Law Day speaker: Keep fire burning

News Staff Writer

Nearly 80 seniors from three local schools, including 12 who decided the fate of a woman charged with drug possession, got a first-hand look at how our country’s criminal justice system works during the May 4 session of Escambia County Law Day.
The students and their chaperones were part of the 46th local Law Day program, which has been held every year except one since Attorney Charles Godwin helped establish it in 1977. The COVID pandemic forced cancellation of the event in 2020, and it was held in a virtual format in 2021.
After the teens — from Escambia County High School, Escambia Academy and Atmore Christian School — completed and signed voter registration forms, they filed into the main courtroom of the county courthouse in Brewton to get not only a lesson in the law, but life lessons as well.
After the crowd recited the Pledge of Allegiance, Brewton Attorney Jim Hart welcomed the youngsters, explained that President Dwight D. Eisenhower established Law Day in 1958 to celebrate the role of law and the legal system in American society, then introduced all the attorneys present and the VIPs who helped make the annual event possible.
This year’s guest speaker for the Atmore students (other county schools attended a similar event May 5) was Pensacola personal injury lawyer Aaron L. Watson, regarded as one of the top black trial lawyers in the country.
Watson, who had spoken twice before at the county’s Law Day observance, said he enjoys the opportunity to encourage high school seniors to be the best they can be.
“I believe this my third year speaking at this event, and it’s just wonderful,” Watson said. “Each year that I get the call, I get a chance to motivate and inspire future lawyers and future professionals.”
The attorney, who grew up in rural Scooba, Miss. (population of less than 1,000) arrived at the courthouse in a Rolls Royce. He told the teens he came from a relatively poor family but followed his dreams of one day rising above his childhood.
He said his grandfather taught him a lesson that has stuck with him since he was a young man.
“When I was in your shoes, I just had dreams about being a lawyer,” he said. “You have to work hard and dream big. At the end of the day, I’m a country boy. My granddad taught me that when you want to build a fire …you have to put the right wood on. If you use green wood, the fire is going to go out. You need kindling to get it growing and you have to make sure you pay special attention to your fire.
“Each and every one of you has a fire inside; that’s your dream. It’s a small fire right now, and you have to pay special attention that the fire doesn’t go out. Make sure of the wood you’re putting on your dreams.”
He told the students that every time he was told ‘no,’ it just added to the fire within him. He was told his grades weren’t good enough for law school, but he attended. He was told his grades and bar exam score were not high enough, that he would never be hired by a large law firm, but he was.
Watson eventually decided to leave a six-figure job with the Levin Papantonio Rafferty Proctor Buchanan O’Brien Barr & Mougey law firm and hang out his own shingle. His practice has grown each year since then.
“I now have five lawyers working for me,” he said. “So, what’s my message for you today? When somebody tells you ‘no,’ it means go harder. Don’t let anybody tell you ‘no;’ keep that fire burning.”
A highlight of each year’s program is the actual trying of a case by 12 jurors randomly selected from among the students. This year’s case was State of Alabama v. Alexis Crenshaw, who was charged with possession of a controlled substance.
The 14-member jury panel (two alternate jurors were later dismissed) consisted of, from Escambia County High School: Judah Dennis, Breona Gaines, Daniel Gunaca, Tykeria Lambert, Aniya Redmond, D’Andre Richardson, Trinity Thames and Isabella McGee; from Escambia Academy: Charles McGill and Tiffany Gookin (who was elected foreperson); and from Atmore Christian School: Justus Zundel, Elliot Classen, Garrett Harper and Sydney Mast.
The jurors and the rest of the gathering listened and watched as assistant district attorney Melissa Grosso and Joe K. Witt III presented the state’s case, and Atmore attorney Karean Reynolds represented the defendant.
When all the evidence had been presented, and witnesses heard (including Crenshaw, Escambia County Sheriff’s Office Deputy David Baker and Alabama State Trooper Travis Smith) Circuit Judge Jeff White charged the jury, explaining the possible outcomes and stressing that they base their decision only on evidence and testimony that was presented during the trial.
While the panel deliberated, Reynolds, District Court Judge Eric Coale and Sheriff Heath Jackson spoke with the teens.
“Be mindful of the decisions you make,” Coale said. “We don’t want to see y’all up here in the courtroom unless you’re visiting to tell us how good you’re doing. Make good decisions. Just because you’re graduating, that does not mean you stop learning.”
The young jurors re-entered the courtroom and announced a unanimous guilty verdict against Crenshaw, bringing the day’s activities to an end.