On Nov. 22, almost two decades to the day, VanSumeren, now 40, returned to that same courtroom and stood again in front of Smith.
This time, VanSumeren was asking the judge who had sentenced him as a teenager to swear him in as a new attorney. After finishing his prison sentence, he had attended college, then law school, hoping to give back to the community he had once stolen from.
“I didn’t know if the judge would go for it, but I thought it was worth asking,” said VanSumeren, who lives in Jackson, Mich., and passed the Michigan state bar exam on the first try.
Smith said he was astonished by the request. But he was also delighted.
“I have to take my hat off to him — he has changed his life,” Smith said. “It’s really quite remarkable and rare. Very seldom do you see such a successful turnaround.”
So with his family and friends proudly looking on, VanSumeren raised his right hand last month and took the Michigan lawyer’s oath, promising to uphold the Constitution, maintain respect in court and never reject the cause of the defenseless or oppressed.
When he had finished, Smith shook VanSumeren’s hand, posed with him for pictures and tossed out the usual decorum he requires in his courtroom.
“I’d like everyone here to feel free to applaud this man,” Smith said he told the audience. “He should be commended for changing his life.”
VanSumeren’s life took a downward spiral, he said, after his parents divorced in 1998 and moved away during his senior year in high school, leaving him to cope on his own.
“I was 18, and a lot of people that age could weather a divorce pretty well,” he said. “But I was immature and had led a pretty secluded life. In my younger years, I was home-schooled off and on. My parents did the best they could, but it was less than ideal for me.”
For several months, he “couch surfed” with friends and relatives, he said, but by spring 1999, he was often sleeping in the woods or beneath a tree in the local cemetery.
“I look back now and know that I should have reached out to someone for help,” VanSumeren said. “I had no plan for what to do in my life. There was never much talk in my family about planning for a future.”
To escape the hurt he felt from being abandoned, he took up drinking and drugs, he said, and he soon had a record of petty crimes, including shoplifting.
From there, VanSumeren took a more dangerous path.
In May 1999, he robbed a convenience store with a BB gun, then walked unarmed into a local bank and handed a teller a note, demanding money.
“I had debts to pay off and came up with this crazy drunken plan, thinking it was an easy way to score some money and get me back on track,” he said. “Tied into all of this was that I felt entitled. I had a chip on my shoulder. I felt like I’d followed the rules for years and it hadn’t worked out for me.”
Within 24 hours, police found VanSumeren and placed him under arrest. Later, Smith sentenced him to six to 20 years in prison for his crimes.
“I went in with the same messed-up thinking that I had before, and I didn’t follow the prison rules very well at first,” he said. “But I quickly learned. I found some people to hang out with who did their time quietly, and one of the guys was a legal beagle. That’s when the seeds were planted.”
When he was released from prison in 2005 after serving six years, VanSumeren enrolled in a community college with help from two former middle school teachers who had visited him behind bars.
“Nobody in my family had ever gone to college before,” he said, “and I wasn’t sure how to begin. But with their help, I was soon on my way.”
From there, said VanSumeren, he transferred to Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in comparative religion. During this time, he met his wife, Dana VanSumeren, a schoolteacher, and they had two sons, now 10 and 6.
All seemed perfect, but then one day, VanSumeren said he noticed he was becoming increasingly anxious and depressed.
“All those years in prison, I’d told myself if I could get through this, my life would go back to normal,” he said. “But when I was released, I remained hypervigilant. I was jumpy and constantly looking over my shoulder.”
It didn’t help that when he applied for jobs, he had to check “Yes” on applications about whether he had been a felon.
“I started wondering if anything was going to matter,” he said. “I was married and a new father, and I was worried that I was going to be a failure. So I started drinking heavily again.”
Finally, in 2012, said VanSumeren, he realized that some serious changes needed to happen in his life.
“I went into rehab, and that was the turning point,” he said. “All of a sudden, things came into focus and I realized what kind of person I wanted to be.”
After earning his master’s degree in 2015, he decided to attend law school at Detroit’s Wayne State University, commuting to classes an hour each way, every day.
“I couldn’t have done it without my wife’s help — she held down the household on her teacher’s salary while I commuted back and forth for three years,” VanSumeren said.
After his time in prison, it was a surreal experience, he said, to be surrounded by people who wanted to uphold the pillars of justice.
“The feeling of being on the wrong side of the law makes such a powerful stamp on a person,” he said. “I felt strongly that the judicial system needed people like me at the table.”
After passing the bar exam in July 2018, VanSumeren underwent a lengthy investigation by the Michigan bar’s character and fitness committee. Last month, he got approval to be sworn in.
Perhaps no one was more elated than his wife to see him clear such a hurdle.
“He worked very hard and we’ve made it as a family,” said Dana VanSumeren. “I’m excited for the future.”
Robert VanSumeren recently took a job working as corporate counsel for a nonprofit organization and eventually hopes to focus on family law.
“I’m interested in helping working-class folks,” he said. “When I searched the Internet to find people who have gone on to have successful careers out of prison, I couldn’t find very many. I don’t love the limelight, but it’s important to share.”
“If I can help somebody else realize that they can also work hard and sit on the other side of that table in the courtroom, it’s worth it,” he said.
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