Daniel Manville, who had dreamed of being a lawyer even as a little boy, was filling out his application three years ago for a license to practice law in the District. It was all routine, until he got to question number 8 -- the one he knew would decide his future.
"Have you ever been convicted of a criminal charge?" it asked. "Yes," Manville typed in the proper space, and then he attached a statement that would make his application a unique and thorny problem.
For in 1972, Manville had killed a man with chloroform during a Michigan college campus feud involving drugs. "My anti-social attitudes and actions climaxed in my having caused the death of another human being," Manville wrote in his 1982 application to practice law in D.C. "I had succumbed to the forces of the streets -- where everything and anything is all right."
Manville's statement has forced the D.C. Court of Appeals to confront a question it has never dealt with before: Can an applicant convicted of a crime involving homicide meet the "good moral character" requirement to become a lawyer in the District?
The Committee on Admissions, an arm of the court, split 3 to 3 on that question in Manville's case and denied his application in October 1984. Because law school graduates must obtain a license before they can practice law, Manville appealed.
Last Friday, a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals ordered the committee to conduct a special investigation and a new hearing in the case. Three other appeals judges issued a strong denouncement of that ruling.
"I'm kind of disillusioned, though I'm happy it was not an outright denial and I have another shot," said the 38-year-old Manville, a legal researcher with an American Civil Liberties Union project, whose life presents a paradox to authorities.
On one hand, as three committee members asserted, is "the death of an innocent bystander at Mr. Manville's hands." On the other, they wrote, is his "impressive showing" of rehabilitation, which includes earning four degrees since going to prison, doing volunteer and prison reform work and winning the respect of prominent lawyers and college deans.
"I have been out of prison since 1976, and the crime I committed was 13 years ago," Manville said Friday. "I admit I took somebody's life . . . . It is something I am trying to atone for. Maybe that's why I'm chasing this thing . . . that they say I can't have."
According to the Court of Appeals opinion and other documents in the case, the following events led to Manville's manslaughter plea:
Manville, who grew up in a blue-collar family in Michigan and spent three years in the Army, got involved in the drug culture and "led a life of crime" for two years after enrolling in college in 1969.
After transferring to the University of Michigan's branch in Flint, Manville agreed to help a student friend recover drugs and money he believed had been stolen by another student, Doug Edgar. Manville, his younger brother and a third man went to Edgar's apartment in December 1972 -- each armed with a gun. The brother also carried chloroform, which he had been using "to get high."
The three threatened Edgar with the guns and a knife, and when two of Edgar's acquaintances showed up, Manville decided to use chloroform on them so they wouldn't hear what was going on. The chloroform killed one of the visitors.
Manville told the committee, in its 1983 hearing, that he was "shocked" when he learned of the death a day later because when he left Edgar's apartment he believed "nobody was even hurt."
He fled and was arrested four months later. He was indicted on murder charges but was allowed to plead to voluntary manslaughter. He was sentenced in 1973 to 4 1/2 to 15 years in prison. "I think you are a person that is capable of doing a lot of good, if you get things together and don't back up," Michigan Circuit Judge Robert H. Campbell told him then.
And 10 years later, when Manville applied to the D.C. Bar, Campbell wrote a letter of recommendation. "I was of the opinion then and now that he did not intend to cause death," the judge wrote. "As far as I am concerned he has paid his legal debt to society."
In the decade between, Manville served more than three years in prison, starting there on his way to a law degree. While in jail, he completed his college courses, earning two degrees. He became a proverbial "jailhouse lawyer," first as a way to pass the time in what he calls the "hellhole" of prison.
"You start by challenging your own conviction," Manville said Friday. "It's called sanity. It's called hope. You know most appeals will fail, but it gives you something to talk about, like, 'Oh man, my appeal's going to come down soon and I'll be out on the street.' It's false hope, but it's better than none."
After his 1976 parole, Manville entered a paralegal training program. He worked for the Head Start Program in Lansing, Mich., helping families with landlord and welfare problems. In 1977, he interned in a Chicago program to combat racial bias, and then he earned a master's degree in criminal justice.
He enrolled in Antioch Law School here in 1979, completing his studies a semester early. His activities included editing the Prison Law Monitor, a publication on criminal justice. Now, he is a research associate with the ACLU's National Prison Project, and he is deeply committed to prison reform. "I've been on the other side, and I think I have a lot to contribute," he said.
The appeals court found "no indication of criminal behavior, drug abuse, or other antisocial behavior since" Manville's incarceration in 1973.
When he applied for his license, the Committee on Admissions held a hearing that led to its 3-to-3 decision. Because there was no majority to approve the application, it was denied. Manville, represented for free by lawyers from the firm of Steptoe and Johnson, appealed.
Last Friday, a Court of Appeals panel composed of Chief Judge William C. Pryor and Judges John M. Ferren and James A. Belson ordered an investigation and rehearing in Manville's case. Asserting that Manville has a "heavy burden" to overcome because of the seriousness of his crime, the panel also found that "an injustice might be done if the court were not to give full consideration to Manville's assertion that he has achieved an exceptional rehabilitation."
Three other judges, Frank Q. Nebeker, John A. Terry and Theodore R. Newman Jr., disagreed, and called unsuccessfully for the entire court to hear the case immediately. "With the bar in less than high public repute," Nebeker wrote for all three, "it is a tragedy that we do not, with resolve, plainly hold that this man man has forfeited any claim to moral character or fitness for the high calling of the bar."