At age 17, Carmen Allen Day found herself in a New Jersey Superior Courtroom facing an 18-month probation. After sharing her plans to attend college and become a lawyer herself one day, Judge Charles Dortch ultimately reduced her original 18-month probation sentence to only six months. Now, 12 years later, Day is a wife, a mother of two daughters and is just one semester away from her law school graduation.
The completion of her six-month probation sentence also marked her high school graduation in 2007. While she immediately enrolled in community college, she ended up dropping out twice before completing her Associate’s degree in 2013. She then transferred into Rutgers University where she completed her Bachelor’s degree in political science and criminal justice in 2015.
Still aspiring to attend law school, she took the LSAT (Law School Admissions Test) but unfortunately did not perform well. She was then offered a conditional acceptance into Rutgers Law if she completed a program at Widener University Delaware’s Law School, which also required her to drive two hours each day. Day did just that and now attends Rutgers Law School in Camden, which also happens to be Judge Dortch’s alma mater.
Judge Dortch currently serves as a presiding judge in the family division of the New Jersey Superior Court and routinely invites law students to visit his courtroom. It was on one of these class visits that he was surprised to see the teenager who had left a significant impression on him 12 years prior. “She really stuck out in my mind," Dortch said in an interview with NJ.com. “I saw a lot of perseverance in her face." After he met with the group, Day asked to speak with him in private and took the opportunity that she’d waited 12 years to seize to share with him how he had changed her life.
"Today, on my daughter's 4th birthday, some 12 years later, I returned to his courtroom, but this time, as a wife, mother, and second-year law student completing my degree early and graduating from the same law school as him," Day wrote in an Instagram post. "I’ve waited for this moment for so long...for the chance to say thank you for believing in that lost girl so many years ago...and to show him that I made good on my promise."
Holding back tears, she shared with Judge Dortch how he had restored her faith in the criminal justice system and how he saw her as a person who needed a second chance. "He didn’t see me as a docket number, or some poor girl from Camden," Day told NJ.com. "He saw me as a girl who needed help, who needed a chance. I always knew I was going to reach back out to him."
After speaking with Judge Dortch in private, he then brought her into the courtroom to acknowledge her story and accomplishments in front of the prosecutors, public defenders, and other court staff present. While they’re used to seeing repeat offenders in and out of courtroom doors since their teenage years, rarely do they get to bare witness to a happy ending like this.
"This is my testimony," Day said. "I hope by sharing that I can encourage someone to keep living, keep fighting, and keep dreaming. You are not what happened to you, you are what you choose to become."