Zachary Jesse, a third-year student at the University of Richmond School of Law, has been involved with the Moot Court Board, repeatedly served as a justice for the Law School Honor Council and is a recipient of the law school's most prestigious, $30,000 John Marshall scholarship.
He is also a registered sex offender who pled guilty to aggravated sexual battery in 2004.
It is unclear why a registered sex offender was admitted on scholarship to the law school when it is unlikely that someone with that offense would be allowed to practice law in Virginia. The current dean and the man who was dean at the time of Jesse's admission both declined to comment about such a student being admitted.
Jesse declined to comment and directed questions to Jack Burtch Jr., the lawyer who is representing Jesse in his quest to practice law in Virginia.
When asked about Jesse's admittance to law school and goals for the future, Burtch also declined to comment.
"If Zach passes the Virginia bar exam, he will have a hearing before the character and fitness committee of the Virginia Board of Bar Examiners to determine if he will become a member of the Virginia State Bar," Burtch said. "I anticipate that the members of the committee will be asking the same types of questions you want to ask, so you can understand that I can't let Zach answer questions on or off the record prior to his formal hearing."
Stephen A. Isaacs, who has been the director of the Virginia character and fitness committee since it was created 17 years ago, said that although it was possible for someone who had been convicted of a felony to be admitted to the bar, he could not recall any such admission in the past.
Several years ago, a man who had been charged with, but not convicted of, a sex offense applied to the bar. Having that charge on his record prevented the man from passing the character and fitness test in Virginia, Isaacs said.
In 2003, during his second year as an undergrad at the University of Virginia, Jesse was charged with rape, accused of both vaginally and anally raping a 19-year-old classmate.
During her testimony at the preliminary hearing Dec. 11, 2003, the victim said the incident had occurred while she was drunk, slumped over a toilet in her apartment. She had met Jesse at a party earlier that evening.
According to her testimony, the victim said she had gaps in memory regarding the events that transpired, but that Jesse had helped her to her apartment after she had been vomiting at the party. She was led to the bathroom, where she continued to dry-heave, and then lost her memory.
She was taken to Martha Jefferson Hospital after the incident and later informed that her blood alcohol content had been .15, according to her testimony.
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On April 26, 2004, in the Charlottesville Circuit Court, in a plea agreement, Jesse pled guilty to the reduced felony charge of aggravated sexual battery. Jesse was sentenced to eight years in a penitentiary, of which he served three months, according to the court record.
According to an article that was published by a Charlottesville news outlet called The Hook, Jesse was required to withdraw from the University of Virginia for at least two years, allowing the victim to graduate before Jesse could reapply. Jesse's LinkedIn profile does not include the University of Virginia, and instead notes that he earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2009. He began attending the University of Richmond School of Law in 2011 and is expected to graduate in May.
Commenting on a hypothetical circumstance with the same facts, James M. McCauley, director of the ethics counsel for the Virginia State Bar, expressed doubts that someone would be admitted to the bar under such circumstances. There have been people who have been turned down for much less than a felony, such as failure to pay student loans or misdemeanor convictions, he said.
"I just don't see how this person would be admitted," McCauley said. "It would be a huge obstacle."
Yet, there is no absolute prohibition.
"The key is rehabilitation," Isaacs said. "There will be intense scrutiny of what he has done to be rehabilitated." (As was the case with McCauley, the "he" that Isaacs referenced was a person in a hypothetical scenario with the same circumstances as Jesse's case).
For example, the person must have no other offenses and no evidence of alcohol abuse. When facing the character and fitness committee, he or she must show remorseful and acceptance of responsibility, along with evidence of positive social contributions, such as volunteer work in the community, Isaacs said.
Although neither Jesse nor Burtch would comment on Jesse's rehabilitation efforts, Jesse has shown ample academic involvement within the law school.
Jesse served as a Moot Court Board member during his second year, according to the law school website. The members of this student group are selected based on their performance in moot court competitions and are responsible for planning and directing the annual competitions. Jesse also serves on the Law School Honor Council, a student-elected organization whose members are responsible for judging claims of misconduct under the Law School Honor Code. The website notes that Jesse has been a justice on the Honor Council for the past two years.
Jesse's wife wrote on her LinkedIn profile that she and her husband moved to Richmond in 2011 for him to attend law school at University of Richmond, where he was a recipient of the John Marshall Scholarship. The law school website offers a detailed description of this prestigious program, which, among other benefits, includes a $30,000 annual scholarship.
"In addition to receiving a substantial scholarship, the John Marshall includes a unique programmatic component," according to the website. "There are opportunities for John Marshall Scholars to meet with and be mentored by the lawyers and judges in the region, and participants are invited to the faculty colloquy speaker series where cutting-edge legal issues are explored in depth with some of the leading scholars in the nation."
Law students are assessed and can receive scholarships based on academic records, Law School Admission Test (LSAT) scores and potential for leadership in the legal profession, according to the law school website.
How Jesse came to receive this award and his other leadership positions remains unanswered.
Wendy Perdue, the current dean of the law school, said she could not offer specific information about the admission of or other decisions concerning any law students. Such information, she said, is protected from disclosure under federal law.
Perdue did, however, offer a statement of personal observation, not in regards to any particular case, but as a general matter.
"I believe in our criminal justice system, and I also believe in the possibility of redemption," Perdue wrote in an email. "It is a tribute to our system and not an indictment of it when someone who has committed a crime and served their sentence is allowed to return to society and create a productive life."
Citing a recent New York Times article, Perdue referenced the experience of Shon R. Hopwood, a man convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to 13 years in prison, who is now a law student at the University of Washington School of Law in Seattle. In addition to a full scholarship, Hopwood received a clerkship for a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, according to the article.
"While some may argue that there are other law students who are more deserving of both the scholarship and the clerkship, I believe that our society is stronger when we offer opportunities for the return of our prodigal sons and daughters," Perdue said.
Perdue also wrote that the current third-year law students had been admitted before she arrived as dean.
John Douglass, a current law professor who served as dean of the law school from 2007 to 2011, declined to comment.
"What is the news value of this story?" Douglass asked. "And, if such a student exists, aren't you concerned about his or her right to privacy?"
The photograph and criminal record of all registered sex offenders are available to the public online.
David McCoy, campus chief of police, said criminal background checks are not part of Richmond's admission process, for either undergraduates or law students.
Yet section 13 of the law school application, dealing with character and fitness, asks applicants to explain any past indiscretions, such as arrests, convictions, honor violations and disciplinary actions.
The Richmond registrar's website also has a page that outlines the law school's policy on sexual offenders. As of July 1, 2006, state law requires that all two- and four-year institutions of higher education send information about accepted applicants to the state police for comparison to the Virginia Criminal Information Network and National Crime Information Center Convicted Sexual Offender Registry, according to the website.
"In compliance with Virginia law, the University of Richmond will submit the requested information for all admitted students to the state police for comparison to the registry," according to the website. "If the University is notified that an admitted student has committed a sex offense, the admitted student is subject to the admission being revoked."
"We live in a society where second chances exist," McCoy said. "Especially if someone is in an education setting, there is a strong possibility that person is trying to better himself."
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