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From Jail to Juris Doctor

Broke and baffled by the legal system, James King turned a negative twist in his life story into a positive.Broke and baffled by the legal system, James King turned a negative twist in his life story into a positive.

If experience is, as they say, a good teacher, then James King’s personal experiences in a legal system that, at one point, left him incarcerated, disillusioned and stripped of a promising professional football career, should hold him in good stead as an attorney with the Public Defender Service (PDS) for the District of Columbia.

King, a graduate of the University of the District of Columbia School of Law, was recently hired by the PDS — considered one of the premier public defender services in the U.S. — as a staff attorney. He was selected over 80 students from some of the best law schools in the country who had clerked there last year.

“This is a dream come true for me,” said King of his three-year commitment at PDS, where he will begin in October working in the Juvenile Division.

King’s journey from jail to juris doctor could not have been more circuitous. It all began one fateful night in 2004.

The future was bright for the then-college senior. A star Division I player at Central Michigan State University, the Detroit native was considered a top prospect for the NFL — until one incident changed the course of his life.

Leaving a bar with a friend, King was swept up in a brawl. In the melee, a young man fell and hit his head on the concrete, sending him into a coma from which he would never recover. A week later, the man died, and King would be thrown into a legal nightmare that would last more than three years.

“I was one of those people who believed that people in this type of situation must have done something wrong,” King recalled of his ordeal, “until it happened to me.”

As a witness to the incident, King willingly gave police a statement of what he saw that night. Confident in his clean record and good-student status in college, King thought he had nothing to worry about — until officers checked King’s hands for bruises (and found none) and asked if he would take a polygraph, which he agreed to but was never given.

King quickly realized that things were not going his way. “I am talking to these officers, thinking everything is OK. But as I am speaking to them for the fourth or fifth time, I realized that … I walked in as a witness, but then it occurred to me that I was being viewed as a suspect.”

King said he continued to profess his innocence throughout, but believed “scare tactics” caused witnesses to turn on each other, with one witness claiming to have seen King stomp on the head of the victim.

With a dark legal cloud hanging over his head, King graduated in December 2004. The NFL offer came — from the Cleveland Browns. And a year and a half later, so did the arrest warrant. King was charged with second-degree murder.

Before the trial, a juror was removed for making derogatory statements, and the witness against King recanted. King was then offered a plea deal. At first, he refused. “I didn’t want to go to jail for something I didn’t do,” he said.

But anxious to get on with his football career and on his lawyer’s advice, King agreed to a “no contest” plea on a misdemeanor charge, with no jail time and probation. But at a pre-sentencing hearing, the judge still decided to sentence King to six months in jail. His football career vanished.

Baffled by the legal process and broke from spending his NFL earnings on his defense, King said he had time in jail to think about how his ignorance of the law may have made him vulnerable.

Wanting to know more about his legal rights, King began studying for law school, convincing a sympathetic jail employee to bring him Law School Admission Test (LSAT) study guides. Once out of jail, after having served three months with time off for good behavior (he tutored other inmates), King tried to revive his football career, “but I realized my passion had flipped from football to the law.”

King was accepted at several schools, but chose UDC because of its community outreach programs. While at UDC, he served as associate editor of the UDC Law Review and president of the Student Bar Association. He worked with the D.C. Prisoners Project, which assists felons in seeking legal remedies for injustices they suffered while in prison. He also worked on immigration cases and at the Mississippi Center for Justice in Biloxi, assisting victims of Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill.

“It was a humbling experience,” the 30-year-old said of his time in jail. Looking ahead to his work at PDS, he said public defenders may be unfairly characterized as not being good lawyers. But recalling his own legal nightmare, King said, “I paid for a lawyer and still ended up in jail. I want to be the lawyer I was looking for.”

James King is available as a motivational speaker, especially to at-risk youths. He can be reached at [email protected].

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