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Jailhouse ‘lawyer’ gets rare nod from Supreme Court

Meg Kinnard

COLUMBIA, S.C. — While other prisoners are lifting weights or playing basketball, “jailhouse lawyer” Michael Ray is working 40 hours a week, his head buried in legal texts and journals as he helps fellow inmates file appeals. In and out of federal prisons for more than 20 years, he’s represented dozens of clients, with some success.

But recently, Ray reached an achievement rarely seen by even the most experienced of attorneys: The U.S. Supreme Court has scheduled oral arguments in one of his cases.

It’s something legal experts estimate the high court grants in less than 1 percent of the thousands of cases it receives each year, much less at the behest of a prison law clerk who earns 29 cents an hour and who has yet to complete his undergraduate degree through a correspondence course from behind bars.

“This is basically a once-in-a-lifetime [opportunity] for a good criminal defense attorney, so you can imagine I’m on cloud nine, with my background,” the 42-year-old Ray said with a laugh during a recent phone interview from a federal prison in Estill, about 100 miles south of Columbia.

That background has seen Ray in prison for much of his adult life for different financial frauds. A former paralegal, he’s now nearing the end of a six-year sentence handed down after he pleaded guilty to three fraud charges, which included passing a bad check for about $285,000 as part of a real estate financing scheme in Myrtle Beach. He went on the lam, was caught in Florida, and is the first to admit he’s no model citizen.

“I just have a real problem with financial institutions, and I’m a self-proclaimed addicted gambler,” said Ray, who was born in upstate New York but calls Myrtle Beach home.

In his job as a prison law clerk, Ray files petitions and writes motions for inmates who seek him out. He keeps current on legal issues by reading professional journals and has joined several legal associations, including the American Bar Association.

“They’re probably not super-proud to have me as a member, but I do pay my dues every year,” he said.

The case that’s drawn the interest of the U.S. Supreme Court involves a man named Keith Lavon Burgess, who is in prison for possession of crack cocaine with the intent to distribute. In Burgess’ appeal, which was rejected by lower courts, Ray argued that a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence should not have applied to Burgess because a prior drug conviction was a misdemeanor, not a felony. Conflicting court rulings have required 10-year sentences for people already convicted of misdemeanors, so a successful appeal could trim Burgess’ sentence in half.

Oral arguments are scheduled for March. They’ll be handled by Jeff Fisher, a Stanford University law professor appointed to shepherd the case through the U.S. Supreme Court system. Fisher, who also runs Stanford’s Supreme Court clinic, said he has been in touch with Ray and will keep him up to date on developments.

“It’s terrific that he was able to help Mr. Burgess,” said Fisher, who couldn’t recall another appeal written by a jailhouse lawyer for another inmate getting this far in the court system.

Although Ray will still be in prison when the case goes before the court, he said he feels good about its chances for success, in part because the justices have agreed to hear it.

“I’m not saying it’s a slam dunk, but this case is way up there on the charts as far as the Supreme Court granting [Burgess] relief,” Ray said.

Bill Nettles, a Columbia defense attorney who has had two cases reach the Supreme Court, said Burgess’ case may have a shot at winning because of recent sentencing guideline changes that aim to correct a disparity in the sentences handed down for crimes involving crack cocaine and powdered cocaine. He said Ray nailed a hot topic and obviously did a solid job on his legal brief.

“This Supreme Court will go down in history as one of the most conservative Supreme Courts, if not ever, then certainly of our lifetime, and for them to give that sort of time to someone who has no legal training, I think it speaks volumes about the quality the work this guy did,” Nettles said.

Whether he wins or not, Ray knows that even with formal legal training after prison, no state would allow him to take the bar examination and practice law. But he thinks he has found another way to put his legal skills to use. Ray said he plans to work for a South Carolina criminal defense firm doing legal consulting when he’s released in April.

“A person can truly accomplish whatever they set out to accomplish,” he said. “That can be good and bad. I’ve seen it as a double-edged sword here in prison, whether it comes to somebody trying to do the wrong things, or, in my case, trying to do the right things.”

Of one thing he’s sure, and that’s getting out of prison for good.

“I’m just getting too old for this,” Ray said. “I will not be back.”

(Associated Press)