From that moment I saw that I had a unique opportunity…
by Guy Hamilton Smith, #LwC2019
September 15, 2019
On January 6, 2014 my world turned upside down. That was the day an Associated Press story ran in various newspapers with the headline, “Sex Offender Who Finished In The Top Third Of His Law Class Can’t Take The Bar” with my picture planted right in the middle. It was a terrifying time for me because I had been very private about my story up until then. While I was open with family, friends, and my employer, I hadn’t talked openly about the fact that in 2006, when I was 22, I had pleaded guilty to possession of child pornography, and now I was “out” on the front page of newspapers because I lost my appeal challenging the Kentucky Office of Bar Admissions’ refusal to let me take the bar examination. I have a distinct memory of standing in line for coffee and seeing my face on the front page of the newspaper in the coffee shop. I was terrified.
Around the same time I saw a news story about a young man named Ryan Loskarn being arrested for the same reason I was. He was the Chief of Staff for a U.S. Senator, and a media frenzy followed his arrest. On January 23rd, two weeks after my own story went public, Ryan took his life. His family made the decision to publish the note that he left behind, and after reading it I had this insane idea to reach out to them. I sent them a letter telling my story and expressing my condolences, and that began a friendship between us. From that moment, I saw that I had a unique opportunity because I couldn’t hide anymore. I could make the decision to change my name to John Smith and start a new life, or I could lean in and use my experience to advocate for justice and policy reform. I chose the latter and my life has been transformed in ways I never would have anticipated. That choice saved my life; I mean that in the sense that everybody dies, but not everybody really lives.
Today I serve as the Legal Fellow for the Sex Offense Litigation Policy and Resource Center at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law, monitoring legal developments across the nation, assisting litigators and policy makers and promoting approaches to preventing sexual violence that are more effective and that do not sacrifice fundamental human and civil rights. Much of my work is public education, and I do a lot of traveling, giving presentations to a variety of audiences. This is still an area of law and criminal justice reform where there is so much shame and stigma, but I do think that’s changing slowly as more people are beginning to understand that our policies don’t benefit public safety. People who have committed awful crimes need to be held accountable, but they also need to be allowed to move on and to live productive and meaningful lives. It’s still scary to be in front of a room full of strangers and talk about the worst moments of your life, but I also look forward to these opportunities because I invariably connect with people who come up to me afterwards and appreciate me talking about my experiences. We end up have great conversations.
The overriding emotion for me when I think about Leading with Conviction is, it’s so beautiful. What I mean by that is I’m in a room full of people who have been through some of the most horrific things that life can throw at you, but instead of letting it destroy them and drown them in anger and bitterness, they’ve turned it into a gift for other people. The resilience and creativity in that room make me want to be a better leader, and I’ve learned so much.
Guy Padraic Hamilton-Smith is also a member of the Law & Society Association’s division on Punishment & Society, a contributing author to The Appeal on issues of sex offense law and policy, and a graduate of the University of Kentucky College of Law. His writings appear on his website, and you can also follow him on Twitter, @G_Padraic.