THE RAZOR WIRE atop the prison fence glistened yesterday morning and winter's first winds whipped tears from Sue Aitken's eyes. But the foreboding walls, the frigid air and almost two years of guilt did not dampen her mood.
"I haven't woken up with a smile in a long, long time," she said, beaming with excitement as she went inside.
An hour later, her son, Brian Aitken, 27, walked out of Mid-State Correctional Facility, in Burlington County near Fort Dix, less than 24 hours after New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie commuted to time-served his seven-year sentence for weapons possession.
Christie's decision followed media coverage including a Nov. 30 Daily News story that attracted national attention and drew support for Aitken in hundreds of online comments on the newspaper's website, philly.com. Aitken's attorney, Evan Nappen, said Monday that the People Paper's coverage had "played a part in freeing an innocent man."
Back at the Aitken residence in Mount Laurel, having left the prison together yesterday, mother and son shared a long, silent embrace in the driveway - just a few yards from where his life fell apart on Jan. 2, 2009.
"This is it," he said. "This is where it all began."
On that day, Aitken, an entrepreneur, media consultant and graduate student, had told his mother that his life wasn't worth living anymore after his ex-wife canceled visitation with their young son. When he left the house, Sue Aitken called the police out of concern, but hung up before they answered.
Police showed up anyway, found handguns in the trunk of his car, and Sue Aitken has grappled with her decision ever since. Although Aitken bought the weapons legally in Colorado, he was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison.
"Brian knows how I feel about calling 9-1-1," Sue Aitken, her voice choked with emotion, said yesterday at a kitchen table covered in Christmas cards, paperwork and a white poinsettia.
Aitken stared at his mother across the table while she grappled with the memory. He has said that he does not blame her for his arrest.
Sporting a beard and a shaggy head of hair, Aitken avoided extravagance in his first hours of freedom in four months, opting for a hot shower and a shave, a cold beer with a slice of pizza, and spending the holidays with his family.
"I could really go for a Yuengling and a slice of Mack and Manco's," he said, referring to a popular dining spot on the Ocean City boardwalk. He'll also get a frozen container of turkey-noodle soup that his mom's been saving to savor during the long stretches of silence.
"I haven't had any alone time," he said. "For 24 hours a day, I'm on a tier with 40 guys. Someone is always awake, someone is always smoking and someone is always yelling."
His biggest priority, he said, is getting the opportunity again to see his son, Logan; he lost all visitation rights after his arrest.
"That's what this all boils down to. For the last two years, I just wanted to be my son's father," he said. "I'm looking to spend the next couple of days on the phone with anyone who can help me see my son again."
Christie's commutation does not clear Aitken's conviction or criminal record, and he has yet to hear from the New Jersey appellate court. He is not content with freedom, though, and plans a return to court.
"This is not over," he said.
His case, he said, hinges on an exemption in New Jersey's gun laws that allows gun owners to transport their weapons if moving to another residence. Aitken had moved back to New Jersey from Colorado, where he purchased the guns legally in 2007, and claims he was in the process of moving from his family's home in Mount Laurel to Hoboken at the time of the arrest.
When police searched his car in Mount Laurel on Jan. 2, 2009, they found handguns, locked and unloaded in a box in the trunk of his car, along with hollow-point bullets and high-capacity magazines. One officer said he also saw boxes of clothes and dishes in Aitken's car.
The Burlington County Prosecutor's Office and former Superior Court Judge James J. Morley both said that Aitken's defense team did not present enough evidence at trial to support the moving exemption. Although the jury asked to see the exemption on three separate occasions, Morley refused.
The Burlington County Prosecutor's Office declined to comment on Aitken's commutation. Shortly after Aitken's trial concluded, Christie chose not to reappoint Morley, partly because of rulings he had made in an animal-cruelty case involving a police officer and calves and another involving a 45-year-old teacher's aide who had sex with a 16-year-old boy.
Morley yesterday told the Daily News that Christie's decision to commute Aitken's sentence was "hardly shocking" but said it was no reflection on his own conduct during the trial.
"The governor's actions were based on the facts of the case and the severity of the sentence," he said. "I neither wrote the statute nor sentenced Mr. Aitken, although the sentence, particularly the three-year period of parole ineligibility, is mandatory under the statute."
Aitken's release was lauded by gun-rights groups, including the NRA, which called New Jersey's gun laws "ridiculous."
But Bryan Miller, executive director of CeaseFire NJ, an organization devoted to reducing gun violence, cautioned that gun-rights advocates shouldn't read too much into Christie's decision.
"We hope that no one intent on mayhem takes the governor's action to be an indication that New Jersey will be light on gun crime," he said.
Mike Drewniak, a spokesman for Christie, said the governor's decision was based on a review of the facts.
"Considering both Aitken's offense and punishment, the governor determined this to be the most compassionate and just solution," he said.
Aitken, who said he already had been a "fan" of Christie's, said his future would include mountains, motorcycles, a wedding with his fiancee, Jenna Bostock, and a new home in another state. He said he was even considering a run for elective office.
"I'm a really simple guy," Aitken said. "I want to put my boots on, go climb Mount Washington, hang out with Jenna and hang out with my family.