When a Family Court judge gave her a second chance after a brush with the law, Carmen Day promised to return to his courtroom one day — as a lawyer.
Twelve years later, Day is just a semester away from fulfilling her dream. She is a third-year student at Rutgers-Camden Law School and has reunited with Judge Charles Dortch, who adjudicated Day so long ago.
It has been a long journey for Day, 29, of Sicklerville, from the past that nearly landed her behind bars as a teenager. Her time before the judge was a wake-up call to turn her life around and pursue a childhood dream.
“I always wanted to be a lawyer," Day said during an interview on the Rutgers campus. “I didn’t want to tarnish my record and hurt my chances."
Born in Camden, Day was raised by her mother and stepfather and her biological father. Her legal troubles began when she enrolled at nearby Pennsauken High school and succumbed to peer pressure from her boyfriend and friends. The once A+ student thought about dropping out of school, but her mother, also named Carmen, refused to allow it.
Day was facing possible jail time when she appeared before Dortch in December 2006. Juvenile records are sealed and Day declined to provide specific details about her case, saying only that she had gone “down the wrong path.”
Although a public defender negotiated a deal that called for Day to serve 18 months’ probation, Day pleaded for leniency, baring her soul and sharing her career aspirations with the judge. Dortch cut her sentence to six months, to coincide with her high school graduation.
When Dortch gave her a chance to speak, Day apologized to her mother and then looked the judge in the eye. “I want to be somebody," she told him. "Maybe I’ll be a lawyer in your courtroom some day.”
Dortch was impressed by Day’s sincerity and advocacy on her own behalf. He was also struck by her desire to become a lawyer, the first such vow he’d ever heard from a defendant in his courtroom.
“I saw it as an earnest passion to want to move past the offense and her circumstances,” Dortch said. “She presented [herself] as a fighter.”
Day stayed out of trouble and didn’t see Dortch again until a chance encounter last January. She had planned to seek him out after she graduated from law school at Rutgers-Camden (which, coincidentally, is Dortch’s alma mater). But fate intervened when a classmate who clerked for Dortch invited Day to tag along to visit his courtroom. Day asked to meet privately with the judge — and promptly burst into tears.
“I was like, ‘Lord, here is the moment I’ve been waiting for,' " she recalled thinking. “It was so emotional. For me, everything had come full circle.”
Dortch told Day that he was proud of her, and the two posed for photographs. He then took her back to the courtroom and introduced her to prosecutors, public defenders and staff, who all applauded. Dortch said he enjoys sharing her story, especially with young people, as “a tremendous example of grit, perseverance, and determination.”
After twice dropping out of community college, Day finally graduated with an associate’s degree in 2014 and then enrolled at Rutgers-Camden, graduating magna cum laude in 2016 with bachelor’s degrees in both political science and criminal justice.
Along the way, she married and had two daughters, Myla, 4 and Malia, 2, and also suffered a tough personal setback: Her father, Alex Chris Allen, died in 2015 in a drowning accident in the Delaware River, a day after his 46th birthday. He had been in prison for the first three years of Day’s life, but then created a stable living as a truck driver and became extremely close to Day. His death was a devastating blow, but Day pressed on.
“I’m determined. I have not let anything interfere with my goal,” Day said. "I feel like God is using me as an example. "
When Day started law school in 2017, her husband of eight years, Dwayne, 30, a protective service officer for the Department of Homeland Security, encouraged her to attend full time. She took as many credits as she could and will graduate in December, a semester early.
“She’s extraordinary,” said Sandra Simkins, a clinical professor in the Rutgers Law School. “The legal field needs more people like her.”
Day wears many hats. She’s a summer intern in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office and is taking two law school classes. She owns a successful online business, SheSoWavy, which sells hair extensions in 30 states and abroad. She’s also a role model for young girls enrolled in I Dare to Care, a Camden mentoring program, and encourages them to pursue their dreams, too. And she’s also a motivational speaker and founder of “Take a Chance, Inc.,” which urges young people to be courageous.
The latter calling was launched after an internet post about Day’s reunion with Dortch went viral and she received messages of encouragement and admiration from around the world. Day welcomes the chance to share her story, especially with youngsters in her hometown.
As for the future, she plans to take the bar in February and pursue a federal clerkship or a position with a large firm.
“She’s an example of what’s possible,” said Pamela Grayson-Baltimore, a social worker who founded the program. “She’s had some difficulties but she overcame that. She’s a sign of hope for young people and women.”
Day is the first in her family to graduate from college, and several siblings who have left college have been inspired by her success to return. But she feels as though she will forever have something to prove to them, her daughters — and the judge who believed in her so many years ago.
“Failure is not an option,” Day said. “Everything is riding on this. It’s not just for me — it’s for all of us.”