Paul L. Caron

Saturday, February 2, 2019

NY Times: He Committed Murder. Then He Graduated From An Elite Law School.

New York Times, He Committed Murder. Then He Graduated From an Elite Law School. Would You Hire Him as Your Attorney?:

In September 1992, a Rhode Island community college professor named Charles Russell picked up a 19-year-old hitchhiker on an interstate. The two men eventually made it to Mr. Russell’s home, where they smoked marijuana and talked books for hours.

About a week later, the hitchhiker returned. The two men talked and smoked again. But as Mr. Russell performed oral sex on him, the younger man became enraged. He picked up a knife and began stabbing at Mr. Russell’s neck.

Mr. Russell tried to defend himself with a fireplace poker, but the man wrested it from his hand and beat him until he stopped moving. As the younger man was dressing, Mr. Russell rose to his feet, picked up a small statue and charged. The man took the statue away and delivered several more blows, fatally crushing Mr. Russell’s skull.

A year later, acting on a tip, the police arrested Bruce Reilly. He confessed that he had snapped during the sexual encounter, and that the fight had escalated once Mr. Russell fought back. ...

In prison, Mr. Reilly became something of an ascetic. He read and wrote for hours each day and strictly limited his TV intake. He accumulated a small circle of friends who believed he had special insight into surviving incarceration. They would write essays on a chosen topic, like whether democracy was the best form of government, and circulate them for feedback.

When they debated prison reform, their views were a mix of Old Testament justice and New. They came to believe that their dreary sentences were central to their rehabilitation.

“You need to be broken,” Greg Tovmasian, a member of the group, told me. “You need to be completely honest with yourself about why you’re in there. If you’re constantly on the phone, talking to people out there, your head is still in society.” The flip side, they believed, was that if a person had done his grappling and come through it, there ceased to be a point to keeping him locked up.

Mr. Reilly was often the most effective legal adviser his fellow inmates ever consulted. He spent hundreds of hours studying case law in the prison library and wrote dozens of petitions, briefs and motions. He helped at least two fellow prisoners reduce their sentences by several years. “It was like magic to people — like mixing chemicals,” said his friend Steven Parkhurst, who is still in prison. ...

Mr. Reilly was paroled in 2005. He enrolled at Rhode Island College, worked low-wage jobs and became active in a local civil rights group that’s now known as OpenDoors. The organization was campaigning for a ballot initiative to restore the voting rights of felons after their release, and Mr. Reilly eventually worked as a strategist and volunteer coordinator for the effort, which passed.

To help continue his work on behalf of the formerly incarcerated, Mr. Reilly applied to law school. Although he scored in the top 7 percent on the standardized entrance exam, he didn’t have a bachelor’s degree, and only one of more than two dozen schools accepted him. In the fall of 2011, Mr. Reilly arrived on the campus of Tulane University — and almost immediately confronted the question that still dogs him today. ...

When Mr. Reilly got to Tulane Law School in 2011, he initially fell in with a circle of students interested in civil rights and unfazed by his past. “He straight-up told me he had been convicted of murder,” one classmate, Allyson Page, recalled. “I was like, ‘O.K., that’s cool.’ I wasn’t expecting that, but I didn’t care that much.”

But within a few weeks, another student began to broadcast Mr. Reilly’s criminal record across campus. Some classmates complained that his presence compromised their safety and would make it harder for them to land jobs.

The story — ex-murderer at exclusive law school! — was picked up by the popular legal blog Above the Law. An unnamed student wondered if, “when placed in one of the most stress-inducing environments in the United States, Mr. Reilly will reach his tipping point and live up to his violent past.” Another espoused a form of Nimby-ism: “I think felons should get a second chance. But why at Tulane? What are we, the law school for murderers?”

TV crews turned up near his house. A producer for “Dr. Phil” called Mr. Reilly on his cellphone; a reporter from “Inside Edition” staked out his apartment.

Publicly, David Meyer, the law’s school’s dean, was statesmanlike. Tulane’s admissions process “allows for the possibility of redemption even in exceptional circumstances of tragedy and hardship,” he told Above the Law. But privately, Mr. Meyer seemed as panicked as anyone. Susan Krinsky, the dean of admissions, said in an interview that Mr. Meyer had told her, “You have endangered this entire community.” (Ms. Krinsky left Tulane about a year later, and Mr. Meyer declined to comment.)

Mr. Reilly, fearing Tulane would revoke his admission, tried to lie low. But he soon realized he had to stop his classmates from getting their information secondhand, off the internet. And he tried to convince his peers, one at a time, that he belonged. ...

Mr. Reilly, who graduated from Tulane in 2014, would like to be able to practice law, but it’s highly unlikely that he could pass the “character and fitness” portion of the bar admissions process. He’s interested in data and internet privacy issues, but he’s hard-pressed to get a foothold in such fields.

After getting his law degree, Mr. Reilly searched unsuccessfully for a position that would suit his qualifications: policy jobs in Washington, entertainment-law gigs in Los Angeles, even a job with the Tribeca Film Institute in New York. He landed only two interviews and struggled to discuss his criminal record with prospective employers. ...

“Once you let the debate go there,” Mr. Reilly said, “now they’re visualizing you killing someone.”</p

Finally, after nearly six months piling credit card debt on top of his student loans, he landed a job in New Orleans as a paralegal at the Capital Appeals Project, which represents indigent people on death row. From there he moved to another criminal justice reform organization and eventually to VOTE. ...

After Mr. Reilly introduced me as a journalist to fellow reformers at the Soros conference, some responded with a measure of irritation: Criminal justice issues disproportionately affect minorities, and I was going to profile a white guy? From Rhode Island? Who went to a fancy law school?

Mr. Reilly is the first to concede the advantages he has over former inmates who are black or Latino. “I can go incognito as a white guy,” he said. But he is still pained by the skepticism his race sometimes provokes among progressives.

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I think it is a very good idea to have people who have gone through the justice system and incarceration involved in law schools. That would actually be a helpful form of diversity, rather than the superficial ones that are so prized.

Posted by: JM | Feb 2, 2019 5:13:31 PM

I suppose it was only a matter of time before someone would argue that the values of diversity should logically extend to murderers.

Posted by: Mike Petrik | Feb 3, 2019 10:42:11 AM

I can see the arguments for and against admitting someone who committed a murder many years ago. However, Tulane accepted him knowing that he had a serious risk of not getting admitted to the bar based on character and fitness. Why should the taxpayer and not Tulane take the risk that he will not be able to repay his student loans?

Posted by: PaulB | Feb 3, 2019 1:27:53 PM