WHEN BRIAN Aitken was younger, he unrolled a map and pressed pushpins into every vast wilderness, all the snow-capped peaks he could climb and snowboard, and any universities that happened to be close by.
But Aitken never put a pin on Fort Dix, where he now spends his days reading books and writing letters from his cell at Mid-State Correctional Facility.
Aitken, 27, a grad student with no prior criminal record, was sentenced to seven years for having handguns he bought legally in Colorado in the trunk of his car. He is awaiting his appeal and hoping for a "Christmas gift" from Gov. Chris Christie.
"I think at the end of the day, when this is all over, it's a long road, but I'll be vindicated," a soft-spoken Aitken said Thursday morning during an interview at the prison.
Later that day during a news conference, Christie said he had received requests for clemency for Aitken, was reviewing documents and would decide whether he'll intervene "prior to Christmas."
Aitken's story, featured in the Daily News last month, continues to gain national attention. He's received letters of support from beyond the United States, including New Zealand and from soldiers in Afghanistan. His boyish, bespectacled face has also become a symbol for gun-rights advocates, who feel his case represents how some states like New Jersey have decimated the Second Amendment.
Frank Fiamingo, president of the New Jersey Second Amendment Society, calls New Jersey's gun laws "irrational, convoluted, and damn-near impossible to follow."
Fiamingo's group had planned a large rally for Aitken tomorrow in Toms River, but it was canceled earlier this week when Aitken sent an e-mail insisting his name not be used in conjunction with the event. On Thursday, Aitken said the rally had become more focused on gun rights than the issues he had with his trial.
"When it comes down to it, it's a due-process issue, not so much a Second Amendment issue," he said.
The biggest problem with the trial, Aitken said, was former Superior Court Judge James J. Morley, who refused the jury's requests to see New Jersey's firearm exemption, which permitted weapons to be transported if the owner was moving.
Aitken said he was moving back and forth in 2008 from Colorado, where he once lived with his ex-wife and son, to New Jersey, where she returned after they separated. On Jan. 2, 2009, when his ex canceled a visit with their son, Logan, he became distraught and left his parents' Mount Laurel home. His mother called the police out of concern. Aitken claims he was moving from Mount Laurel to Hoboken at the time.
Aitken said Mount Laurel police questioned him extensively at his parents home and he gave consent to search his car, he said, because he was confident he had followed New Jersey's guidelines. Police found his guns, locked and unloaded in boxes inside a duffel bag in the trunk, along with hollow-point bullets and higher-capacity magazines. He was indicted and said he had turned down five or six offers for plea agreements.
"When innocent people take a plea deal, they embolden prosecutors to pursue unjust convictions," Aitken said.
A 2007 incident in which a man shot and killed two young sisters not far from Aitken's home in Colorado prompted him to buy his first handgun, he said. That suspect was later killed in a church by a woman who was licensed to carry a handgun.
Aitken said he bought hollow-point bullets because the sporting-goods store clerk said they wouldn't travel through multiple walls and possibly hit "innocent people" if he needed to use it.
The Burlington County Prosecutor's Office said the moving exemption issue wasn't brought up until closing arguments and that no testimony was given during the trial that supported the exemption as it applied to Aitken. Prosecutors said that Aitken had moved from Colorado to Hoboken months earlier and there was no evidence he was "presently moving" the day of his arrest. Morley agreed and refused to give the jury the exemption.
Evan Nappen, Aitken's attorney, said the moving exemption was Aitken's defense from Day 1. There were motions filed to dismiss, he said, based solely on the moving exemption. Witnesses testified about the move, Nappen said, including a Mount Laurel police officer who admitted seeing boxes of dishes and clothes in his car.
"Everybody wants to be believe that there had to be something more to this case, but there's not," Nappen said. "The judge made an error."
Not long after Aitken's trial, Christie decided not to reappoint Morley, due in part to a 2009 case in which he dismissed animal-cruelty charges against a Moorestown cop accused of sticking his penis into the mouths of five calves.
Aitken, a libertarian, said he canceled tomorrow's rally so Christie would focus on the transcripts, Morley's decisions and the prosecutor's pursuit of the case.
"I didn't want Gov. Christie thinking he can't grant me clemency because he would be forced to decide whether he's on the left or the right side of the gun-control, gun-rights issue," he said. "That's been debated for over a century and there's a lot of emotion, and I don't want to have to force him to decide on that because that's not what my case is about."
Fiamingo said Christie, a former U.S. attorney, is an "enigma" when it comes to gun issues, but granting Aitken clemency might garner more conservative support nationally as Christie continues to shine his GOP star.
Before the arrest, Aitken was a media consultant and an entrepreneur who worked "90 hours a week" with little time to read or pore over his map for new experiences. There may be a book deal or requests to speak at political rallies across the country if he wants it, but Aitken's not sure he's comfortable being defined by gun-rights issues alone.
A doctorate in political philosophy sounds good to him, along with getting to hold his son again and maybe tying the knot with his fiancee. But he won't be pushing any pins in New Jersey after he pulls one of the prison.
"I definitely will not stay here," he said. "I feel like I've been trying to get out of New Jersey my whole life."