For years now, people have told Cornell Battle that he should meet with the judge who gave him his second felony strike – and delivered a stern but ultimately transformative admonishment.
Last week, Battle got that chance. Sacramento Superior Court Judge Gary Ransom shook Battle’s hand, and then they walked side by side down a hallway to chat in a room near Ransom’s court. A new business owner, Battle handed the judge a thank-you card with the Serenity Prayer on its cover.
There was no evidence of the self-described scandalous thief and drug addict who was sentenced by Ransom in 1997, but Battle leaves no doubt about what he used to be like.
“As far as lying, cheating or stealing, nothing was off-limits,” Battle said. “I was breaking into people’s homes and apartments, and the judge told me, ‘You are a menace and a danger to society, and I need to put you away for a while.’”
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Battle said he had been in Ransom’s courtroom eight or nine times on various charges in the years leading up to his second strike. He was confined twice in court-ordered drug rehabilitation programs for eight or nine months, he said, but he’d get out and look for ways to score drugs again.
While Ransom condemned his crime, Battle said, he also held out hope.
“He told me something to the effect that I needed to find out what I needed to do to stay out of his courtroom and, most importantly, what I needed to do for myself to get sober,” Battle said. “Then it just clicked for me. Every time I had come before him, it was because of my drug and alcohol addiction, and he knew it was fixable. He knew it was fixable.”
That was the day Battle decided he was going to find meetings for Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous as soon as he got to prison.
“I’ve sentenced thousands and thousands of people,” Ransom said. “Two or three times a week, if I’m out at Home Depot or somewhere, someone will come up to me and say, ‘Hello, Judge Ransom, I’ve been clean for 13 months,’ or ‘I’ve been clean for 10 years.’ They all remember what I told them. I have no memory of it, but they remember.”
There are two things you can give people that don’t cost anything: hope and love, the 72-year-old Ransom said. As Sacramento’s first black public defender, Ransom said, he recalls representing people who had no hope, people who are in prison to this day.
Ransom is officially retired from Sacramento Superior Court, but he still hears traffic and misdemeanor cases two or three times a week.
In 1997, he sentenced Battle to 13 years; with good behavior, Battle earned parole in 2007. He was able to get a job with the Salvation Army emergency shelter but lost it, he said, because administrators felt he was being too hard on the clients. At the time, Battle was living in Quinn Cottages, transitional housing for the homeless run by the nonprofit Cottage Housing, and he took to washing cars.
“Cornell just loves cars,” said David Husid, director of community development for the nonprofit. “He loves to wash them. He told me he wanted to do it for a living. I got together with our CFO, Cornelius Taylor, and we brainstormed how to do it at another level.”
The three created Finishing Touch mobile detailing service in 2011. They made Battle the manager, Husid said, but stressed: “We don’t want this to be the end for you. We want you to move past this, and we want you to hand the torch to someone else that you can mentor. It’s like a steppingstone.”
Cornell just “jumped on that,” Husid said, and assembled a crew, which consisted of participants in the Quinn Cottages program. “If Cornell hadn’t hired them, they would not have been employed.”
Soon, accounts with KVIE, 3fold Communications and other businesses followed.
As Battle worked, he began to use skills that other AA and NA members taught him. He saved his money and slowly acquired his own detailing equipment.
“I bought the same pressure washer that Finishing Touch has,” he said. “I bought my own power generator, everything.”
Battle passed the torch for Finishing Touch to others in the Quinn Cottages program and started Step One mobile detailing service about a year ago. He also works in Sacramento as an on-site property manager for Midtown Manor Rooming House, whose owner Tina White wrote a letter to judge Ransom saying: “Cornell has been a good tenant, good apartment manager and also has become a good friend. Just in the three years that I have known him, I have seen so much energy and focus on being a good member of society.”
Battle is grateful, he said, that before his mother died in 2011, she was able to see that he had remained clean and sober for four years after leaving prison.
“My life has come around full circle, from standing in front of the judge,” Battle said, “being shackled in a jumpsuit on my way to prison, to meeting him in person in his chambers and being able to thank him for giving me yet another chance to get it together.”