Drug Recall Lawyers Allegheny
On Sept. 21, 1994, Duquesne University junior Casey Mullen scaled the stairs to the school's law school library.
The 19-year-old Lawrenceville man's backpack held nine 1-ounce plastic bags filled with powdered cocaine — a delivery he was making to a woman he barely knew, part of his daily effort to sell enough narcotics to feed his own addiction.
She was an undercover narcotics detective. It was his first and only arrest.
“It's a constant hustle. It's being consumed by a quest. Prior to getting arrested, my focus was on getting high. But then I got arrested and thought that my life was over, ” Mullen told the Tribune-Review. “So it all became about oblivion — feeling nothing. That was my daily quest. Heroin was a really good numbing agent.”
Less than 18 months later, Allegheny County Judge Raymond Novak slammed Mullen with a mandatory minimum sentence: three to 10 years at the former State Correctional Institution Waynesburg.
Mullen did his minimum three years and then embarked on a very different quest back up the 17 steps of the law school library. He became a stellar student and, later, an increasingly prominent criminal defense attorney.
Very few judges, lawyers, cops or even his clients know about Mullen's past. He's breaking his self-imposed silence for three reasons: 1) Criminals, especially those who are struggling with addiction, must see that it's possible to become a respected professional; 2) society must see the need to start taking more chances to reintegrate convicted felons; 3) policymakers should rethink what a prison can be — less punishment, more rehabilitation, job training and programs designed to ensure that every inmate leaves jail with “the belief that they can move beyond this” and contribute again to society.
“For those of us who collectively have done well, we need to quit hiding this. That only perpetuates the stigma of ‘once a drug addict, always a drug addict; once a criminal, always a criminal.' That's not the case, ” said Mullen, 41, of Aspinwall.
At SCI Waynesburg, Mullen became Department of Corrections Number CY 5333, one of 450 inmates in the general population. For the next 26 months, he played pinochle in the yard, toiled in the kitchen, and at night listened in his bed rack to cassettes from the prison library.
“It's the dumbest thing ever, but I heard a quote that changed my life. It's simple: ‘Got to kick at the darkness 'til it bleeds daylight.' It's a Bruce Cockburn line, but I heard it first in a U2 song, ” Mullen said. “I thought to myself, ‘Yeah. I'm gonna kick the darkness until it bleeds daylight. I'm not coming back here. I'll do whatever I have to do.' ”
His first goal: Finish an undergraduate degree at the school where he got arrested.
Others believed in him
“The two scariest days in my life were the day I entered (jail) and the day I left. And the day I left was actually the scariest. Because I knew in jail that, as far as an addiction issue, I could stay clean. In jail, I could have positive relationships with my family. I could have hopes, dreams and aspirations, ” Mullen said. “I didn't know if I could do that in the free world when I was offered opportunities to go off the correct path.”
For 10 months, he lived in a halfway house, worked at a Strip District fudge confectioner, began counseling Central Catholic High School students to make smart choices and attended 12-Step meetings. The latter he refers to as a “weekly tune-up” that he continues so he doesn't slip back into addiction.
Central Catholic's Christian Brothers arranged for a meeting with Duquesne officials, and the university readmitted him. He majored in sociology, minored in psychology and graduated with honors in late 2001, but he still had five years to go until his parole ended. So he labored as a millwright and applied to law schools.
And he kept getting rejected. Ex-cons can become attorneys in Pennsylvania, but they can't sit for the bar exam until a board of inquiry is convinced they can become ethical officers of the court.
To Donald J. Guter, then dean of Duquesne Law, it was unfair to take Mullen's money if he'd never be allowed to become a lawyer.
“But I was flooded with calls and letters from Casey's supporters, ” said Guter, now chief executive officer of the Houston College of Law in Texas. “Even the judge who sentenced him to prison spoke on his behalf.”
Guter summoned Mullen to a face-to-face and was won over.
“I thought, ‘I believe in him. He deserves a second chance, ' ” said Guter, a retired Navy admiral. “Casey was humbled because his arrest and imprisonment were humbling experiences. But he didn't let all of that crush him. He was humbled, but he stepped up.”
Pardon letter on display
At Duquesne Law, Mullen starred on the school's nationally renowned Trial Competition Team, received the Honorable Joseph Ridge Award from the Allegheny County Bar Association and was named the top student by the faculty. Yet the hardest legal training was on his own case.
“When I started law school, I was still a convicted felon. I hadn't been pardoned yet, ” Mullen said.
In 2008, Mullen argued his case before the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons, a five-member panel that included then-Attorney General Tom Corbett. They voted unanimously to recommend to Gov. Ed Rendell that Mullen receive clemency. In 2009, Rendell pardoned him and Mullen's criminal record was expunged, triggering the state Board of Law Examiners to let him finally take the bar exam.
He passed in 2011 and became a lawyer, joining Downtown's Blackwell Law Firm before moving to the North Shore firm of Burns White in 2014.
Most attorneys moving into a new office unpack their framed diplomas, but David B. White, a Burns White partner, recalled Mullen “pulling out his pardon letter.”
“I told him, ‘Casey, I think this is what you should be most proud of. Display it front and center, ' ” White told the Trib.
White said that he found Mullen not only to be an outstanding attorney “with integrity beyond reproach, ” but called him the “poster child for what's possible” in life.
Wanting to specialize in criminal defense, Mullen left late last year to found his own Downtown firm.
Hope for 4.7M Americans
Nationwide, about 4.7 million Americans are in some form of community supervision — behind bars, on probation or on parole, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. About seven of every 10 of them were convicted of nonviolent drug or property crimes, like Mullen. When they get out, they're barred from many jobs, public housing, education loans and — in 31 states — the ballot box, sometimes permanently.
About one third of all men and women behind bars are recidivists who never made it through parole or probation, according to the White House. Many critics believe that harsh post-sentence impediments blocked their chances to reintegrate in society.
But a bipartisan consensus is forming to change that. Popular GOP governors such as Mary Fallin of Oklahoma and Matt Bevin of Kentucky have joined with the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union intending to revamp the criminal justice system, reforms they think not only will slash recidivism but save taxpayers from high costs that come with incarceration. Federal efforts have stalled in a divided Congress, however.
If he can win over a tough judge, an admiral, a governor and a legal wizard such as David White, Mullen thinks he might be able to persuade a few senators to ease the burdens on former felons, too.