Darnell Epps: A Name to Remember

Darnell Epps: A Name to Remember

Cornell University

Darnell Epps. It’s a name to remember. If I was a gambler  (and I’m not because I don’t have a single lucky bone in my body), I would wager you will hear his name many times in the years to come. You will see it in print, on T.V. or in a podcast, as admiring journalists report on the intellect and drive this soft-spoken civil rights activist and aspiring criminal defense lawyer. Today, he is just a college student. But make no mistake – Darnell isn’t your typical college student. There is, for instance, the matter of his age. At a time when many teens are worrying about entrance exams and application essays, Darnell was, in his words not mine, “away.” He transferred to Cornell University from a maximum security prison.

Darnell was born and raised in Brooklyn. When he was 15, his parents split up and he and his brother eventually landed in the projects under the care of their father, whose struggle with addiction pushed them both to the front lines of the drug trade. It wasn’t long before Darnell and his brother dropped out of school and gaining unwanted attention from local gang members. They began arming themselves.

“I’m not saying I didn’t make stupid choices,” he said in an interview with The Verdict. When he was 20, a gang member raped his brother’s girlfriend. His brother confronted the man in a store and shot him while Darnell, armed, stood nearby. “I never should’ve let him go in that store. I knew something bad was going to happen.” Both were convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to serve from 17 years to life in prison. It was Darnell’s first and only conviction. He and his brother served at Five Points Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in upstate New York not far from Cornell University.

At Five Points, he was a student in the Cornell Prison Education Program, which allowed him to take college courses taught by Cornell faculty. Darnell graduated from the program with a 4.0 GPA. He was up for parole after serving 17 and a half years, and was granted it, a rare occurrence in New York for someone serving time for a murder charge. He was released in March of 2017 and was admitted to Cornell University later that year. Since, he’s made the Dean’s list and has his sights on law school.

Darnell Epps. After serving 17 years in prison, he is now a full-time student at Cornell.

Darnell deserves the credit he’s earned. He turned his life around in prison and, after spending a long time “away,” has a bright future. And yet, there is something about the reaction so many people have to Darnell that has always made me (and him) uncomfortable. People react so strongly to stories about guys like Darnell precisely because these accounts confound the readers’ deeply held beliefs about how the world is and ought to be. It is this sense of surprise—of a world turned on its head—that makes the story so compelling. “What?! A prisoner—a guy doing time for murder—is on the Dean’s List at an Ivy League university? Wow.”


But here’s the thing. Though Darnell is indeed an exceptional person, he is not an exception. Darnell is the first to say he was imprisoned with scores of men who were equally committed, equally determined, and equally prepared to make a positive contribution to society. I am obviously not suggesting that maximum security prisons in New York or anywhere else are chock full of men and women who could be on the Dean’s List at Cornell, if only they had the chance. But it is even more obvious that you don’t need to be an honors student at an Ivy League institution in order to be a valued member of society. You don’t need to go to college to be a great parent or loving child. You don’t need a degree to be a productive contributor to a healthy, viable community. You only need the chance, and that is all that many thousands of men and women lack. That’s why at the Comeback Collective, we make it our mission to be part of your second chance.


Darnell Epps. Remember his name. But do not forget the many thousands like him who do not share his good fortune. He is exceptional, but not an exception.