Special Report

The example of courage

Chris Wood December 6 1999
Special Report

The example of courage

Chris Wood December 6 1999

The example of courage

Special Report

Twenty years ago, he was a streetwise, functionally illiterate kid in a Brooklyn ghetto. Now, at 36, he is a Crown attorney in Kamloops, B.C. Two things happened to transport Lesra Martin from hopelessness to middle-class respectability. First, he had a chance meeting with a group of Canadians visiting New York City, and they invited him to leave his impoverished family—including a musician father who had fallen on hard times, and seven siblings—to live in their Toronto commune. Then, at a library sale, the teenager came upon Rubin (Hurricane) Carter’s The Sixteenth Round and was inspired to take his own giant step in the reinvention of his life. It was the first book he had read all the way through. “I was attracted to Rubin because of his example of courage,” says Martin. “The obstacles that he had to overcome were so far greater than the obstacle of learning to read or write.”

While his Toronto “family” campaigned for Carter’s release, at age 17 Martin won acceptance at the University of Toronto.

He went on to complete an honours bachelor of arts program in anthropology, and then enrolled at Dalhousie University in Halifax to seek a master’s in sociology. But soon he surrendered to a passion he had long resisted, in part out of loyalty to Carter: the practice of law. “As a result of what happened to Rubin, I was convinced that any system that would allow this to happen couldn’t be a system worth working with,” he says. “It was a struggle initially to have some faith in what I’m doing now.” All the more so since what Martin does now is, on the surface, the exact opposite of what he sought for Carter. Since being called to the British Columbia bar last May, he has put people in jail for a living. He has already worked his first murder case—a conviction. But he defends his seemingly paradoxical decision to

follow the calling. “I hope that we can eliminate wrongful prosecutions and convictions entirely,” he argues. “Where better to ensure they don’t happen than at the opening gate, where you can still decide not to proceed if something’s wrong.” Nonetheless, Martin felt nervous breaking his intentions to his mentor. Carter survived the shock: he attended Martin’s call to the bar and also that of his wife of 18 months, Cheryl Martin (a Dartmouth, N.S., native he met in law school).

What Martin calls the “miraculous” quality of his life informs the motivational speeches he now gives to corporate clients— sometimes with Carter. “We’re all faced all the time with coincidences,” he says. “It’s whether we respond to them that’s going to make the difference.”

Chris Wood in Kamloops