Generous of his time, wise and with a career's worth of accomplishments, Thomas Ashley has been one of the leading criminal defense attorneys in New Jersey for three decades. Indeed, Ashley, long associated with the best of America's civil rights movement, is admired by virtually all of his lawyer-peers in the state - as well as nationally. Ashley recalls vividly the experiences in his native Camden, N.J., that shaped his sense of justice and spurred him to become a lawyer: "I was in a pool hall one night, and the police stormed in and lined us all up against the wall, looking for a suspect. And I wondered, 'Can this be legal?' Growing up where I did, I got a sense of the problems and issues that people face, particularly African-Americans and fellow minorities in our country." A star basketball player at Camden High School, Ashley received a scholarship to attend Rutgers, where he excelled. He went on to receive an academic scholarship to law school. Ashley, the recipient of Rutgers Law School's Civil Rights award, was getting all kinds of big-money offers to major mainstream law firms. But it was a sensitive and gifted law school professor - Arthur Kinoy, who'd represented Adam Clayton Powell - who in 1964 urged Ashley to join the national legal staff of The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. So Ashley found himself trying civil rights cases for the NAACP, (including a 1968 case in which a young black man was charged with the arson fire of an Enid, Oklahoma, building; a judge dismissed the charges.) Within four years he'd teamed up with the legendary criminal and civil rights attorney Raymond A. Brown, and started building a Newark-based practice and reputation that continues to this day.
Ashley practices out of offices overlooking the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in downtown Newark. His caseload in the last two decades has been remarkably varied - he's represented alleged mobsters, as well as municipal leaders charged with white-collar crimes, and everyday people charged with crimes. (His current clients include an alleged Bloods gang leader accused of gun-running, and a former Deputy Director of the Jersey City Police Department facing federal bribery charges.) He's also successfully managed his practice - outsourcing to young attorneys such paper-heavy activities as discovery and motion-filing, while leading his team into the battle of a trial. Still an enthusiastic sports fan (although he's retired from basketball - "My knees gave out on me."), Ashley regularly attends sporting events and enjoys reading. The father of two children, ages 17 and 32, he lives in Orange, N.J.