Two years ago, shortly after Dexton Anton Forbes arrived at the maximum security cellblock at Lorton Reformatory, an inmate there handed him a copy of the Georgetown Law Journal.
Forbes, then 21 years old and beginning a 18- to 54-year prison sentence for armed assault and a gun violation, started to read.
He borrowed Xeroxed copies of court opinions from the prison law library. He befriended a law student who gave him a copy of a defense lawyer's trial manual. He puzzled over "citations" until he figured out that the numbers and lettes referred to the volume, reference book and page where the law is reported.
It was the making of a jailhouse lawyer, a selftaught advocate with one goal in mind - freedom for himself and the men who seek his help.
A high school dropout who first confronted the law as a juvenile offender, Forbes said he found himself intrigued with the accounts of fact and opinion that filled the casebooks. Within those volumes, he found "what was really happening to people," Forbes said.
"Eighteen to 54 years for something I didn't do . . . that's all the motivation a person needs," Forbes said during an interview.
The government claimed during Forbes' trial that he fired a sawed off shotgun into a man's face at arms-length range after Forbes demanded drugs and money, according to David M. Bullock, the assistant U.S. attorney at the time.
"I adamantly contend that I am innocent of that offense," Forbes said, "I can't really say what led the jury to find me guilty." The case is now before the D.C. Court of Appeals.
Fourt months after he was sentenced on that charge, following an appeals court reversal of an earlier drug conviction, Forbes decided to go to court on his own. He defended himself at a new trial on the drug charge, a misdemeanor, and was acquitted.
"Dexter is a very sharp, sophiticated con man," said David R.O.J. Addis, the government prosecutor at the time, "that's the way Dexter has made it through life, Dexter has lived by his wits."
"I feel this is sort of like a vindictive comment," said Forbes of Addis' remarks, "his integrity was rather offended when he lost the case . . ."
With Forbes' success came a level of prestige as the word of his acquittal passed around the reformatory. He began assisting other inmates with their cases. He earned a high school equivalency degree and plans to take courses in urban studies at the University of the District of Columbia. He now walks around the prison halls with a maroon leather briefcase slipped under his arm and interviews "clients" in the medium security dormitory where he lives. His conversation is studded with lawyers jargon and he complains that while "I have more idle time than any lawyer uptown" he is, nevertheless, behind on his reading.
Considering his lack of formal training, Forbes is a "reasonably good lawyer for a prisoner," said one lawyer. And he doesn't hesitate to challenge some of the most respected criminal lawyers who have acted in his behalf.
"My stomach is repleat with butterflies," Forbes once wrote with the city's Public Defender Service, who helped Forbes when he brought his felony conviction to the D.C. Court of Appeals.
Wassertrom recalled that Forbes wrote and said he didn't like the argument Wasserstrom planned to make before the appeals court and suggested another approach. Wasserstrom said he wrote in reply that he intended to pursue what he saw as the stronger issue and advised Forbes to trust his judgment. Along with the letter, Wasserstrom, a graduate of the Yale Law School and a former Supreme Court clerk, included a copy of his resume.
While he awaits the decisin of the appeals court, Forbes sits in front of an electric typewriter, at a desk covered with papers in a corner of the Lorton Law Library, where he is the head law clerk. A small, green, windowless room crowded with bookshelves, the library is located in the basement of a building on the reformatory grounds that houses the prison chapels.
As head law clerk, Forbes answers inquiries from other inmates, searches the reference books for points related to their cases and assists them in filling actions with the courts. He recently helped an inmate file a motion with the D.C. Superior Court asking that Forbes be allowed to appear in court in behalf of the inmate - a right now reserved only for licensed lawyers or the defendant representing himself.
Forbes is also one of the founders of a project at Lorton called legal Awareness Within. A program intended to train inmates to be paraleglas, one goal is to reduce the number of superfluous complaints from inmates that have been known to clog up the courts, according to corrections official Booker H. Hinton, the prison librarian.
For his efforts five days a week, Forbes is currently paid $3 a month, Hinton said. But recently, city officials have been asked to consider Forbes for a job as a library technician, at a salary of $8,000 a year, according to a spokesman for the D.C. Department of Corrections. The job is funded for one year under the federal Comprehensive Employment Training Act, which salaries various jobs or inmates at the reformatory, up to salary ceiling of $10,000, the spokesman said.
Forbes' earnings would be deposited into an account at the prison, from which he could withdraw $50 a month to spend at the prison canteen, the spokesman said. Forbes would be charged $2 a day in living expenses for each day that he works and could make other withdrawals from the account with the approval of prison officials.
"I think he deserves it," said librarian Hinton about Forbes.
"We have some bright fellows . . . but they just haven't developed the interest the way (Forbes) has," Hinton said.
"It's too bad that it took this incarceration for him to realize his potential," he said.