The first time Edward Martell stood in Judge Bruce Morrow’s courtroom, in Wayne County, Mich., he was a 27-year-old high school dropout with a lengthy rap sheet that stretched back to his early teen years.
It was 2005, and Martell had been out on bail when he was arrested in a drug sting in Dearborn Heights, days before his mother’s birthday. After pleading guilty to selling and manufacturing crack cocaine, Martell could have spent the next 20 years in prison.
On May 14, Martell returned to Morrow’s courtroom in a meeting first reported by Deadline Detroit. Martell brought two lawyers and his family. Dressed in a three-piece suit and bow tie, he raised his hand as he faced Morrow.
“I, Edward Martell, do solemnly swear …” he began.
After Martell finished the oath, he and Morrow hugged. The judge was looking at Martell, who at age 43 had just become a newly sworn member of the State Bar of Michigan.
“Ed has been in that courtroom at least 50 times in the past 15 years,” Morrow told The Washington Post on Tuesday. “And he came in that day with the biggest smile on his face. He was just ready to pop.”
It was a far different scene when the two met in the courtroom nearly 16 years ago.
Martell said it would be easy for anyone to look at his record and see “a career criminal.” The justice system had given him chances to negotiate pleas to lesser offenses, but he figured his luck had run out.
“Any other judge would have flushed me,” Martell told The Post.
But where Martell saw himself as a lost cause, Morrow saw a smart — even brilliant — young man who had rebounded from setbacks.
“I can imagine Ed — being a Brown man, coming from an economically depressed environment, having been chased by police and put in handcuffs — never thinking this is where the love could come from,” Morrow said of Martell, who is Latino.
Instead of throwing the book at Martell, the judge gave him three years of probation and a challenge to return to court next time with an achievement, such as becoming a corporate executive.
“It was kind of in jest, but he understood I believed he could be anything he wanted to be,” Morrow said.
Martell was set in his ways — yet encouraged by Morrow’s faith in him, and galvanized by his challenge.
For the next 15 years, the two regularly kept in touch, usually speaking at least every two months as Martell tried to put more space between the man he was and the man Morrow believed he could be.
The path wasn’t always smooth.
He violated probation before completing his three-year term. When he gathered the courage to go to community college in 2008, he was discouraged from pursuing law because of his record.
“At that time I was just a felon with a dream,” Martel said. “They advised me to [study] heating and cooling.”
After graduating with an associate’s degree, Martell said he went on to earn academic scholarships from the University of Detroit Mercy for undergrad and law school; he later got a clerkship with the Federal Public Defender for the District of Columbia.
Morrow made the eight-hour drive to D.C. and took Martell to lunch before driving back to Detroit.
It has always been part of Morrow’s nature to see a person’s humanity even when they’re in the worst situation of their lives, said Sean Perkins, a former partner at the Perkins Law Group where Martell worked as a legal researcher. Perkins knows both men personally and professionally.
“They’re still human beings and he treats them as such,” Perkins told The Post.
Martell impressed Perkins with his resourcefulness. “Ed, it’s almost like there’s nothing he can’t do. He’s stepped up to the plate — and I’m talking about on a lot of occasions.”
Despite more than a decade of glowing academic success and solid work history, Martell’s dream of becoming a lawyer was never a certainty.
The second step in the state bar application process, the character and fitness evaluation, is what Morrow described as the ultimate background check, and especially stringent in Michigan. It’s often an incidental step for younger applicants without much work or life history, but given Martell’s criminal record, the process could have doomed his application.
“The main thing they look for is candor. I let them know I am remorseful — that I’m downright embarrassed,” Martell said of his past. “I am the same person, but I don’t think like that anymore. I’ve evolved.”
He submitted a more-than-1,200-page application, and had lawyers from the Perkins Law Group and Morrow among his advisers.
After 15 minutes of deliberation, the character and fitness board gave him the approval.
“My tears started like a baby. I’ve been chasing this dream for 13 years not even knowing what’s at the end of this tunnel,” Martell said.
In Morrow’s courtroom on May 14, there were tears once again, but this time of happiness.
The partners at Perkins, where Martell would be joining the practice, gave him a monogrammed leather briefcase and a pen with his initials. Martell’s mother read scripture from the Bible.
Morrow basked in the happiness of the day, he said, but he does not take credit for Martell’s success. Both men share a deep faith and credit God with the way their shared story has played out.
Most failures, Morrow said, are because people who need help never get it, adding, “There’s no such thing in my mind as a self-made person.”