Edward Martell

The difference between finding justice and following the letter of the law sometimes takes a simple act of compassion. Where others might have seen an incorrigible offender, one judge saw promise—and following a hunch, he acted on his intuition.

At first glance, Edward Martell, a 27-year-old high school dropout with an extensive arrest record might not have seemed a prime candidate for rehabilitation, but when he was facing a 20-year drug conviction, instead of meting out the maximum sentence, presiding judge Bruce Morrow gave Martell probation—and a challenge.

Morrow told Martell the next time he stepped into the courtroom, he expected him to have made something of himself—something big.

“He said, ‘I challenge you to be a CEO of a Fortune 500 company instead of being out here selling drugs,’” Martell told Deadline Detroit. “And I love a challenge.”

“It was kind of in jest,” Morrow recalled in an interview with The Washington Post, “but he understood I believed he could be anything he wanted to be.”

Fast forward 16 years and Martell is standing in front of Judge Morrow again—only this time, he’s being sworn in as an attorney after passing the Michigan state bar. While the outcome is sweet, Martell’s path wasn’t easy or assured.

Since there was a very real possibility that his prior criminal record might scuttle his future plans, as he was completing his GED, Martell’s guidance counselors discouraged him from pursuing a legal career. But he refused to give up.

After obtaining his associate’s degree, Martell went on to score scholarships for both his undergraduate studies and law school. He then clerked at the District of Columbia’s Federal Public Defender’s office, and eventually was hired by the Perkins Law Group as a researcher and writer.

When it came time to take the bar exam, Martell had plenty of supporters in his corner—including Judge Morrow, with whom he’d kept touch over the years.

With the help of his law firm mentors, Martell submitted a 1,200-plus page application detailing the steps he’d taken to turn his life around.

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“The main thing they look for is candor. I let them know I am remorseful—that I’m downright embarrassed,” Martell told WAPO. “I am the same person, but I don’t think like that anymore. I’ve evolved.”

His approval took only 15 minutes. The seeds of a dream he’d planted had finally come to fruition. Martell still has a job with the Perkins Group, only now, he’ll be a practicing attorney rather than a researcher—and all because one man was willing to take a chance and made a challenge Martell couldn’t walk away from.

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“It’s a crazy cliché, but some defendants, that’s what they need,” Morrow told DD. “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.”

Which is just the kind of sentencing recommendation we could likely use a lot more of these days.

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