Edward Martell was back in Wayne County Circuit Judge Bruce Morrow’s courtroom. The same courtroom where his life changed in 2005, when he was facing up to 20 years in prison for drug charges.
But this time, Martell was experiencing a whole new range of emotions. He wasn’t back as a defendant — Martell, the recent Detroit Mercy Law grad was being sworn in as a member of the Michigan Bar. It was the culmination of a challenge Morrow gave Martell nearly 16 years earlier.
“Any other judge would have flushed me. I would be in prison,” Martell said. “I would have a number. I may have never rebounded. I was 27-years-old, so I was pretty stuck in my ways. He issued me a challenge instead.”
Morrow challenged Martell to be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company instead of being a drug dealer, giving Martell three years’ probation instead of sending him to jail.
“I took him up on it,” Martell said of the challenge. “He’s my hero. The guy is phenomenal. He’s just a unique character. He sees something in almost all of his defendants. It’s just a matter of who is going to take that opportunity and run with it.
“His judicial philosophy is really what the story is here. I’ve made some substantial changes, but his judicial philosophy is I think something that other judges should consider. He sees the best in people. I think especially when you talk about non-violent drug offenses, there shouldn’t be a tendency to want to incarcerate. I took a couple early bumps and bruises, but eventually I caught my stride.”
Martell was a high school dropout, so his first step was getting a GED. He then enrolled at Wayne County Community College and earned an associate’s degree.
Martell started searching for schools to earn his bachelor’s degree, with his ultimate goal being law school. Detroit Mercy was at the top of Martell’s list because it had a law school and it would accept the most transfer credits.
Being able to transfer credits was important for Martell because like any other student, he didn’t want to lose any time, but he was also on a budget. Growing up in poverty in Inkster had led him down the path of becoming a drug dealer and despite Martell’s good intentions, he likely needed a miracle to be able to afford college.
Luckily for Martell, Detroit Mercy had that miracle in the form of the Jesuit Founders’ Scholarship.
“They gave me a full academic scholarship,” Martell said. “At that age, I was grown but I was still struggling. I was only a few years out of the streets, so I needed that boost. Detroit Mercy saved me. It was everything, I didn’t know how I was going to pay for college. I couldn’t imagine getting my education without the assistance of Detroit Mercy. I’m grateful, very grateful.”
Martell earned a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science in 2014 and had his heart set on law school. Martell had been working at Detroit Mercy Law as a work study student and wanted to attend. But there was no guarantee he would be admitted because of his criminal record and even if he did get in, Martell wasn’t sure how he was going to pay for it.
“When you apply, you gotta come to terms with your character and fitness history,” Martell said. “I had to have a ‘Come to Jesus’ moment with myself and pour myself out in the admissions letter. Let them know, I had issues in my past and that’s one of the reasons that I want to practice law, to bring about change and help young men and women not go through the same issues. Ultimately, I was accepted and I was ecstatic.
“Then about a week later they called me in and gave me a Fellowship Award, a full academic scholarship and I was just in awe. I was just praising the Lord at that point. Detroit Mercy has been so generous to me.”
The classroom proved to be the easy part; it was outside of the classroom where he began to truly learn how to become a lawyer.
“I was blessed to go University of Detroit Mercy, but when I got there I wasn’t prepared for the social fit,” Martell said. “I was up in age and I come from the streets. Detroit Mercy Law helped to polish me into the professional that I am today. They taught me how to walk, how to talk.
“A lot of these professional events, some students don’t go to them, I go to them. They taught me how to shake with my right hand and hand my card in my left hand, how to never drink at an event — I wasn’t drinking anyway but you carry a glass because you don’t want to look awkward. But you don’t want to be that fool everybody talks about the next day either. There’s so much I learned from them. It’s way more than academics, I learned how to be a professional.”
Martell was on his way to earning his law degree, but even then, there was no guarantee he would become a lawyer. Before he could even take the bar exam, he had to pass the state’s character and fitness test.
Martell said he submitted more than 1,200 pages and had three witnesses.
“After about six hours, they deliberated for about 15 minutes and they gave me a favorable recommendation, and I just sobbed like a baby,” Martell said. “That was the win right there, not the bar exam. That was the victory and I sobbed like a baby. I’ll never forget that day.”
Martell passed the bar exam and then was sworn in by Morrow in his courtroom, a place Martell spent a lot of time in over the years.
“I’ve sat in his court room probably 100 times since. I would come back and observe his court room,” Martell said. “The guy is very unique, he’s exciting to watch. Just the way he talks to defendants. He sparked something in me. I can’t give enough thanks. I told him, ‘God saved me, but he used you.’ All Judge Morrow asks of me is to pay it forward. He says, ‘Ed, bring some people with you. Reach down and bring them with you.’ That’s our duty, it’s our job.”
Since being sworn in, Martell’s story — first reported by Deadline Detroit — has sparked national attention, being reported by outlets like FOX News, CNN and the Washington Post.
“With all the media attention, I think it’s important to share my story while we can,” Martell said “And I’ll tell you why, there’s some young man out there who is struggling and I feel with the right love and the right opportunity, that young man or young woman could make something of themselves. Not everyone is going to be an attorney, but they can be a skilled tradesman, they can be a CDL driver, they can be an entrepreneur, there’s a hundred things. I just don’t want people to think just because we come from a place or because we grew up without a father or because we have a past criminal record, that we can’t.”
He’s already begun that work as an attorney at Perkins Law Group in Detroit.
“It’s been a hard-fought battle, but we won,” Martell said. “And now, a new battle begins. The battle now is to reshape and reframe the narrative. There’s good folks out here. Everybody makes mistakes, right? Now, I have the tools to help. Before, I had the passion, now I have the tools to get into the fight. And if I can ever do anything to be of service for Detroit Mercy, I’m there. That’s what Detroit Mercy is about, service. How ever I can be of service, I’m anxious for the invite.”
By Dave Pemberton