Three decades ago, James Hamm took Willard Morley Jr. out into the Tucson desert and shot him in the back of the head after promising to sell him 500 pounds of marijuana.
On Monday, Hamm asked the state Supreme Court to conclude his character is good enough to let him practice law.
Hamm said he has been sorry for his actions since the day he was sent to prison for the 1974 murder of Morley. A second man was killed in the same robbery though Hamm, 26 at the time of the incident, pleaded guilty to only the single murder charge.
Paroled more than 17 years later, Hamm graduated from the Arizona State University College of Law. And four years ago he was released from parole. But his efforts to practice law have so far been held up because of the high court’s Committee on Character and Fitness, which concluded he was not of good enough moral character to be an attorney.
Acting on his own behalf, the Tempe resident told the justices he has been rehabilitated. "These are not just words,’’ Hamm said. "My actions for the last 31 years have consistently been in line with my sincere desire for atonement and redemption.’’
Those actions include work with Middle Ground, which he founded with his wife, Donna, whom he met and married while he was still behind bars.
Lawrence McDonough, representing the fitness committee, said the conviction on the charge of firstdegree murder, by itself, does not automatically preclude someone from eventually being allowed to practice law.
But McDonoughtold the justices that evidence of rehabilitation comes largely from Hamm himself, who said that the psychological problems he had in the 1970s have been overcome.
McDonough said Hamm should be denied the right to be an attorney because he responded to the committee’s questions with less than candor.
For example, McDonough said, Hamm told committee members he intended only to rob Morley, and never to kill him. "Why shoot a man in the back of the head a second time if you weren’t going to make sure he was dead?’’ McDonough told the court. "Why have a gun at a robbery?’’
And McDonough said there was inconsistent evidence of when Hamm found out that he owed child support to his former wife.
The issue has attracted attention of law groups statewide because of the larger legal implications.
Robert Van Wyck, counsel to the State Bar of Arizona, said that murderers should never be considered sufficiently rehabilitated to be able to practice law. He said the crime was "a cold-blooded, premeditated, thoughtout murder’’ by someone not under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
But Michael Kimerer, representing Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice, said such a hard and fast rule is a bad idea, especially in a system built on the idea of rehabilitation.
Kimerer said his organization is not taking a position on whether Hamm should be allowed to practice.
The justices gave no indication which way they eventually will rule.
A statewide poll in 1999 showed that 57 percent of those asked believe the Arizona Supreme Court should deny Hamm the right to be an attorney; 29 percent said the fact that he murdered a man should not stop him from joining the legal profession.