TaxProf Blog

Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Sunday, May 12, 2013

A Cincinnati Lawyer's Rise, Fall, and Redemption ... in Hawaii (Thanks to a Tax Prof)

In the small world department:  my Pepperdine colleague Shelley Saxer is completing a visit at Hawaii and dropped me a note about her colleague next door, Ken Lawson, whose faculty bio only begins to capture his extraordinary journey:

LawsonKen Lawson is the associate director of the Hawaii Innocence Project and an associate faculty specialist at the William S. Richardson School of Law. He had a successful law practice in Cincinnati, Ohio, until his license to practice law was revoked because of misconduct while addicted to prescription painkillers. He pled guilty to the felony of obtaining controlled substances by fraudulent means and served 10 months in federal penitentiary. Mr. Lawson is now active in the Hawaii Lawyers and Judges Assistance Program.

Ken started his legal career as an associate in one of Ohio’s oldest and largest law firms. He eventually started his own firm, which grew to 12 lawyers. Over that 18 year period, he was lead counsel in more than a hundred criminal trials, including many murder and capital cases. He also litigated numerous civil rights and police misconduct cases in both federal and state courts and had an active appellate practice. Ken won numerous cases that were considered by many to be “unwinnable”. These and many of Ken’s other cases were followed closely by the media, and he made numerous appearances on CBS, ABC, CNN, CNBC, MSNBC, Court TV, and numerous radio shows. Some of the appearances related to his cases but he also was frequently asked by reporters to comment on and explain to lay audiences the legal issues in other newsworthy cases.

Ken’s high-profile clientele included NFL star Elbert “Ickey” Woods, NFL star and professional baseball player Deion Sanders, and entertainer Peter Frampton. More important to Ken, he represented many “everyday” people, including a single mother whose 16 year old juvenile son, incarcerated in an Ohio prison for adults, had died after being stabbed 16 times by the leader of a racist hate group, the Aryan Nation.

From a recent article in Cincinnati Magazine, Soul Survivor: From His Fiery Fame as "The Pit Bull Lawyer" to Finding His Family, the Unlikely Redemption of Ken Lawson:

At the top of his game, Ken Lawson was the Ray Lewis of the Hamilton County Courthouse — the linebacker lawyer nobody wanted to run into.

He was “Law Dog,” bigger than life on a colorful two-story mural in the West End. On posters he was a warlord, seated on a skull-topped throne, the decapitated head of a white man rolling at his feet. On the streets he was the answer to the Cops theme song: “What ya gonna do when they come for you, bad boys, bad boys?”

In the eye of the hurricanes that swirled around race — riots, lawsuits, stormy city council meetings, press conferences, headline-grabbing accusations — there was Lawson, an adopted kid who traced his biological father to Cincinnati heavyweight boxing champ Ezzard Charles. ...

His drug habit — prescription opiates (Oxycontin, Percocet), weed and cocaine — reached $1,000 a day. He stole from his clients, failed to show up in court, was “sick” for weeks at a time. A judge finally asked for an investigation. He was convicted of organizing a drug ring with a local doctor and sentenced to two years in prison.

But that’s not the end of his story. It was just the beginning. ...

“It was a nightmare,” he says from his new home in Hawaii. “If I had a way of dying, I would have done it.” During detox, “for 45 days, the only way I could stop shaking was to take three or four hot showers a day. I would put a chair in there and just sit until the hot water ran out. I was hopeless. Hopeless.”

“My first day sober in years was Feb. 1, 2007.  My drug habit was so expensive that I had depleted all of our money and was stealing from the client trust account to support my addiction to painkillers.  When I got out of detox, our house was in foreclosure, my law license was about to be suspended, I was being investigated by the DEA, the kids’ tuition had not been paid, all of the rotten stuff I did and the rotten person I had become was all over the news for months, and I was looking at going to prison.

“My sponsor kept telling me that God had me right where I was supposed to be. The kids and I were living in my mother’s house in my old bedroom. Boy, was I being humbled; and, looking back, I needed to learn some humility.”

His wife, Marva, stuck by him through it all. “I love him unconditionally,” she explains. “I knew him as ‘Kenny,’ that boy in high school who was relentless even then. ... Marva, whose parents didn’t finish eighth grade, went to college, then medical school, became a psychiatrist, found a job in Hawaii and moved there “on a wing and a prayer, trusting God.” To raise money to join her, Ken mowed lawns and did odd jobs. “My sponsor took up a collection, and we had enough funds for plane tickets. ...

The dark hours emphasized the light around the corner. “If I had not gone to prison, I would not be the person I am today.” ...

RothRandall Roth, the University of Hawaii [tax] law professor who took a chance to help Lawson get hired as office manager for the Hawaii Innocence Project, says, “Anyone who doesn’t believe in second chances, or the concept of redemption, hasn’t met Ken. His failures are well documented, but I’m convinced that he can and will do more good for people during the rest of his life than anyone else I know could do in 10 lifetimes. I value his friendship greatly and I trust him completely.” ...

“The easy answer to what happened is alcohol and drugs,” Lawson says. “But the honest answer is that I was off track way before I took my first drink or drugs. My thinking about what life was about was way off track. I thought it was money, things, power, prestige. I kept chasing that stuff and none of it could fill that hole in my soul.”

“The irony is that all of the people that God put in my life to help me have been white. I found it ironic that very few blacks showed up in court to support to me. I’m not angry or even bitter about this as I’ve come to learn to accept people for who they are, wherever they are in life. 

“However, over the last few years I have come to see how racism was such a distraction from the truth. The truth is, I ended up hitting bottom as a direct result of choices I made. I had to learn that blaming others for my problems keeps me from seeing the truth about myself. By refusing to accept responsibility for our own conduct, by refusing to forgive others for their wrongs, the community stays resentful.

“I was wrong for the positions I took with the police and race in Cincinnati, but it’s not until I was able to do a complete and honest self-inventory that I was able to see the truth about my actions. So I have learned that my resentments and anger hurt me more than the person I’m resentful at.

“Life and where it takes us is so amazing. When I can stay in the moment and think of others more than myself, is when I truly realize what a gift life really is! Sometimes I look back on that part of my life when I chased money, power and success thinking it is what life is about and I often just wonder, ‘Where have I been all this time to miss so much of what really matters?’ “Well, I’m present now.”

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It is good to start the day with good news!

Posted by: Bill Turnier | May 12, 2013 6:51:55 AM