reconnected with Harris in 2020. The two friends started exchanging letters after Harris reached out after hearing that people in prisons were having a hard time staying safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The interaction with his old friend led Harris to embark on an independent study project exploring the structural challenges and generational struggles that caused their different situations. Harris' project turned into advocacy, which he said led to a court hearing to reconsider Sohna's sentence.
Sohna was released on Feb. 8, 12 years early.
"I'm thankful and blessed. And I'm glad to have this opportunity," Sohna said in an interview with ABC News after his release.
Sohna said he credits his early release to his friend's project, which Harris said he began in January 2021.
"I said I want to do a project called 'Telling the Stories of the Ignored or Forgotten,'" Harris told ABC News. "And Sura was someone who I consider to be ignored and forgotten by society."
Sohna said he experienced homelessness and unstable housing at a young age. He and his family later moved to a public housing community in Annapolis, where he said he was exposed to violence, police brutality and drugs.
"Growing up, I didn't really have anything. I didn't have much. I would be picked on for not having things and I felt like instead of being a victim of things, I should become a victimizer and start to do negative things," Sohna said. "I feel like I was dealt a bad hand, but I knew right from wrong, and I made bad decisions."
Harris said he set out to research Sohna's life in the "most objective way possible." Working with a professor at Davidson College, he interviewed the victims of Sohna's crimes, arresting officers and prosecutors as well as Sohna and his family.
He compiled his findings in a presentation shared on Davidson College's YouTube channel in April 2021. After giving an overview of the project, Harris interviewed Sohna, allowing him to tell his story, and invited participants to ask questions. Sohna participated from prison on Zoom after Harris contacted Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan.
"I had known before that Sura is a victim of a system that has been against him for a long time," Harris said. "The situations that he's had to go through are just unjust and unfair and nobody should ever have to go through what he's had to go through growing up."
"When I was able to get the objective research together and be able to present that and get people to recognize that, that's when we had the momentum," Harris said. "And knowing Sura's fate--he was supposed to get out in 15 years, we were thinking that we really want to get this in court and get that sentence reconsidered."
Sohna's attorneys filed a motion requesting a hearing to reconsider his sentence in December 2021. At the hearing to reconsider Sohna's sentence last Tuesday, Harris was invited to speak about their friendship and Sohna's progress throughout working on the independent study project together.
"The judge sort of pushed back on some of the points I was making," Harris said. "There's a metaphor that got used a lot in court that day, and that was 'you can take a horse to water, but you can't force them to drink.'"
"So we told the judge that Sura has drank over the past year and a half working with me, and he's ready to drink for the judge if given the opportunity," he added.
Sohna, who participated in the hearing by phone, also made his case to the judge in a speech that Harris called "amazing."
"I told the judge that I've never been to a place so surreal as that and I told him that I don't want that place to be my life," Sohna told ABC News. "I know how serious things can be for me if I keep these things--these past behaviors up."
"I realized how selfish I was," he added. "The person that I used to be was selfish, a liar. I just had to own up to that guilt."
Sohna called the day he was released from prison "one of the most beautiful days I ever had."
"It's like my mind can't really comprehend everything, but I know it's go-time now," he added.
Now that he's been released, Sohna said he plans to complete his GED, which he began in prison. He also hopes to go to college for film production, photography and acting, which are his passions. Harris, who was originally a pre-med student at Davidson College, now plans to go to law school to continue this kind of advocacy work.
"There's this quote we've been following this since the first time we reconnected in 2020 and that is 'if you're walking in the right direction, and you're willing to just keep on taking steps, you're eventually going to make progress,'" he said. "So we're going to continue to take those steps. We want other people who see this to continue to take those steps."