At the top of his game, Ken Lawson was the Ray Lewis of the Hamilton County Courthouse "” the linebacker lawyer nobody wanted to run into.

He was "Law Dog," bigger than life on a colorful two-story mural in the West End. On posters he was a warlord, seated on a skull-topped throne, the decapitated head of a white man rolling at his feet. On the streets he was the answer to the Cops theme song: "What ya gonna do when they come for you, bad boys, bad boys?"

In the eye of the hurricanes that swirled around race "” riots, lawsuits, stormy city council meetings, press conferences, headline-grabbing accusations "” there was Lawson, an adopted kid who traced his biological father to Cincinnati heavyweight boxing champ Ezzard Charles.


In his first headline case, he defended superstar athlete Deion Sanders, who was accused of dragging a cop who tried to stop his scooter as he left the Reds ballpark. When Lawson was done punching holes in the cop's testimony, the jurors found Sanders not guilty — and asked for his autograph.

He was accused of inciting the riots of April 2001 with an incendiary confrontation at City Hall as lawyer for the mother of a man shot by police.

By 2003 Lawson had won jackpot lawsuits. Representing the Black United Front, he also bullied city council into surrendering a $12 million racial profiling settlement without even going to court. He was on top of the world.

And he was higher than a kite on a windy day in March.

His drug habit "” prescription opiates (Oxycontin, Percocet), weed and cocaine "” reached $1,000 a day. He stole from his clients, failed to show up in court, was "sick" for weeks at a time. A judge finally asked for an investigation. He was convicted of organizing a drug ring with a local doctor and sentenced to two years in prison.


But that's not the end of his story. It was just the beginning.

"It was a nightmare," he says from his new home in Hawaii. "If I had a way of dying, I would have done it."

During detox, "for 45 days, the only way I could stop shaking was to take three or four hot showers a day. I would put a chair in there and just sit until the hot water ran out. I was hopeless. Hopeless."

"My first day sober in years was Feb. 1, 2007.  My drug habit was so expensive that I had depleted all of our money and was stealing from the client trust account to support my addiction to painkillers.  When I got out of detox, our house was in foreclosure, my law license was about to be suspended, I was being investigated by the DEA, the kids' tuition had not been paid, all of the rotten stuff I did and the rotten person I had become was all over the news for months, and I was looking at going to prison.

"My sponsor kept telling me that God had me right where I was supposed to be. The kids and I were living in my mother's house in my old bedroom. Boy, was I being humbled; and, looking back, I needed to learn some humility."


His wife, Marva, stuck by him through it all.

"I love him unconditionally," she explains. "I knew him as 'Kenny,' that boy in high school who was relentless even then. However, my stubborn determination is as strong, if not more."

Marva, whose parents didn't finish eighth grade, went to college, then medical school, became a psychiatrist, found a job in Hawaii and moved there "on a wing and a prayer, trusting God."

To raise money to join her, Ken mowed lawns and did odd jobs. "My sponsor took up a collection, and we had enough funds for plane tickets.

"How I got here in Hawaii, I will never know. But I know now that there's no way I could have planned my life better than God planned it for me. If I could sit down and write out what I wanted my life to be, it would not be this good."

The dark hours emphasized the light around the corner. "If I had not gone to prison, I would not be the person I am today."

And who is that?

"He is still Kenny, but the new version is definitely improved. He is humbled by and grateful for the adversity," Marva says. "I guess I would say that he has a peace within that has changed his perception of self, others and the world around him. In psychiatry, we call it self-actualization."


Randall Roth, the University of Hawaii law professor who took a chance to help Lawson get hired as office manager for the Hawaii Innocence Project, says, "Anyone who doesn't believe in second chances, or the concept of redemption, hasn't met Ken. His failures are well documented, but I'm convinced that he can and will do more good for people during the rest of his life than anyone else I know could do in 10 lifetimes. I value his friendship greatly and I trust him completely." 

They met in 2009 while Lawson was awaiting his prison term.

"After talking with Ken by phone about the impact his addiction had on him, his family and his clients, I invited him to address my professional responsibility class," Roth says. "He was obviously uncomfortable standing in front of strangers, telling them about his insecurities and 'messed-up' values, and the ways he ended up betraying just about everyone in his life. Yet he seemed to be connecting on a fundamental level with everyone in the room as he talked about the changes in himself that had left him more satisfied with life at that moment than he had ever been as a financially successful, high-profile lawyer. It was heartfelt, and it was moving."

Student essays about Lawson's visits "brought tears to my eyes," Roth says.

"It would be a mistake, however, to think that the talk was just about substance abuse or that the only students who benefited were those with actual or potential substance abuse problems. 

"To me, the talk was primarily about finding meaning in life — filling the 'hole' in one's being."


"The easy answer to what happened is alcohol and drugs," Lawson says. "But the honest answer is that I was off track way before I took my first drink or drugs. My thinking about what life was about was way off track. I thought it was money, things, power, prestige. I kept chasing that stuff and none of it could fill that hole in my soul."

"The irony is that all of the people that God put in my life to help me have been white. I found it ironic that very few blacks showed up in court to support to me. I'm not angry or even bitter about this as I've come to learn to accept people for who they are, wherever they are in life. 

"However, over the last few years I have come to see how racism was such a distraction from the truth. The truth is, I ended up hitting bottom as a direct result of choices I made. I had to learn that blaming others for my problems keeps me from seeing the truth about myself. By refusing to accept responsibility for our own conduct, by refusing to forgive others for their wrongs, the community stays resentful.

"I was wrong for the positions I took with the police and race in Cincinnati, but it's not until I was able to do a complete and honest self-inventory that I was able to see the truth about my actions. So I have learned that my resentments and anger hurt me more than the person I'm resentful at.

"Life and where it takes us is so amazing. When I can stay in the moment and think of others more than myself, is when I truly realize what a gift life really is! Sometimes I look back on that part of my life when I chased money, power and success thinking it is what life is about and I often just wonder, 'Where have I been all this time to miss so much of what really matters?' 

"Well, I'm present now."