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The long, twisting voyage from convicted felon to attorney

The Crips and Bloods couldn’t lure him into their gang warfare on the streets of South Central Los Angeles during his high school years, although he was robbed of his purple Lakers jacket at knifepoint one day.

He returned to Buffalo, finally succumbing to the drug culture’s lure of easy money and a fast life, as he sold marijuana and then crack before becoming a mid-level drug dealer on the city’s East Side.

That lifestyle earned him a ticket to federal prison for more than three years, and he survived that, too.

TheArthur A. Duncan II was a convicted felon, an ex-con with a rap sheet. So what did he do? He began chasing what seemed like an unthinkable dream – a longtime goal to become an attorney in Buffalo.

With plenty of help, and lots of twists and turns on his new career path, Duncan graduated from Erie Community College, University at Buffalo and UB Law School, even serving as president of the Black Law Students Association.

Only one obstacle remained – convincing the state bar’s Committee on Character and Fitness that he was fit to be an attorney.

So one day in the spring of 2013, Duncan waited nervously in a downtown Buffalo office, armed with his arrest and prison records, prepared to answer any question tossed at him about his days on the streets.

Instead, the committee member interviewing him marveled at the letters of recommendation on Duncan’s behalf, especially one from his pastor.

“TheArthur, you are the model for someone who changed his life, and you should be commended,” Duncan recalled the interviewer telling him. “What you did was a long time ago. I’m going to recommend that you be admitted to the bar.’”

But because Duncan was a convicted felon, he still would have to plead his case before the whole committee.

“I’m like, OK, this is it,” Duncan remembered thinking. “Here we go.”

A few minutes later, the interviewer appeared again.

“TheArthur, the committee talked about it. You’re good. Go on home.”

A 43-year-old married man with five children finally had put his past life behind him, successfully climbing a mountain that few have even attempted to scale. He had become, as the title of his book states, “Felon-Attorney.”

His story is one of patience, hard work and faith, with a lot of help from his family, his pastor, his teachers, colleges, employers and two local judges.

After working in Buffalo's corporation counsel's office, Duncan left to start his own law practice. He also serves as a deacon in his church and makes inspirational speeches to young people.

He often asks them who the most important person is in their lives. They often mention their mother, grandfather, another family member, maybe even a minister.

“I say, ‘You are the most important person in the world,’ ” he said in a lengthy interview inside his Main Street law office near Sisters Hospital. “You have to be the best person you can be, but you have to be selfish. Until you help yourself, you can’t help anybody around you.”

And, he added, stop making excuses.

This is TheArthur Duncan’s story.


Crips and Bloods

A Los Angeles native, TheArthur Duncan (named after his father, a twin with an older brother named Theotis) bounced back and forth between his mother, Betty Smith, in L.A., and his maternal grandparents in Buffalo, while his father was in Vietnam.

Duncan came back to Buffalo for grades 5-8, graduating from Lorraine Academy School 72 as class president and honor-roll student.

But in 1983, he moved back west, to Inglewood, Calif.

“This was the time period when gang violence was basically at its peak in L.A., with the Crips and Bloods,” he said. “I was trying to stay away from it.”

Neighborhood kids wore the Bloods red clothing, while his schoolmates wore the Crips blue. Duncan wore what he wanted, talking himself out of trouble whenever confronted.

Until the day the Grape Street Crips approached him on a bus, put a knife to his throat and stole his purple Lakers jacket.

The tough L.A. streets weren’t his only battleground. At home, Duncan had to deal with his little brother’s father, who became a cocaine addict, abusing Duncan’s mother, stealing household appliances and selling them.

Still, Duncan steered clear of the violence and mayhem, graduating from high school before coming back to Buffalo for a break, in 1988.

He started hanging out with his grade-school friends, playing basketball, writing rap songs, working odd jobs and enrolling at ECC before lack of focus on his studies caused him to drop out. His buddies wanted him to join them in selling marijuana on the streets.

Duncan resisted, at first. He had been a junior deacon at First Holy Baptist Church. His maternal grandfather was Rev. James Smith. He had seen the effects of drug trafficking in Los Angeles.

“It was something I told myself I’d never do,” he said. “But I kept hanging around these guys. They made it look so easy. They had a lot of money.”

Then, after the fact, Duncan learned that he had a son, Oscar. Now he had another mouth to feed. The temptation proved too strong.

“Ironically, I became a part of what victimized my family and me in Los Angeles,” he wrote in his book. “I risked it all for material gains and lived life on the edge.”

The religious, honor-roll kid who had vowed not to enter the drug world soon would slip over that edge.


Life on Buffalo's streets

He started with malt liquor. As he wrote in his book, using the street vernacular, "Pour some out for the dead homies and get drunk." He then progressed to smoking blunts (thicker joints) in the basement of a friend's McCarley Gardens home, playing dice on the streets, selling weed and then graduating to dime ($10) bags of crack on the corner of Shumway and Peckham streets.

"The first time I sold crack to a guy, I felt like I sold myself to the devil," Duncan said. "I started chipping away at these walls of things I said I'd never do."

He soon started selling larger quantities before becoming a mid-level drug dealer and living the party life, traveling with his six or seven close buddies to places like New York City and Atlanta.

One day in the late 1990s, a Dominican from the Bronx offered to do some drug deals with Duncan (known as "Tony" on the streets).

"Hey, Tony, how's it going?" the Dominican asked him on the phone one day.

"Not too good, but I got something for you," Duncan replied, according to his book. "Come by my house tomorrow."

That bugged conversation ultimately led to a 6 a.m. FBI raid that left Duncan indicted for conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance.

"Once I got indicted and knew I was facing jail time, you get that 'Oh, God' moment after you've been raised in a church," he said. "Now I'm about to go to prison, and you turn to God and say, 'Please help me.' "

Duncan spent 39 months in Allenwood Federal Prison Camp outside Williamsport, where he resisted the prison's underground drugs and gambling. When he got out in December 2002, moving to a halfway house on Glenwood Avenue in Buffalo, he had to turn his back on the friends who were waiting for him back on the streets.

He credits his religion, his personal strength and his upbringing for helping him go straight.

"The biggest thing was God," he said. "I had a whole lot of warnings that I ignored. I felt the short time in jail was my last warning. I knew the next time I went to jail, I wasn't coming back.

"Once I got out of jail and started doing the right thing, I've been blessed at every step in my life."


Chasing his dream

Duncan's path from felon to attorney included several detours. He was rejected twice by UB Law School, started law school in Cleveland and later failed the bar exam by three points his first time.

But even though he suspected he would be punished for all the bad things he had done, Duncan never gave up.

His first step toward respectability came as a van driver for We Care Transportation, working some 50 to 60 hours per week at times.

Duncan went back to ECC, where his first-semester sociology and U.S. history professor, Gene Grabiner, sensed something special in Duncan and began talking with him after class. Learning that Duncan was a convicted felon who wanted to be an attorney, Grabiner researched the issue and learned that the bar association had discretion about admitting him to the bar.

ECC took the first chance on the reformed ex-con, providing him the flexibility to find courses at all three campuses that fit around his rigorous van-driving schedule. On March 9, Duncan will be among 10 individuals receiving ECC Distinguished Alumni Awards. It would be hard to find anyone who better embodies the college's motto, "Start here. Go anywhere."

After earning his undergraduate degree from UB, Duncan didn't get into UB Law. So he went to Cleveland-Marshall Law School, almost flunking out his first semester while commuting between Buffalo and Cleveland. By then, he and his wife Latisha had five kids, but she agreed to his getting a Cleveland apartment for the second semester, when he earned A's and B's.

Through all his academic challenges, Latisha Duncan supported his choices, saying she didn't mind if he kept driving a We Care van, as long as he worked and stayed out of trouble.

Duncan also picked up strong allies in the Buffalo legal, political and religious communities. State Supreme Court Justice E. Jeannette Ogden, Erie County Family Court Judge Kevin M. Carter, Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes and Pastor Jason Drayton all helped, whether guiding him into internships or jobs or writing strong letters of recommendation.

While in law school, Duncan went to interview with Ogden for an internship. How, he wondered, could he convince a judge who puts people in jail to hire an ex-convict?

During that interview, Duncan brought up his checkered past, confessed how wrong he had been and admitted he was "still working" on turning himself around. Ogden said she was impressed with his honesty. But she was tough on him, asking whether he planned to defend others who had poisoned their communities, she recalled.

"No," he replied. "I'm going to turn them around."


Dual faith 

Ask Duncan how and why he survived, and he talks about all those people who supported him when times were toughest, including his wife, parents, best friends and other guardian angels.

But much of it clearly is about two kinds of faith.

"[God] kept a watchful eye over me through the fighting, drug transactions, ... incarceration, time in a halfway home, death, love, learning and so much more," he wrote. "I am truly blessed in spite of it all!"

Much of it, though, goes back to his faith in someone else – himself.

"It's funny," he said. "The whole time I was out in the streets and in jail – I don't want to put anyone down – but I knew I was better than this. I knew I had more to get out of life than the way I was living."

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