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From Defendant To Defender: Theo Shaw, One Of The Jena 6, Is Now Officially A Lawyer

Days before he completed the University of Washington School of Law, Theo Shaw told me by phone about the job he once had at Garan Inc., a manufacturing plant in Jena.

Well, Shaw had had that job until he was named as one of six Jena High School students. “Then,” he said, “I got out and tried to get a job there, and they wouldn’t hire me.” The funniest part of the story wasn’t the idea of Shaw – whose potential as an attorney appears limitless – being denied employment at a plant in his tiny hometown. The funniest part was Shaw’s admission that, 12 years after he had worked there, he was still in the dark about what Garan does.

“I don’t actually know what they do,” he said.

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“They just made me make boxes.

I don’t actually know what they put in the box. I was just making boxes.” Shaw has been more focused since then. There was community college, then university, then work with the Innocence Project New Orleans and the Southern Poverty Law Center, then law school in Seattle and a clerkship with Louisiana Chief Justice Bernette Johnson. And then passing the bar in the District of Columbia.

Friday morning (April 26), inside the courtroom at the Louisiana Supreme Court, Chief Justice Johnson administered Shaw’s oath of admission to the bar, and many of the people who have supported him over the years were there to see him be sworn in.

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There was Rob McDuff, the attorney who came to his rescue in Jena, negotiated his no-contest plea to a misdeed and helped him get the case expunged.

There was Emily Maw, senior counsel for Innocence Project New Orleans, and Calvin Duncan, one of many railroaded Shaw met at Angola when he worked for IPNO.

There was Katie Schartzmann, formerly the managing director of the local SPLC office, and Danise Jackson, the organization’s office manager. Derwyn Bunton, the head of the Orleans Parish Public Defenders Office was there with his two daughters. And of course, members of the staff of the Supreme Court. After Johnson swore him in, and all his supporters squeezed in together for photos, Shaw and I shared a laugh about his box-making days.

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Most of the columns I’ve written about Shaw have asked readers to imagine him being found guilty.

Think of what we’d have lost, I’ve argued. And think about how, because he would have been their, we would never have become aware of how much we’d lost.

As remarkable a person as he is, it’s been my hope that Shaw’s story can help us imagine the intelligence and potential of those who remain incarcerated. Maybe if we can imagine greatness from them, we’d be less likely to support policies that deny them second chances.

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But as much as I shudder at the thought of him being their, I shudder almost as much at the thought of him spending his life assembling boxes for products unknown.

Not because there’s anything wrong with such work but because it’s not the work Shaw was called to do. He was working with no sense of purpose back then. His purpose couldn’t be clearer now.

This Article Was First Published on “expo.nola.com

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