Trial Briefs

Making a Difference 

April 25, 2024   |   Amber Nimocks

NCAJ To Honor Becky Britton With Thurgood Marshall Award For Changing Lives of Clients and Students  

As a secretary for a law firm in Poughkeepsie, NY in the 1980s, Becky Britton was doing more than using White Out and making carbon copies. She was interviewing doctors and putting together medical records for the firm’s cases.

When she noticed some of her work had been charged to clients as attorney services, it was an a-ha moment. She realized she could do her bosses’ job.

“I sold everything I owned except my car and my cat, loaded her and my clothes in my car and moved up to Maine where my parents had retired,” she said. “I went to the University of Maine and got my undergraduate degree and then went to Campbell Law.” Britton was accepted at the University of Maine without an SAT score. Her work experience would suffice, the admissions office told her.

Serendipity was at play, but brains and grit had a larger role.

After Britton had made up her mind to go to law school, she was visiting her parents in Maine for Christmas and was in the kitchen with her mother and grandmother doing the dishes.

“I remember I said, ‘What would you think about having a lawyer in the family?’ and my mother said, ‘Are you dating an attorney?’

‘No, Mom, I want to be one.’ ”

Her mother said, “Oh, Becky, you have a really good job. Why would you want to do that?”

Her mother and her grandmother told her to go talk to her father, who said that of course they would support her in any course she chose.

Little did any of them know at the time that supporting Britton in her calling would alter the lives of so many in our state. In June at Convention, NCAJ will present Britton with its Thurgood Marshall Award, which recognizes extraordinary and selfless service to the people of North Carolina in keeping with the legacy of the legendary chief justice.

Changing Things

Years later, after graduating from Campbell Law, Britton found herself working for the influential Fayetteville firm Beaver, Holt, Richardson Sternlicht, Burge & Glazier, where she learned to love plaintiffs’ work, got involved with NCAJ and became a mock trial evangelist. It was also where she and Rick Glazier took on the case of Lesly Jean, a wrongly convicted and imprisoned ex-Marine whose civil case would go to the U.S. Supreme Court twice and lead to the passage of a law allowing for DNA testing for inmates and help pave the way for the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission.

“If anybody who had known me in high school met me now – their jaw would drop,” she said. “I was not considered college material.”

Her original intention after law school was to do malpractice defense work.

“I was basically going to do research and writing because the thought of going into a courtroom terrified me,” she said.

A moot court competition changed her trajectory.

Billy Richardson, a Fayetteville trial attorney who would later serve a dozen years in the state House of Representatives, was a combative judge during one of her rounds.

After the moot court, Richardson offered her a job. A summer spent clerking at Beaver Holt Richardson Sternlicht Burge & Glazier cured her of any inclination toward insurance defense.

“I think the most significant thing that l learned that summer was that as a plaintiffs’ lawyer you can accomplish so much to help people,” she said. “You’re not dealing with an insurance company and hourly billing. You’re actually making a difference in peoples’ lives.”

Most often those differences reverberate quietly through the lives of individuals who are helped by modest but meaningful financial recoveries or the second chances that come with being adjudicated innocent. 

Occasionally those differences reverberate beyond the individual. This was the case with Lesly Jean.

In 1993, Jean had been released after spending nine years in prison on a rape conviction. Police used hypnosis-induced testimony to build a case against him, and some evidence related to the hypnosis was not disclosed to defense counsel or prosecutors. Jean was freed after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit found that the failure to timely disclose the tapes of the hypnosis violated his right to due process under Brady v. Maryland.

Although Jean was free, he had not been found innocent. He had been dishonorably discharged from the military. His mother had been murdered while he was in prison, and he was estranged from his family.

Britton and Glazier fought a fruitless six-year battle against the police officers who had failed to turn evidence over. They went to the Fourth Circuit three times and to the U.S. Supreme Court twice. In 2001, the Supreme Court declined to consider the case further, letting stand the Fourth Circuit ruling that the officers had no independent duty to disclose exculpatory evidence to prosecutors.  

As Jean’s case was nearing its end in the appellate courts in 1999, Britton and Glazier began to pursue the possibility of proving his innocence via the state pardon process.

“I called a friend in Onslow County to see if the evidence from the 1982 rape investigation was still at the courthouse,” Britton recalls.

It turned out a box sitting in the clerk’s office in Jacksonville contained the rape kit, the victim’s semen-stained nightgown and vials of Jean’s blood. They filed a motion to preserve and began a legal battle to allow DNA analysis. Those tests proved Jean had been wrongfully convicted, and Gov. Easley pardoned him in 2001.

At the time, compensation for those wrongfully convicted was capped at $10,000 per year spent in prison.

Britton and Glazier worked with NCAJ on a legislative campaign to get that law changed, eventually getting the cap raised to $20,000 per year. The law was changed retroactive to Jean’s pardon. They also lobbied for the Innocence Protection Act, which allowed for DNA testing for inmates and provided for DNA testing early in the criminal process.

Britton recalled Jean’s patience in an article she wrote for “Trial Briefs” in 2002.

“He told me, ‘I’ve come to understand this thing is much bigger than me. My story will change things, won’t it?’ ”

The Light In Their Eyes

While the Jean case had been unfolding, Britton had begun coaching high school mock trial in 1995. She was hooked after her first season, as she watched her high school competitors begin to understand their own potential, to believe in themselves while meeting the challenges of mock trial.

“It gives kids like I was the insight that they can do so much more, and I did not get that insight until I was in my early twenties,” she said. “It helps open their eyes to what’s possible for them. It took me going to secretarial school, getting in a car accident and being sued, deciding to concentrate in legal terminology and then working at a law firm and seeing my time billed as attorney time before I got it.”

The North Carolina Academy of Trial Lawyers, now NCAJ, had begun North Carolina High School Mock Trial as its flagship public education program in 1992. Britton first volunteered as a juror and then to lead a team at Westover High School in Fayetteville.

“These kids were not your private school kids,” she said. “Most of the time parents were not able to be there to watch because they were working. When they were able to attend, I remember one of them looking at me saying ‘I can’t believe what I just saw my kid doing.’ ”

Going into their first competition, her Westover kids felt outclassed, but their skills and confidence steadily grew. In 1998, Britton’s team won the state finals in Raleigh and a chance to compete at the national competition in Albuquerque, NM. As they drove back down I-95 from State Finals one kid still awake in the dark of a borrowed van asked, “Hey, Mrs. B, how are we gonna get to New Mexico?”

“I told them we were going to fly, and all of them woke up because not one of them had ever been on a plane,” she said.

Britton and other NCAJ members and Fayetteville attorneys raised the money for the trip. Before they left, they took them all to Belk and bought them suits. The Westover team took fifth place at nationals out of 44 teams.

After coaching, Britton served in leadership roles for the state and then national mock trial boards for 20 years. She was NCAJ education vice president in 2002 when NCAJ won the bid to host the 2005 National High School Mock Trial Championship in Charlotte. She was on the board of the National High School Mock Trial Championship when NCAJ again hosted the national competition in Raleigh in 2015 and welcomed U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia as a guest.

She became president of the North Carolina High School Mock Trial Program board in 2018 after helping shepherd the operation from the auspices of NCAJ to become its own nonprofit in 2008. 

Meanwhile, she moved on from Beaver Holt to work with two other firms in Fayetteville and eventually start her own practice.

“I realized if I was going to practice the way I wanted to practice and run a firm the way I wanted to run a firm I needed to do it myself,” she said. “It was like the realization that I could go back and go to college and go to law school. I took the leap of faith and did it.”

Britton also served as president of NCAJ in 2006-2007, just the fourth woman to hold the position.

“At that time there were amazing people in leadership,” she said. “I loved the Academy. Burton Craig, Cliff Britt, Spencer Parris, Mark Sumwalt – they were all great people. It was never a question when working with them if you were male or female. I never felt like I was underestimated. I also had fantastic support and friendship in Mary Ann Tally, Liz Kuniholm and Janet Ward Black. There was never a board meeting where one of them had not saved a seat for me. I respected and admired each of them and have been so fortunate to have them as mentors and friends.”

Britton sold her firm in 2020 and finished representation of her last client last fall. This year, she’s stepping back from Mock Trial leadership.

She and her husband John have moved to Waynesville, where she spends a lot of time hiking and tending her flower gardens while plotting a long bucket list of travel destinations.

She is of counsel with Maginnis Howard and continues some part-time work as a certified mediator and arbitrator when requested.

“I am a trial lawyer.  I may be semi-retired, but I will keep my fingers in things and be involved in some way,” she said.

And, of course, she will continue her involvement with mock trial as an emeritus board member.

“We have fantastic leaders stepping up on the NCMTP board and they are going to see the program into a successful and robust future,” she said. “I am excited to see where it will go.  I will be here to support and to cheer them on.”

Britton does plan to attend competitions. That way she’ll be there to see the faces of the student mockers light up in those moments when they begin to realize just what they are capable of.