Before SCHWELB,*fn1 Glickman and WASHINGTON,*fn2 Associate Judges.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Glickman, Associate Judge
John C. Dortch has applied for admission to the Bar of this Court. Dortch's application is unusual, and problematic, because of his criminal record: he was convicted in 1975 of second-degree murder, attempted armed robbery, and conspiracy. In view of these convictions, for which Dortch served fifteen years in prison and is now on parole, the Committee on Admissions commenced an investigation and held a formal hearing on Dortch's application pursuant to D.C. App. R. 46 (f). The Committee concluded that Dortch has not met his burden of demonstrating, by clear and convincing evidence, that he possesses "good moral character and general fitness to practice law." D.C. App. R. 46 (e). The Committee recommends that Dortch's application be denied.
In acting on Dortch's application, we accept the Committee's factual findings insofar as they are supported by substantial evidence of record. Although "we afford the Committee's recommendations some deference, . . . the ultimate decision regarding admission or denial of admission remains for this court to make." In re Manville, 494 A.2d 1289, 1293 (D.C. 1985) ("Manville I").
This court has "eschewed a per se rule of exclusion for previously convicted felons, opting instead for case-by-case determinations of whether the applicant, as of the time of application, has the good moral character necessary for admission to the bar." In re Manville, 538 A.2d 1128, 1132 (D.C. 1988) (en banc) ("Manville II"). Despite "the presumption of bad character" arising from a felony conviction, we have chosen to proceed on the premise that "a few persons who have been convicted of felonies may become sufficiently rehabilitated to meet the demanding ethical requirements of the legal profession. . . ." Id. at 1134, 1137. In this case we are prepared to acknowledge that Dortch has presented credible evidence of rehabilitation.
Dortch's showing is not sufficient to cause us to grant his application, however. Considering the record in its entirety, we cannot find with the high degree of certainty required by the standard of clear and convincing evidence that Dortch has reformed himself to the point that he now possesses the good moral character required for admission to the Bar. Nor, even apart from the character inquiry, can we find that Dortch has proven his general fitness to practice law, for it would be erosive of public confidence in the legal profession and the administration of justice were we to admit an applicant who is still on parole for crimes as serious as those committed by Dortch. For both of these reasons, we deny Dortch's application for admission to the Bar of this Court.
A. Dortch's Criminal Conviction
In 1974, the applicant who is now before us was twenty-nine years old, a college graduate and Vietnam veteran who had achieved considerable success and recognition in the business world as a field underwriter for a large insurance company. John Dortch's life changed course when he quit his job at the insurance company to start his own business, J.C.D. Enterprises. Dortch solicited investors in J.C.D. Enterprises from among his former insurance clientele. The business foundered. Unable to obtain the needed infusion of cash to avoid bankruptcy, Dortch came up with a desperate scheme to rob a savings and loan institution. Dortch claims, and the Committee on Admissions found, that he was "a legitimate businessman who hatched a bizarre plot to repay his investors with the proceeds of a bank robbery."*fn3
To carry out this plot, Dortch enlisted at least six confederates from among his business or social acquaintances, one of whom was a young woman who worked inside the targeted financial institution. Dortch planned the robbery meticulously. On September 20, 1974, the agreed-upon date, Dortch and co-conspirator John Bryant drove to the vicinity of the savings and loan. Disguised as construction workers, the pair carried a bricklayer's tool bag containing sawed-off shotguns and other firearms that Dortch had supplied. One of the shotguns had been a Christmas present from Dortch's wife; he had sawed off the barrel himself.
Unbeknownst to Dortch and Bryant, the police had been tipped off and were waiting for them. Two plainclothes officers stopped them on the street when they exited their car before they reached the savings and loan. The officers directed Dortch to bring the tool bag to a police cruiser parked nearby. Dortch removed one of the sawed-off shotguns and approached the police cruiser with it. An officer reached for Dortch's weapon and it accidentally discharged. No one was injured (except that Dortch himself received a minor powder burn), but Dortch and Bryant immediately fled in opposite directions. One of the officers fired shots at the fleeing suspects. According to the officers' testimony at the subsequent trial, Dortch turned and fired back.
Dortch discarded his construction-worker garb and escaped without further incident. Later that day, however, Dortch learned that his accomplice Bryant had shot and killed 24-year-old Metropolitan Police Officer Gail Cobb, who had confronted Bryant in a parking garage as he was removing his disguise. "Cobb was alone with her revolver in her holster when Bryant, who had been standing with his hands against a wall, turned and shot Cobb in the heart." In re Dortch, 687 A.2d 245, 246 (Md. 1997).
Dortch turned himself in to the police the following morning. He was indicted along with six co-defendants on multiple charges, including first-degree felony murder. The case went to trial in June of 1975. During the presentation of the prosecution's case-in-chief, Dortch decided to accept a plea offer. He pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, attempted armed robbery and conspiracy. On July 30, 1975, the court imposed concurrent sentences of fifteen years to life in prison on the first two charges and five years in prison on the conspiracy charge. The court rejected Dortch's request for probation.
Dortch filed two motions to reduce his sentence, both of which were denied. Thereafter, between 1977 and 1984, Dortch filed three successive, unsuccessful motions to withdraw his guilty plea or set aside his sentence. Among other things, Dortch alleged that he was coerced and misled into tendering an involuntary and incompetent guilty plea; that police officers perjured themselves at his trial when they testified that he fired at them as he fled; that his trial counsel was ineffective and had a "tacit understanding" to assist the prosecution in securing his conviction; and that his sentence was based on misrepresentations and incomplete information. Dortch described himself in his post-conviction filings as the victim of a shadowy criminal network whose members forced him against his will to carry out a bank robbery for their own nefarious purposes. Moreover, Dortch maintained that he had decided not to proceed with the robbery and was returning the bag of firearms to his car when the police stopped him. But for the fact that the police officers "overreacted," Dortch argued, "Officer Cobb would be alive today."
B. Dortch's Rehabilitation
Dortch was incarcerated in federal prison facilities from 1975 to 1990. "By all accounts," as the Committee on Admissions states in its report, "Dortch was a model prisoner during his 15 years of incarceration." He received training in accounting and earned money working in the UNICOR Federal Prison Industries program. The Committee found that Dortch also participated in educational and church-related activities, tutored and assisted other inmates, and directed a prison chapter of the NAACP. Prison officials commended him for his excellent institutional adjustment.
Dortch was paroled by the United States Parole Commission at his first eligibility date, and he returned to Washington, D.C., in the spring of 1990. The Committee on Admissions found no evidence that Dortch ever violated any conditions of his parole or caused his parole supervisors concern over his adjustment to the community. The Parole Commission released Dortch from further supervision in June 1999, though he remains on parole and is subject to the resumption of supervision or even revocation if he is found not to be living "a law-abiding and reputable life." Dortch applied for a Presidential pardon in 1997, but his application has not been acted upon.
After he returned to Washington in 1990, Dortch was hired by the Covenant Baptist Church to work as a business manager. Dortch took the opportunity to become active in the Church. He taught adult Sunday School classes and served on the board of directors of an early childhood education program. The pastor of the Church told the Admissions Committee that Dortch was "open and honest" about his criminal past and was a "very competent, efficient worker." Dortch remained an employee of the Church until 1992.
Meanwhile, in August 1990, only a few months after his release from prison, Dortch applied for admission to the District of Columbia Law School. He disclosed his criminal record on his application in response to a question that asked him to describe "a specific personal experience" in which he was "subjected to or witnessed some significant form of injustice." Dortch answered this question by depicting his own prosecution as an "injustice" -- indeed, as an "abortion of justice" -- that he had "suffered":
I am an ex-offender, and I have witnessed and experienced improprieties in the administration of justice. By virtue of a guilty plea, I was convicted of second degree murder, attempted bank robbery, and conspiracy, and I served fifteen years in prison. I did not kill anyone nor did I attempt to kill anyone nor was I present at the scene of the homicide, but the alleged factual basis for my plea was predicated upon the felony murder concept, which stipulates that each conspirator is equally accountable for every and anything that transpires in the furtherance of a felony, even though he may not participate in the overt act. The injustice that I suffered was at the hands of both the defense counsel, whom I paid in advance, and the prosecution which condoned, if not encouraged, the perjurious testimonies of the complaining officers.
However, I am not bitter, because I did break the law, but not to the extent to which I was charged and prosecuted. The bottom line is that I did break the law, and had not I broken the law, I would not have been vulnerable to an abortion of justice.
The District of Columbia Law School accepted Dortch as a student. He performed well in law school and was well respected. Of particular note, Dortch was awarded the Dean's Cup for outstanding community service, he was elected president of the Student Bar Association, and he was selected by his classmates to deliver the 1994 law school commencement address. Since his graduation, Dortch has served as an adjunct professor at the law school. From 1996 to 1997, Dortch resided in Charleston, West Virginia, where he worked as a paralegal in a law firm. In 1997 Dortch returned to the Washington area to work as a paralegal for a Maryland firm.
Beginning in the fall of 1998, Dortch began working with the Time Dollar Youth Court, a diversion program for first-time juvenile offenders. Dortch eventually became the director of the program. He also has engaged in other public service activities. At the request of the National Black Police Association, Dortch traveled to Toronto, Canada, in September 2000, to participate in the International Symposium on People of Color in the Criminal Justice System. In January 2001, Dortch was appointed Director of the Violence Free Zone Initiative of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise at an annual salary of $80,000.
Although Dortch has been a law-abiding citizen and lived a constructive life since his release from prison in 1990, he has made no apologies or restitution to the family of Officer Gail Cobb.*fn4 Dortch told the Committee on Admissions that he had conferred with the National Victim's Center and an expert on "restorative justice" and victim/offender mediation in an ...