The State Vs. James Hamm

Should A Convicted Murderer Be Allowed To Practice Law?

Should a convicted murderer be allowed to practice law?

When 60 Minutes first broadcast this story in 1994, that question was being fiercely debated in Arizona, especially at the law school at Arizona State University, where convicted murderer James Hamm was then a law student.

Hitting the books at the law library at Arizona State, James Hamm could have been any first-year law student. But a year before Correspondent Mike Wallace first met him, he was doing a 25-year-to-life sentence at the Arizona State Prison for murder.

Back in 1974, Hamm was an unemployed drifter, a small-time drug dealer, when he and an accomplice shot two men in the back of the head at point-blank range during a bungled robbery.

Hamm pleaded guilty to avoid the death penalty, and once in prison, he said he vowed to make the most of the life he had left, even if it was going to be a life behind bars.

Hamm told Wallace a decade ago that he made this decision the day after he went to prison: "As far as I was concerned, that was what my job was. I didn't mind going to prison. I felt that a life sentence wasn't unjust, given the murder that I had done."

Hamm served 17 and a half years behind bars before being released, and then he traded that setting for the law school at Arizona State.

Dean Richard Morgan said Hamm certainly had an excellent academic record. But he was also "clearly a murderer."

"The admissions committee knew about his background because he had revealed his background in his application in some detail," said Morgan. "And his letters of recommendation had spoken in some detail about his background. ...They [the admissions committee] finally said, 'We think he's well-qualified for admission to this law school.'"

Hamm may be qualified, but some Arizonans were miffed by the fact that since the law school at Arizona State is publicly funded, it is mostly taxpayers' money financing Hamm's legal education. And his college education, which he got while he was in prison, was free of charge.

Attorney Gen. Grant Woods said: Enough. "All he did to take and take and take from the taxpayer and the public is pull a trigger and blow a man's head off. And ever since then, we've been supporting him and everything that he's wanted to do for, now, almost 20 years."

Why does Hamm think his admission to law school had generated so much controversy?

"I don't think it has anything to do with James Hamm at all. I think the controversy just focuses on James Hamm," said Hamm. "But I think what's really going on is that people's feelings about the criminal justice system, about crime and recidivism, and reintegration and rehabilitation, those feelings are right underneath the surface. I think that my admission really touches on that."

But Woods was not convinced: "Can a man who plans an execution, who carries out that execution in a cold-blooded fashion, knows what he's doing? Can that sort of person, 20 years later, turn their life around? Now, I think they can turn it around, but I also think we have a right to be skeptical."

And even if Hamm should finish law school at the top of his class, Woods believed that Hamm's criminal background should disqualify him from admission to the bar.

"If there's a murderer practicing law there, I think that's a mistake. Within the legal profession, we ought to be able to have some standards, I would think," says Woods. "And one standard - this is kind of a crazy notion, a wild idea - that maybe one standard we would have in the legal profession is that if you commit a cold-blooded murder, you're not going to be admitted to practice law. I think we might aspire to that."

He said all that back in 1994. So did convicted murderer James Hamm ever get to practice law? What's happened in the last decade?

Today, Hamm lives in the Phoenix area, where he works as a paralegal at a local law firm. He graduated from law school in 1997, but controversy found him once again the following year, when Arizona State University offered Hamm a teaching job in the School of Justice Studies.

"As soon as the information came out in the newspaper, sort of headline information in the newspaper, there was a fairly large public outcry about that," says Hamm. "And during the day, I received a telephone call, telling me that they needed to break that contract."

Hamm still has plenty of work. When he's not at the law firm, he spends his time working with his wife Donna, a former judge, on prison reform issues through their organization called "Middle Ground." They have on several occasions successfully sued the State of Arizona on matters involving prisoners' rights.

And finally, what about Hamm becoming a lawyer? Hamm took the bar exam, and passed. So earlier this year, he formally submitted his application to the Arizona Supreme Court for admission to the bar, to finally become a lawyer. That has re-ignited the controversy for a lot of Arizonans who still believe that Hamm should not be permitted to practice law.

"There are people that like me, and there are people that don't like me, and there are people that think that I'd just like this guy to go away," says Hamm, who hopes for a decision about his application to practice law later this year.
But whether or not he is admitted to the bar, he says his work today is part of his penance.

"I found a way to pay back, and that makes me feel good about myself," says Hamm. "It makes me feel that my victim didn't die in vain. That I changed my life. That I am giving something back. That I'm not just a crime statistic. And that, more importantly, my victim is not just a crime statistic."
  • Rebecca Leung

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