In not many days we will know whether James Hamm’s long climb will end in his admission to the Arizona bar.
The clock began ticking in 1999, when Hamm passed his bar exam. It stops next month, when the Arizona Supreme Court must decide whether he will become a lawyer.
If he does, the old hands won’t exactly roll out the red carpet. In fact, they’re waving red flags.
Over the weekend, the Associated Press learned about a letter from the State Bar of Arizona’s board of governors to the Supreme Court’s character and fitness review committee. The letter is confidential for now. People in the know, however, told AP that the bottom line is this: First-degree murder doesn’t quite go with a career in law, even if the murder was long ago.
There’s a certain logic to that.
Most crimes can be recovered from. Stolen goods are found or replaced. While some crimes haunt their victims for years, in most cases life does go on.
Not so with murder. Willard J. Morely Jr. is just as dead now as he was in the seconds after Hamm shot him in a 1974 drug rip-off near Tucson.
He has been dead all through Hamm’s 18 years in prison and through his controversial parole. All through Hamm’s law studies at Arizona State University and the controversies over whether he could teach there.
Hamm, in numerous interviews, has never expressed anything but remorse. And always said he has tried to live, in the years following the crime, in a way that would honor the memory and name of his victim. And there has been not the faintest public hint of wrongdoing on his part since he first went behind bars.
Over the years, some have accused Hamm of gaming the system. But if that were the case, it seems he would have shown his true colors by now. If we truly believe in rehabilitation, Hamm would be a poster boy.
That said, the bar’s letter surely will carry a lot of weight with the high court, which must consider several potentially disqualifying factors in weighing candidates. The first is “unlawful conduct.”
That may be mitigated by other factors, such as “the applicant’s age, experience and general level of sophistication at the time of the conduct;” “the recency of the conduct,” its seriousness and the applicant’s level of candor.
Those would seem to weigh in Hamm’s favor, but perhaps not enough.
If the court says no, it will be saying, in effect, that rehabilitation is fine, but that some acts are so grievous that society must impose certain permanent sanctions; there are certain lines that offenders, no matter how remorseful, may never cross.
If Hamm has to live with that, he of all people can find solace in knowing that some fates are far worse.