Morning Journal Owner Buys Ogden Standard Examiner

A few weeks after the Sotomayor event, Micah’s kindergarten teacher told me that one of his classmates, having overheard a conversation between his parents, had told Micah that I’d stolen a car and went to jail. He and Miles, who was 2, were at a local private school. Terese and I had grappled with what to tell their teachers about my past. We opted for silence, maybe without ever really agreeing on it. Micah’s teacher told me that he had cried and was visibly upset — but he was now O.K. And I couldn’t help wondering what “now O.K.” meant.

That afternoon, when Micah came home, we sat at the dining room table to talk. Prison has always been the distance between the world and me, but that distance didn’t matter until I realized it also became the distance between me and my sons. Terese and I had never discussed when we might tell them — yet we expected to dictate that when. But we hadn’t. Everything Micah had known about me had collapsed into a word: jail. I didn’t know if I was O.K. but was certain that he couldn’t be. Micah, this is what happened. And I explained, though not everything. Instead of a pistol and a man being told to “get the [expletive] out” of the car and then prison and the rest, it was just: I stole a car and went to jail. He asked me how long. When I told him eight years, I could see in his eyes that he was struggling with what it meant for me to have been in prison longer than he’d been alive. Eight years. “But don’t bad people go to jail, Daddy?” Micah’s voice sounded like the air whistling out of a balloon. I was a first-year law student, explaining how prison, how crime, was never just about being bad. I also recognized that conversations about criminal-justice reform and the new Jim Crow were convenient ways to avoid admitting I’d pulled a gun on a man without a good reason. I wondered if there was room for me to escape being characterized as bad by the 6-year-old boy who first made me feel free.

The morning of law-school commencement in May 2016, my classmates and I gathered with thousands of students in the center of Yale’s campus. It was just over 19 years to the date of my sentencing. I carried the law-school flag, leading the graduates from that yard to the college’s Old Campus. We walked the old colonial streets, crossing Elm, making a left turn onto High Street. From somewhere in the crowd, my cousin Reds watched, seeing me lead the procession in a Yale blue gown with a purple hood draped across my back. Arrested at age 14, he had recently been released after 15 years in prison, about two decades before his original sentence was set to finish. His early release was unexpected, mercy from a judge whose reasons I cannot begin to divine.

But what do you do with a second chance that no one prepared you for? No prison officials would have thought it their responsibility to teach Reds anything more than standing for count. When he came home at age 29, tattoos adorned his body, and he had long dreadlocks that he sheared to appear more employable. He had participated in the job-training programs suggested by his probation officer. He had learned to write a résumé, though 15 years of prison gives little to seduce an employer. Nothing worked. During the next two years, he would be denied dozens of jobs. Job applications became a wall preventing him from ever speaking to a person with the authority to hire him, from having the opportunity to explain that he was more than his crime and time in prison. He teetered on the verge of homelessness. I watched and didn’t do nearly enough.

What Reds needed most — time to both fail and grow — no one was willing to offer him. I was graduating from one of the best law schools in the world. Still, I was worried that despite my degree, I’d be prevented from practicing law. And so our situations were similar and dissimilar; though it seems peculiar to suggest that graduating with a Yale law degree leaves anyone, no matter how many felonies he has, in a situation as desperate as Reds’s.

When I was given J.’s case, a few months after my graduation, he had been incarcerated for a month. J. was already 18, and the charges he faced were serious enough that a long prison sentence was a possibility. The only information I had about J.’s case was a video of police officers interviewing him; another one of officers interviewing the victim, a kid my client’s age, and his mother; and a few charging documents. I watched the video of the officers’ interviewing my client; J. leaned his plastic chair against a wall, his arms tucked into his sweatshirt, the room freezing. For an hour, he said nothing. In the interview with the kid who’d been robbed and his mother, with each detail of the supposed crime, she would say: “I told you about hanging around those devils. I told you about hanging around those devils.” Later, the officers brought out a photo of my client. Is this him? they asked. “Let me see that picture,” the mother said. After a pause, her voice dropped: “He could be my son.”

I understood what she meant. The way it was easy for a bad decision to transform any of the black boys around us from students into victims or criminal defendants. And because I’d been there — and because J. was my first client — keeping him out of prison and without a felony record had become my lodestar. But the facts were overwhelmingly against J. Mitigating evidence was the only thing that might persuade the judge and prosecutor that J. should get a break. I talked to J.’s mother, his teachers, the administrators at his school. They all told me he was charming and thoughtful, intelligent, though he rarely took the time to do his work and was often near trouble. But mostly I spent hours on the phone with the victim’s mother. By the end, she, too, was telling me that prison wasn’t where J. belonged.

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Morning Journal Owner Buys Ogden Standard Examiner


Morning Journal Owner Buys Ogden Standard Examiner