She Was a Felon Addicted to Drugs—Then Became a Lawyer

From a Washington Post story by Sydney Page headlined “She was a felon who was addicted to drugs. Then she became a lawyer.”:

At the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis, immediately after her client’s murder case was dismissed, attorney Sarah Gad ran into Chief Judge Toddrick Barnette.

She knew him because nearly a decade ago, he was the presiding judge when she was a defendant facing drug charges in his courtroom. She approached him in the courthouse lobby on July 19, and reintroduced herself. Right away, her face was familiar to him.

“Sarah, what are you doing here?” Barnette asked Gad.

Although little about him had changed in nearly a decade, Gad said, almost everything about her had. The last time they saw each other, she was a convicted criminal and a repeat drug offender. Now, she’s a lawyer — defending people like her younger self.

As Gad told Barnette how her life had unfolded since their last encounter, “he was shocked, to say the least,” said Gad, 36. “It took a moment for him to register that I was both a defendant in his courtroom all those years ago, and that I was now a practicing attorney in his courthouse.”

While the interaction felt full-circle for Gad, it was also a meaningful moment for Barnette, who said he seldom sees success stories like Gad’s.

“I’m just so proud of where she is and what she’s doing,” he said. “She came back here, out of all places, to practice law and help people. That is just so amazing.”

“She’s a reminder of what people are capable of doing,” Barnette added.

In the not-so-distant past, Gad wouldn’t have believed that she would one day become an attorney, either. In fact, she wasn’t even sure she would ever be able to get clean, let alone land a stable job.

Like many people who become addicted to opioids, Gad’s drug dependency began with a doctor’s prescription in 2012 after she was injured in a car crash. She was a medical school student at the University of Pittsburgh on a full scholarship at the time, and she had a whole world of opportunities ahead of her.

After the accident, Gad had several broken ribs, an ankle injury and a leg fracture. She recalled being in excruciating pain. To alleviate the agony, her doctors prescribed her several medications, including oxycodone. There were no warnings she could become addicted.

“I think my doctors felt that because I was a medical student, I knew that opioids were addictive,” sad Gad, who also believed her background in medicine would prevent her from developing a problem. “By the time they cut me off, I had this addiction. I started forging prescriptions, and I got caught pretty quickly.”

She dropped out of medical school, and between 2013 and 2015, Gad was repeatedly arrested for nonviolent drug offenses. She was in and out of jail and rehab but kept going back to drugs whenever she got out.

“Every prescription that I forged came with five or six different charges,” she said, explaining that in addition to forgery, she was charged with identity theft, insurance fraud and acquisition of controlled substances. “I was facing 90 felony charges at one point.”

Although she tried to manage her addiction, before long, it began to control her. Without the pills, she said, she could hardly get out of bed in the morning. Eventually she was taking 1,000 milligrams of oxycodone per day. Adults are typically prescribed between five and 15 milligrams every four to six hours to help alleviate pain.

“It was really disheartening to go from being a functional adult in medical school to a convicted felon with a drug addiction,” she said. “I felt so hopeless, and like my life was over.”

She served several stints in jail — ranging from 24 hours to seven months — during which she was badly beaten by other inmates, she said, and also sexually assaulted.

“I was really brutalized in that jail,” Gad said, referring specifically to Cook County Jail in Chicago. At the time of her arrest, she was visiting family in Chicago for Thanksgiving. “The correctional officers were just letting this happen.”

She would go through intense opioid withdrawal in jail — including cold sweats, vomiting, restlessness, delirium and severe anxiety — which would reduce her tolerance to the drugs and make her more susceptible to subsequently overdosing. She wasn’t getting any treatment, and once she was released, she would use again.

After she was arrested on yet another drug charge in 2015, she spent five days detoxing in jail. Once she got back to her parents’ house in Minnesota, she overdosed on opioids — which, Gad said, ended up saving her life. At the hospital, doctors discussed treatment options with her, including medication-assisted treatment (MAT) — which she had not previously known about.

She started taking Subaxone on July 9, 2015, to slowly wean herself off opioids, and has been sober since. As she gradually recovered, Gad sued the Cook County Jail in Chicago, alleging she was physically and sexually assaulted during a 27-day stay in 2013.

Gad, who was represented by Chicago lawyer Kathleen Zellner, agreed to a settlement in the case in 2017, with the county paying her $380,000. Zellner then offered Gad a job to work with her on medical malpractice lawsuits.

“When I met Sarah, she was at rock bottom,” Zellner said. “I threw her a rope by taking her case and giving her a job.”

“She caught the rope and turned her life around. I saw her enormous potential and I believed in her,” she said. “She began to believe in herself. All she needed was a second chance.”

As Gad started to see that her legal work was making an impact, “I became inspired to go to law school and become an attorney.”

She knew that getting accepted to law school as a convicted felon would not be easy, but she explained her past transgressions in her personal statement. She got accepted to nearly every school she applied to, she said, and she used the settlement money she received from her case against the Cook County Jail to pay for her legal education at the University of Chicago, where she started in 2017.

While in law school, Gad began advocating for better drug addiction treatment in jails, and in 2018, she started an organization called Addicted 2 Action (A2A), which works to raise awareness and reduce the stigma surrounding medication-assisted treatment.

“I try to just be the living example of the power of rehabilitation and second chances,” said Gad, who often gives talks to medical students and residents, as well as doctors and emergency personnel.

She passed the bar exam in February 2022, but her swearing-in was delayed because of her criminal background. Over several months, she submitted various documents explaining her past — including her full criminal record, police reports and character reports from people who attested that she had turned her life around.

Since being sworn in to the Minnesota Bar on Aug. 23, 2022, Gad has been working as an attorney in Minneapolis, specializing in criminal defense — including nonviolent drug convictions — and civil rights violations. So far, none of her cases have gone to trial, as she works to get them dismissed or diverted before that point.

“My personal story is what drives me to be the best possible advocate that I can,” Gad said. “I don’t want my clients to have to live through what I lived through.”

“I find the work to be so rewarding in light of what I know,” she continued.

Gad ran unsuccessfully for Congress in Illinois in 2020, losing by a wide margin to Democratic Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.). She is now running again in an attempt to unseat Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) in the 2024 primary election.

Recently, she represented Benjamin Richardson, a 25-year-old man who spent seven months in jail after being arrested on murder charges. The charges were dismissed in July after Gad argued there was insufficient evidence to continue with the case, including witness descriptions that did not match her client, and surveillance evidence showing Richardson was at a different location at the time of the killing.

“It was probably one of the happiest moments of my life,” Richardson said, noting that Gad understood what it was like to be detained in the very same jail that he was in. “I didn’t have to explain it, she already knew what was going on.”

“To know that I was able to give him his freedom back and his life back and spare him the lifelong stigma of being a convicted felon, it means everything to me,” Gad said.

While she never fulfilled her dream of becoming a doctor, she now believes she was always meant to be a lawyer and advocate.

“It’s definitely given me a purpose,” Gad said. “And I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Sydney Page is a staff reporter who writes for The Washington Post’s Inspired Life section, a collection of stories about humanity. She has been a contributor to The Post since 2018.

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