The judge's decision to give Edward Martell a chance to change his circumstances paid out big time when the 43-year-old swore in as a member of the State Bar of Michigan this month.
Edward Martell was a 27-year-old high school dropout when he first stood in Judge Bruce Morrow's Wayne County courtroom. He had been arrested in a drug sting in Dearborn Heights, Michigan, while out on bail and was looking at spending the next 20 years in prison for selling and manufacturing crack cocaine. Given his lengthy rap sheet that dated all the way back to his early teenage years, Martell knew it would be easy for anyone to look at his record and see nothing more than "a career criminal." However, while he saw himself as a lost cause, Judge Morrow had other plans for the man who stood before him.
What Morrow saw was a smart young man with a lot of untapped potential. "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 told The Washington Post about Martell, who is Latino. So, instead of throwing him behind bars for the next two decades, the judge gave Martell three years of probation and a challenge: Come back to the courtroom having achieved something he was proud of.
May 26, 2021
"It was kind of in jest, but he understood I believed he could be anything he wanted to be," the judge said. Nearly 16 years later, on May 14, Martell returned to Morrow's courtroom. With two lawyers and his family bearing witness, he stood before Morrow and raised his hand. "I, Edward Martell, do solemnly swear..." the 43-year-old began. After finishing the oath, the newly sworn member of the State Bar of Michigan hugged the man who had pushed him to take the reins of his life. "Ed has been in that courtroom at least 50 times in the past 15 years," Morrow said. "And he came in that day with the biggest smile on his face. He was just ready to pop."
Martell's journey to that emotional moment in Morrow's courtroom this month was by no means an easy one. Despite being given an unexpected second chance back in 2005, he found that he was set in his ways. He violated probation before his three-year term was completed. Yet, Morrow's faith in him and the challenge he'd been set, galvanized him and encouraged him to push forward. In 2008, he gathered the courage to go to community college and pursue a career in law. However, many discouraged him. "At that time I was just a felon with a dream," Martell said. "They advised me to [study] heating and cooling."
Detroit Judge Bruce Morrow gave a drug dealer a second chance. This month he starts practicing law. - @DeadlineDetroit https://t.co/nC1hG0M8yy @3rdccorg @waynecountymi pic.twitter.com/NpOgoyrOWE— MI Supreme Court (@MISupremeCourt) May 21, 2021
Paying no heed to naysayers, Martell graduated with an associate's degree and went on to earn academic scholarships from the University of Detroit Mercy for undergrad and law school. Later, he got a clerkship with the Federal Public Defender for the District of Columbia. He and Morrow stayed in touch over the years, speaking at least every two months as Martell tried to become the man Morrow saw in him.
"Morrow has always been one 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 in Detroit where Martell worked as a legal researcher — who knows both men personally and professionally. "They're still human beings and he treats them as such," he added. Speaking of Martell, Perkins said: "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."
Even after a decade of glowing academic success and solid work history, Martell faced his biggest hurdle yet when it was time for the character and fitness evaluation that's part of the state bar application process. Although for younger applicants without much work or life history this is often a minor step, Martell feared the evaluation of his criminal record in this process would doom everything he'd built so far. "The main thing they look for is candor. I let them know I am remorseful — that I'm downright embarrassed," Martell said. "I am the same person, but I don't think like that anymore. I've evolved."
With lawyers from the Perkins Law Group and Morrow as his advisers, Martell submitted a more-than-1,200-page application. After 15 minutes of deliberation, he got approval from the character and fitness board. "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," he said of the unforgettable moment. While Morrow is incredibly proud of what Martell has achieved, he does not take credit for it. Most failures, he said, are caused by people who need help but never get it. "There's no such thing in my mind as a self-made person," he said.