Sunday, August 22, 2010

Summer Reflections - Elizabeth speaks of her summer at Georgia Justice Project

Elizabeth Pool
Georgia Justice Project Summer Reflection
August 20, 2010

When asked to write about my experience at Georgia Justice Project this summer, I was overwhelmed with so many thoughts and emotions that the task quickly became overwhelming. How was I supposed to put into words the experience I had there? How could I ever begin to quantify the friendships I made, and the impact these people had on me? The answer to those questions is easy: I can’t. I know no way to fully express the effect this experience had on me, so please bear with me, read between the lines, and understand that there is so much more I wish I was eloquent enough to say.

When driving to Atlanta for my interview I told my two classmates (yes, we were carpooling to go interview against each other for a job!) that they were probably better suited for a job like this because I had the heart of a prosecutor, fully believed in consequences for poor behavior, and even worse – I’m a CONSERVATIVE! (Gasp!) As we got off the exit at Edgewood Avenue in South East Atlanta, I reiterated that I was certain they were better suited for this job because I “wasn’t comfortable” with this part of town. (Whatever, I’m totally a local now.)

Something (although very small) changed in me as we pulled in the parking lot of the converted old gas station. I began to think of the history of this neighborhood, and wondered how many great civil rights leaders might have stopped to get gas here, or maybe buy a Coke. Walking in to the building sparked that curiosity even further, and I allowed myself to fully acknowledge that this organization had a specific purpose for being here, and I couldn’t help but be intrigued.

The interview started with a short video highlighting clients, their families, organization board members and volunteers, as well as staff members. By the time eight minutes had passed, I wanted so badly to be a part of this… this thing, this community presence, this change, this progress, this force, this idea that had grown from something so small into something as important as Georgia Justice Project is today. My interview with Ron Boyter solidified that desire. I felt like I just had lunch with an old friend, and I felt like I belonged there. (Sidenote: I was certain I did not get the job because I was totally honest about my prosecutor heart, and because the interview felt more like chatting with a friend than an interview. I mean, I wasn’t even asked to share my 3 strength and weaknesses as they pertained to this position. Every real interview has that question, right!?!)

A few weeks later I received an e-mail from Professor Tim Floyd congratulating me and offering me the job! Because of a mix-up with resumes, I was certain this was a mistake. I visited Professor Floyd’s office to clear things up, to which he assured me there had been no mistake. I (again) explained my concerns about being the right fit to which I got a response that resonated in me. Professor Floyd told me that he was absolutely certain I was the right fit for the job, and that this was going to be a summer I would never forget. He told me he was excited about the experience I would have with this organization he had been closely involved with for years. This professor I didn’t know well at the time had fully put his faith in me and my abilities, and was excited for me! I felt a lot of pressure at this point to meet his expectations, as well as to represent my school the best I possibly could. Thus begins my career with GJP.

From the moment I walked in the front doors on day one I felt one hundred percent part of the GJP family. Upon meeting Doug Ammar for the first time, (I was nervous for about the first thirty seconds) I quickly realized that he would be a great source of education and constant encouragement. I was thrilled to learn that I would be working on real cases affecting real people and was so eager to take part in a justice system I respect so much.

Never in my life did I believe my opinion would be respected so much, but I experienced that all summer long from every single person I encountered; everyone from the clients and their families, to fellow interns, to the social work, fundraising, and landscape staff, to seasoned lawyers who had been doing this work for years actually listened, cared, and considered my thoughts. I mattered there, but more importantly the work I was doing there mattered.

My work at Georgia Justice Project taught me so much more than courtroom etiquette and procedure. It taught me that the preconceptions I had about criminals were nothing but misconceptions. This experience taught me that the only difference between me and our clients was a few decisions made along the way. It taught me that I can look in the eye of an alleged murderer and genuinely want nothing but the best for them because they are a real person, with a real family just like mine, and a mom and dad at home who just miss their child. I learned that wanting the best for your client does not always mean you want them to walk. I also learned, however, that I should never forget the other side no matter what kind of law I practice, especially if a victim is involved. It taught me that I believe so strongly in the system of justice in our country that even when it doesn’t work out how I want it to, I still respect it. I also learned, however, that more often than not the system will not work out exactly how I think it should. I learned that there are more flaws in our system than I can count, or ever attempt to remedy, but we put our faith in it every single day because the face of a client’s child is burned in our mind.

Georgia Justice Project broke down barriers I didn’t even know existed inside me, and I will be forever grateful. I now see success not as a favorable verdict in the courtroom, but as a former client finishing a long day of landscaping with their head held high heading home to a family they can help support and be an active part of, all the while knowing that they have another family at GJP cheering them on with every single step.

You can also check out Elizabeth's blog at:

Monday, August 16, 2010

Full Circle - The experience of one of our interns whose dad had been a client of GJP

My family and I have been part of GJP for as long as I can remember. We came to the Georgia Justice Project seeking help with my father’s case. That was over 10 years ago. During that time, my family had run out of options and they wanted the best results for his case. He was sent to prison, but the Georgia Justice Project was still by our side. At the time, I was too young to fully understand how GJP worked, what they did, or even how they helped people. However, I did know that our family was glad to have them in our lives.

Working as a summer intern at GJP has truly been a blessing to both me and my family. Most people my age really don’t have the opportunity to go someplace and experience the things I have experienced here at GJP. I have learned more about the law in the past month than I have known in my entire lifetime. Not only have I gained legal knowledge, I can say that working at GJP has helped me tremendously when it comes to networking, and meeting new people. Previous to my internship at GJP, I found it difficult to talk to strangers, or people I didn’t know well enough. Once Julie gave me my assignment I realized it was something I wasn’t so good at; answering the phone, and the door. Both of those tasks require excellent social skills, which I didn’t think I had. One day I found myself walking around the office looking lost and Sanchez told me to come in his office. He gave me a LONG lecture about the type of people to expect, what and what not to do, etc. I found his lecture very helpful. Weeks and weeks passed since his lecture, and I was doing a pretty good job; at least I thought!

It was a Friday afternoon, and Julie and I were the only people left in the office. One of Sanchez’s clients came to the door, and of course I answered it. He began to speak with this demon-possessed voice, and asked me questions about various Gods that I wasn’t familiar with. Not only did I not understand what he was saying, but he got angry at me for apparently no reason! I guess Julie heard that something was going on, and she came to save the day! I felt so relieved to see her come around that corner I didn’t know what to do.

With that being said, I would like to thank all of the staff members who helped make my summer such a great experience. Words can’t explain exactly how I feel having such dedicated; hardworking people as a mentor guiding me in the direction that I should go. I would also like to thank the awesome interns that have kept me filled with laughter, joy, and provided me with an awesome experience here at GJP!

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Antoine's Story - A Client's Perspective

Celebrating eleven years clean, and Antoine Stevens still calls himself a newcomer (N.B. Antoine Stevens is not our client’s real name).

That’s because Antoine recognizes that “to get to the 12th year, I’ve got 365 days to deal with.” So he’s learned to have a plan – and a backup plan -- for each day: “I’ve got short-term goals and long-term goals. You plan your week; you plan your budget; then everything fits easy. If you don’t have a plan, it’s hard.”

After years of addiction and the cycle of crime-and-punishment that comes with it, Antoine doesn’t take anything for granted. “Recovery is for life,” he says. “Only 10 percent of it is the substance. The other 90 percent is behavior. I know I can still learn more and more.”

In the late 1990s, Antoine was on probation and working for New Horizon Landscaping when he “got in a little trouble,” he says. “I found out I could pass the parole drug test,” he explains, “but I couldn’t pass the one at Georgia Justice Project. When I failed, they asked me if I needed help. I knew I had to do something. I figured I’d rather be in rehab than in the penitentiary.”

He completed an intensive eight-month, inpatient rehab program, one he calls the toughest in Georgia. “I thought they were crazy at first,” he jokes. “But I hung in. After six months clean, I started seeing blessings coming.”

“I had a good foundation coming up,” he says, but he credits Georgia Justice Project with getting him back on track. “When I didn’t love myself, they loved me, and I didn’t understand that. They sent me to school and used the resources they had for me. They show you like it is--they show you love, but it’s also tough love. They set you up with all the resources, but it’s up to the individual to take advantage of the opportunity. So I went to rehab and never looked back.”

Still, Antoine takes it day by day.”I’ve got my network, and I stay connected with things that keep me clean. I go to meetings, get on my network. If I’m going through something, I can call them. The urge can come up but it’s just a thought. Once I tell somebody, I’m through with it. It’s a burden off me.”

In addition to working at New Horizon, Antoine is a regular around the Justice Project office and at functions. “Georgia Justice is like my second family,” he says. “The staff, the Board, they all know me. They don’t see me as a convict or an addict. Everybody respects me. I try to be there to show my appreciation.

“I’m grateful – at my age, a black man, an addict – I’m in good health, no disease. That’s a blessing in itself. I could have AIDS. I could be locked up or dead. God’s brought me this far. He’s still got more for me to do. Even when you fall short, he’ll make a way for you.”

While he describes being clean as “a beautiful thing,” Antoine also points out that “it’s a matter of making my choices and being happy with the choices I’ve made. I try to be humble and show by example. Others might catch on. They might think, ‘If my brother can do it, so can I.’”

Looking back, Antoine says, “It was a blessing that I failed that drug test. Doug (Ammar) said to me, ‘Antoine, when are you going to grow up?’ Then, cocaine was my girlfriend. Now I’m a trusting servant of God. I have to set an example for my grandkids, give them hope, and keep doing the right thing. One day at a time.”

“I choose not to fall weak,” he declares. “I’m going to prove to the system that I’m not a statistic.”

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Regina's GJP Story - A clients perspective

Regina Sullivan (N.B. not our client’s real name) planned to be the chain-breaker, the one who wasn’t afflicted by the generational curse. “I thought, ‘there’s no way I’d ever let a man get me there,’” she says, still seemingly baffled. She was smart, college-educated, and the mother of a daughter she adored. And she was headed to jail on a domestic violence charge.

As an abused child, and later abused spouse, Regina’s life story is in many ways typical. In others, it defies every stereotype of the genre.

The only child of an artist mother and a wealthy, alcoholic, bad-boy father, Regina grew up in an affluent but violent Midwestern household, where her father regularly abused her mother. Her mother, in turn, abused her. “She found me to be cumbersome” says Regina. Her father, though, defended her from her mother’s assaults. “He was a terrible husband,” explains Regina, “but a great dad.”

Unlike her mother, Regina was a tomboy, and at a certain age, her abuse morphed into anger and she began to defend herself. “I’ve always felt inadequate,” she says, yet she was always a high achiever. She moved away from her abusive family and graduated from college in Atlanta. She earned a Master’s degree in Education and taught for several years. But she, too, fell for a charming man with his own baggage: unbeknownst to her, he had several domestic violence arrests in another state and an uncanny ability to deflect blame. When he began to abuse her, she fought back. As things became worse, she told him to leave.

In a move calculated to thwart her independence and assert his own control, he picked another fight. The altercation escalated; she fought back; and he called the police. Because her blows had left marks on him, she was arrested as the perpetrator. Two days in lockup gave her time to think clearly. “The hardest thing for me was when I realized, he has never been nice to our daughter,” she says. “I was making him more important than her.” It was time for a change. She asked for legal assistance and referrals for counseling.

Georgia Justice Project seldom accepts domestic violence cases. “But my case was so crazy,” she says, “they called back and said they would.” Her counseling started even before her trial. She was sentenced to six months probation, and eventually her record was expunged. But with no place to go, she and her daughter had to move back in with her abuser. Still, Regina was motivated to make the break. “When I look at my daughter,” she says, “I know I don’t want to be my mother.”

Regina participates in a domestic violence group but finds Georgia Justice Project social worker Julie Smith’s approach to be even more beneficial. “I wanted to learn from the experience, become a better parent and move on,” she explains. “And Julie always hits me with the ‘and now what?’ question. She’s totally honest and supportive.”

Of her experience with Georgia Justice Project, Regina says, “They saved my life and my children’s lives.”

It’s been six years since her arrest, and Regina and her children are happy and healthy and living on their own. It fills her with pride when Julie tells her, “It’s amazing what a centered parent you are,” and points out that she’s doing a good job. Still, she worries about what effect it will all have on her daughter.

“Being abused affected me in so many ways,” she says. “But now we have resources and options. She’s more resilient than I’ll ever be.”

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Abby's GJP Story

During this past year- my first year in the MSW program at Georgia State- I have had the amazing opportunity to intern at the Georgia Justice Project with the social workers. As the school year comes to a close, I am forever indebted to Julie and Sanchez for what they taught me . I knew that interning at GJP would teach me about justice, the hardships that so many individuals and families face, and how to fight some of the injustices of our imperfect criminal system, but I had no idea that my experience would be as rich as it was.

While I knew the organization as a whole was effective and helpful, I had no idea to the extent the staff goes to make sure the clients “make it”. The attorneys are quite brilliant in handling the court cases, but it never stopped when a verdict was reached. The attorneys work with the client on their legal plan- probation, reporting, community service, etc- to determine what obstacles the client would have to overcome to complete what the court had ordered. These needs were communicated with the social workers and, together, the team makes sure that the client is successful. Clients are clients for life, even if they haven’t stepped foot in the office in years, and it was amazing how GJP would jump right back in to help with whatever the client needed.

Every day I saw Julie and Sanchez work with clients, using the client’s strengths to help them overcome their weaknesses. If a client came in and needed help finding a job, the social workers used the client’s existing resources -family and friend contacts, past job skills, sense of motivation- to help him develop and work a specific plan for that client. If a client was having some difficulty with family relationships after being released from prison, the social workers would discuss ideas for positive interactions and how to rebuild relationships with one’s children or spouse.

I was able to see firsthand how all this work helps our community. GJP is reducing recidivism rates, creating safer communities and reducing costs to taxpayers who would otherwise have to pay to have more people in the justice system- in court, in jail or prison, or on the streets. I saw GJP fight to give clients a second chance at life, even when the client didn’t feel she deserved one. This makes our fellow community members more motivated , more productive, and more self-sufficient. New Horizons Landscaping employees were perfect examples of this. They were building job experience and skills to use later in life. I learned how an agency can affect policy at the government level, fighting for unjust laws to be changed to make life easier for those who have a criminal history. I saw how businesses, organizations, foundations, and dedicated individuals in our community believe so strongly in the mission of GJP that they give their time and money to support this worthy cause.

I am sad my time is over, but there is no way that the effects of GJP on my life will be forgotten anytime soon!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Ernesto's Story

This was a mistake. It had to be. He’d been at home all night, drinking and partying with friends in a neighborhood not far from where he’d grown up. “I’m thinking I’m about to get out,” says Ernesto, “that it must be a joke,” because what else could it be?

No joke, Ernesto Green (N.B. Ernesto Green is not our client’s real name) was in serious trouble.

Locked up in the the county jail’s notorious seventh floor, facing felony murder, aggravated assault and armed robbery charges, he had no idea where to turn. “I didn’t know the system,” he says. Why would he? At 42, he had no prior criminal record, and he’d spent the previous 15 years caring for his elderly mother, doing the odd painting job for extra cash. She had died a little over a month before.

The crime was a home invasion, a horribly violent crime in which three men broke into the neighborhood “liquor house,” intent on robbery. As one man stood back and directed, the others ransacked the house, beating and kicking their victims viciously. One later died of his injuries.

When police arrived, the thugs were described as young men between 19 and 30, all unknown to the victims. No one professed to have seen the lead man’s face; they heard only his voice as he directed the other two assailants.

Yet, hours later, the bootlegger called to tell police he knew the main assailant. He named Ernesto Green. In a police lineup, he identified Green, as did one of the other victims, although tentatively. The victims collectively changed their initial descriptions, detailing men in their 40s and 50s and claiming to have seen all three faces clearly.

Green was arrested, denied bond, and sent to prison to await trial.

His first public defender didn’t show for his hearing. Two weeks later, the second did, but had no background on the case, made no appeal for bond, and told Green “not to worry about it.” Back to the seventh floor, where his cellmate was a convicted murderer. “Every day, I felt like my life was on the line,” Green says. “There’s always trouble, people trying to get you to fight. I kept thinking, ‘If I mess up just one time….’”

Then another inmate told him that sometimes lawyers take cases pro bono. Green wrote down everything the man said and passed it to his good friend Sharee, asking her to search out the details. Eventually she stumbled onto the Georgia Justice Project. “I wrote them a long letter,” says Green. “When they took my case, I was so relieved. For the first time I felt comfortable, like I had a family with me.”

He credits his GJP attorneys with helping him keep his sanity. “They connected with me regularly, came to see me, and wrote me letters,” he says. “They focused on my case and communicated everything that was happening.” When other inmates told stories about working with their public defenders, about long stretches with no communications, about feeling like no one was working on their behalf, “They told me I was blessed to have Georgia Justice,” says Green. He agrees. “I had faith in them. They told me there would be obstacles and helped me take it day by day, so I could stay balanced and spiritual. It’s like they were right there with me.”

It took 18 months for his case to come to trial. Green says GJP lead attorney Marissa McCall Dodson and second chair Deborah Poole “handled it like soldiers. I felt like I had an army on my side.” They came in prepared, he says, and explained every point and procedure. They stressed that his case was strong, but that no outcome was certain. As Dodson explains, “He was either going home or going to prison for life. There was no middle ground. That’s pretty scary, because you never know what a jury will do.”

With no physical evidence tying him to the crime and the witnesses’ stories rife with inconsistencies, Green was acquitted in a nerve-fraying four-day trial. As is customary, he was sent back to his prison cell to await final release, which usually takes a matter of days. When he heard the guard call “Green, pack it up!” later that afternoon, he couldn’t bring himself to believe it. “I just couldn’t trust it. I was afraid he might be fooling me.”

Not trusting people is just one of the many long-term side effects of Green’s incarceration. In the year and a half it took for his case to come to court, he lost the home he’d inherited, all his possessions, and his Social Security benefits. With no money even to call for a ride, Green walked the many miles from the jail to his mother’s old neighborhood, where it seemed “so peaceful” he says, “that it’s still hard to believe.”

With help from close friends and family, Green is learning to adjust. Denied adequate medication for months, he’s working on stabilizing his blood pressure. He’s attending church, and trying to look ahead, not behind. Still, he says, “These charges will be on me the rest of my life. Anybody can say my name, pull my name up on the computer, and have reasonable doubts. It’s like a scar on me.”

He’s right. Ernesto Green’s criminal record will follow him for life. In Georgia, acquittal does not clear the record, nor are those records eligible for expungement. From now on, every time a potential employer, landlord or anyone else checks, Green will be identified with those horrible, violent crimes.

A trim, handsome man with a warm smile and a firm handshake, Green admits his future “looks shaky,” but reiterates that he’s not going to focus on the past. “God is my protector, he says. “I’m just going to keep myself clean and stay spiritual. Whatever God tells me, I’ll stick to it, and I hope it will all fall into place. I have nieces and nephews, and I have to be there for them.”

Anyone who had been through Ernesto Green’s experience could be forgiven for feeling dark, depressed or angry, but he works hard to look upward and ahead.

“There’s a beautiful side to it,” he says. “When the sun came out, there was a rainbow.”

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Our Response to Newt Gingrich's AJC Op-ed piece on 'Cutting Recidivism Saves Money and Lives'

Yesterday, the AJC published an op-ed piece by Newt Gingrich on 'Cutting Recisivism Saves Money and Lives'. Here is our response:

To the Editor:

As Chair of the Georgia Justice Project Board of Directors, I read with interest the guest column by Newt Gingrich and Mark Earley, Cutting Recidivism Saves Money and Lives. I found myself saying “Yes!” I admire the work being done by Prison Fellowship, and agree whole-heartedly that a holistic, relationship-based approach is essential to ensuring that those coming out of jail or prison are successful in changing their lives.

I believe, though, that the work can and should start even earlier. We can make the biggest difference if we begin these supportive relationships as soon as someone is accused of a crime. This is when folks have the most at stake. This is when their efforts to change their lives can keep them out of prison, or shorten the time that they are in prison.

For nearly 25 years, Georgia Justice Project – an unlikely mix of lawyers, social workers, and a landscaping company - has been defending people accused of crimes, and, win or lose, standing with them as they rebuild their lives. And, our approach of early engagement is working. Last year, only 7% of GJP clients spent additional time in jail or prison after their legal case was resolved. And, GJP’s recidivism rate is a remarkable 17% - less than one-third the national average.

Poverty, unemployment, and crime are inextricably linked in our culture and, together, contribute to high recidivism rates. Long-term relationships that hold people accountable for their actions and yet help make personal transformation possible are the only way to break this cycle.

The Prison Fellowship is doing good work and we look forward to the Out4Life partnership. We can make an even bigger difference, though if the hand we hold out is visible as soon as someone feels themselves falling.


The Rev. George M. Maxwell, Jr.

Chair of the Board of Directors

The Georgia Justice Project

Monday, March 15, 2010

Lost Lessons of 'Groundhog Day" : What does an obnoxious Bill Murray have to do with professionalism?

By Doug Ammar

Though I was encouraged to develop a one-hour professional CLE, no one encouraged me to use a movie. My encourager didn’t realize that I was a movie lover. (In fact, I reviewed movies for the law school paper). One of my favorite movies is Groundhog Day – staring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell, directed by Harold Ramis. But how do I teach professionalism from a movie about a sarcastic weather man who is stuck in the same day? What does a nearly 20-year-old romantic comedy have to say to lawyers about what is most noble in our profession? Before I tell you let me first get you up to speed on this “movie of movies” by reminding you of the plot.


Phil Connors (played by Bill Murray) is a weather man assigned to cover the most famous groundhog (Punxsutawney Phil in Punxsutawney, PA) on Groundhog’s Day. An unexpected snowstorm traps the Pittsburg based weather crew (Murray, MacDowell as the producer and camera-man Chris Elliot) for the night. The next day is . . well . . . not. It isn’t the next day – it is the same day – February 2 all over again. The day is repeated, over and over. The twist is that everyone else in Punxsutawney doesn’t know they are reliving the same day (and thus have the same experiences). Murray’s character, however, remembers everything. So he is trapped in same day (Groundhog Day), yet he alone remembers reliving each day – carrying forward the lessons and memories, one day to the next.

Phil enters the movie as a selfish, self-important, and arrogant person. He is conceited and a bit hedonistic. He fancies an interest in his new producer, Andie MacDowell. But she is not interested. Faced with re-living the same day, he possesses significant power. Armed with this power, Phil still focuses on his selfish pursuits. Though he begins using this opportunity to get what he wants – money, sex, etc. – it doesn’t help him with Andie. All of his planning fails. Every attempt to win her ends in defeat.

About half way through the movie, Phil reaches the bottom. He becomes nihilistic, defeated and suicidal. His creative efforts employed to off himself are some of the funniest scenes in the movie. From the bottom, as they say, the only way to go is up.

By the end of the movie, Phil Connors is a changed man. No longer arrogant and self-centered, he is humble, other-centric, and fully engaged with all those around him. He is an artist – skilled as a jazz pianist and creating beautiful ice sculptures. He is a humanitarian – saving folks, some from certain injury and others from inconvenience. He quotes poetry and sees potential and warmth in the things he once resisted and despised. And his love interest in Andie MacDowell finally has a future.

What leads to his change? Therein lies the true gem in the movie.


What is this movie about? Is it simply a romantic comedy? Is it just a silly movie about a guy who can’t get out of the same day? It is a wonderful romantic comedy – but it is so much more. I believe the movie is about human maturation: more specifically moral and spiritual development. There is a story of human development buried in this romantic comedy.

My belief in the movie’s profundity was bolstered by a New York Times article a few years ago. A long article on the cover of the Sunday arts section announced that Groundhog Day was the most taught movie in graduate school film classes regarding the intersection of spirituality and films. With the backing of the New York Times and having listened to the director’s comments on the DVD version my wife gave me one birthday, I knew I was onto something.


When teaching this class, I love to ask folks what leads to Phil’s change. What is the turning point in his moral development? Sure there is his love interest in Andie McDowell. Sure he has the chance to learn. But what leads to his change. Then I show the scene.

The scene I show is less than three minutes long. Yet this scene, when Ramis and his crew presented their finished product to their Hollywood backers, set off an alarm. The money-men in Hollywood extolled Ramis to remove the scene.

You have to take it out. This is America. No one wants to get depressed watching a comedy.

“I can’t” Ramis responded.

Again they protested. “The movie is wonderful but you have to remove this scene.”

Ramis stood his ground. “You don’t understand. This IS the movie!”

What scene am I referring to? It is the scene where, after Phil reaches bottom and starts to come up, after becoming interested in art – he tries to save a homeless man. The homeless man, who has no spoken lines in the entire film, dies each and every time Phil tries to save him. Yet Phil calls the man father and dad. Phil gives him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Phil embraces this man on every level. All to no avail.

Phil’s efforts with this man prove pivotal. Only after this scene is Phil truly humble. Only after this encounter is Phil concerned for those around him. Only after Phil fails to save this man’s life, is he then available to suffering and joy of those around him.

I believe that it is in Phil’s failure that he finds power – power to be a force for good.

And it is only after this lesson, only after this failure with the old man, and only after his actions saving others, that Phil’s own salvation is delivered. After Phil finds this power and uses it power for others, he is freed from his own problem of re-living the same day.


This movie offers plenty of lessons. It addresses issues of power and suffering and engagement and poverty. How did Phil understand his power? What was his power? For what purpose did he have it? How did he use it? What of those who suffered around him? The poor – was he even aware of them? Was he engaged with the community around him?

To all of these questions the answers change pre vs. post-engagement with the homeless man. He is aware of his power (and uses it for good!) only after he recognizes his powerlessness. He is engaged with those in pain only after he is intimately connected to the one most obviously suffering. And his only suffering is abated when he embraces the suffering of the person most distant from his reality. He is fully transformed by the end of the movie. His transformation was made complete through his engagement with the homeless man.

In the CLE I encourage lawyers to think about their pro bono work. While representing a person pro bono, for instance, is their sole objective to win? Is that how we define our service work in the profession? Or is there another, broader opportunity? What is your relationship to those you serve? Are you open to their humanity, to their suffering, to their reality? And, in your service work are you open to the possibility that your work, your pro bono service, could serve the purpose of changing YOU? Or is your power – even as a volunteer lawyer – wrapped up solely in your bar card . . . versus your humanity, your heart, your vulnerability.


For 20 years I have been working at the Georgia Justice Project (GJP). GJP is an unlikely mix of lawyers, social workers, and a landscaping company. We represent folks charged with a crime and, win or lose; we stand with them as they rebuild their lives.

We provide free criminal defense. We represent our clients (and others) to help them overcome the debilitating civil consequences of a criminal record. We provide social services when we accept clients. If our clients go to prison, we stay with them by visiting them and arranging prison visits for their families. Once out of jail or prison, we offer some clients a job on our landscaping company to help them re-enter society.

Our legal work, to be sure, is powerful. We keep scores of innocent folks from being convicted. We secure non-incarceration outcomes for all but a handful of our front-end criminal clients.

But, like Groundhog Day, our work is not just about the (legal) result. I believe that at the heart of GJP’s work is a personal embrace that uses legal services not as an end, but rather as a beginning. I believe that lawyers possess power, and though we should use that power in service to others, our power might keep us from a deeper lesson. The opportunity for our redemption, like Phil Connors, might lie in our defeat. Service could open the door to a Hegelian revelation: serving others opens the door to our salvation. The highest use of power might be to lay it down - at the feet of those we serve.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Tuesday Blues

“How can you do that? How can you visit a guy serving a life sentence?”
“What do you mean?” I reply.
“Well, you were his lawyer, right? The client was convicted while he was your client, right?”
“That’s right. Either I or someone else in our office was his lawyer. But, yes we visit our folks in prison,” I answer.
“And you all just keep showing up - years after the case is over? That has to be tough? What do you talk about? Doesn’t he hate you? Doesn’t he want to kill you?”

I get these questions somewhat regularly. They usually come from other lawyers – criminal defense lawyers at that; folks accustomed to resolving tough situations for tough characters. They have forged their own way in dealing with difficult outcomes. Some have learned to confine their passions and expectations to the courtroom (perhaps the safest place to land). Some might want a deeper relationship (or impact) . . . but lack the apparatus to attempt it. And I haven’t even mentioned the dearth of resources.

I work for a grassroots legal organization, The Georgia Justice Project (GJP), which expands the notion of a lawyer’s role past the case. The idea of extending our relationship with clients after the case is over often produces reactions like the one I describe above. I try to explain our approach, our long-term commitment and relationships with clients.

We visit to affirm the potential of our client. We visit to remain connected. We visit to affirm the dignity and worth of our clients. I talk about our landscaping company – started 16 years ago to create jobs for our clients released from prison. I talk about our client gatherings – attempts to create and maintain community with our folks. I talk about our social service staff. I talk about our efforts to transform the initial need for a lawyer into something bigger, something more redemptive, an opportunity past the law.

This week I received a surprise. On Tuesday, during the middle of the day, one of our volunteers walked back to my office and said I had a visitor. “Marvin is here. Blue?” the volunteer said – half asking, half curious about this additional appellation.

Blue is here! My heart skipped a beat. I could not believe it! I heard he was in a Department of Corrections transitional center right outside of the city, but I had yet to see him. And here he was - unannounced, unplanned, a surprise!

There is something about seeing someone you have visited in prison for 20 years walk through your doors as a free man. There is a joy that I can only vaguely experience in comparison to his. But joy nonetheless consumed me when I saw him on Tuesday.

Consistent with his nickname that day he was dressed in blue. Dark blue dress pants and matching vest. A striped blue shirt – buttoned all the way up so show off the tie that brought the outfit together. As I walked up to the chair in the lobby, a wide smile spread across his face. He knew it - he knew he had made my day. He didn’t want anyone to call ahead and alert me. He wanted it to be a surprise and he had succeeded.

GJP’s founder represented Blue in the mid 1980’s. A drug deal gone bad – resulting in a life sentence. He has been in prison more than 24 years – over ½ of his still young life. His case and appeals have long been over. But part of our approach is to stay with our folks – in prison or out. Though only about 3-5% of our clients receive further jail / prison time as a result of the case, our commitment is to stay with them.

Blue was someone I always felt would do well once out. He found an amazing attitude in prison. He was positive and upbeat without being unrealistic. He did the best with where he was. Though confined with no clear hope of ever getting out, he made sense of his life, realizing he has the ultimate power – the power to change himself.

Blue is working. He has a great attitude. Blue, I believe, will do well. He already is. He is, in many ways, already a miracle.

Many lawyers experience the practice of law as a disconnected undertaking. By this I mean that the experience is not simply the result of the rational and dispassionate analysis for which we are trained. The practice can enhance (or even create) a deeper alienation from “the other,” from ourselves, from justice, and from our sense of community.

At the heart of GJP’s work is a thirst for connectedness: relationships that transcend the normal attorney-client bond, relationships that benefit those most forgotten and the broader society. This thirst for using the law as a beginning and not merely an end, is core to GJP’s approach. This thirst has kept me connected to this work for over 20 years. This thirst was satiated a bit this week. Seeing Blue, hugging him as tight as I could, I was reminded that when we seek connectedness with others as part of our law practice, we witness not only to the humanity of those we serve but also to a reinvigorated and fuller understanding of justice.

Douglas Ammar

Executive Director

Georgia Justice Project (GJP)

438 Edgewood Ave., NE

Atlanta, GA 30312

GJP is an unlikely mix of lawyers, social workers, and a landscaping company. We represent people accused of crime and win or lose, we stand with our clients while they rebuild their lives.

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