There is a proverb that says it takes a thief to catch a thief, but does it take a felon to prosecute one?
In Monroe County, they are testing that proverb with the appointment of Ryan Martin as an assistant state’s attorney.
“Based on my review of the facts, I firmly believe that after paying the price for his actions, Mr. Martin turned his life around and has become a success story of reformation,” said State’s Attorney Chris Hitzemann, who was elected in November and appointed Martin.
Martin was charged in Madison County with four felony burglary charges in 1998 and 1999. In Monroe County, he was charged with one count of residential burglary. He was 17 and 18 at the time of the charges. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years in prison.
“I disclosed the mistakes I made in high school to my law school, both the Missouri and Illinois state bars, to every employer I have ever had and have been very open about it, in general,” Martin said in an email. “ … I have never attempted to conceal these facts to any person I have ever encountered in my life and have been very open about my past mistakes in high school.
“My faith is a big part of who I am and Jesus Christ is the reason why I am a different person today. Anyone who knows me knows that I am not the same person.”
A felony conviction can affect an applicant’s admission to law school and to the bar of the state where they intend to practice. But there are ways applicants with criminal convictions in their backgrounds can be accepted.
Martin attended Liberty University School of Law in Virginia. The school’s dean, Keith Faulkner, was not the dean when Martin was admitted in 2006. The law school does not make a routine practice of conducting criminal background checks on applicants, but noted that applicants are asked about their backgrounds and must certify their answers.
“ … If today an applicant has identified a conviction, particularly a felony conviction, a member of the Admissions Committee conducts a personal interview with the applicant regarding the matter of character and fitness for admission to Liberty Law School and our admissions team apprises them of the importance of determining the applicable character, fitness and other requirements for admission to the bar in each jurisdiction in which they intend to seek licensure,” Faulkner wrote in an email.
I disclosed the mistakes I made in high school to my law school, both the Missouri and Illinois state bars, to every employer I have ever had and have been very open about it, in general. I have never attempted to conceal these facts to any person I have ever encountered in my life and have been very open about my past mistakes in high school.
Monroe County Assistant State’s Attorney Ryan Martin
Regina Kwan Peterson, the administrator for the Illinois Board of Admissions to the Bar, could not speak directly to Martin’s case, but said a person with a criminal background can go before a Character and Fitness Committee, which will make the decision on whether to allow the person to be licensed to practice law in the state.
“It’s one a case-by-case basis,” Peterson said.
Disclosure is the key, Peterson said. Although the Illinois Bar does background checks, Peterson said it matters when an applicant doesn’t reveal past convictions.
“That’s a dealbreaker. Not being honest and forthcoming. Usually, we find out and failing to disclose doesn’t look good,” she said.
Martin worked as a law clerk for the Alabama Supreme Court before getting his law license in Missouri in 2009. He worked in private practice before going to work for the Missouri State Public Defender’s Office in 2012. He tried 17 cases in front of juries, including first-degree and second-degree murders, involuntary manslaughter, rape and robbery.
“The Missouri and Illinois bars make the determination whether prospective attorneys have the good moral character and general fitness to practice law,” said Hitzemann, the Monroe County state’s attorney. “Both states examined Mr. Mart and found him fit.”
Hitzemann said his assistant has had no ethical complaints since he was licensed and brings impressive credentials and trial experience to the office.
At other prosecutors’ offices in the area, an assistant can be fired for a driving under the influence charge or a felony, but Hitzemann said Martin’s past is just that — his past.
“In considering Mr. Martin for the part-time assistant position, I weighed his prior convictions as a teenager with his accomplishments as an adult and legal professional and determined that he is more than capable of serving our community,” Hitzemann said.
But should Hitzemann be required to disclose Martin’s criminal past to the defense lawyers he opposes?
Hitzemann and Martin don’t think so.
“The poor choices I made in high school do not affect my role as a prosecutor. I took an oath to uphold the Illinois Constitution and the Constitution of the United States of America. The reason why I took this job is to make a difference in my community,” Martin said.
Neither does one legal ethics expert.
“If I were a criminal defense counsel, I might try to use it subtly to my client’s advantage: ‘You were given a chance and turned your life around. … How about a similar chance for my client?’ But, again, this would likely be something criminal defense lawyers would come to know in the ordinary course of things,” St. Louis attorney Michael Downey said.
Under very narrow circumstances would a prosecutor’s criminal background be a cause for an appeal? If the prosecutor committed a crime in the past with a defendant.
“But, again, I would anticipate the circumstances would be pretty limited and would be similar to what every prosecutor might encounter based on their family, school and other history and connections,” Downey said.
Martin, a husband and father of two, said he intends to use his position to help battle the drug epidemic in Monroe County
“I hope that people hear this story and know you don’t have to be the same person that people tell you that you once were. You don’t have to be the same person you were in high school. You can change and make a difference in your community, and that is exactly what I plan to do,” Martin said. “I am thankful and blessed to have been given this opportunity.”