In book form: Former prosecutor offers 'What Justice Looks Like'


By Linda Laderman
Legal News

In his book, “What Justice Looks Like,” attorney Samuel Damren frames his legal career with two defining moments. One, as a prosecutor in the 1977 conviction of Art Burgess, who was charged with the murder of three Dearborn residents, and the other as the lead counsel for the defense in the final stages of the 2016 exoneration of Davontae Sanford, who, at age 14, was found guilty of a quadruple homicide and sentenced to at least 39 years in prison. Sanford served nine years of that sentence.

“I decided to write the book when Davontae’s case was over, and I’d had a chance to reflect on both cases. To me, there were striking similarities between the two of them and how they shone light on the criminal justice system – how it’s supposed to work and, how sometimes it does not, and what we should do in both of those instances,” Damren said of “What Justice Looks Like.”

Damren’s double perspective, as a prosecutor and a defense attorney, is woven throughout his book, as he recounts his involvement in the Burgess and Sanford cases.

“The two cases combined were interesting bookends to my career,” Damren said. “My role in each gave me a certain credibility to speak about the criminal justice system. In the Burgess case, I was the prosecutor in a heinous crime. In Davontae’s case, I could talk about what happens when the system gets it wrong. When it does, it’s a test of the courage and strength of the system itself.”

Only two years after graduating from Wayne State University Law School, Damren, then a Wayne County assistant prosecutor, led the 1977 trial of Art Burgess. Later Damren worked as an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, before joining Dykema-Gossett, as a civil attorney. Just months before his retirement from Dykema, where he was senior counsel, he was asked to help steer Sanford’s case to its conclusion.

“All the safeguards that should have been in place to protect Davontae failed, but nonetheless there was a way to remedy it, albeit late, but ultimately we redressed it. And that takes strength,” Damren said, “It’s not only about the strength it takes in convicting people like Art Burgess, but it’s also about the integrity of people in the system who can say, in instances like Davontae’s, ‘We got it wrong and let’s try not to get it wrong the next time.’”

Damren dedicates a chapter in his book to the trial experience he gained as a prosecutor, writing that the time he spent as part of the criminal justice system was beneficial to him as a civil attorney.

“The criminal practice allowed me to become a good trial lawyer and that experience benefitted me in the commercial world because so few commercial lawyers have trial experience,” Damren said. “My corporate practice taught me how to negotiate a deal that worked for everyone. And it was that approach Davontae’s defense team applied to our negotiations with (Wayne County Prosecutor) Kym Worthy. We wanted to give Kym the opportunity to find something helpful for her in terms of agreeing to the stipulations for dismissal. As a result, she could say, ‘We’ve looked over all of these facts. We’re going to do what is right.’”

But for his editor, Damren’s book would have been limited to the legal community, but at her urging, it has been released to a wider audience.

“She said, ‘Sam, you’ve got to get all the lawyer’s sidebars out of the way and tell the stories because that’s what will be interesting to people like me. So get out of the way, and let the stories tell themselves.’ I’m very happy I did that because the stories are what makes it a better book,” Damren said.

Underlying Damren’s stories is his hope that what has been written will help people better understand the strengths and weakness in our legal system.

“To correctly judge the criminal justice system as being successful, it has to be successful at both ends of the spectrum. It has to be strong enough to convict somebody like Art Burgess, but the system isn’t complete unless it’s also strong enough to recognize its limitations and fallibilities,” Damren said. “When it convicts someone who is innocent, the system must have the integrity and strength to also say, ‘We got that wrong and we’re going to do what we can to make it right.’”