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She had been on the job at Legal Aid Society of Queens for a short while, and as such things happen in offices, a male colleague struck up an inviting conversation. “Are you married or anything?” he asked. “I’m a nun,” she said. How does a guy respond to that? “I sort of thought so — “ Oh? She took a quick inventory: Here am I, a fresh new face on the legal scene at the age of 52; I rarely used makeup; I’m not much for jewelry … ” — You wear that cross around your neck a lot” She is now careful to tuck away the cross. Then there was the matter of her mentor, fellow criminal defense attorney Robert Knightly. “Her whole first year, I never knew Mary was a nun,” he said. “It just sort of came out one day at lunch. But I always thought she looked like a nun.” Six years ago, Ross argued a brief for her second calling: to go to law school. Her regional superior was persuaded. Today, Ross remains an active member of the Sisters of St. Joseph, in Hempstead, Long Island. But instead of working as executive director of the Sisters’ Providence House shelter and doing counseling for female ex-offenders, she is a staff attorney for Legal Aid Society. When she enrolled at the City University of New York School of Law at Queens College, she said, “I thought I’d go for family law or housing law. But it turned out that I loved all my courses in criminal law.” She was also inspired by the late Heywood Burns, a Queens law professor and distinguished criminal defense lawyer who galvanized Sister Mary’s sense of social outrage, built over the course of her years of working with the poor for some 30 years. “I know these people who get picked up for the tiniest things, like drinking a beer in public,” she said. “They’ll spend 24 hours in the [police] pens, and even if you want to fight the charge for them, they’ll take any kind of plea from the D.A., just to get out. So they walk with a disorderly conduct charge. Then maybe they’ll get caught drinking a beer in the street again, and all of a sudden they’re up against a judge who sees before him somebody with a criminal record,” said Ross, who is also widely known among her colleagues as Sister Mary. “It becomes a revolving door — this whole prison expansion has become housing for the poor.” What would Sister Mary’s father say of such an egalitarian worldview from a parochial school graduate who came from a prosperous family in Brooklyn? “Oh, I can just hear him,” she said of the late John Ross, a Brooklyn real estate attorney. “He’d want me to do something more ‘worthy’ in the legal field. He’d talk about those ‘bums’ I was defending. But then he’d wind up being proud of me all the same,” she said. “We’re all guilty of something, you know. Most of us get away with it. I wasn’t always a nun. There’s an old saying I like: the rich boy’s prank is the poor boy’s felony.” Her boss at Legal Aid, supervising attorney Kenneth DeLuca, said Sister Mary was “hired because she’s a good lawyer,” but that being a nun helps. “She’s obviously a richer person because of her background,” DeLuca said of Sister Mary. “When older people go to law school, they’re pretty focused. They can certainly handle themselves in a courtroom quickly, as well as in the public arena.” On the other hand, is a nun inherently vulnerable in the earthly venue of the law? “I immediately identified her main problem as a defense lawyer,” said Knightly, a veteran staff attorney. “That was her inclination to believe the stories she’s told by her clients. I have done my best to dispel that. She’s coming right along now.” Sister Mary makes it her policy to “dress like other lawyers dress,” and to be known as Counselor Ross to her clients, of whom she admits, “They’re not always telling me the truth.” In the hundreds of matters she has handled, Counselor Ross has confided her original calling to a mere three clients. “Of the three,” she said, “only one believed me.” FIRST CASE She appears to be coming right along as an attorney. “She won the first misdemeanor trial I handed over to her,” Knightly said. “That was a lollapalooza.” Sister Mary explained, “He was a Santeria priest, accused of assaulting a guy with a baseball bat. The guy who pressed charges was mad because his girlfriend had just joined up with the group, which meant she could not have sex for a year. “Anyway, the priest did not have an alibi, and he came to court with six female followers, all dressed in long white gowns. One of them said she did it — out of self-defense, really. The open court confession just about made the D.A. go berserk.” Knightly also tossed Sister Mary a felony brief from what is known at Legal Aid as a “dead case file.” Sister Mary said, “That means you don’t have a prayer at trial.” The case involved a defendant who habitually worked the trousers and handbags of Roosevelt Avenue, subjecting himself to repeat arrests by an increasingly weary police officer. After she elicited from the officer the fact that he had not actually witnessed the crime, Knightly recalled, “Sister Mary persuaded the client that despite his belief in her magnificence as a lawyer, he should cop to a misdemeanor in exchange for forgetting about the felony charge.” ULTIMATE ASSIGNMENT Her current assignment at Legal Aid is a stepping-stone to her ultimate goal: defending death row inmates. She is gathering the experience required before seeking a position in the capital defender office of Legal Aid. Ross had settled on her ultimate goal long before she knew of a New Orleans nun by the name of Sister Helen Prejean, author of “Dead Man Walking,” a book about a death row inmate in Louisiana that was made into a major motion picture. “All the reasons given [to justify] the death penalty are untrue,” Ross said. “It doesn’t deter murder. It doesn’t make the families of the victims whole again. It doesn’t give closure for these people. “These people should be grieving, but instead they’re often hating,” she said. “It’s easier to hate.” From personal experience, Sister Mary knows something of the vengeful impulse. A much-loved niece recently suffered brain damage as the result of a hit-and-run accident, for which two men were eventually hunted down by police and prosecuted. “Remember, I wasn’t always a nun,” she said. “My first reaction was: oh, I really want to get these guys. But, you know — rarely do you find a horrendous crime where the criminal hasn’t led a horrendous life.” “It is possible to hate the crime and yet love the criminal,” she said. “That’s what I have to do in order to do what I’m doing as a public defender.” If Ross is ever called for the defense in a capital case, she is aware that the media would quickly point out that the lawyer is also a nun. She is likewise aware of the inevitable court of public opinion.

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