(CNN) — It was a Friday afternoon when Edward Martell, dressed in a dark purple suit and bow tie, stood in front of Judge Bruce Morrow’s courtroom. With one hand raised, the new lawyer was sworn into the State Bar of Michigan.
Sixteen years ago in that same Wayne County courtroom, Martell stood in front of Morrow and pleaded guilty to selling and manufacturing crack cocaine.
After being caught in a drug sting, the 27-year-old had gone into court prepared to hear the worst — possibly 20 years in prison. Instead, he left with just a three-year probation sentence and words of encouragement that he says changed his life.
“I noticed right away Morrow was a unique guy,” Martell told CNN. “I walked in his courtroom and I’m watching him and I realize he treats the defendants like real people. I was like ‘Woah, this judge is different.’”
“I will never forget what he told me. He said ‘Mr. Martell, you don’t have to be out here selling drugs. You have greatness within you. I challenge you, be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.”
When he stepped out of the building, Martell, now 43, told himself he was ready to change. He was ready, he said, for a happier chapter in his life.
While Martell says he was ready to face the upcoming challenges alone, Morrow stayed by his side since the day he left that courtroom.
“I told Ed, my door is always open for you, here’s my number, I want to know what you’re doing, I want you to keep me in your life,” Morrow told CNN. “I gave Ed an opportunity. Everybody deserves to be treated with a great sense of humanity and importance.”
Martell became a regular visitor in Morrow’s courtroom, sitting quietly in the back as the judge navigated through his docket. The two had lunch, spending hours in conversations that taught them everything they needed to know about one another.
Finding the strength to grow
Martell, a Mexican American and the son of a single mother, was used to struggling.
He grew up in low-income housing, relying on government assistance to survive every day.
“Growing up I didn’t realize how hard we had it until I got older and fell victim to a lot of temptations that are out here for young people,” he said.
Martell said he received his first juvenile felony conviction when he was 13 years old. Two years later, he was convicted of another felony. He then dropped out of high school and left home, he said.
His whole life involved drug trafficking, up until the moment he met Morrow.
“I’ve been in front of so many judges, at least 20,” Martell said. “I pretty much have had an infraction in most Wayne County cities. I knew I was on my way to prison. I guess all I needed was some love.”
For years, the judge got to watch Martell’s growth, beginning with his enrollment in a community college, to winning a full academic scholarship to the University of Detroit Mercy, to graduating at the top of his class.
Martell was then accepted to the university’s law school, where he received another full scholarship. The hard part, he said, was passing the character and fitness application to prove he was morally fit to practice law.
“We had to have a hearing, he had to hire a lawyer, I testified to his character and fitness,” Morrow said. “That was the big deal, these people looking at him and making a decision on whether or not he was fit when they didn’t walk one day in his shoes.”
After weeks of worrying, finding people to back him up, and writing a 1,200-word application to support his belief that he was competent to become a lawyer, Martell received a favorable result.
“I just cried like a baby,” he said.
After passing the bar exam on his second try, Martell was close to the finish line.
The day he became a newly sworn lawyer
It was a sunny day — blue skies, no clouds — when Martell prepared to officially become a lawyer. He worked hard to keep his hands steady as he buttoned up his shirt.
It was the moment he’d been waiting for since the day he decided to become a new person.
“I was nervous. I was excited. It was surreal,” Martell said. “I still have to pinch myself sometimes.”
When he walked into Morrow’s courtroom, followed by his mother, siblings, and his own children, he tried to hold in the overwhelming emotions of the moment.
“We were both so happy, so excited, but we tried to stay low-key, like it’s no big deal, so we wouldn’t look all giddy and silly,” Morrow said. “If Ed was wearing lipstick, you would have been able to see lipstick smudges on both his ears because that’s how big that smile was on him. It was a look I’d never forget.”
After a brief speech, Martell was sworn in. The judge and the former convict shared a hug, both in tears.
“I see him as my son,” Morrow said. “It was like walking your daughter down the aisle. It was one of the moments where I just felt so happy. My joy was for him.”
While the story had a happy ending, it’s not the end. Both men said they taught each other lessons they will carry for the remainder of their lives.
The experience “reinforced” Morrow’s commitment to not judge others, especially those who stand before him, not by “where they came from, how they speak, their lack of good decisions,” he said.
“You might think ‘Oh, what a crazy choice’ but if you knew what they had to choose from you’d say ‘You know what, I’d have chosen that, too.’”
“Love changes people,” he added. “That’s the most important lesson we all should learn from this story.”
While Martell taught him to be slow to judge, Morrow taught Martell the importance of dedicating yourself to change. Not just for yourself — but for those around you.
“It’s my duty to change the system,” Martell said. “I don’t want to be the exception; I should be the norm. For that to happen, I can’t use this story to further my career, I have to use it to pave the path for others who stand where I did all those years ago.”
After three years as a criminal law clerk at the Perkins Law Group, Martell has joined the team as a criminal defense lawyer. Now a father of four, his goal is no longer about bettering his own life, but to better the lives of his children and the generations after.
With every step he takes, Morrow promises to stay by Martell’s side, holding him up when he feels like he’s going to fall and reminding him to celebrate every accomplishment.
“Morrow cracked that door open for me and pointed me in the right direction but he never left me,” Martell said. “I felt like I was his son and he was proud of me. It was everything I dreamed of.”