Every day, Kevin Harden Jr. is reminded of what might have been.

Like most freshman city prosecutors, Harden is a "room D.A.," assigned to a Municipal Court courtroom, what some in the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office call "boot camp."

With a stack of case folders, he appears in a packed courtroom and, working with defense lawyers, shepherds scores of relatively minor cases - misdemeanors, drug possession, drunken driving - through a factory-floor process. Most will be resolved in guilty pleas, probation, or community service.

"Yes, I see a lot of other Kevin Hardens," Harden said.

That's because seven years ago, Harden, now 25, was among them: newbie criminals caught in an eddy of petty crimes, some destined for obscurity, others for bigger and badder things.

Harden is a rarity among city prosecutors - someone who lived both sides of the law, went straight, and now prosecutes people for doing the kinds of things he once did.

That it turned out this way is something Harden credits to coincidence, key interventions by outsiders, and getting shot.

It's a past - seven arrests, including four for drugs - that Harden does not advertise but also does not hide.

It also has made for a sometimes rough seven months at the prosecutor's office.

In several articles about what it has called "turmoil" in the District Attorney's Office, the Philadelphia Daily News has quoted unnamed insider sources referring to Harden as one of several "questionable hires" by Seth Williams since his election in 2009.

It's a tag Williams derides.

Williams called Harden well-qualified and his life story "amazing."

"Everyone in government is talking about how we need to give people second chances," Williams said. "I'd be pretty disingenuous if I didn't stand for that proposition myself."

Williams said he met Harden when Harden was a panelist on youth violence at a 2009 town-hall meeting sponsored by State Rep. Kenyatta Johnson, a West Philadelphia Democrat.

But Williams said Harden got high marks from his office's hiring committee and came with personal references from Johnson and JoAnne Epps, dean of the Temple University law school and one of his professors.

Johnson, long active in youth antiviolence activities in his Point Breeze neighborhood, said he met Harden as a volunteer in his first run for office in 2008.

"Kevin reflects the possibilities of what is good in this city," Johnson added.

Epps, who recommended Harden for an internship with Common Pleas Court Judge Leon Tucker, calls Harden a "real special guy . . . engaging, smart, and thoughtful."

Harden acknowledges that the media spotlight has been uncomfortable: "Some friends have said, 'See, we knew they wouldn't let you live.' On the other hand, this is no comparison to what I've lived through."

A self-described West Philly guy who still lives near where he grew up at 52d Street and Baltimore Avenue, Harden was the second of four children born to Janet and Kevin Harden Sr.

The stability of his early life was short-lived.

Harden said his father returned from Navy service with a drug habit and in 1990 was charged in a strong-arm robbery. Though he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to probation, Harden Sr. found that his felony conviction made it hard to find work.

"It was the beginning of a lot of moving around and moderate drug use," Harden said of his father.

At the same time, Harden's mother had become addicted to crack cocaine, a habit that took her out of the house for extended periods and left Kevin and his siblings in the care of grandparents and their father.

"Our family began taking a downturn," Harden said, recalling a period when he and his siblings slept in coats in winter because there was no heat.

By the ninth grade, Harden said, he got a job at a McDonald's in Southwest Philadelphia, working 40 hours a week while attending Central High School.

He did well and was made a trainer, ultimately hiring his father, Harden said.

But Harden's schedule took its toll. He said he went from straight A's to being kicked out of Central. He wound up at Bartram High School in Southwest Philadelphia.

Even then, Harden said, he appreciated the irony: Bartram was where his mother went after she was expelled from Girls High.

Harden also started hanging out with neighborhood guys and selling drugs to make money. He said he justified it as a way to make money to buy things for his two younger brothers to keep them away from street life.

Harden said he did not take drugs and got a reputation as the "smart kid" who dealt drugs.

Smart or not, he got arrested twice in 2003 for marijuana and twice the following year for crack cocaine. He was allowed to enroll in the city's "drug court program" and his record was expunged after he successfully completed it.

Still, street life was, as Harden said, "easy to get in but hard to get out."

Trouble followed - arrests in 2004 and 2005 for minor auto-related violations and another later in 2005 for intervening in a fight involving a brother's friend.

Then came Jan. 15, 2006.

Harden said he went to the Francis J. Myers Recreation Center at 58th Street and Kingsessing Avenue to drop off a hoodie for a brother who was at a community event.

There was an argument about a long line to get into a picture booth. Harden tried to intervene and was shot five times.

He was shot twice in the shoulder, once in a finger, and twice in his right leg, but nothing hit a vital organ or blood vessel.

In the space of seconds, he said, he went from outrage ("He shot me!) to resignation ("Not so bad, I'll be OK.") to uncertainty ("I don't know if I'll be OK.").

Harden said he realized that he was shot - no one was arrested - not because of what he did but because of what neighborhood folks assumed he still was: a drug dealer.

"It wasn't everybody else," Harden said. "It's your ability to do what's right. There's a line that has to be walked."

Except for a 2007 arrest after an auto accident in Kutztown, where he was studying criminal justice at the university - he pleaded guilty to not having insurance and paid for damage to the other car - Harden has walked that line since.

He graduated from Kutztown and began studying for the Law School Admission Test.

But life had more knocks. In April 2007, a month before he graduated from college, Harden's mother died at 49 of complications of HIV. A month later, Harden's father died of lung cancer at 49.

Harden was now the sole support of himself - and two brothers. It's a role he has fulfilled through law school and today.

Brother Reggie, 20, is studying finance at Millersville University. Brother Darryn, 18, is at the Freire Charter School in Center City and hoping to go to the University of Maryland.

As tough as life has been, Harden says, he looks to the hard times for perspective: "My father brought in $11,000 a year. If I can't make it on $60,000 or so, something is wrong."

Meanwhile, Harden said, he "wants to be a prosecutor for a long time. . . . I want to be part of what people will say was one of the elite times in the D.A.'s Office."

Contact staff writer Joseph A. Slobodzian at 215-854-2985 or jslobodzian@phillynews.com.