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Allison Perkins

From a Cult to the Courtroom

Aaron Penn spent his childhood in a cult.

The religious sect, of which his parents were prominent members, taught followers to believe the world was ending. He remembers when his 7-year-old cousin was diagnosed with leukemia and denied a blood transfusion because of his family’s beliefs. The boy died soon after. The traumatic experience left Aaron asking questions.

When he was excommunicated he walked away from that life, with answers.

“I couldn’t care less if the adults don’t want to take blood transfusions, but the children, they can’t do that to the children,” he said.

Now, he’s working toward becoming a lawyer, so he can give children like his cousin a voice.

As a student in Bryant & Stratton University's Criminal Justice program, he has taken those first steps. He chose the school based on the recommendation of his wife, who also attended. 

In the criminal justice program, Aaron said he tackled criminal procedure classes and other basics that will help him have a solid foundation for law school.

But, Bryant & Stratton University gave him more than a working knowledge of terms and ideas.
The instructors and staff, he said, gave him a reason to work harder.

“The main thing I can tell you, the instructors there, they really care. The program director, Christine Stymus, reached out to me and helped,” he said. “I was always told growing up the world was going to end before I had a chance to go to college. I said to myself, ‘I am getting out of this cult. I am going to be a lawyer’. I worked my whole life to be in this position where I can focus on my education.”

Stymus also urged Aaron to submit his writings to the local paper. He was soon featured as a guest editorial writer, as he outlined his reasons why more prisons are not the answer.

His hard work has already paid dividends. Recently, he was the first non-law student to work as an intern in the U.S. Federal Public Defender’s office in Cleveland.

The unpaid, fulltime stint took Aaron to the capital habias unit where every client is sitting on death row. There, he had the chance to interview them, study their cases and understand what only a person who witnessed something firsthand can tell you.

Most importantly, Aaron said as part of his duties there, he was sworn in to protect the Constitution. The ideals of which are dear to his heart.

“When you meet people who are on death row for 36 years, wrongly convicted, that is propelling,” he said.  “People say, ‘Oh, you want to go criminal defense, you want to get people off? But it's not that simple. You want people like me look over bad police work. I got to investigate files, I got to crack issues that they didn't have the resources for. This was the real deal.”

Now, headed to law school, his experience at Bryant & Stratton and with the public defender’s office has left Aaron is even more driven.

“ I can't wait to give back,” he said.


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