Making good on a second chance

Ex-con David Harris worked tirelessly to turn his life around and to help other prisoners. Now he's seeking to become a lawyer.

CBS

We don't always get a second chance in life, which is why an account of one man's turnaround is so intriguing to us. As Barry Petersen reports in our cover story, it all began with this letter in our inbox:

Inside the envelope was a typewritten letter that Melissa Harris wrote to us about her husband, David ... about his past.

"He was an ex-convict, imprisoned for seven years ..."

But also about the David of today.

"I've seen him work 50 to 60 hours a week at an office, attend law school three nights a week and travel throughout the state of Tennessee to teach pre-release classes to inmates who will soon re-enter our society."

The story intrigued us so much that we went to Nashville, Tenn., to find out more about the crime, the ex-con and the woman who loves him.

David Harris said, "You made me tear up" as Melissa read the letter. "That's the first time I've seen or heard that letter."

"What did you think about what she said?" Petersen asked.

"Very emotional and moving because that letter encapsulates not just a 10- or 12-year journey but probably a lifetime journey," he said.

Ex-con's second chance of life by CBS News on YouTube

At 39, David Harris' past is written on a million faces in prison ... raised by a single mother in a poor family, he turned good grades and football prowess into athletic and academic scholarships at a Tennessee state college.

But he couldn't hack it. He dropped out the first semester, worked a few jobs for several years, married, had a child, divorced.

Then he turned to alcohol and drugs and committed nine armed robberies within five weeks to feed his habit, holding up places like a Subway sandwich franchise.

He described the M.O.: "Typically, two or three individuals walk in the door. One, two, three, or none may actually have a gun to show."

"Did you ever have a gun to show?" asked Petersen.

"Occasionally."

"So, you were armed?"

"Sure, absolutely," Harris said.

"Tie people up?"

"Sometimes."

He was arrested in 1997 and sentenced to 20 years.

Petersen asked Harris what went through his mind when he walked into prison and the cell door slams: "Is your life over?"

"Definitely. In the early stages, that is the mindset - that door closes, and it probably will never open again," he said.

But David changed his story.

He took correspondence college courses in prison, getting halfway to a degree when he was paroled and walked out of the gate in 2004.

Two days later he found a full-time job cleaning up garbage at a restaurant and on his days off went to college full-time.

It was a second chance, and he vowed to make good, beginning by finishing college.

Then, four years of law school at night, while working as a paralegal and receptionist by day for a group of lawyers.

"I trust him explicitly," said Brett Gipson, a former cop and now an attorney. "It gives us a little bit of hope, you know? 'Cause so many of our cases just seem hopeless. The people seem hopeless, we do everything we can to sort of get them a second chance or get them a third chance sometimes, and they blow it, you know?

"This is a guy who did a horrible thing. He took his second chance and he's made the absolute best of it so far," Gipson said. "I know lawyers that wouldn't do as good a job as David will."

Two years ago Harris met Melissa when he responded to her posting on a free blog.

They got together, fell in love ... but he waited five months before telling her about his prison past.

She said she wasn't annoyed at all.

"I don't know if there's a protocol to follow to tell someone like that," said Melissa. "There's definitely no Hallmark card that says, 'By the way, I was in prison for a long time.'"

"Why so long?" asked Petersen. "Were you afraid that she'd walk away?"

"Of course," David said. "If this person with whom I'm sitting now knew my background, would they be talking to me? Would they be looking in the eye? Would they run away screaming? So that motivates your thought process in every new relationship."

But Melissa didn't walk away, and last October they were married.

Now she runs her own housecleaning business - money that helped when she decided to go back to college.

Like David, she became the first in her family to get a college degree, with a little push:

"One thing David takes away from you is an excuse, every time," she laughed. "Which is infuriating, but awesome. Because he says, 'Well, why don't you get your degree?' And so, like I like to do, I said, 'Well, we don't have any money.' And he said, 'Well, apply for a loan.' 'Well, I don't have the time.' 'You can make time, just go two days a week.'

"And everything you tell David, he's like, 'No, you can do it.' You know, he doesn't wanna hear your crap."And that is the message - no excuses - that David has taken into virtually every Tennessee prison for the last seven years.

"I am here to take away from you the excuse that ex-cons cannot make it," he told one gathering. "Nobody helped me with that stuff. Working. I'm still on parole. I'm right here as a parolee."

He shares how his then-3-year-old daughter visited him when he was in jail. He was behind thick glass. She thought he was like a snake in the glass cage at the zoo .... dangerous.

"Everything goes back to accountability," David Harris said. "I take accountability for putting her in that position at age 3. I take accountability for putting my mother in the position of bringing her to that filthy, stinking visitation room. I take accountability for the injuries I inflicted on the victims of my crime."

Victims ... that is his critical lesson.

Jim Cosby, assistant commissioner for rehabilitation services with the Tennessee Department of Correction, said, "You can be in one of the classes and see for the first time that they are talking about a victim. The first-time offender really realizes, 'I had a victim, I really did cause pain, I really did create havoc in the community.'"

By some estimates, up to two-thirds of ex-cons nationally end up back in prison within three years.

Tennessee's rate is only about one-third, and Cosby hopes Harris can help make it even lower.

"He's walked a mile in his shoes," Cosby said. "Been where they have been. They can directly relate. They know he's had the same experience."

David got his law degree in December. But the hurdles were not over.

With a now-pregnant Melissa cheering him on, David two weeks ago faced a hearing before the Tennessee Bar Association to decide if this ex-con was worthy ... if he has changed enough ... to be a lawyer, and thus be allowed to take the bar exam.

He knew judgment days like this come often for a man with a prison record. Melissa hoped David would just get his due.

The hearing was held behind closed doors ... as Melissa waited ... and waited.

"I am not a patient person," she said.

Until ... FINALLY ... the decision: Will they let him take the bar exam? Yes.

"Whoopee! I am so excited!" Melissa cheered.

Last week, David took the two-day Bar Exam. He will hear if he passed some time in the fall.

And, as always, he can handle success, but also face failure: "I will be father and a husband. I will go into a McDonald's and flip burgers if I need to, to put food on the table. I will dig ditches."

Someone once wrote that the darkness in life serves a purpose, to show us that there is redemption.

For David, prison was the darkness. Redemption was work and ambition, and finally, love.

As Melissa wrote us ...

"His is the most important story to tell ... that people do work tirelessly and against great odds to make amends for their burden to society."