NEW ORLEANS — Most new lawyers advocating for those in jail don't know what life behind bars is actually like. But Theo Shaw knows. He has gone from walking shackled through the halls of a Louisiana jail to walking across the stage at his law school graduation.
Many with Shaw's experience — spending about seven months in jail for something he's always insisted he didn't do — might vow to stay as far away from the legal system as possible. But Shaw is making the law and providing counsel to marginalized people his life's work.
"Any time I'm in a jail, any time ... I have to write a motion for a client, I feel myself in that situation again, so I'm always thinking about my experience and what I went through in the system," he said during a recent interview.
Shaw was one of six black students from the small town of Jena in central Louisiana who were arrested in 2006 and charged with attempted murder in the beating of a white student at their high school. The case of the Jena 6 triggered a national outcry and became a rallying point for the black community, outraged at the harsh treatment that could have sent the students to prison for decades.
Shaw, then 17, sat in jail for months, unable to come up with the bond.
He and four others eventually pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor simple battery charge. Under a no-contest plea, a defendant does not admit guilt but does not offer a defense. Shaw has always maintained his innocence, saying he was in no way involved in the fight. He said the no-contest plea was a way to put everything behind him and move on with his life.
Shaw remembers crying at night in his six-man cell, wondering when the ordeal would end.
"Even though you may not be a bad person, you may not be a criminal, people can treat you and make you feel as if you are a degrading, violent person. And I think jail initially had that impact on me," he said.
During that time, another inmate told Shaw he could write the judge. So he did. Shaw described how he would tell the judge "innocent reasons" why his bond should be reduced — he'd been nice to the guards or he needed to finish high school. The effort sparked an interest in the law.
After getting out of jail, he finished high school and went on to the University of Louisiana at Monroe. During college he interned at the Innocence Project New Orleans and after college, he worked for the Southern Poverty Law Center for three years, then attended law school at the University of Washington on a full scholarship. Last May, his fellow students chose him to speak at graduation. Now he's clerking for the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Louisiana and just passed the bar.
"Instead of allowing the trauma of this awful experience of spending seven months in jail to send him on a downward spiral, Theo really used it as a motivation to put himself in a position where he could help others avoid the sort of injustice that was perpetrated on him," his lawyer Rob McDuff said.
Katie Schwartzmann hired Shaw to work at the SPLC's New Orleans office, where he interviewed inmates at the city's historically troubled jail and met with children at a detention facility in Mississippi as part of separate lawsuits. She said he has a special understanding of the humanity of incarcerated people.
"I think seeing the youth, in particular, really touched Theo. He got what it meant to be a teenager and be locked up," she said.
Shaw said that, even for those wrongly convicted, relief will come only through the legal system. To help people, he must learn how the system works.
So he studies. Hard. Schwartzmann said he was generally the first one at the office, reading Supreme Court cases. He came to admire Bryan Stevenson, the head of the Equal Justice Initiative — an organization dedicated to criminal justice reform issues. Shaw said he's watched Stevenson's TEDTalk "maybe 30 times."
People often ask him why he wants to be a lawyer and he can't always explain except to say it's a product of all the experiences he's been through on both sides of the jail bars.
"I think when you've been as close to the system as I've been, as far as being in jail, and being in jail all day talking with people, being there when people are crying — grown men, kids ... I think it's hard not to care when you've been as close as I've been," he said.