Hollywood screenplay writers couldn't have created a better story: A teen boxing prodigy with Olympic dreams is accused of murder, then acquitted after a dramatic jury trial and goes on to win the USA Boxing National Championship six months later.
However, for Semajay Thomas, it's not a movieit's his life.
At age 15, Thomas lived in Chicago's West Town next to a gang house inhabited by members of Satan's Disciples. The gang tried to recruit Thomas as a pre-teen, but he resisted drugs and organized crime, choosing to pursue his studies and his promising boxing career.
"Everybody in the neighborhood knew Semajay, and everybody knew that he was special. Even the gang kids would come to Eckhart Park and watch him train because he was something to see," said Jon Erickson, an openly gay man who is a partner at the law firm, Erickson & Oppenheimer, that represented Thomas.
Erickson & Oppenheimer specializes in criminal defense and civil-rights litigation, especially police misconduct, police brutality and false arrest. A third of the firm's clientele is gay and lesbian.
Erickson says Thomas was on his front porch when Reynaldo Ortiz walked by, taunting the gang members who were drinking on the neighboring porch. When Thomas sensed trouble, he went inside his home. Fifteen minutes later, Chicago Police found Ortiz beaten to death on Thomas' street.
Several gang members pointed the finger at Thomas, and he was charged with first degree murder two weeks after Ortiz was found dead.
"I was ranked number one at the time. I won the Junior Olympics silver medal, I won the National Silver Gloves; for all that to be taken away from me, it was real devastating and a real burden for my family to bear," said Thomas.
While awaiting trial, Thomas spent 15 months at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, continuing to box by tying up his hands with ripped bed sheets and punching his mattress placed against the side of his cell.
"I started training in the facility, and everybody wanted me to help them train, to get them in shape, show them how to box," said Thomas. "The whole facility started to praise me, to help motivate me. And I started to motivate the younger kids by helping them keep their faith, help keep them positive, and [encouraging them] to follow their dreams. Life doesn't end here."
Very little physical evidence tied Thomas to Ortiz's murder. Thomas' DNA was not found on the victim's body, and his hands were not bruised or injured like they probably would have been if he had fatally beaten someone. According to Erickson, the murder charge against Thomas was based mostly on the eyewitness accounts given by the gang members.
"This is not unusual. Very often, there's not a lot more evidence in murder cases like this," said Erickson, who was quick to point out the prosecutor and police followed the evidence where it led them.
During the trial, Thomas took to the stand to tell his side of the story. "It didn't take us long to realize Semajay was his own best defense," said Erickson.
Thomas was asked who the real killers were, and he hesitated, knowing that gang members would retaliate by attacking his mother and sisters if he named names, but risked convictionand his Olympic dreamsif he refused. Thomas eventually said the first name of the Satan's Disciples leader, and the courtroom erupted.
"It was really something right out of a movie," said Erickson. "[Samajay's] mother fell to the floor because she knew what he was being asked to do, the choice he was being asked to make."
After 50 minutes of deliberation, the jury returned a not guilty verdict. Several jury members were in tears, and some of them even asked the judge for permission to hug Thomas.
"As someone who has done criminal defense for 20 years, never have I heard a juror want anything to do with a criminal defendant, but that just tells you the kind of kid Semajay is," said Erickson.
Thomas wasted no time, pursuing his boxing ambitions the next day. "I was released and I got right back in the gym," said Thomas. "I started back training and sparring. I kept telling everybody I was going to make it to the Olympics."
Thomas and his attorneys have maintained the bond formed throughout the trial. "He's become our kid," said Erickson. "He still comes to the office at least once a week and we sit and talk, find out how he's doing in school."
Six months after Thomas was released, Erickson escorted him to the U.S.A. Boxing Championship, where Thomas took home the 2011 title for the light welterweight division of 141 pounds. Thomas hopes to repeat this victory in February, so he can qualify for the 2012 U.S. Olympic team.
"He's got this spirit about him that's unbreakable," said Erickson. "That's why he'll go all the way."