One of the six young men jailed for allegedly participating in a racially induced fight in Louisiana some years ago has graduated from law school and gave the commencement address Sunday.
Theodore Roosevelt Shaw was 17 in 2006, one of the so-called Jena Six, who made international headlines after the charges brought against him and five of his friends were determined to be especially punitive.
Shaw and his cohorts were accused of attacking a white classmate in a racially charged incident at the school, where blacks were greatly outnumbered, a crime that the young man said he did not commit. Yet Shaw and his friends were initially charged with attempted murder, even though the young man who was attacked walked out of the hospital that day.
According to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Shaw pleaded no contest to simple battery, but if he had been found guilty on the original charge, he could have been imprisoned well into his 60s.
However, that was not to be his fate. At age 29, he was the chosen student speaker of the University of Washington Law School class (Shaw’s portion begins at about 29:00).
During his speech, Shaw talked about his internship with the Innocence Project New Orleans, which works to exonerate the unjustly convicted, and visiting men who spent decades in prison for crimes they did not commit.
He noted that he and his fellow future lawyers have a responsibility to “the poor, to the condemned, to those who may not be popular to the eyes of the majority.”
“And as future lawyers, we have a responsibility to be agitators for justice,” added Shaw, who said that future lawyers have a responsibility to be courageous in the face of adversity, to “stand up,” to “do justice,” to “agitate.”
“As agitators, we have to speak up for those who will never have access to the privileges we enjoy as lawyers,” he said.
Emily Maw, the executive director of Innocence Project New Orleans, was in the auditorium Sunday with her husband, attorney Rob McDuff, who worked on Shaw’s plea deal, and they watched him lead his classmates into the room.
“It was quite a sight,” McDuff said, “to see this young man who Louisiana incarcerated on unreasonably high bail, who was on the railroad to the penitentiary, leading his class, leading the procession, giving the speech to the law school graduation. I don’t know that that’s ever happened!”
“Of course he’s exceptional,” Maw said, but added that focusing on his exceptionality “misses the point.”
“It shows what kids that we would otherwise throw away can do,” she said. “That’s the moral of the story.”
Shaw, who spent time in a juvenile facility in relation to the case, says that he was introduced to the law while incarcerated. He borrowed a law book from another inmate and began writing motions to get the judge to lower his bail. He said in an interview before law school that he felt a rush of power when he realized that even as a poor, uneducated, incarcerated teenager, he could write something that compelled a judge to respond—if only to say no.
He told the Times-Picayune that having his jailhouse motions denied taught him, “Oh, I have to just talk the way you want me to talk and maybe they’ll come to give me some attention.”
Shaw will return to Louisiana to clerk for the highest-ranking judge in the state this summer as well as study for the bar.
Louisiana Chief Justice Bernette Johnson praised Shaw’s “great focus” and his “great analytical skills” and called him “the full package.” Johnson continued: “I’m looking at potential, people who want to make a difference. I want a legacy of law clerks who want to make a difference.”
“It’s not often you turn on the TV and see the media talking favorably about a young black man. Most of the time you turn on the TV, it’s about crime and all this bad stuff,” Shaw said. “I think for our community that any time there is sort of something to change that narrative about us, people like to put that out there.”