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From Moot Court to Criminal Court: A Former Law Student’s Harrowing Experience Before a Kangaroo Court

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From Moot Court to Criminal Court: A Former Law Student’s Harrowing Experience Before a Kangaroo Court

by Cyrus Leigh

April 27, 2021

In January 2017, my life was not unlike the countless law students who had gone before me.  I was well on my way to completing my Juris Doctor, and I had recently moved closer to the law school, where I was spending six out of seven days a week.  The Spring semester began, and I was 21 credits shy of earning my degree.

Then, my life forever changed. 

I received a phone call informing me of an accusation against me, a reprehensible form of abuse against my nieces, aged just three and four-and-a-half years old at the time.  After the call, I was in a state of complete shock and disbelief.  I contacted my family and later a close friend, a child psychologist, to try to make sense of what I had just heard.

Fortunately, I had the full support of lifelong friends, family, fellow law students, and law professors to stand by me throughout the process – as they still do today – in what I can only describe as a living nightmare.

A few hours later, the police were at my door.  I agreed to answer their questions at the station, and afterward, they drove me home and shook my hand.  As I walked into my building, I failed to recognize what was happening, nor could I foresee the almost four-year-long road that lay ahead of me.  As one of my professors had succinctly put it, I was being “railroaded.”

For the next few weeks, I was in a daze.  I met with an attorney who, after speaking with the detective, assured me that charges were not imminent.

However, a month later, that all changed.  I was asked to surrender myself and criminally charged.  I tried to remain calm, fully knowing a grievous mistake was made and expecting someone would soon rectify it.  A family member and attorney told me I would receive bail and return home in a day or two to figure out this mess, but then I recalled the first attorney with whom I met informing me about a recent change in New Jersey’s bail law.  To add even more perplexity to a bizarre situation, I learned the prosecutor would be seeking my pretrial incarceration at a forthcoming detention hearing.

Ten days after being held in a solitary cell, just a month after I stood in moot court, I found myself standing in a real court.  Instead of playing the role of a prosecutor donned in a suit in front of my classmates as I had only weeks earlier, I was now a prisoner dressed in chains, shackled among other inmates.

Instead of a class exercise having professors judge my advocacy skills about a hypothetical case, I stood in front of friends and family, being falsely accused of the most heinous and vile crimes, facing 25 years to life imprisonment, and deemed by a real judge – under a two-month-old bail reform statute, enacted to afford non-monetary conditions of pretrial release to low risks like myself – that because there was clear and convincing evidence of my dangerousness or flight risk, I had to be preventatively detained pretrial and thus sent back to the dungeon.

The prosecutor had argued for, and the judge ordered my detention, despite no evidence against me; dozens of letters of support submitted from family, friends, law students, and professors; three friends testifying to my good character and, most importantly, complete factual innocence.  Moreover, it was precisely due to my lack of a criminal record that the state’s pretrial risk assessment determined I was the lowest possible risk for pretrial release.

It was only months later that I learned the state’s proposed pretrial order recommended my release on home detention and electronic monitoring – an important document that failed to surface during my detention hearing.

Within a month, I went from moot court to criminal court; two cases, the latter just as false and fabricated as the former, yet with catastrophic consequences.  I witnessed first-hand a fictitious case develop around me, only to later envelop me whole.  There are no words that can ever adequately describe that day or the years that have since followed, yet I suppose the most overused but apt term is Kafkaesque.

Nine months after my arrest on false charges, indicted, and facing 25 years to life, the state offered me a plea deal to time-served.  I was speechless.

I had naïvely assumed a proper investigation would exonerate me, that the state would dismiss all charges, and I would receive an apology.  I maintained my composure and sanity for months with this expectation.

A few weeks later, my attorney told me that the prosecutor would dismiss all the original (sexual) charges and amend two counts in the indictment from sexual endangering the welfare of children to non-sexual endangering, something I was neither accused of nor indicted on.  The factual basis of that offense (and my conviction) is “the habitual use by the parent or by a person having the custody and control of a child, in the hearing of such child, of profane, indecent or obscene language.”  Again, I was astonished.

But after consulting with my family and counsel, we decided that it was in my best interest to accept the offer because, as we know, juries sometimes find innocent people guilty of the crimes they were charged with but had not committed.

And so, I accepted fault for cursing “in the hearing” of my nieces – and I went to prison.

After being intentionally misclassified by the prison and twice denied release by the parole board, the decisions all resting on the dismissed charges and not my actual conviction, I finally returned home in August 2020, after serving over two years in prison.

Sadly, I recently discovered that my conviction does not qualify for expungement, notwithstanding my former attorney’s assurances.  Moreover, despite the Assistant Dean of my former law school’s assurances to my family, I learned that I would not be permitted to re-enroll and complete the final 21 credits required to earn the degree.

Thus, I have lost a substantial investment, years of my life (and so much more), and earned instead of a degree in law, a permanent criminal conviction – all because of one person’s malice and a prosecutor’s lack of integrity.