'Jailhouse Lawyer' Lectures Harvard Law Students

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.

He pled guilty to both charges. But an affidavit from his attorney shows O'Bryant was advised that by taking the plea he would be eligible for release after 25 years behind bars. He was actually signing on to life in prison, without chance of parole.

"He had a public defender who was overworked and gave him bad advice," says Daniel Farbman, the editor in chief of the Harvard Civil Rights Civil Liberties Review. "No one would take a plea bargain to the maximum sentence for the crime."

Public defenders say mistakes are more likely because the system is overwhelmed. According to the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, in some states, "It's not unusual to see public defenders carrying 300 to 500 felony cases a year, which means the average these attorneys may be spending is around four hours a case including cases that go to trial."

O'Bryant was determined to change those odds. He taught himself the law and is now teaching law students a lesson that can't be found in any textbook.

"We have to deal for the rest of our lives with what happens in that courtroom," he says. "And it's very important that they do what they can."

"He's reminded us of how important it is to really provide adequate meaningful counsel for those who are unable to obtain it," says Harvard Law student Lauren Smith, who's class has been lectured by O'Bryant.

O'Bryant's presence at Harvard has transformed the career goals of many students.

"They're giving up Wall Street, high salaries and all sorts of professional prestige and praise, to make sure that what happened to Chris O'Bryant does not happen on their watch," says Ogletree, the students' professor.

"I think it's something my career in the law is going to be focused on, is trying to find ways to give people a voice that don't have voices," adds Farbman, the review editor.

O'Bryant taught himself the law, filing handwritten appeals from behind prison walls. When his efforts failed, he focused his attention on helping fellow inmates appeal their own cases.

Jessica Feierman, formerly a lawyer with the ACLU's National Prison Project, reviewed O'Bryant's article, and says his case is typical.

"Prisoners have an amazing amount of procedural obstacles to deal with," she says. "Whether or not they get heard in court doesn't turn on the merits of their cases … it just doesn't matter if you have a good case or not."

O'Bryant's mother, Brenda O'Bryant, is incredibly proud of her son's accomplishments, even if he's achieved his greatest success from behind bars.

"He's tried to remain optimistic," she says, "and … he loves the law, and has … hopefully helped people in the process."

She says of his law review article, "Even if it doesn't help him, maybe it will help someone else. Until you're involved in the court system, you just don't know. We thought everything works the way it's supposed to, but it doesn't."