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A killer's journey: Now he's a lawyer

By Kimball Perry, Post staff reporter

The next time Derek Anthony Farmer walks into a courtroom it will be as a newly-registered attorney who just passed Ohio's bar exam.

That's a long way from Farmer's most infamous court visits 25 years ago, where he earned another title: cop killer. Farmer, 42 and living in Cincinnati, is the first convicted murderer to be allowed to take the Ohio test that qualifies applicants to become lawyers.

He was informed Oct. 29 that he passed the July bar exam and was quickly sworn in by Dayton's U.S. District Court Judge Walter Rice.

To some, Farmer is a heart-warming example of redemption from the worst of circumstances. But to others, he is seen as a double murderer who has conned and used the system to serve far less time than his life sentences.

''It appalls me that this individual, number one, was allowed to go to law school, number two, sat for the bar, and, number three, serves as an attorney. This is a person who should not be a lawyer,'' said Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen.

''We are stunned by this information,'' said Mathias ''Mat'' Heck, Montgomery County Prosecutor.

''If they're going to let someone like this take the bar (exam), they might as well let other convicted felons take it because this is about as serious a crime as you can commit,'' said Lee Falke.

Falke was the Montgomery County Prosecutor in 1974 when his office won two murder convictions - and a death sentence recommendation from the jury - against 16-year-old Derek Farmer.

But Farmer's supporters - including the now-deceased judge who presided over his trial and refused to accept the death sentence recommendation, a U.S. District Court judge and a Montgomery County Juvenile Court judge - insist that the Derek Farmer convicted of the two murders has been reborn after 18 years, seven months and 26 days in Ohio's brutal prison system.

He now is a redeemed, compassionate man driven to serve his community, they say.

''I think it's a great human story,'' said David Greer, Farmer's Dayton attorney.

''It's refreshing to see once in a while something positive come out of the prison system.''

In 1974, Derek Farmer, 16, and his 18-year-old nephew, Calvin Farmer, robbed Potasky's Jewelry Store in downtown Dayton. They were surprised by Sumter McIntosh, a prominent civil rights advocate in Dayton who just happened to be walking by.

McIntosh stopped the teens by holding up his hands and pleading with them to stop.

Derek Farmer complied, but his older nephew refused and gunned McIntosh down.

The teens fled to an apartment where, three hours later, Dayton police found them.

The Farmers attempted to leave the building and were ordered to stop. Derek Farmer complied, dropping the bag of stolen jewelry and cash when he raised his hands to surrender.

Calvin Farmer began firing at police and, in the following shootout, fired a second fatal shot, killing highly respected Dayton Police Sgt. William Mortimer.

Even though he never pulled the trigger, Derek Farmer was convicted of the murders of both McIntosh and Mortimer and of aggravated robbery.

''Regardless of whether I killed them or not, I'm still responsible,'' Derek Farmer admitted during a Feb. 13, 1998, hearing before the Supreme Court's Board of Commissioners on Character and Fitness.

Derek Farmer was sentenced in 1975 to life in prison for murdering McIntosh, 15 years to life for murdering Sgt. Mortimer and 5 to 25 years for the armed robbery.

Derek Farmer already had an extensive juvenile record: car thefts, armed robberies and other gun- and drug-related crimes, court records note.

Because Calvin Farmer looked remarkably similar to another relative, defense attorneys convinced the jury that he wasn't the man who shot McIntosh - even though the same jury convicted him of murdering Sgt. Mortimer hours after McIntosh was killed. Calvin Farmer was convicted of just a single count of murder and sentenced to life in prison - but served the then eight-year minimum sentence before being paroled in 1983.

In prison, Derek Farmer began letter-writing campaigns that Ohio prison officials admit helped reform a hellish prison system that was rife with racial tension and poor medical and other care. Those conditions were worst at Ohio's maximum-security prison, the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility at Lucasville, where Farmer served 14 of his 18 years.

That's also where he earned his high school and college diplomas.

''He's gotten his entire education in the bowels of Lucasville,'' his attorney, David Greer, said.

Farmer's letters also showcased his intelligence and earned him respect - and contacts - on the outside.

After his Oct. 29, 1992, release from prison, Farmer lived with a relative in New Philadelphia, Ohio, before being accepted into the Akron University School of Law. He was helped by an Akron professor with whom Farmer corresponded while in prison.

Having trouble adjusting to ''the real world,'' Farmer initially struggled in law school. But he recovered and graduated in four years. He also worked for Judge Rice - who was introduced to Farmer through his letters from prison - during summers after convincing the federal court judge that he was worthy of another chance.

Rice testified for Farmer during the 1998 Supreme Court committee hearing, saying he ''would bet everything I have'' that Farmer had the character and ethics to be a lawyer. At that hearing, Farmer insisted that the documents reviewed by the board be made public so he could never be accused of trying to hide from his heinous history.

''It's like a miracle to be here from what I've been through in my life,'' Farmer told the board in transcripts obtained from the Ohio Supreme Court.

Farmer accepted total responsibility for his past and said his goal was to make a positive contribution to the community by becoming a defense lawyer working to protect the rights of the accused.

He expects no support from the families of the two men he murdered - who were never contacted about Farmer's parole.

''...(T)hey can only judge me and hopefully they will judge me by the contribution that I make, and that's the only thing I can judge myself by,'' Farmer said during the 1998 hearing.

But others also are judging.

''I do not think he should be allowed to take the bar. I can see where he has a role as an activist. I just don't think being an attorney is one of them,'' said former Montgomery County prosecutor Falke.

''Somebody needs to answer for that. Somebody needs to explain why that individual was allowed to take the Ohio bar exam,'' Prosecutor Allen said.

Those answers are provided by the Ohio Supreme Court.

''I think we're going to get a lot of inquiries about this,'' admitted Marsha Mengel, the court's clerk.

The court allowed Farmer to take the bar exam because he was so young when the murders took place, he fired no shots, he later helped to seek prison reforms and showed true remorse, court officials said.

''We're looking at what this applicant is today,'' Ms. Mengel said. ''It's easy to say that the court allowed a convicted murderer in ... but he didn't pull the trigger and there are some mitigating circumstances.''

Greer, Farmer's attorney, held him up as a rare example of how prison's attempts at rehabilitation work.

''Sure, there will be people screaming, 'Oh, my God, how did this happen'? But I don't think people should be branded on the forehead,'' Greer said. ''If they should, then why don't we just take them out and exterminate them?''

Farmer, on a cruise to celebrate his new attorney status, couldn't be reached for comment.

Publication date: 11-13-99

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