President's Page: Unsung Heroes

The local television news is blaring about a gunman on the loose. Squads of police are on high alert. A full-fledged shootout is narrowly averted, and the suspect is apprehended and brought to jail.

It was a case where there is every temptation to jump to harsh judgements without a second thought. But there was also an opportunity to listen thoughtfully, and, even in this stressful environment, to seek true justice and find rehabilitative solutions. This is a story of such heroes: the story of Tom.

Tom logged in to our meeting from the patio of a cozy coffee shop near his home, where he lives with his daughter and son. It was hard to imagine this was the same Tom who I had first visited just two years prior while he sat in a jail cell pending serious felony charges. Tom now talks very openly and honestly about the day he was arrested as well as his life before then, but that was not always the case.

Tom had a long and storied career in the military. He served around 19 tours with hundreds of operations. He quickly rose up the ranks and won countless awards. But there was a dark side to his military career. He experienced loss of life all around him from friends to strangers. He became accustomed to this combat lifestyle and he built up a callus when it came to experiencing tragic events. When he came back home, he felt he did not fit into civilian life and did not know how to deal with combat trauma; he felt stuck in “fight mode.” Tom tried supporting and helping others in his life, but he didn't realize how much help he needed, too. The day Tom was arrested started with him reading a piece of paper telling him he was losing his kids. He snapped, took a gun, and drove to a house and fired some shots. He thought about taking someone’s life before turning the gun back on himself. Tom shared that it was not the first time he thought about, or even tried, taking his life. But as he was sitting in his jail cell a few hours later, he realized he was going to have to figure out how to live.

Tom told me that when we first met, he felt so incredibly angry at himself and bitter toward the world. He could not even leave his jail cell and every conversation felt like he was yelling at no one in particular—because he probably was. “Put me in a box, all I know how to do is be mean,” Tom reflected. But after numerous visits and phone calls, Tom started slowly opening up and sharing little pieces about himself and his life. While he still felt angry and bitter, Tom started realizing that his defense attorney was a person he could trust with everything about his charges and experiences and who wanted the best outcome for him.

Tom also began appreciating the various people surrounding him in the jail, including the corrections officers who, at one time, had to physically hold him down while he said every curse word under the sun. But they would still walk by and ask him how he was doing. He appreciated his cellmate who, although alleged to have committed a terrible crime, was a person who was struggling mentally and needed someone to talk to.

Tom continued to sit in jail after a high bail was set and he began to accept he had no option but to be there. But, as he reflects on this experience two years later, Tom says he realized that there was actually “a small army of people were working their magic” to get him out of jail and into treatment at a Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital. At the motion hearing, the courtroom was full of people who supported this request, including a four-star general who indicated that if there was a battle, Tom was who you want at your side. Tom also saw friends, family, and various people from the VA. The judge heard from the attorneys and listened to the arguments and reasons for and against the request and asked numerous questions to better understand the request and the decision she would have to make.

Ultimately, the judge granted the request to allow Tom to be released from jail, and he entered his first treatment program. During this first program, Tom gained healthy weight and participated in cognitive behavior therapy. He remembers really learning about emotions and doing the work to process them and even later led an Emotions Anonymous program. As is common in recovery, Tom was not perfect and was kicked out of the program for a verbal argument and was arrested and brought back to jail. After this treatment program and a few more hearings, Tom was accepted into another treatment program out of state, geared particularly for combat veterans. Tom reflects on the judge’s decision, stating “it was no small miracle that the judge allowed me to do that, to let me out of jail and even out of Minnesota. For me, it was life changing treatment.” Tom shared that treatment changed him as a person and got him out of the “fight mode” he had been in for so long. Tom told me, “That’s how I was, but that ain’t no way to be.”

In the end, after many other ups and downs, the prosecutor, in recognizing Tom’s incredible service to our country, agreed to sentence Tom under the Veterans Restorative Justice Act (VRJA) and the Judge approved it. This Act provides access to a specialized sentence structure for veterans who have committed certain offenses as a result of a service-related condition. After sentencing, Tom remembers the judge saying that his case was “an example of when things go right.” Tom recognizes he was given a second chance. I reminded him that he did the work to earn that chance, and it was not easy work. Tom responded, “None of this happened though because I am special, it happened because several really great people went above and beyond. No one just checked a box, they explored every option.”

Today, Tom is on probation and working to get his master’s degree in social work. He has custody of his two children and continues to participate in ongoing programing and therapy. I asked Tom about his goals for the future, and he responded, “I want to work with the hard-to-reach populations, the incarcerated and freaky people. People like my cellmate. People worth saving. Because somehow someone realized my life was worth saving. And for that, I am eternally grateful.”

In the legal field, we often must make tough calls and act with courage to do what is right, even when we do not know what the result may be. Tom’s story is a testament to the work it takes from all individuals in our system to seek justice and provide opportunities for rehabilitation. It reminds us of the importance of asking questions in our roles as advocates and legal professionals to explore better outcomes. Tom’s story and others like it may not always dominate the news cycles, but their impact is profound and has the power to change lives.

Nicole Kettwick is the current president of the Hennepin County Bar Association. She is a criminal defense attorney, serving as a partner at Brandt Kettwick Defense and an adjunct professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law. She is a member of the Minnesota State Bar Association, Minnesota Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and the American Bar Association. She also serves as a board member of the local nonprofit H2O for Life.


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Elsa Cournoyer

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Joseph Satter