A story at the Wall Street Journal over the long holiday weekend caught my eye, A Solitary Jailhouse Lawyer Argues His Way Out of Prison:
For most of those 15 years, Mr. Collins, who maintained his innocence, knew the only way his wardrobe would change was if he did something that’s indescribably rare. He’d have to lawyer himself out of jail.
There was no crusading journalist, no nonprofit group taking up his cause, just Inmate 95A2646, a high-school dropout from Brooklyn, alone in a computerless prison law library.
On returning to Rikers Island, the city jail complex, Mr. Collins headed to the law library. There and later at Green Haven prison north of the city, he spent most of his free time in law libraries, pouring himself into legal books: "Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure," "McKinney’s Consolidated Laws of New York," "The Legal Research Manual."
A thick text for paralegals called "Case Analysis and Fundamentals of Legal Writing" became his bible. He devoted two months to mastering the intricacies of federal and state law on access to public records.
Four days before a scheduled hearing in Judge Irizarry’s federal court, the D.A.’s office offered to reduce the charge against Mr. Collins to manslaughter, allowing his immediate release.
Mr. Collins rejected the offer.
Rather than face accusations of prosecutorial misconduct in the course of Collins’ habeas proceeding, the D.A.’s office threw in the towel and let Collins go. He’s studying for the bar and working for the civil rights lawyer who later joined his cause.
The story has a Cinderella quality to it. There’s an old canard, mystifying to lawyers and non-lawyers alike, that "possession is nine-tenths of the law" (apparently a reference to the fact that, in general, the possessor of a property is presumed to be its rightful owner), but I think it’s more fair to say that "common sense is nine-tenths of the law."
No matter what the subject, from requests for public records to habeas petitions to the CAN-SPAM Act, in general the law makes sense. You might not agree with the law in question — there are plenty of statutes, regulations, and cases I find to be absurd, dishonest, or downright wrong — but figuring out what most laws mean is easy with a little basic legal knowledge and a lot of research on the particular law in question. Law is more an art than a science but, unlike most arts, it requires minimal technical knowledge. You can teach it to yourself.
But there’s a difference between Collins and your typical layman googling legal terms for a few hours. It’s the same difference between Dennis Gingold and your typical lawyer relying on their "experience," often a euphemism for "their gut" and unwillingness to hit the books. It’s Collins’ dedication, diligence, perseverance, and exhaustive approach to his own case. It has nothing to due with having a lot of time in prison; Leo Tolstoy, among the more industrious of modern writers, found no value in it at all, more than a few prisoners have learned helplessness in prison and devoted themselves to continual drug use or to settling scores with other inmates.
Collins’ story is one of losing, and losing, and losing again, and still fighting back, through every means available until, finally, his opponent, the government itself, cowered in fear.
It’s a lesson for all lawyers, even — especially? — those outside the jailhouse.