Longform

KEEPING HIS OWN COUNSEL

part 1 of 2
Nick Avila's graduation from the University of Colorado's law school in 1976 and subsequent career, no matter how short-lived, were nothing short of a miracle. A product of the city's lower-class Globeville neighborhood, he seemed that rare person: someone who had stuggled to make good--and then became determined to make it easier for those who followed.

In fact, Avila seemed almost obsessed with maintaining an image of how to go about becoming the ideal community lawyer. He returned to north Denver and set up a small neighborhood law office that accepted drop-in clients. He gave away numerous hours of his time to local organizations and provided free legal services for the elderly and the poor.

"I can give you the names of a lot of Hispanic attorneys who wouldn't volunteer their time--they got their degree and they forgot the people," says Donald Sandoval, a former state senator who represented north Denver and who now works for Mayor Wellington Webb. "Nick was known in the community because he didn't."
Somewhere along the way, however, the neighborhood apparently caught up to Nick Avila. In 1984 he was ensnared as part of a ring of small-time crooks who could arrange to have a person's driving record altered or deleted for anywhere between a few hundred and a few thousand dollars.

After that it was as if Avila was intent on single-mindedly untying the carefully knotted fabric of a well-spent life. The final tear was made on the morning of March 11, 1988. That was the day he was sentenced to ten years in federal prison for possessing four and a half pounds of cocaine he carried out of the Denver bus station in a nylon duffel bag.

And it seemed as though drugs had become the least of Avila's faults. Although they never proved it, police suspected that the former attorney tried to kill the man who would testify against him. And the prosecutor who put him away still thinks it was Avila who planted explosives in his car the day before the cocaine trial.

When Avila was caught carrying the cocaine he was still on probation from the motor vehicles records case. So later on the same spring day as his drug sentencing, he returned to the courtroom of District Court Judge Connie Peterson to accept his additional sentencing. As she reviewed the numerous testimonials to Avila's good character, Peterson conceded that she was baffled by the man she was about to send to jail.

Repeatedly calling the past three years of Avila's life "a tragedy," the young judge, who had graduated in the same class as Avila from the University of Colorado's law school, allowed that she didn't know who was before her this morning. "On the background and the records and the description by his former wife and his son, it seems almost like a different person than would be involved in this kind of crime," she said.

"It's hard to believe it's the same person, isn't it?"

On this mid-January day, in Courtroom 20 of the Denver City and County Building, a scene is unfolding that Salvador Dali could have painted had he discovered courtrooms as inspiration. Nick Avila, whose license to practice law was suspended in 1986 and then revoked in 1989, is practicing law. He moves slowly, back and forth between the bar and the witness stand. The man he is interrogating is the former highest-ranking federal attorney in the state, Michael Norton.

In place of one of the dark suits Avila once wore are a green prison shirt with a white long-sleeved shirt underneath and green prison pants. His hair, which he once wore slicked back with cosmetic gels, is unruly, where it still covers his scalp at all. A stubby pencil with a blue eraser has taken the place of gleaming metal pens. He is short. His hair and mustache are flecked with white. His prison identification tag flaps against his chest. Leg shackles grab his legs.

Unlike many criminals who go to jail and who over the years learn enough law to irritate law enforcement officials from their cells, Nick Avila entered the penitentiary with a distinct advantage: He already was a lawyer. And despite the technical setback of having his license pulled, he has never stopped acting like one.

In fact, Avila could be held up as an example of why white collar criminals--lawyers in particular--ought not to be sentenced to jail. For the past several months, he has practiced law out of a double cell in the Denver County jail. In place of a cellmate, however, he shares his space with an estimated ten cubic feet of legal papers he has generated since swapping his briefcase for handcuffs.

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer