'Jailhouse Lawyer' Lectures Harvard Law Students

ByABC News
December 17, 2006, 3:36 PM

Dec. 17, 2006 — -- Students at Harvard Law School learn from some of the finest legal minds in the world. But they can't always learn in a classroom the concrete ways their future work as attorneys may affect people's lives.

That's why they are riveted by a perspective in Professor Charles Ogletree's class delivered by a guest lecturer by speakerphone. He is speaking to them from prison, where he will remain for the rest of his life.

The voice belongs to Thomas "Chris" O'Bryant, inmate 124004 in the Florida Department of Corrections, who is a "jailhouse lawyer."

He taught himself the law so well that when he sent a handwritten submission to the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Review, its editors were blown away by his legal acumen. They published his article earlier this year.

Now he lectures law students about what "life inside" is like, and how justice is actually administered.

"You see the newspaper about prison life, but I think it's probably different actually hearing from someone who's dealing with it on a day to day basis, " O'Bryant says.

Scott Levy, one of the editors of the law journal that published O'Bryant's article, says that working with O'Bryant was "by far the best thing I've done at law school."

O'Bryant rails against the current state of our nation's prisons, using his own case as an example of justice gone awry. While he is not claiming to be innocent and accepts responsibility for his crime, O'Bryant doesn't think he got a fair shake in the legal process because he didn't have the right legal advice.

His saga began June 10, 1995, when he says he was high on drugs and stole $488 from a hotel. When he was pulled over by police afterwards, he fired into the darkness, striking an officer twice in the arm.

"He was crazy shooting at me," then-Deputy Sheriff Mike Holton says now. "I was holding a flashlight in my left hand; he was shooting at the flashlight -- that's all he could see."

O'Bryant was charged both with the robbery and the attempted murder of a law enforcement officer.