As my 15th anniversary of practicing law approached I couldn’t help reflecting on the last decade and a half. With the almost doubling of the number of law schools in Florida and the influx of lawyers from other states, the legal landscape has certainly changed since I started practicing. Now it’s easier than ever to go to law school and become a lawyer in Florida. I’ve met dozens of new lawyers who have unfortunately confirmed that.
I also reminisced about the many clients that I represented over the years. I think that I learned more from them, than they learned from me. Many clients taught me the meaning of resilience, loyalty and courage. I’ve seen many young men take responsibility for their behavior and despite tempting sweet deals from the prosecutor for a lighter sentence, they refused to ensnare anyone else in the criminal justice system. I will never forget my first murder trial, where I represented a client who was so courageous against such unbelievable odds. We won the trial and he got his life back in part because of his courage and resilience.
Additionally, I reflected on the day that the Honorable Wilkie D. Ferguson swore me into the Florida Bar. Judge Ferguson was one of the first African American U.S. Federal judges in Florida. His illustrious legal career spanned four decades and he was known as a shrewd, evenhanded and courteous judge. The new Federal Courthouse in Miami is named in honor of him. A befitting honor because the state of the art courthouse is one of the best in the United States.
On the day of my swearing-in ceremony, Judge Ferguson and his assistant were the most gracious hosts. They treated my family and I as if my swearing-in ceremony was the most important event on his calendar that year. I nervously recited the oath as my adoring family looked on. I was so proud to be a member of the bar. At 24 years old, I was one of the youngest members sworn in that year. And I had the zealous idealistic visions of changing the world that every 24 year old should. I haven’t managed to end racial profiling, illegal search and seizures or unjust convictions like I had envisioned but I have managed to impact and sometimes change the lives of my clients.
I have been disappointed by many miscarriages of justice in the American justice system ranging from Abu Gharib, Guantanamo Bay and the unjust conviction of Reggae legend Buju Banton. However my mentor and friend Mr. TJ Cunningham, Sr. can testify on how far we have come. He reminds me that inevitably things will improve. Mr. Cunningham, a civil rights pioneer, has been a member of the Florida bar for 53 years (when he started practicing in 1960 there were only approximately 20 African American lawyers in the entire state of Florida). He is a living legend known for his legal skills and for his trademark cowboy hat.
For those new lawyers who were recently sworn into the Florida Bar, if you are like me and had bright-eyed childhood dreams of being an attorney to change the world, I say follow your heart and stick with it. When you do what you love the rewards will come.
On some days it is difficult to remember that idealistic 24 year old. But my 15th anniversary has reminded me of who I was and who I still want to be.
This article was written in October of 2013.
I went to the West Palm Beach Courthouse on October 27, 2011 to do some legal research. To my surprise there was a media frenzy in front of the courthouse. I asked one of the deputies what all the fuss was about and he told me that Paul Michael Merhige, who was accused of killing his six-year-old cousin, aunt, and twin sisters, one of whom was pregnant, was going to take a plea to life in prison. Curiosity got the best of me and I took a detour to courtroom 10F. Once I arrived there, I noticed that there were several people including members of the press outside of the courtroom. I tried to go in but was told that there were already too many persons in the courtroom. I did not leave after this disappointing news; instead I stayed around and chatted with the deputies.
About 15 minutes later, the courtroom door opened and the lawyers, family members and onlookers quickly left the courtroom. Only Jim Sitton, the father of the six-year-old girl who was killed, his wife and his father stayed to talk to the press. Mr. Sitton blasted the prosecutor for not pursuing a harsher sentence and for coming to an agreement with the defense counsel. He thought that the punishment of seven consecutive life sentences that Paul Merhige received was too lenient and that he should have received the death penalty. In his rage he Mr. Sitton stated “I now have more faith in the prisoners and the fellow inmates of Starke to take justice than I do in the State Attorney's Office because at least in prison, they know what to do with baby killers”.
I can only imagine how Mr. Sitton feels. I know he must be filled with so much hurt and hate. However, in my opinion the prosecutors made a wise choice to settle this case with a plea deal. Lots of money would have been spent on a trial taxing a system already in need of funds and there is no guarantee that a jury would have given Paul Merhige the death penalty. His lawyers could have argued that he was insane at the time and not responsible for his crimes and this in addition to proof of a history of a troubled young man with a long history of mental illness, may have been very compelling to a jury.
This case reminds me of the Brian Nichols case where Mr. Nichols was accused and found guilty of killing several people, including a judge. In that case the defense was willing to plea to life but the prosecutor refused. After a trial that nearly bankrupt the indigent defense system, the jury refused to impose the death penalty and Brian Nichols got a life sentence. I commend the prosecutor in West Palm Beach for not pursuing the death penalty - in the face of so much disapproval and unrelenting criticism he did the right thing.
Of course Mr. Sitton now blinded by his pain is not thinking about how the plea deal Paul Merhige received affects the legal system finances of the legal system in Palm Beach County or the fact that a jury trial would not guarantee the death penalty. Therefore his anger and hate is understandable. However, for his sake, I hope that in time the anger and hate will recede and he will find a way forgive the unforgivable.
Reggae icon Buju Banton, who has dominated reggae music for the last twenty years, is languishing in federal prison on trumped-up charges. And by federal prison, I don’t mean “Club Fed”. Buju is now being held in a jail in Groesbeck, Texas. The closest town is Waco, which is a 45 minute drive away. It was formerly a county jail for local inmates but recently began housing federal inmates. I am told that the conditions there are appalling, over-run with gangs and not suitable for human habitation.
I have followed Buju’s case closely and was shocked to learn that various U.S. agencies paid the informant in this case, a convicted Columbian drug trafficker, over three million dollars (tax-free) for serving as an informant over a number of years. Apparently, crime does pay. Additionally, this convicted felon, instead of being deported after serving his prison sentence, has been granted legal immigration status.
I was even more shocked to learn of the lengths this informant went to try to ensnare Buju in a drug deal. It all began when the informant “coincidentally” sat beside Buju on a flight. He pursued Buju for months, pretended to be a supporter of his music and promised him important connections in the music industry all in an attempt to befriend Buju and entrap him. After six months, under the guise of showing Buju a fishing boat, he convinced a reluctant Buju to meet with him. The informant had a far-reaching motive to relentlessly pursue Buju – the almighty dollar. He is paid well; more than police officers, fire fighters, teachers and even most lawyers.
Taxpayer dollars certainly could be spent more efficiently than on trying to entrap law-abiding individuals. Individuals like Buju who have contributed so much to society ought to be honored not locked away in prison. Throughout his career Buju has been the voice of the voiceless poor masses of the third world. He is a gifted artist, a Jamaican national treasure and revered all over the world. Right now, it is not an easy road, but Buju fans all over the world are optimistic that he will be released soon.
I am excited about opening my own firm. My childhood dream to become a lawyer has come true, and I have had the pleasure of defending and helping innocent people regain their freedom. I look forward to doing more of that. It's an honor to be a lawyer and be part of a justice system that is admired all over the world for its fairness. Despite reoccurring instances of injustice, I am still optimistic about the justice system and proud to be a part of it.