In 1973, the Watergate investigation was in full swing and the U.S. Supreme Court was hearing Roe vs. Wade, and making landmark decisions that changed the country’s culture.
It was a heady time to be a law student at George Washington University and Carmen Espinosa found herself at home in law school.
Espinosa’s life and career have been a blend of family and work that has taken her from her birthplace in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, to Central Connecticut State University, the FBI, and earlier this year to the state Supreme Court.
“People that do not know me personally, know my story, and tell me how proud they are of what I have achieved as a Puerto Rican woman,” Espinosa, 63, told a crowd of close to 150 people who attended her swearing-in ceremony at the state Capitol in March. “The Hispanic community wants to celebrate its successes, just like any other community.”
It’s a personal and professional achievement for Espinosa on three fronts: She was the first in her family to attend college, she is among fewer than 10 women to be named to the state’s highest court, and she is the first Hispanic justice in the state’s history.
“I was thrilled and honored that the governor thought that I had done a good job as a trial judge and an appellate judge,” said Espinosa, a longtime Southington resident. “It was a thorough vetting job they did, which I feel is justified. It’s very exciting.”
Justices are appointed for eight years, but they are typically lifetime appointments, so the openings are few and far between. Espinosa had been on the short list for about a decade.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy appointed Espinosa to the appellate court bench two years ago, and prior to that she spent 19 years presiding over trials in Waterbury, Hartford, Bristol and New Britain. Most of the cases were criminal, and many were high profile.
Malloy said when he saw her name on the list of potential judicial nominees, he determined she was a “tremendous individual and a tremendous American story that was deserving of more attention than it had received.”
Several days before Espinosa’s nomination, members of the General Assembly’s Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission had lobbied members of Malloy’s staff to add more diversity to the bench and throughout the state’s courthouses.
“We commend her for her stellar career,” said Werner Oyanadel, acting executive director of the commission. “She is one of a handful in the country. She is somebody who knows the concerns of the community and has dedicated her life to be where she is. We are pretty excited.”
“It’s a different thing,” she said about the switch from Superior Court to appellate court. “I spent 19 years as a judge handling mostly criminal cases, researching, writing, using the legal skills coupled with life experiences. All of that is helpful. But after a while, it’s natural to want to move up into the appellate courts.”
Espinosa’s family moved to New Britain from Puerto Rico when she was a young child and she attended local schools. After graduating high school she attended CCSU where she received a bachelor’s degree in secondary education, and moved on to Brown University in Rhode Island to get a master’s degree in Hispanic studies.
“My goal was to teach,” she said.
After graduating, she was going to pursue a doctoral degree when she decided she would try teaching before making the commitment.
She taught Spanish and French at Kennedy Middle School in Southington for a few years before deciding the constant repetition involved in language instruction wasn’t for her. A friend in New Britain was applying to law school and Espinosa saw an opportunity.
“I always liked the law,” she said, adding that most of what she knew of it at the time she learned from watching shows like Perry Mason as a child.
She was accepted and spent the next few years in D.C. until graduating. In the meantime, the FBI was recruiting at the George Washington University and pursued her after finding her resume. Espinosa had three things going for her: She was a woman, she had a law degree and she knew three languages. She became the agency’s 68th female agent and worked as a special agent at offices in Newark, N.J. and later in New York City.
“It was exciting and fun work, but I knew I wasn’t going to make a career out of it,” she said. “I wanted to be a trial lawyer.”
She joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Hartford as an assistant U.S. attorney under Stanley Twardy. She helped prosecute a variety of government cases including the $7 million robbery of a Wells Fargo depot in West Hartford in 1983. She served 11 years and received the U.S. Attorney General’s Distinguished Service Award and the U.S. Department of Justice Special Achievement Award.
Former Gov. Lowell Weicker nominated Espinosa for the Superior Court bench in 1992 where she heard cases in Waterbury, Hartford, New Britain and Bristol.
More than a few of the trials she presided over were high-profile criminal cases with details that made the front pages of the state’s newspapers. She said there isn’t one that particularly stands out. Each came with its own set of facts and law and she learned from each.
“They were all important,” she said. “They were all victims adversely affected by some crime.”
Her modest upbringing in New Britain helped her understand the geography of where certain crimes occurred more frequently. It also helped her detect whether people were paying lip service to poverty or racism in their defenses. She admits with a smile that it was more difficult to understand the perspective of “the country club set.”
She’s proud that her appointment shows the public that there are many successful Latinos in the state, she just happens to be one of the higher profile ones. She is also involved in judicial education and served on the Judicial Branch’s Education Committee.
“She was a terrific trial judge,” said New Britain State’s Attorney Brian Peleski. “She knew criminal law, had a broad perspective. She gave both sides a fair hearing, she ruled and you moved on.”
Peleski said he might have butted heads with Espinosa during the five trials they worked on, but he said it’s part of her job to maintain control and decorum.
Despite her no-nonsense approach in her courtroom, she was a personable judge and was known to joke with jurors over the best places to find lunch when proceedings were over.
Peleski attended a meeting of the East Side Neighborhood Association in New Britain after Espinosa’s appointment and was impressed by the number of people who had heard the news.
“There was so much pride in the community that somebody from New Britain had been appointed,” he said. “This is somebody the city should be proud of. This is a terrific feather in her cap and well deserved.”
Espinosa presided over one of Southington’s most notorious cases, a quadruple murder committed during a botched drug deal in 1996. After receiving four guilty verdicts, 17-year-old Marco Camacho was sentenced by Espinosa to four consecutive life sentences for the killings.
At the 2002 sentencing, Espinosa said there was no doubt Camacho slaughtered “innocent and defenseless people,” calling the murders barbaric.
Camacho has since filed a motion claiming his consecutive life sentences violate the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment because he was 17 at the time of the incident.
At a hearing in New Britain Superior Court last month, the motion was continued to follow a case before the Connecticut Supreme Court. The case, State of Connecticut v. Ackeem Riley, involves many of the same circumstances as Camacho’s case. A decision on the motion was postponed to Dec. 3 pending a Supreme Court ruling.
Espinosa said she couldn’t discuss specifics involving cases before the court but said if there are legal issues to consider the court will do so.
“I don’t have a philosophy when it comes to sentencing,” she said. “As a court of last resort, our mission is to review the cases, set precedent and set policy where appropriate.”
The switch from trial judge to appellate court meant saying goodbye to dealing with lawyers and the public in a courtroom to evaluating how the law was applied in a given case. The Supreme Court evaluates the appellate court, she said.
Espinosa said she likes living in Southington where it only takes 10 minutes to go from the rural or suburban sections to bustling shops and restaurants on Queen Street. After living in nearby New Britain, she was familiar with Southington and raised her three children there. To date, none of them appear interested in following their mother into a law career. But it’s never too late and a law degree is valuable in many careers, she said.
“It’s a good thing about law school, you can go at any age,” she said. “The best students were the older ones.”