From jail to practicing law, Minnesota attorney scores big win

The life of Sarah Gad could have been defined by drug addiction and prison. Instead, Gad chose to give herself a chance and go to law school. Now, in her new life, she has been helping others find their path to success.

Last week, Ben Richardson was freed from the Hennepin County Jail after murder charges were dropped last week. While life-changing for Richardson, the victory was also notable for his attorney, Gad. It was her first murder case.

"The judge said, 'I'm convinced that, you know, he didn't do this. There's no case against him,'" Gad recollected.

Gad spent six months fighting in court, trying to get the judge and prosecutors to consider the lack of evidence. But Gad knows how to battle. She's had to make quite the comeback herself after fighting an opioid addiction since a car accident in 2012.

"And not a very good criminal because I got caught really, really fast. And once I had been charged and pleaded guilty to my first felony, I couldn't even process it. I was in medical school, you know, a top 15 institution, and suddenly I'm a convicted felon with a drug problem," she said.

Between 2012 and 2015, Gad had seven non-violent felony drug convictions, going in and out of jail in Pennsylvania and Hennepin County. She landed in the Cook County Jail during a trip to Chicago, which she describes as 27 days in hell.

"I was beaten, I was stabbed, I was raped and thrown in solitary confinement when my family started making noise and reaching out to people. And Kathleen Zellner was interested in my case because I think she's had a lot of negative experiences with the Cook County Jail and just how they treat people," Gad recounted.

Kathleen Zellner is a well-known attorney made famous by the Netflix documentary "Making a Murderer." Even as Gad struggled with addiction, Zellner stood by her side and invited her to help at the law firm. This was the chance Gad needed to change her life.

"And I found the work to be very rewarding. I had the privilege of being able to be present when a person that I had helped prove they were wrongfully convicted of murder. I was able to be at the prison and be with him as he took his first steps up to freedom, hugging his family," Gad shared.

Gad is referring to the case of Mario Casciaro, a man convicted of murder and later freed when the witness recanted. A case and a moment that inspired Gad to go to law school. She was accepted into the prestigious University of Chicago Law School. She was able to pay for law school through a settlement she received from Cook County.

But, there was one more hurdle. She had to face a Hennepin County judge who could have sentenced her to prison.

"'There's a mandatory minimum for repeat drug offenders, and she is a serial recidivist who cannot be rehabilitated,'" Gad recounted. "But the judge is like, 'Well, she did say she got into law school, like, I'll give her the benefit of the doubt.' [I] started law school with an ankle monitor."

Gad graduated in 2020 and received her license to practice law in August 2022. Her experiences with the criminal justice system, jails, and addiction have all led to this point. The day Richardson's case was dropped, she ran into a judge she knew from her old life.

"It was crazy running into Judge Barnett, who was the judge who presided over my drug convictions. And he was like, 'What are you doing out here?' I was like, 'Oh, yeah, I just, you know, I'm out here working now'," Gad said.

Gad has handled 21 cases in a year. None have gone to trial.

Gad's transformation was acknowledged by attorney Kathleen Zellner, who said, "I recognized her enormous potential for making a real contribution to society and I tried to influence her in that direction…. She has transformed herself from a criminal defendant into a champion for the legally oppressed. All she needed was a second chance."