Criminal law

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September 1, 2003 // UPDATED 11:03 am - April 30, 2007
By: Michael Metzger
Michael Metzger

Michael O'Connor was a petty hood. Now he teaches law at St. Thomas -- and is earning a national reputation for protecting civil liberties.

Michael O'Connor was a scared 24-year-old with a drug problem and a rap sheet studded with arrests. The Pennsylvania railroad engineer's kid who began drinking at age 8 had long since graduated to heroin and amphetamines. He got into fights and drug deals, and he was arrested more than once for both driving under the influence and assault.

"I was arrested probably 10 times," he said. "The only time I was arrested for something I did not do was [for] assault and battery and car theft."

Facing a court for the first time as an innocent young man, the case changed his life.

Today, the 45-year-old University of St. Thomas law professor has emerged as a nationally recognized expert on capital punishment and an authority on the legal ramifications of the Bush administration's fight against terrorism -- a personification, one administrator says, of the two-year-old law school's commitment to faith-inspired legal work for social justice.

However, O'Connor's road to acclaim began with a legal betrayal.

"Initially, I got a public defender to represent me," he remembered of his long-ago trial. "I became convinced -- which was a big mistake -- that I would be better off if I paid for a lawyer."

The 24-year-old hired an inexpensive private attorney, who represented him in a preliminary hearing. The week before trial, the attorney demanded full payment for his services and dumped his young client when the money wasn't promptly delivered. "He didn't show up when I had to go on trial for two felony charges," O'Connor said. "[The lawyer] had evidence that would have exonerated me."

The judge ordered O'Connor to defend himself, without legal training or knowledge of the law. The prosecutor offered the baffled defendant a plea agreement to plead guilty to the felony charges but walk out of court under probation.

"I felt under tremendous pressure to take the deal," he said.

However, through a series of flukes, including the key witness against him not showing up in court, the case was dismissed. O'Connor had escaped going to prison for crimes he

hadn't committed.

The fortuitous dismissal -- and later, court-ordered drug and alcohol rehabilitation after a probation violation -- turned O'Connor's life toward helping others in even more dire legal circumstances.

"The last thing I wanted was for them to say that I had to go to rehab. I went in kicking and screaming."

Eventually, he said he "went through a reassessment of my faith. I had been raised Catholic, but I'd gotten away from it and kind of rejected that part of my life."

After a month in rehab and six months in a halfway house, O'Connor decided to give college another try. (After high school, he'd attended the University of Pennsylvania for two years, focusing more on drugs and drinking than on his studies.)

"I'm in the halfway house, barely hanging on, just trying to get things together here with my addiction," he said. "And I'm nervous about leaving this place and being right back in my neighborhood with all of my friends who are junkies."

Instead of returning to the streets, he turned to Penn State, getting a four-year pre-law degree in just three years.

"People had always said I should be a lawyer because I like arguing with people," he said with a laugh. "But the experiences I had in court, the one with the lawyer who didn't show up and the other with the public defender getting me into rehab had a huge impact on me. I didn't want anyone else to be in the situation I had been in, where you go into court and nobody there is willing to fight for you."

Armed with a degree, a good grade-point average and a healthy amount of chutzpah, he applied to Yale Law School and was accepted despite his criminal record and history of substance abuse.

"They truly believe in diversity," he said. "They recognized that my background actually could be a positive, both for my career as a lawyer and for the education of the rest of the students."

Unlike many of his peers, he didn't have his eyes on the gold ring while at Yale. He didn't want a six-figure salary at a posh corporate law firm upon graduation. He wanted to fight for those facing the ultimate criminal sanction: the death penalty.

"The taking of human life always diminishes everyone in society," O'Connor said of his opposition to capital punishment. "In my mind, there's no justification for killing [prisoners]. It does not do anything to exalt the life they've taken."

While at Yale, he went to work for Millard Farmer ("the original anti-death-penalty guru"), who was fighting capital punishment across the South; especially Georgia. Two days after O'Connor arrived in Georgia, the state set an execution date for Freddie Davis, a man accused and convicted of murder. The case almost ended O'Connor's fledgling anti-death-penalty crusade.

"I swore I'd never do capital work again. This guy was about my age, he'd gotten involved in drugs at an early age...it was just too stressful," he said. "I started thinking about all the changes I had been through in all the years he'd been on death row and it totally freaked me out."

O'Connor stuck with the case, however, and he and the others on Farmer's team won the first-ever commutation of a Georgia death sentence.

"That high was so unbelievable," he said with a broad smile. "And I have an addictive personality. I was hooked."

He later spent three years in Alabama, working for the federally funded Alabama Capital Representation Resource Center. That's where he met Walter McMillian, a black man from Monroeville -- the town on which "To Kill a Mockingbird" was based -- who had been convicted in 1988 of murdering a young white woman. Along with attorney Bryan Stevenson, O'Connor investigated the odd case.

About a dozen people swore McMillian had been at a fish fry at the time of the killing (many of them testified at his two-day trial). Another oddity: There was no physical evidence linking McMillian to the crime. The only real evidence the state had -- enough for a conviction -- was the damning testimony of Ralph Myers, a white man accused of murder in a different case.

When Myers recanted his testimony against McMillian -- claiming a racist, corrupt county sheriff had coerced him into making false accusations -- O'Connor and Stevenson convinced the state to release the innocent man. (The case was featured on CBS-TV's "60 Minutes" in 1992.)

"You do get a feeling of having been tremendously empowered at that [kind of] moment," he said. "And the opposite is true when there's an execution. When your job is to protect somebody and the state takes them and kills them, that's the ultimate failure."

O'Connor has worked on scores of death-penalty cases, often without getting paid. He currently has a case in California and was just approached about taking Arizona's first federal death-penalty case.

O'Connor's appointment is a chance for UST's fledgling law school to walk the talk about its faith-based commitment to social justice; after all, the Catholic Church formally opposes the death penalty.

"Michael personifies the kind of professor we're seeking to recruit to the University of St. Thomas School of Law, as well as the kind of lawyer we hope to graduate," Thomas Mengler, dean of the two-year-old law school said. "Michael has been dedicated since he graduated from law school to using his law degree for the betterment of the underserved. He's deeply committed to his faith and to the individuals whom he has represented on death row and other circumstances."

Recently, O'Connor's work has shifted toward another life-and-death situation: the battle against terrorism. He and his wife, Celia Rumann, also a UST law professor, just published "Going, Going, Gone: Sealing the Fate of the Fourth Amendment," a scathing assessment of the Bush administration's antiterror efforts, in the Fordham International Law Journal.

He's disturbed by the administration's questioning, detainment, arrest and deportation of Muslims since 9/11 -- often he said, for reasons having nothing to do with terrorism. He also argues that the expanded federal powers granted under the USA PATRIOT Act diminish the constitutional rights of all Americans: "As long as you only deprive others of their civil liberties, some people will say 'I'm OK with it'."

Michael O'Connor isn't OK with it. Nor is he OK with the death penalty. He'll continue to fight against what he sees as an erosion of our rights and against what he sees as an inhumane act of violence committed by the state. And he'll continue to speak his mind.

"The death penalty is racially biased. We execute the mentally ill and we execute juveniles. We are among the most barbarous nations in the world in regard to our death-penalty policies."