Leon, an assistant district attorney, first came to the United States in 1996 on a one-year high school cultural exchange program. This past Aug. 18, he became an American citizen in a naturalization ceremony in U.S. District Court.
“I can tell you I’m a proud American,” said Leon, who started in the District Attorney’s Office in 2003 as a volunteer victim-witness coordinator. “I cared before, but now I care even more. I have a new sense of belonging.”
Shelby County Dist. Atty. Gen. Amy Weirich said Leon is determined and persistent in everything he does.
“Jose never gives up,” said Gen. Weirich. “He fought for his citizenship. He fought to be an attorney in the United States and he fights every day for victims. He is proof that if you work hard and do the right thing every day, you can live the American dream.”
Leon is from Maracaibo, a metropolis in northwest Venezuela where oil corporations dominated until an economic slowdown, President Hugo Chavez and a national strike intervened.
After graduating from law school from Universidad Catolica Andres Bello in Caracas, Leon interned and then became part of the legal counsel office of a Venezuelan-owned oil company.
Then, in 2003, it was back to Memphis where he worked as a law clerk for an immigration law firm, doing research, preparing legal documents and attending immigration hearings in federal court.
He also worked as a waiter, a bartender and, more recently, as an adjunct professor in criminology at the University of Memphis.
Leon also began volunteering as a victim-witness assistant in the District Attorney’s Office, helping the office in cases involving Hispanic victims of crime. Soon he was hired fulltime.
One of the first crime victims he helped at that time happened to be among the 45 newly sworn U.S. citizens in the recent naturalization ceremony with Leon.
“As soon as he saw me he remembered me,” said Leon, who had not seen the man in years. “He was a victim of an aggravated robbery if I remember correctly.”
Although he was a lawyer in Venezuela, that status did not follow Leon to the United States so he began studying for the bar exam. A difficult task for American law students, the exam was particularly difficult for Leon because the teaching methods in Venezuelan law school were not the best preparation for the American bar.
“Five times! I took it five times!” Leon recalled, holding up the fingers of his right hand for emphasis. “The first few times I was nowhere near passing. If I needed 100 points, I would have maybe two.
“People usually laugh when I tell them the bar exam was in English, not my first language. It takes the sting out of taking it five times.”
Colleagues in the prosecutors’ office gave him books, tips and encouragement, and Leon took a two-month leave from work to study for the bar full time.
“I would start at the same time every day, eat the same food and even timed myself to allow 1.8 minutes to answer each written question,” said Leon. “It was like training for a marathon and that’s how I was finally able to pass it in the end. It was great satisfaction.”
As a properly sworn, fulltime assistant he did “tons of prelims” in General Sessions before moving up to Criminal Court where, on Sept. 27, 2010, he did his first jury trial, a domestic assault case with Theresa McCusker.
At the end of the trial, they heard those nine favorite words of every prosecutor: “We the jury find the defendant guilty as charged.”
As a green card holder, Leon had a several-year waiting period before he could file for American citizenship and begin studying for a short test on American history, civics and government.
He passed this test on the first try, of course, and returned to his office to find it decorated with American flags, Budweiser “America” beer and, of course, an apple pie, all compliments of his District Attorney’s Office colleagues.
Since becoming a prosecutor, Leon has tried more than 66 cases. He now is assigned to the Special Prosecution Unit in Criminal Court Division 8 where he handles repeat offenders and seeks maximum punishment to protect the community.
Leon, who is married with two young children, has retired from rugby and Ironman triathlons – 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and 26.2-mile run – but still participates in marathons. The long haul.