True believer

After decades as a criminal defense lawyer in the Philadelphia area, it would be understandable if Sam Stretton had become jaded.

He has, after all, carved out an unusual practice – part court appointments representing impoverished clients on trial for murder and other crimes, part representing judges who have run afoul of state judicial and ethical rules.

It would have been even more understandable if Stretton’s cynical epiphany had occurred Tuesday, when he was representing convicted double-murderer Anthony Collins, 27, at a sentencing hearing before Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina.

Collins and his cousin Malik, 23, were found guilty last week of two counts of first-degree murder in the March 18, 2006 killings of rival drug dealer Johnny Harmon, 39, and Harmon’s girlfriend, Latoya Bostick, 18.

The Collinses were each sentenced to consecutive life sentences by Sarmina and their appearances were notable for the fact that they joked and grinned at their victims’ families during the sentencing.

There was really not much that Stretton could do for Anthony Collins. The death penalty was not on the table in the Collinses’ trial and in Pennsylvania, a guilty verdict for first-degree murder carries a mandatory life prison term with no chance of parole.

Still, Stretton made the effort, telling Sarmina about Collins’ tough childhood raised by a grandmother, his addiction to marijuana and eventual recruitment into the violent, sordid world of West Philly drug gangs.

He praised Collins’ newfound devotion to Islam and said he noticed other signs of personal development in his client. Stretton continually patted Collins on the back and urged him to take educational courses and make the most of his life -- even though he will spend it in a state prison.

“I think you should know the man standing before you,” Stretton told the judge.

Collins looked at him, wide grin and quizzical expression on his face, as if he thought Stretton was talking about someone else.

As a deputy sheriff led Collins from the courtroom, Stretton, who turned 63 on Tuesday, made one last try. He clapped Collins on the shoulder and said: “You’ll remember what I told you?”

Collins made no reply and when he was gone from the room, Sarmina looked down at Stretton, and smiled.

“Well, hope springs eternal,” Stretton said with a shrug.

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