Jail Leads to the Law: UDC Grad Transcends Past

Photograph By
courtesy James King.

Mr. James King, a recent graduate of the University of the District of Columbia's David A. Clarke School of Law. 

At the lowest point, sitting in a jail cell, James King never thought he would be a lawyer. He got out of prison and went on to attend the University of District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law, where he served as Student Bar Association President. King graduated May 11, 2012 with a juris doctorate and a job offer from the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, widely recognized as one of the premier public defender offices in the nation.


From the NFL to Begging Lawyers to Take His Case

Originally from Detroit, he signed as a rookie free agent with the Cleveland Browns after playing on Central Michigan University's team. He played football overseas, based in Bergamo, Italy. What inspired him to change to a career in law, he says, was being charged with a misdemeanor crime that he did not commit. “My life literally got flipped upside down. There is nothing like sitting inside of a jail cell for a crime that you didn't commit,” King, who is 30 years old, said. “It made me switch my passion from trying to be a football player to doing something more down to earth and more meaningful.”

As King tells it, several people were injured in a bar fight King was trying to break up. King was arrested and charged with a felony, although prosecutors offered him plea deals. Sure of his innocence, King turned them down. When his attorney urged him to accept one of the deals, King reluctantly plead guilty to a misdemeanor in exchange for no jail time. The judge later refused to honor the deal, and he locked King up for six months on 24-hour lock-down. King was even more frustrated when he found out that what the judge and attorneys and done was not illegal. “My ignorance of the law cost me my freedom,” King said. He served his time and was released early.

Attorneys once told him it would cost as much as $100,000, for them to represent him. But he had the knowledge of his own innocence to keep him going forward. He says he “went from having everything in the NFL to begging lawyers” to take his case. When he finally got out, the experience was the basis for his decision to stay in the justice system – but as a lawyer who could help people in circumstances like his. And that is exactly what he did. “I always said if I get out of here I am going to help other people in this situation,” said King.

A Decision to Attend Law School

A resident of Northeast DC, King says he chose to attend UDC – starting in 2009 – because of the school's mission to help people in the community. At UDC, he did hundreds of hours of community legal work, including working at an immigration and human rights clinic and working with co-ops in the District to address their legal problems. Last summer he worked in the office of the Public Defender doing what he dreamed of doing when he got out of prison: helping people without money to pay for their defense.

He remembers one client in particular, an older gentleman in his 60's who was the primary caretaker for his mother, an elderly woman with mobility difficulties. They thought they didn't have money to get a “good” attorney. “That's what they thought,” King said. As he took statements to build their defense, King spent time with the man's family, eating with them, talking with neighbors who said the man used to cut their lawns to help them out. When the man won his case with King’s help and went home, it wasn’t just winning a case, it was helping an entire neighborhood get one of their cherished members back, putting a family back together again. They all celebrated with a cookout.

King said he believes people in the justice system, guilty or innocent, still deserve to be treated like people. “I went home every day with a smile, knowing that I got to help somebody in need without reaching out to help someone with one hand and then reaching into their pocket with the other hand."

King was at home in January when he got the call about a job offer with the Public Defender office of Washington, DC. Out of 80 interns who worked out of the office last summer, among them students of Harvard, Stanford, Georgetown, American University, and Yale law schools, it was King who was offered the job.

A Model For Others

UDC Law Professor Andrew Ferguson said King had worked hard in class, even serving as a teaching assistant for his class on criminal law, criminal procedure and evidence. He says that although it is rare for someone who has experience on the other side of the justice system to become a lawyer, it is possible. "Part of the reason it is rare is that not everyone who has felt the injustice of an unjust prosecution has had the character and intelligence to do something to improve the system,” Ferguson said.

Ferguson says that he thinks the legal community and King’s future clients will greatly benefit from his inspirational path, one he believes is redemptive – as King was facing the ultimate legal sanction and suffered some real costs of being accused of a crime. “The fact that he overcame that moment in his life is redeeming to the system and to him personally.”

James King also does motivational speaking, telling his story to at-risk teens. “I think they have a lot to learn from not only picking the right crowd of people, but being more conscious of their environment and places to go or not to go. I sit down and talk with them about things they should steer away from and things that would behoove them to stay on the right path.”

James King can be reached with motivational speaking inquiries at king1je@gmail.com

More information: The Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, 633 Indiana Ave. NW # 220 Washington, DC 20004, (202) 628-1200, http://www.pdsdc.org/

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