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Ex-Con Yale Law Grad To Yet Again Prove To His Jailers He Can Practice As Attorney

By Published August 09, 2017

Reginald Dwayne Betts is a convicted felon who after doing time for carjacking in his teens, worked hard at retracing his steps, went on to graduate from Yale Law School and even won acclaim as a poet.

However, his suitability to practice law in the state of Connecticut is being called to question as the state’s Bar Examining Committee want him to prove his “good moral character” before he is allowed to practice law.

Betts passed the state bar exam in February, but a panel of judges and lawyers that decides who joins the state bar flagged his file because of three felony convictions for a carjacking he committed two decades ago as a teenager.

They are now going to hold a hearing on Betts’ bid for admission to the bar. Most states including Connecticut does not prohibit felons from becoming attorneys, but a felony conviction creates a presumption that the applicant lacks “good moral character and/or fitness to practice law.” Such applicants must prove otherwise by “clear and convincing evidence.”

“It’s an honour to represent this young man, he has a résumé that is absolutely breath-taking. He personifies what people talk about when they speak of second chances.” Said Betts lawyer William Dow III.

Betts, 36, who has been working for the state public defenders’ office in New Haven, grew up in Suitland, Md., near Washington, D.C., and was convicted of a carjacking at a Virginia mall when he was 16. He served eight years in prison. He went on to graduate from the University of Maryland, win a Harvard University fellowship and earn a Yale law degree.

He has written two books of poetry that received good media reviews while a third book, “A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison,” won Betts a 2010 NAACP Image Award. He also is now married with two children.

Only three states — Kansas, Mississippi and Texas — ban felons from becoming lawyers, according to the National Conference of Bar Examiners. Many states have “good moral character” standards similar to those in Connecticut.

Former Connecticut Judge Anne Dranginis, chairwoman of the Connecticut Bar Examining Committee, said she could not discuss specific cases. She said the panel has approved convicted felons in the past, but it is not a common occurrence.

“It is not an automatic disqualifier,” she said of a felony conviction.

Felons applying to become lawyers have mixed results. The Ohio Supreme Court last year rejected a request to become a lawyer by John Tynes, who served prison time after repeatedly trying to meet girls for sex, but said he could reapply in 2018. Also in Ohio, in the late 1990s, the same court allowed convicted murderer Derek Farmer to become a lawyer, which upset law enforcement officials.

In 2013, the Washington state Supreme Court allowed convicted bank fraud felon and former Colorado State University football player Cleodis Floyd to become a lawyer after the state Bar Association held a hearing on his character.

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