Perseverence & Justice
On December 8, 2015, William Justin Graham walked out of the Dixon Correctional Institute in Jackson, Louisiana, and into the arms of his mother and family. Justin had been incarcerated for seven years, first at the St. Tammany parish jail and then at Dixon. For the first time in seven years, Justin would sit at a table and break bread with his family. For the first time in seven years, Justin would sleep in his own bed, in his own home. His freedom is the result of a young Public Defender who refused to allow the State the opportunity to take away a young man’s life.
On February 9, 2009, Justin, a nineteen year old boy with no prior criminal record, was arrested and booked into the St. Tammany parish jail in Covington, Louisiana. The State charged Justin with Aggravated Incest of a child under the age of thirteen, a crime which in Louisiana mandates a sentence of twenty-five to ninety-nine years, with at least twenty-five years to be served without the benefit of probation or parole, not to mention sex offender registration for life. For the next three years, Justin was “represented” by appointed counsel who did nothing. There was one jail visit during that time and one motion, a Bond Reduction which was denied. There were, however, numerous defense continuances filed. Quite simply, Justin had no one fighting for him. For all intents and purposes, he had been forgotten. One can only imagine the hopelessness this boy experienced during that time.
On November 5, 2012, things changed quite a bit for Justin. On that day, he appeared in court with David Anderson, a Public Defender who had been admitted to the Louisiana bar two weeks earlier. After almost four years of languishing in the parish jail, Justin was finally represented by an attorney who recognized Justin’s humanity and promised to go to war on his behalf.
I was lead counsel at trial, but it was David who did the heavy lifting. He had developed a relationship with Justin and his family and was able to regain their trust after their experiences with the previous attorney. David identified legal issues and made sure I had the analysis and research needed to address those issues. We faced a prosecutor who would do anything for a conviction and a judge who gave the prosecutor his full support. At the end of the trial, the jury returned a verdict of guilty to a “lesser offense” which, unbeknown to the jurors, actually carries the same draconian penalties as the original charge. At sentencing, David, Justin, and I stood together as the judge sentenced Justin to fifty years at hard labor, the first twenty-five without the benefit of probation or parole. Under Louisiana law, Justin would be at least sixty-one years old before he would be eligible to walk out of prison.
David Anderson would have none of it. The next day he appeared in my office and informed me that, in the event the appellate project did not secure relief on Justin’s behalf, he would take the case to the state Supreme Court and, if that failed, he would pursue post conviction relief. When the appellate court affirmed the conviction, David filed writs which, to my surprise, were granted. Briefs were filed, mock oral arguments were held. When Justin’s case came before the Supreme Court, I, along with Justin’s family, watched a young Public Defender deliver an impassionate and outstanding oral argument. He not only argued the law of the case, he introduced Justin Graham to the justices. He made certain the justices knew that they were deciding the fate of a real person, a human being, not simply a docket number.
On October 14th, I received a simple text: “We won.” What David had not included in his text was the final sentence in the Court’s decision: “For the reasons above, the matter is remanded to the trial court to enter a post-verdict judgment of acquittal. REVERSED AND REMANDED.” There would be no re-trial; Justin was going home.