“I knew that politics could be a dirty game, but the hypocrisy was what I was really not prepared for,” the former prosecutor said.
By Raychel Lean | January 04, 2021 at 04:11 PM
Miami criminal and civil rights attorney Melba Pearson. Courtesy photo
When South Florida’s 2020 primary elections became interlaced with concern about the county’s lack of police prosecutions, many felt it was time for a change at the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office.
But finding someone brave enough to actually challenge 27-year incumbent Katherine Fernandez Rundle was a different story.
Enter: former Miami-Dade prosecutor Melba Pearson, who spent a good year trying not to throw her hat in the ring.
“Nah, I’m good,” she recalls telling local attorneys, activists and survivors of crime when they’d approach her about running. Pearson searched for another candidate instead, but came up short. Months of soul searching and discussions ensued and, eventually, Pearson surprised herself.
“Running for public office was never on my list of things to do ever, ever. Just never,” Pearson said. “Because I found it invasive. You have to put yourself out there, you don’t have your privacy and people just attack you.”
She wasn’t wrong.
Two of Pearson’s online campaign events were Zoom-bombed by neo-Nazis, while some critics claimed she wouldn’t support the Black community because she’s married to a white man.
And though the election didn’t go how Pearson had hoped, as Fernandez Rundle kept her seat, Pearson said she was humbled to see how many young people were energized by her fight for change. That’s because, in Pearson’s view, it was time to take a stand after 41 years without a prosecution over an on-duty killing by Miami-Dade police officers.
“The goal is not to ignore the laws of the state of Florida,” Pearson said. “That’s not the point. But you also have to be strategic. You have to use the laws and be strategic to make sure that you’re achieving justice.”
And yet, Pearson was surprised by how many people, including attorneys in private practice, were afraid to oppose the incumbent for various reasons, with some believing, “I could get in trouble just for even talking to you.”
“To this day, it still boggles me because I don’t see it,” Pearson said.
Though many expressed a desire to support Black female candidates, Pearson said she was disappointed to find that personal interests often won out.
“I knew that politics could be a dirty game, but the hypocrisy was what I was really not prepared for,” Pearson said. “And maybe that was me being naïve but, you know, I thought, ‘I’ve watched “Scandal,” I’ve watched “House of Cards.” I think I know what to expect.’ And it’s like, oh no, people lie to your face. OK.”
‘Melba’s Run Was Important’
Quintairos, Prieto, Wood & Boyer partner Reggie Clyne was among Pearson’s supporters, outraged by the state attorney’s decision not to charge prison guards with the killing of Black inmate Darren Rainey, scalded to death in a shower. Mid-campaign, Fernandez Rundle refused a formal request from the Miami-Dade Democratic Party to resign over the move.
Clyne found ”a lot of people wouldn’t support [Pearson] because they were afraid,” but noted he’s since seen a change in the office’s approach.
“Melba’s run was important, especially for the African American community, because it brought to the fore the issue of what had happened here and why it was important that someone bring it to the light and get something done about it,” Clyne said.
Now director of policy and programs at Florida International University’s Center for the Administration of Justice, Pearson is spearheading a nationwide data project aimed at pinpointing systemic problems with efficiency and racial justice at prosecutors’ offices.
Pearson grew up in New York with Caribbean parents and always knew she’d become a lawyer, inspired by her father’s stories about the attorneys of civil rights movement leaders who ensured “America was being held to her promise of liberty and justice for all.”
Pearson’s father also played a key part in her decision to run for state attorney, reminding her, “You’ve got to sacrifice for the good of the people.”
Pearson planned to stay in New York, but moved into a tiny South Beach studio apartment when her first job offer came from the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office.
Pearson’s plans to handle misdemeanor trials hit a snag when she failed the bar exam, having wrongly assumed that, “If I sit in class and pay attention, I’m usually able to do well.”
Then-assistant Miami-Dade State Attorney Chadd Lackey remembers the look in Pearson’s eye when she found out.
“She went from really sad and discouraged to this steely-eyed determination that, no matter what, she was going to succeed at her job and get this bar exam issue resolved,” Lackey said.
‘A Time of Reckoning’
That triggered a legal hiatus for Pearson, who began planning special events for nightclubs, back when Jennifer Lopez, P Diddy and other 1990s celebrities and sports stars were regulars.
Pearson handled corporate events and marketing by 2001, when her home state was rocked by the 9/11 terror attacks.
“It was also a time of reckoning for me, like, ‘What are you doing with your life?’ And I didn’t feel that I was making a difference in people’s lives,” Pearson said. “The party was great. People had a good time that night. But what sustaining change have you made? None.”
Pearson was also in an abusive relationship, and reasoned, “Drastic changes need to happen because you’re not going to make it if you don’t.” Pearson left the relationship, passed the bar exam and began a new life as a prosecutor in the domestic violence division.
Four years in, Pearson became a Liberty City community prosecutor. And though she’d lived in Miami for years, that job revealed she didn’t really know its nooks and crannies.
“That is the root, sometimes, of a lot of the divisions we see in the country,” Pearson said. “You don’t really get outside of your circle, so you don’t meet people that live a different life than you do, that have whole different viewpoints than you do, that worship differently than you do. And that leads to misunderstandings and, sometimes, ignorance.”
Pearson’s background came in handy, as she designed events aimed at bringing different groups together—and still gets goosebumps when she recalls seeing Nation of Islam members arrive to watch a basketball game between police and Liberty City residents.
“Regardless of the politics of it,” Pearson said. “Just to see 20, 30 people all dressed in their finest, the women with their beautiful hair coverings and the gentlemen all coming with their bow ties, and they were like, ‘The fact that you’re here in this community doing this work, we’re here to show you this support.’”
That’s when the old adage clicked for Pearson: “That the defendant of today is the victim of tomorrow, and the victim of today could be the defendant of tomorrow. It’s all just a matter of circumstance and lack of resources.”
Pearson later became assistant chief of the career criminal robbery unit, president of the Gwen S. Cherry Black Women Lawyers Association and president of the National Black Prosecutors Association. And as the country grappled with the police killings of Black teenagers Michael Brown, Laquan McDonald and Tamir Rice, Pearson went deeper into the criminal justice reform movement and encouraged conversations about what policing should look like.
Pearson took two trips to President Barack Obama’s White House and picked the brains of some of the country’s leading progressive prosecutors, including former San Francisco District Attorneys Kamala Harris and George Gascon.
Then, it was time to move on.
“It was just so energizing to be able to participate in this, but then I’d come back home and there was only so much that I could really do,” Pearson said.
After writing a Miami Herald op-ed about smarter sentencing, Pearson landed on the radar of ACLU of Florida executive director Howard Simon, who offered her a deputy director role.
Unfamiliar with the ACLU, Pearson discovered it was critical in securing the landmark 1967 Loving v. Virginia decision legalizing interracial marriage and, “It was a wrap for me.”
Now executive director of New Jersey State Commission of Investigations, Lackey said he and Pearson became “the siblings we never had.”
She’s someone with immense ambition, Lackey said, ”But it’s tempered by this kind heart and passion to do what’s right.” Lackey noted that he owes his career to Fernandez Rundle, but advised his friend to be the change she wanted to see.
“Competition makes us all better, and I hope that Kathy’s term reflects the fact that she did receive a sign challenge from Melba,” Lackey said.
Pearson published a book on prosecutorial discretion, titled “Can They Do That?” in June, and joined FIU in September.
Melba V. Pearson
Born: New Rochelle, New York
Spouse: Bill Mecham
Education: Hofstra University, J.D., 1997; New York University, B.A., 1994
Experience: Director of policy and programs at FIU Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs, 2020-present; deputy director, ACLU of Florida, 2017-2019; president, MVP Law LLC, 2019-present; prosecutor, Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, 2002-2017
Raychel Lean South Florida litigation reporter Daily Business Review305-926-4875