By Ruth Sheehan, News & Observer staff writer
In February 1990, Lynn Burke arrived at her public housing unit, escorted by a parole officer, to find her four young children living in squalor. Her crackhead husband had left pipes and needles in a back room. The kitchen sink was so clogged with grease, he did dishes in the tub.
Broken and broke after two years in prison, Burke had little reason to be optimistic about her future. Then her 7-year-old son held out something in his hand.
“I was thinking you might need this,” he said. For two years, he’d slept with Burke’s driver’s license under his pillow.
Burke realized in that moment that her children and others in her life believed in her against all odds.
Their faith – and Burke’s own drive – led her on a odyssey from a felony fraud conviction to representing clients for the Orange County Public Defender’s Office.
Burke, 47, graduated last month from N.C. Central University Law School and is studying for the bar exam in July; she hopes to begin criminal defense work in the fall. Burke knows her story is rare; she wishes it weren’t so.
“Cons are like everyone else. We want to contribute. We want our children to be proud of us,” she said. “My story shouldn’t be miraculous. I’m a regular person who screwed up royally. If I can do this, anyone can.”
Burke didn’t grow up in poverty. Her father was a corporate lawyer, her mother, a nurse. It was an upper middle-class upbringing in upstate New York, then Tennessee. Still, Burke said, she never learned key lessons about how much things cost, about education, about personal responsibility.
At 18, she got pregnant and couldn’t bring herself to give her son up for adoption.
One night his father dropped off checks he’d stolen and told Burke if she ever needed anything for their son, she should just write a check. She did – until she got caught.
She was put on probation at 19 while pregnant, by another man, with twin girls. Within a year she had her fourth baby and was sentenced for the first time. She persuaded the father of her three younger kids to marry her so they wouldn’t be sent to foster care.
Burke was still on probation when she moved to North Carolina to be closer to her ailing mother. In 1986, she registered at N.C. State.
But when her mother died that fall , Burke fell into a deep depression. Overwhelmed by caring for four preschoolers, she called her husband’s mother in Tennessee to send his younger sister to help.
Instead, he and his drug habit arrived. Before long, Burke reverted to her old habits, kiting checks, returning stolen items for cash. Anything to make ends meet. Until, in the end, she got busted but good.
Superior Judge Donald Stephens sentenced her to prison for nine counts of felony fraud.
Coping with her past
On Feb. 9, 1990, Burke was released. She quickly learned how few employers are interested in ex-offenders.
To dodge criminal record checks, she used her maiden name on job applications. Eventually, she was always found out.
She started a floral delivery business in Raleigh. It thrived, then foundered. Finally, she persuaded her father to hire her as his legal assistant. She took to the paperwork and the lingo.
In 2006, 20 years after she first registered, Burke graduated from N.C. State with a degree in social work.
She began to wonder if she couldn’t take her experience with the legal system – both inside and out, as a de facto paralegal for her dad – and become a lawyer herself. She applied to N.C. Central’s law school twice and finally got in. Through sheer determination, she got through.
Judge Kristin Ruth, who sees lots of ex-cons in her child support court, knows how unusual Burke’s success is.
“She’s one who never gave up,” Ruth said. “You see her talking to the clients and there is an instant connection. She can honestly say ‘I’ve been there, done that. I’ve been in that jail cell. And now I’m here.’”
Dennis Gaddy, executive director of the Community Success Initiative, which assists ex-offenders, noted that 70 percent of children whose parents have been in prison end up in prison themselves. But “there is a way to turn setbacks into a comeback,” he said, calling Burke one of his program’s stars.
Passing on life lessons
Burke said she tried to teach her kids the lessons she never learned. All four worked jobs through high school, helping her pay bills, buying their own clothes.
All four graduated from college. Her son’s a Raleigh cop. The twins got degrees in public health. And her youngest daughter graduated from NCCU.
One day last spring, while interning for the Wake County Public Defender’s Office, Burke decided to stop by to see someone she first met in court in 1988.
Judge Stephens didn’t recognize her.
“You sentenced me to 10 years in prison,” Burke said.
“I told him, ‘Judge, I just wanted to let you know that I understand what a difficult job you have and that you were just doing what you had to do,’ ” she said. ” ‘I also wanted to let you know that all four of my kids graduated from college.’ “
“And what are you doing these days, Ms. Burke?” the judge asked.
“I’m going to law school,” she replied.
The usually unflappable judge did a double take. “You’re what?”
“I was happy to hear it,” Stephens said. “We don’t hear many success stories. Ms. Burke had the tenacity to climb her way out.”
Burke plans to practice criminal defense, representing people like her who have “screwed up royally.” She wants to be one of their believers.
“I want to be that benefit of the doubt that someone can change,” she said.