Former Prisoners Become Attorneys: From Breaking the Law to Practicing Law
by Christopher Zoukis
“A man who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client,” the old adage goes. But Isaac Wright, Jr. knew he was innocent, so he represented himself at his 1991 trial on charges under New Jersey’s “drug kingpin” law. Unsurprisingly, he was convicted and sentenced to life for running one of New York City’s largest narcotics distribution networks.
Wright began teaching himself the law after he arrived in prison. When he appealed his conviction he represented himself again, this time winning a reversal of the kingpin charge. Yet he remained incarcerated on other convictions until 1996, when he was again in court and again served as his own attorney. Under Wright’s cross-examination, veteran police detective James Dugan confessed to his role in a scheme to frame Wright that was coordinated by Somerset County prosecutor Nicholas L. Bissell, Jr.
Dugan later pleaded guilty to official misconduct, while Wright’s trial judge, Michael Imbriani, went to prison on theft charges and Bissell killed himself when U.S. Marshals kicked in the door of a Nevada hotel room where he’d fled. [See: PLN, Jan. 1997, p.15; Oct. 1996, p.23].
After spending over seven years in a maximum-security prison, Wright was exonerated and released. He then went to college and earned a law degree, graduating from St. Thomas University’s School of Law in 2007. He passed the New Jersey bar exam in 2008, then spent the next nine years fighting the bar’s Committee on Character before he was finally admitted by the state Supreme Court on September 27, 2017. He has since been hired by the Newark law firm of Hunt, Hamlin & Ridley, and is one of many ex-prisoners who are now licensed attorneys.
Reginald Dwayne Betts was 16 when he borrowed a pistol and carjacked a man at gunpoint in Virginia. It was the first crime the high school honors student committed, though from a young age he had known his anger problems could lead to a bad decision.
“As a kid, robbery was a possibility, and one night, it became an option,” Betts acknowledged. “I didn’t think enough, but it wasn’t peer pressure. I don’t want to put this on another person. I just thought I was different, that I could avoid jail.”
He didn’t. Betts was sentenced to nine years for three felony offenses stemming from the carjacking. He served his time in maximum-security adult prisons, including several months in solitary confinement. During those years he read poetry, history and political science, and began to pen his own work.
Betts also found a reason to learn the law. When he realized he had not been properly credited for time served in the county jail, he didn’t know how to fix the error. So he enrolled in legal classes to get answers, though he wasn’t thinking about the practice of law at the time.
“I didn’t do it because I wanted to be a lawyer,” Betts said. “I did it because I didn’t want to be in another situation where I didn’t know the answers to questions that affected my life.”
After his release from prison, he embarked on an academic journey the likes of which are not often undertaken by most people, let alone a former prisoner. Betts started at a community college, received a Soros Justice Fellowship, earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland, received a Master of Fine Arts from Warren Wilson College and then landed at Yale Law School, one of the country’s top-rated universities. Following his graduation he was sworn in as an attorney in November 2017.
Betts, who has also published a memoir and two award-winning collections of poetry, said his admission to law school – and ultimately to the state bar – exemplifies what is possible for people with criminal records.
“My ability to connect with my classmates told me it’s possible to have a society that doesn’t judge me for my past mistakes,” he stated. “That it’s possible to create the notion that pre- and post-arrest, even pre- and post-incarceration, you’re still a part of society.”
In a lengthy article published in the New York Times in October 2018, Betts described his long journey from jail to Yale and the personal transformation that required – starting with educating himself through reading while incarcerated. When he applied for a fellowship at Harvard, he wrote: “The part of my life that has been most influential in my drive to go to law school is also the greatest obstacle to my being admitted to law school and becoming an attorney.”
Heather Gerken, who taught Betts at Yale, said his success illustrates why second chances for former prisoners are so important.
“I’ve been in this business 15 years, and he taught me,” Gerken declared. “[Our society teaches] that different classifications are acceptable if you’re convicted of a felony. He’s the living embodiment of why we should take issue with that and challenge that."
But Betts did not easily achieve the practice of law, even after his educational accomplishments. In order to gain admission as an attorney he had to pass a character and fitness examination. And while previous felony convictions do not automatically preclude admission in most states, they raise red flags that often require the candidate to overcome a presumption that he or she is not fit to be an attorney.
State bar associations typically require applicants to prove their good moral character and fitness to practice law to an examining committee. There are efforts to have the American Bar Association adopt more lenient rules to allow ex-prisoners who have obtained law degrees to be admitted to practice law, but presently the character and fitness review poses an additional barrier for people with felony records who seek to become lawyers.
Former prisoner Jarrett M. Adams had his eye on the law while he was locked up, and got his start as a jailhouse lawyer because he was in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
Adams, 36, was a teenager when he was convicted of a dorm room rape and sentenced to 28 years. He began to study the appellate process so he could learn how to challenge his wrongful conviction. His case eventually caught the attention of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, which took up his appeal. After serving eight years Adams was summoned from his cell for a call from his attorneys; his case had been overturned by the appellate court.
“Hearing that brought tears to my eyes,” he said.
Inspired by his wrongful conviction to study law, Adams attended Loyola Law School in Chicago. David Yellen, dean of the school, said Adams worked hard on a project that looked at potential wrongful convictions and was a positive presence on the campus.
“When he got out, he had this amazing determination and grace,” said Yellen. “I don’t know how someone who spent eight years, or longer, for something they didn’t do can come out and not be angry with the world, but Jarrett was one of those guys, who came out and wanted to do good things with his life.”
Adams has since graduated, was admitted to the bar in July 2016 and won a fellowship to clerk on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. His situation is very rare, noted Michael Monico, an attorney who has practiced before the Seventh Circuit for 42 years. That’s because the appellate court is the same one that overturned Adams’ conviction and set him free.
Adams now works with the Innocence Project, has his own criminal defense practice and co-founded a non-profit organization, Life After Justice.
Another success story involves Brandon Sample, who was incarcerated on federal securities and money laundering convictions at the age of 19. During a dozen years in federal prison, Sample made a name for himself in the legal arena – spearheading countless habeas corpus petitions for fellow prisoners, successfully suing the federal Bureau of Prisons over Freedom of Information Act requests and religious rights issues, serving as a contributing writer for Prison Legal News and authoring The Habeas Citebook: Ineffective Assistance of Counsel.
But legal work wasn’t his only activity while incarcerated. Sample also earned a Bachelors of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies from Adams State University in 2012, graduating summa cum laude. Following his release he received a law degree from the Vermont School of Law, graduating magna cum laude. He was subsequently admitted to the Vermont State Bar, as well as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First through Tenth Circuits and the District of Columbia Circuit.
Sample now practices federal criminal defense out of his Vermont office and is of counsel to the Law Office of Jeremy Gordon, a former prosecutor in Texas. He is also the executive director of Prisology (www.prisology.org), a national criminal justice reform organization.
Desmond Meade turned his life around too, after serving 15 years for drug and firearm-related offenses, then being homeless following his release from prison. He enrolled in college and attended Florida International University’s School of Law. Meade said he now has a newfound purpose in life: Helping others.
“I realized all the pain and suffering I went through all my life became worthwhile when I used it to help someone else,” he stated. “I realized that was my purpose – to help those less fortunate.”
Meade is not able to practice law in his home state of Florida, though. He has yet to gain admission to the Florida State Bar, which is not friendly to applicants with felony records and has a particularly difficult admissions process. But he does not plan on trying to become an attorney in another state; rather, he will remain in Florida.
“I’m going to stay here,” he said. “I’m going to fight. What I went through to get where I am today, I have no choice but to have faith.”
Meade founded and serves as president and CEO of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. He was instrumental in pushing Amendment 4 – a Florida ballot initiative to restore voting rights to people with felony convictions, except those convicted of murder or felony sex offenses. The initiative passed with over 64 percent of the vote in November 2018. [See: PLN, Oct. 2018, p.32; Sept. 2018, p.14].
Former Arizona state prisoner James J. Hamm, J.D. also ran into problems with being admitted to the bar after obtaining his law degree. Hamm served 17½ years in prison on a 25-to-life sentence for murder before his sentence was commuted in 1989.
He was paroled three years later. He earned a bachelor’s degree while incarcerated, then attended Arizona State University’s College of Law after he was released and graduated in 1997.
Hamm passed the bar exam but waited until he had completed his term of parole in 2001 before applying to practice law, with numerous letters of support. However, his application was denied by the Arizona Supreme Court’s Character and Fitness Committee on October 5, 2004, despite the Committee’s finding that there was “strong evidence of Hamm’s rehabilitation and professional successes, as well as a strong support system on his behalf....”
Two members of the Committee had previously expressed – but failed to disclose – bias against Hamm being allowed to practice law, and were therefore involuntarily recused from the Committee’s deliberations. One, attorney J. Russell Skelton, had previously written, “I believe a murder conviction should disqualify anyone from ever being admitted to practice law in the State of Arizona, or anywhere else for that matter.” The other Committee member who was recused, Henry Manuelito, had predetermined his decision based on his belief that any felony conviction should disqualify applicants from practicing law.=
Hamm appealed the Committee’s decision to the Arizona Supreme Court, which ruled against him in 2005; he then filed his own certiorari petition with the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case in May 2006. Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice had filed an amicus brief on his behalf.
Hamm remains actively involved in criminal justice reform efforts and now works as a volunteer and lobbyist for Middle Ground Prison Reform, a Tempe-based organization that advocates for prisoners’ rights. Middle Ground was co-founded by Hamm and his wife, former judge Donna Leone Hamm.
Tarra D. Simmons served 20 months in prison for organized retail theft, unlawful possession of a gun and drug convictions in 2011. She had previously served a similar sentence for a 2001 assault, plus she had a juvenile criminal record, two bankruptcies and a foreclosure, a substance abuse problem and had been homeless. Formerly a nurse, her license was on probationary status. Nevertheless, she was determined to turn her life around upon her release from prison and started by enrolling in law school.
Simmons, who grew up in poverty, was admitted to Seattle University’s School of Law. She graduated magna cum laude in 2017 and received the Dean’s Medal for being the student with “greatest potential to achieve the legal profession’s most noble aspirations for justice and ethics.” She also won a prestigious Skadden Fellowship, to work with former prisoners.
But the Character and Fitness Board of the Washington State Bar Association (WSBA) voted 6-3 in April 2017 to deny Simmons admission. In its decision the Board noted that she had used the word “sorry” only once in her testimony, and said she felt “entitled” to have her criminal past – and her history of substance abuse – overlooked. Sara Niegowski, the WSBA’s chief communications officer, said examining criminal records is an important part of the evaluation of any potential lawyer.
“The underlying belief is that anyone who is admitted to the practice of law – with access to money, vulnerable clients, and power – should be held to a rigorous standard to protect the public,” she stated.
Angeline Thomas, executive director of the social justice organization Washington Appleseed, declared she was “absolutely shocked” that Simmons had been denied.
“I think this is much bigger than her,” said Thomas, who noted that society claims to like the idea of second chances but doesn’t necessarily grant them.
Simmons appealed the WSBA’s decision to the Washington Supreme Court, which has the final say on whether to admit or deny attorneys to practice. The state chapter of the ACLU, along with 48 other organizations (including the Human Rights Defense Center, which publishes PLN), 34 attorneys and 20 law school faculty members signed on to an amicus brief in support of Simmons’ appeal.
The Supreme Court rejected the WSBA’s findings in a 33-page ruling on November 16, 2017 and unanimously held that Simmons could sit for the bar exam. See: In re Bar Application of Simmons, 190 Wn.2d 374, 414 P.3d 1111 (Wash. 2018), as amended, 2018 Wash. LEXIS 426.
“We affirm this court’s long history of recognizing that one’s past does not dictate one’s future,” wrote Washington Supreme Court Justice Mary I. Yu.
With respect to the Board’s critique of Simmons’ sense of entitlement, the Court noted “that Simmons has attained privileges and recognition beyond the reach of others,” adding it was not out of a “sense of entitlement” but rather “due to her hard work.”
While the Supreme Court was reluctant to weigh in on Simmons’ chances of remaining sober, it referred to research showing that someone who stayed clean for as long as Simmons had was unlikely to relapse. Regarding the number of times that Simmons said she was “sorry” during the Board hearing, the Court wrote it must “reject the premise that this word count is an appropriate basis on which to evaluate [her] moral character.”
The Supreme Court noted that “Simmons has maintained her sobriety and conducted herself with complete openness and integrity over the past six years. She has been candid about her past, demonstrating sincere remorse and working diligently to make amends to her community as an outspoken advocate for civil legal aid with a focus on assisting formerly incarcerated individuals facing barriers to reentry.”
The ruling meant that Simmons could sit for the bar exam, and she did so in February 2018. Calling herself “happy and excited,” she said she hoped to take cases for the Public Defender Association in Seattle, where she has been performing legislative work. Simmons passed the bar exam and was admitted to practice law in June 2018.
During her appeal to the Washington Supreme Court, Simmons had the assistance and support of former federal prisoner and now-attorney Shon Hopwood. [See: PLN, April 2013, p.40].
“Both Hopwood and Simmons are living examples of a person’s ability to change if he or she has the will and opportunity to do so,” noted Justice Yu.
Hopwood spent 10 years in federal prison for a string of bank robberies committed in his early 20s. While incarcerated he became enamored with the law, gaining a reputation as a skilled jailhouse lawyer. He was so successful that Seth Waxman, a former U.S. Solicitor General, took notice – because Hopwood had accomplished something that very few practicing attorneys ever have: He convinced the U.S. Supreme Court to accept an appeal.
The first case was his initial submission to the high court, something that rarely happens.
After Hopwood was released from prison he gained admission to the University of Washington’s School of Law on a full scholarship, funded by the Gates Public Service Law Program. After graduation he landed a position as a law clerk for Judge Janice Rogers Brown with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Following his clerkship, he won a Georgetown University Law Center fellowship to run a criminal appeals clinic.
Hopwood was then hired as a full-time professor at the Law Center, which is ranked in the nation’s top 15 law schools by U.S. News and World Report. He teaches first-year criminal law while also working on criminal justice reform issues, and said he feels incredibly fortunate to be in his current position.
“At any one time, I’m mentoring people with felony convictions who are thinking about going to law school, in law school or have recently graduated from law school,” Hopwood observed. “In the past 12 months, five of those people have gotten their licenses in five different jurisdictions. Now it was a fight for each and every one of them, but they all prevailed, which I don’t think would have happened just a few years ago.”
Like Hopwood, it was the power of second chances that made Reginald Betts want to fight for those who have been written off by society.
“This, all of this, allows me to prove my story is useful,” Betts stated. “In conversations, lawmakers will look at me and say ‘you’re an exception.’ Yeah, well, in 2005, I wasn’t. And I want to fight for that guy.”
Jarret Adams said he hopes his story will raise awareness of the dangers of over-incarceration and a runaway criminal justice system.
“Just to think, I was in prison, and now, I’m a lawyer working for a Seventh Circuit Judge,” he stated. “I didn’t just take a ‘smart pill’ upon my release, so imagine if I had to serve this 19 years in prison and not be able to contribute to society right now.
We may be locking up the cure to cancer, the cure to HIV, we may be locking up our next generation of believers and doers in the United States.”
Those ideas ring true for Isaac Wright, Jr., too. His story is slated to become a TV series on ABC, produced by rapper Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson. The attorney who was once in prison is now busy with a rapidly-growing list of clients – and a calling.
“I went to law school for one reason and one reason only,” Wright said. “To slay giants for a price. And if the giant is big enough and the cause is important enough, I’ll do it for free, especially when it involves helping those who cannot help themselves.”
Among Many Others...
The above profiles are not exhaustive or exclusive; many other ex-prisoners have studied the law and become licensed attorneys over the years.
Frankie V. Guzman committed an armed robbery in California when he was 15; charged as a juvenile, he received a stiff 15-year sentence. Released early, he returned to the juvenile system several times until he enrolled in community college.
“At community college – not only was it not a prison state – it was a place of nurturing and education and rehabilitation,” he said.
After continuing his studies at UC Berkeley, Guzman attended law school in Los Angeles, also receiving a Soros Justice Fellowship. Now an attorney, he directs the California Youth Justice Initiative at the National Center for Youth Law.
According to his biography on the organization’s website, “Through partnerships with community organizations and advocacy groups, Guzman has helped lead the effort to reduce the number of youth prosecuted as adults and serving time in adult prisons.... [he] played a significant role in developing the youth justice portion of the Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act of 2016 in partnership with the Office of California Gov. Jerry Brown.”
After serving time for a 2002 drug offense in Florida that involved five pounds of cocaine, Noah Kilroy took a different path into the legal profession once he was admitted to the bar in 2014: He became an assistant city solicitor in Providence, Rhode Island, where he helped prosecute low-level criminal cases. He now has a criminal defense practice.
Kilroy began shifting his career trajectory from felon to attorney by reading books while incarcerated and obtaining his GED. Sentenced to 15 years, he ended up serving only 18 months after false testimony from a co-defendant was exposed. He enrolled in community college, which led him to Salve Regina University, where he majored in social work, then to Roger Williams University.
“Understanding the power of the law by someone who was punished by it, as well as its transformative power working with the right-to-vote campaign, I realized I wanted to become a lawyer,” he explained, and attended Yale Law School with the help of then-Rhode Island DOC director A.T. Wall, an alumni of the prestigious university.
In 2012, Kilroy co-founded the non-profit Transcending Through Education Foundation (TTEF), which helps current and former prisoners access higher education through scholarships. The organization’s president, Andres Idarraga, also served time in prison. He earned a law degree from Yale, interned with the U.S. House Judicial Committee and the ACLU, and was admitted to practice in Florida. In addition to his position with TTEF, Idarraga now serves as the chief operating officer and general counsel for a financial firm.
TheArthur A. Duncan II grew up in Los Angeles amid a culture of gangs and drugs. A convicted drug dealer, he ended up in federal prison. After serving three years he enrolled in community college in New York, then graduated with a law degree from the University at Buffalo in 2012, at age 43. He was admitted to the New York bar the following year and hired as assistant corporation counsel for the City of Buffalo.
“A lot of people thought I was wasting my time, saying, I never seen nobody, an ex-drug dealer become a lawyer,” he stated. “I got a second chance, and people got in my corner and looked out for me. I want other people to believe that you can have a second chance and be successful despite something you did in your past.”
Duncan wrote a book about his full-circle experience with the criminal justice system, Felon-Attorney, published in 2015.
Another former prisoner, Christopher Poulos, also persevered to become an attorney. Poulos, who had a substance abuse problem and experienced homelessness, served almost three years in prison and a reentry facility on federal drug and firearm charges. Following his release, while attending law school, he worked for The Sentencing Project and the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy during the Obama administration. He graduated from the University of Maine School of Law in 2016, then served as an adjunct professor of criminal justice at the University of North Texas and as executive director of the Washington Statewide Reentry Council.
“As for my journey from federal prison to law, the White House, and serving as an executive director specifically, my message is that the key elements to this happening included my willingness to constantly seek help, guidance, and to follow advice, and my belief in refusing to define myself by the acts of my distant past,” Poulos said in a 2016 article published by Above the Law.
“When I was being escorted around the country in a jumpsuit, fully shackled, and surrounded by armed federal marshals, the idea of practicing law did seem a bit far-fetched,” he added. “But by accepting my past as things I had done and experienced rather than who I am, I was able to go from sitting in federal prison watching Obama get elected to serving in his White House. I was able to go from sitting on that prison bus in shackles, to practicing law and representing children facing criminal charges in the very same courtrooms where I was once the defendant. I am not unique, all I did was become willing to ask for and follow advice and refuse to quit no matter what.”
Christopher Ochoa is an attorney practicing in Madison, Wisconsin. He was released from prison in 2001 after serving a dozen years in Texas for rape and murder – crimes he did not commit. Freed with help from the Wisconsin Innocence Project at the University of Wisconsin Law School, Ochoa graduated from that same school in May 2006. [See: PLN, Aug. 2006, p.42].
“They treated me like one of their own and treated me just like any other person in society, and because of that, I no longer am shy or distrust people. UW has helped me grow and adjust to the free world at a faster rate than normal,” Ochoa said at the time.
In 2012, he testified before Wisconsin state lawmakers in support of a bill that would provide greater compensation for people who are wrongfully convicted. He noted the modest compensation he received after his release from prison allowed him to enroll in college and obtain his law degree.
Martin H. “Marty” Tankleff was another wrongfully convicted prisoner who, having experienced the injustice of the criminal justice system firsthand, became a lawyer. Tankleff served 17 years in New York for the 1988 murder of his parents; he had been sentenced to 50 years to life. Misconduct by the investigating police detectives was finally exposed and he was freed in December 2007. Tankleff received a $3.375 million settlement from the state in 2014 [see: PLN, Sept. 2015, p.27], and $10 million from Suffolk County in April 2018.
He obtained a law degree from the Touro Law Center; ironically, one of the classes he took at the school was taught by a former prosecutor in his case. Tankleff passed the state bar exam in April 2017 and now teaches at Georgetown University, serves as the vice president of Absolutely Innocent, a non-profit that advocates for the wrongfully convicted, and is on the Innocence Project’s Exoneree Advisory Group.
“I’ve said this all along, that I one day want to become a lawyer and advocate on behalf of those who were wrongfully convicted, to make sure that what happened to me doesn’t happen to anyone else,” he said.
His story was the subject of a 2008 book, A Criminal Injustice: A True Crime, a False Confession, and the Fight to Free Marty Tankleff.
Kian D. Khatibi was released from prison in 2008 after serving nine years of a 7-to-14-year sentence for stabbing two men during a fight outside a bar. Denied parole because he would not admit his guilt, he was exonerated when his brother finally confessed to the crime. Khatibi filed a wrongful conviction lawsuit in the New York State Court of Claims against police officials who investigated the case, and settled the suit for $2 million.
Meanwhile, he attended community college before graduating with honors from New York University, then obtained his law degree from the Cardozo School of Law in 2014. He is currently practicing criminal defense in New York, where he works on wrongful conviction cases. Khatibi said he was inspired to become an attorney after reading about Jeffrey Deskovic’s ordeal (see below).
“After I was released, that’s when I realized that I had a blank slate again,” he said. “I had a second chance.”
Other ex-prisoners who became attorneys include Richard Langone, who served 13 years for a fatal shooting and was admitted to practice law in New York in 2005. Another former New York prisoner, Neal Wiesner, who served time for attempted murder and drug offenses, attended CUNY Law School and passed the bar exam in 1994, but was not admitted to practice in New York state courts until 2012, based on character and fitness grounds. He had previously been admitted in state courts in New Jersey and in federal courts. The attorney who represented Wiesner in a federal lawsuit that challenged the admission criteria for lawyers, Roland Acevedo, was himself convicted of armed robbery before obtaining his law license.
“For us, [practicing law] is something that we cherish,” Wiesner said. “I had to fight my way out of prison. I got my life back.”
From Prison to Public Defender
There is something particularly apropos when ex-prisoners, most of whom were represented by public defenders, obtain law degrees and become public defenders themselves.
Former Missouri prisoner Stacey Ann Lannert is now an assistant public defender in St. Louis. Convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole for killing her abusive father in 1990, she served 18 years before her sentence was commuted in 2009. After attending Southeast Missouri State University, Lannert obtained her law degree from the University of Missouri, passed the bar and was hired by the St. Louis district public defender’s office in November 2017. She was pardoned by then-Governor Eric Greitens on June 1, 2018.
Nashville, Tennessee public defender Keeda Haynes knows the justice system from both sides of the bars, too. Before she graduated from the Nashville School of Law in 2012 and began working as a criminal defense attorney, Haynes served almost five years in federal prison for aiding and abetting a conspiracy to distribute marijuana, by accepting packages mailed by her boyfriend. While incarcerated she studied for the LSAT – an admissions test for law students. Since her release she has been active in criminal justice reform efforts and has helped former prisoners regain their voting rights.
“I’ve seen her in action in the public defender’s office, and she is just an excellent lawyer – tenacious, cares about the people she represents,” said fellow Nashville attorney and former federal prosecutor Peter Strianse, who hired Haynes as a paralegal following her release from prison. “She knows what it’s like to be incarcerated, to feel helpless and have to rely on a lawyer. That gives her an empathy that most lawyers just don’t have, because they’ve not gone through that experience.”
Another ex-prisoner-turned-public-defender, Benjamin Aldana, graduated from Brigham Young University’s J. Reuben Clark Law School in April 2018. He had served six years in federal prison on drug convictions. Upon his release in 2010, he obtained a job, entered a substance abuse rehab program and earned an undergraduate degree before enrolling in law school. He was hired by the Utah County public defender’s office after graduating.
“I’ll present the story of my life over the past eight years, and everything I’ve done since I got out of prison to move on with my life, help people and not be the person I used to be,” Aldana said before his hearing with the character and fitness review committee, which approved his admission to the bar.
In addition to ex-prisoners who are now practicing lawyers, there are those who are enrolled in law school but have not yet graduated: The next generation of prisoners-to-attorneys.
Angel Sanchez is among them. Sanchez, a former gang member convicted of weapons possession and attempted murder, received a 30-year sentence as a teenager. He hit the law library in prison and began working there; he obtained his GED and a paralegal certificate, then successfully filed a motion to reduce his sentence.
“There was such validation and empowerment that I felt,” Sanchez said. “To some, I seemed to just be an ignorant Latino kid, but it felt so good to know that wasn’t true. Education became my personal shell and I just kept wanting to build it.”
And so he did. Following his release after serving 12 years, he enrolled in and graduated from Valencia College, then graduated from the University of Central Florida in 2017, where he served as president of the school’s Moot Court. He interned with a circuit court judge and was accepted into the University of Miami after receiving a Jack Kent Cooke graduate scholarship that will pay up to $50,000 a year for law school.
He hopes to become a public-interest attorney who represents people in marginalized communities, including prisoners and the homeless.
Lucas Lester is another former prisoner who is now attending law school. According to a December 17, 2017 news report, Lester enrolled in Georgia Highlands College in Rome, Georgia with the encouragement of his family, and plans to start a pre-law track to become an attorney.
“I have first-hand experience and knowledge that college can really help a person succeed,” he stated. “I want to help provide this information to inmates, probationers, or anyone with no family or positive influences around them.”
Gabe Rosales, a musician, had a substance abuse problem that landed him in jail for several months in California in 2007, leading him to make a commitment to remain sober. He teamed up with Andy Summers, guitarist for The Police, and continued his music career as well as advocacy for criminal justice and social justice issues. He co-founded a chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy while earning a bachelor’s degree in criminology, law and society at UC Irvine. In early 2018 he joined Jail Guitar Doors, a non-profit led by MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer that sponsors music programs in prisons. [See: PLN, Feb. 2015, p.1; Oct. 2011, p.42].
After working as a law clerk for the Clemency Project 2014, Rosales is “furthering his education and music through law school and a new solo album,” according to his bio on jailguitardoors.org. He is attending Western State College of Law.
In 2013, PLN published an interview with Jeffrey M. Deskovic, who served 16 years in New York prisons for a brutal rape and murder he did not commit. Arrested as a teenager, Deskovic was eventually exonerated after DNA evidence identified the real killer; he later obtained settlements and judgments totaling over $21 million for his wrongful convictions. [See: PLN, April 2016, p.30; Aug. 2013, p.1].
Following his release in 2006 with the help of the Innocence Project, Deskovic received a scholarship to attend Mercy College and then obtained a Master’s in Criminal Justice from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He also founded the Jeff Deskovic Foundation for Justice to help free the wrongfully convicted and assist them after their release. He is currently pursuing his law degree at Pace University in New York, and plans to focus on criminal and civil rights law.
In a phone interview with PLN, Deskovic noted that more trial attorneys are needed to handle wrongful conviction cases. He is scheduled to graduate later this year and intends to use his law degree “to exonerate wrongfully convicted people” through his foundation and help them obtain compensation. In April 2018, he received John Jay’s Distinguished Alumni Award.
“Being an advocate is in my blood,” Deskovic said in an ABA Journal article. “It’s hard to walk away from this,” he added, referring to his personal experience with the criminal justice system, concluding, “I need to make my suffering worth something.”
So who will be the next former prisoners who embark on the arduous path to become attorneys – who go from breaking the law to practicing it? Those who are presently incarcerated, reading, writing, educating themselves and studying. Those who are making plans for how they will rehabilitate themselves, enroll in college and achieve their goals once they are released. Those who, for example, are reading this article and thinking “one day that will be me.”
Ed. Note: The author, PLN contributing writer Christopher Zoukis, was released from prison in late 2018; he now works for attorney and former federal prisoner Brandon Sample.
Sources: New York Daily News, NBC News, Seattle Times, The New Yorker, MSNBC, www.findlaw.com, www.law.com, www.lawstreetmedia.com, www.jsonline.com, www.deadline.com, www.nwnewsnetwork.org, www.courant.com, www.today.ucf.edu, www.abovethelaw.com, www.usnews.com, www.prweb.com, www.thestranger.com, www.abajournal.com, www.cohpa.ucf.edu, www.clickorlando.com, www.patch.com, www.northwestgeorgianews.com, www.chronicleofsocialchange.org, www.newsday.com, www.providencejournal.com, www.transcendingthrougheducation.org, www.radiopublic.com, www.molawyersmedia.com, www.heraldextra.com, www.wgrz.com, www.nashvillescene.com, www.publicdefender.nashville.gov