Detroit judge who gave drug dealer a second chance swears him in as a lawyer 16 years later

Edward Martell’s journey from crack dealer to attorney began when a Michigan judge gave him a break

Josh Marcus
San Francisco
Thursday 27 May 2021 01:18
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<p>Wayne County Jail in downtown Detroit is pictured, Michigan on March 30, 2020. </p>

Wayne County Jail in downtown Detroit is pictured, Michigan on March 30, 2020.

Sixteen years after Michigan judge Bruce Morrow helped a troubled young man, Edward Martell, avoid a lengthy prison sentence for drug dealing, the same official swore in the one-time criminal to practise law in the state.

Mr Martell, who dropped out of school at 17, left his single-parent home and began drug dealing, first arrived in Mr Morrow’s courtroom in 2005, after being arrested in a drug sting in Dearborn Heights Michigan.

Instead of giving Mr Martell, who is Latino, a lengthy prison sentence for making and selling crack cocaine, which could’ve lasted up to 20 years, the judge instead challenged the man to complete three years of probation and come back to the court as an executive.

“I can imagine Ed — being a Brown man, coming from an economically depressed environment, having been chased by police and put in handcuffs — never thinking this is where the love could come from,” Mr Morrow told the Washington Post, adding. “It was kind of in jest, but he understood I believed he could be anything he wanted to be.”

After completing probation, Mr Martell went to community college in 2008, where he said instructors discouraged him from pursuing law due to his criminal background and instead said he should consider one of the trades.

“At that time I was just a felon with a dream,” Mr Martel told The Post. “They advised me to [study] heating and cooling.”

(Despite serving prison time commonly referred to as “paying your debt to society,” felons in the US are often barred from employment, voting, housing, and other means of advancement even after completing their sentences.)

Mr Martell graduated three years later, going on to pursue an undergraduate degree and law school at University of Detroit Mercy on a full scholarship, before clerking at the federal public defender’s office in Washington DC and working as a legal researcher.

The aspiring lawyer and the judge kept in touch throughout the process, and Mr Morrow eventually vouched for Mr Martell as part of the Michigan bar examination’s lengthy background check process.

This year, his dream came true.

“I sobbed like a baby,” Mr Martell told Deadline Detroit, which first reported this story.

Judge Morrow attended his final confirmation hearing, handing him a handkerchief once the aspiring lawyer became emotional.

Now it sits framed in Mr Martell’s office at Perkins Law Group, a criminal law firm.

The US criminal justice system often comes down disproportionately hard on people of colour, but the Michigan judge says his motto is inspired by a lyric from the Motown group the Velvelettes: “Everybody needs love.”

“It’s a crazy cliché, but some defendants, that’s what they need, too,” he told Deadline Detroit. “If you believe like I believe, that there but for the grace of God go you and me ... It took some intelligence to get in and out of the kind of trouble he got into. I told him, ‘You could be my son. Let’s see how far you can go.’ And man, he hasn’t finished yet.”

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