There has been so much misinformation around Cook County (Chicago) State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s actions in the Jussie Smollett fraud case. Time for me to share the real deal — from having been a prosecutor for close to two decades!
Much has been made over Cook County (Chicago) State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s handling of the case involving Empire star Jussie Smollett. Initially, Smollett was charged with 16 criminal counts for allegedly faking a hate crime, with himself as the victim. Foxx has been attacked for being too lenient, and for having contact with representatives of Smollett’s camp.
As a former prosecutor who handled homicides and violent crimes, it’s time to clear up some myths and misconceptions.
A prosecutor is expected to speak to a victim
While Foxx did have contact with Smollett’s camp when the case initially began, she ceased contact when it became clear that Smollett was being investigated as a defendant. It is impossible to investigate a case and determine its veracity without speaking to the victim. With a high profile victim, you often end up speaking to intermediaries. If it turns out the victim is not truly a victim, you end contact and prosecute if there is enough evidence. This is normal, and in criminal cases, there are twists and turns that one can’t predict.
I once had a homicide case that I thought was a slam dunk.
It was March of 2012. I took an extended trip to New York from Florida to spend time with my mother, who was battling cervical cancer. She had hid from me how bad it was since I had just gotten married weeks before, and she didn’t want me to worry. After collapsing and being hospitalized, I discovered the full extent of what the disease was doing to her.
We were hanging out at home one afternoon, and she was going through some of her things. She handed me a silver bracelet and said “here, take this. I don’t need it anymore“.
Of course, silly me did not grasp what she was doing. I was there thinking “she figures she’s not going out to any fancy events“.
Denial is a powerful thing.
When she passed away weeks later, it was the bracelet that gave me a modicum of comfort. Some nights I would go to sleep after clutching it and weeping uncontrollably.
As time went on, it became a symbol of her companionship. I’d get ready for a challenging meeting or an interview, and I’d say “ok Ma, don’t let me say anything crazy. Help me get my point across“.
Now, sometimes I’ll just tap it. It’s enough to center me, channeling some of her strength, eloquence and energy.
On this, the 7th Mother’s Day without her, I reflect. I still grieve, but it’s less crippling than in past years.
This week I published a post on the power of the little things (if you missed it, see it here). Something as small as a silver bracelet can mean so much.
Today, cherish the little (and the big) things that your Mom taught you or gave you. A Mom is beyond blood; it’s an emotional connection to a woman who pushes you forward to your future. Ties that bind can be biological, emotional or spiritual.
If you are without your mom today, I hope that the memories, along with the love of those around you, will help you through the day.
So as many of you know, I am obsessed with spinning. Most importantly, spinning at SoulCycle. I embarked on a challenge to complete 15 classes in 30 days. Between my schedule, exhaustion, and just life, it was a lofty goal for me, but I tried for it anyway. Saturday was my 10th class. The staff of SoulCycle South Beach left me a card at my spinning bike. It was a note of encouragement to keep pushing to my 15 class goal, to show appreciation for my efforts and my loyalty for coming to the studio as a local resident (we get many tourists due to being in South Beach).
I don’t know whether it was stress, or some other driving factor, but the card made me quite emotional. It was such a little thing — a small gesture, a token appreciation, a word of encouragement.
Often people over look at the little things and how important it can be for someone. For you it’s something small; but for someone it could be something huge that they need it right now.
In my new journey in leadership, I’ve had some growing pains. Being a social justice warrior part time is one thing; but when it’s your whole existence, it can take a toll on your soul. Additionally, you have to make sure that you’re growing in leadership. Since people look to you as a leader, you feel the pressure to make sure you are doing it right — that you’re really motivating your team and looking at the big picture.
In that spirit, I took a day off from work to fly out of state to see someone I greatly respect. I walked away from our lunch with two critical points; to always live in my truth, and to always focus on what is right.
Living your truth means not only telling the truth, but acknowledging when something is hurting you — when someone is hurting you. Being vocal is critical so that your own mental state can be preserved. Many times we hold in resentment, we hold in things that are wrong, or we accept certain treatment because we think we’re supposed to. That is not living in your truth, and creates a level of stress that is detrimental to you professionally as well as to your health. Stress truly kills.
Also, the key is to focus on always doing what’s right. You may not always get it right, but if your motivation is to do what is right, what is good for the organization and what is good for your fellow person, then you are on the right track.
This journey has been a serious learning curve for me. It is really teaching me the value of the little things: receiving hug from a friend, giving hugs to my father, a beautiful sunny day, an enthusiastic puppy, a really great song that comes on in the car, or an unexpected note cheering you on.
It’s the little things that help us deal when life comes at you fast.
Every Black History Month, I have done a series on this blog on the topic of “Legal Divas of Color”. The intent is to highlight African-American women who are doing great things in the legal field. Many serve as an inspiration to me to keep fighting the good fight and pushing the boundaries as far as they can go. It is also a reminder that the term “diva” is not a pejorative term; a diva is a woman who is strong, self-assured, and commands her worth.
When one thinks of the state of Alabama, sadly what comes to mind is the long history of racism and segregation. One thinks of the work of Dr. Martin Luther King; the actions of brutal police officers; and the last state in the country to overturn miscegenation laws as required by the Supreme Court.
However, Election Day 2016 showed that times are slowly changing in this southern state. 10 female attorneys of color rose to the highest positions that one can hold in the legal field in Jefferson County. The newly elected District Attorney is Lynneice Washington; and nine women of color were elected judges in Jefferson County. The nine new judges are Javan Patton, Debra Bennett Winston, Shera Craig Grant, Nakita “Niki” Perryman Blocton, Tamara Harris Johnson, Elisabeth French, Agnes Chappell, Brendette Brown Green and Annetta Verin.
District Attorney Lynneice Washington ran on a progressive platform of reforming/reducing the use of the death penalty, creating alternatives to incarceration for low level offenders, and creating a citizens-police advisory board. In doing so, she defeated the incumbent who had been appointed to the position after the retirement of his successor.
These wins are even more significant when you look at the fact that the current administration carried Alabama, and defeated Hillary Clinton resoundingly.
In this day and age, there seems to be a resurgence of the “tough on crime” rhetoric coming from the Justice Department and the White House. These policies have proven to be ineffective, leading to mass incarceration and no rehabilitation to be found in the criminal justice system. Now, there is a rise of a more progressive approach to criminal justice, which has shown to be effective in reducing recidivism and integrating people back into their communities. This is why it is more important than ever to elect progressive district attorneys and judges so that the whole defendant is being considered, as well as what is right for the victim, and the community at large. Local politics have become more critical in criminal justice than national policy. Groups such as the ACLU, and activists such as Shaun King are mounting voter education campaigns on this critical issue.
The wave of power seen in Jefferson County, Alabama is absolutely historic. I look upon these wins as hope for the future!
Congratulations ladies for being Legal Divas of Color.
Please see the bios of the nine judges here as well as a great piece detailing the District Attorney Lynneice Washington’s plans for the future of her county.
I think the theme for 2017 was WTH??? Definitely life as we knew it changed dramatically. It was a mixed bag — we saw a rise in hatred, but we also saw a rise in people fighting back. People raised their voices as a collective to say “this is not what America stands for”.
Now that the year is coming to an end, I actually had a moment to breathe, and acknowledge that my posts have not been as consistent as I would like. No excuses – just reality!
My new job at the ACLU of Florida has been amazing. With it, I received a very steep learning curve, of which I am still on the front side. However, I am learning from the best team in the country, so hopefully I’ll make more strides next year! The transition from prosecutor to full time social justice warrior has been interesting. I miss the courtroom and being able to work with victims of crime. But a whole new world has opened up to me. I get to speak regularly on issues that I care deeply about, with no fear of repercussions. I can keep it “100”, which is so refreshing. I’ve been writing for work as well — check out my death penalty piece in the Tampa Bay Times, as well as my work in support of State Attorney Aramis Ayala’s discretion in death penalty cases.
In the process of this new journey, I have not been able to share as much as I would like to on the blog.
There is also an emotional piece. When I was a prosecutor, discussing social justice issues was not my main job. I infused it when I could, but it was not a daily act. Now that it is my job, and in the current toxic environment, it’s become harder, and sometimes exhausting.
It’s no longer about educating folks on the system.
It’s now having basic discussions like Nazis are evil, pedophilia is a crime, and we need to believe victims.
It’s not about debating the finer points of policing. I’m now having to discuss my basic humanity as a person of color.
It’s left me like WTH? How did we get here?
But we were always here. It was artfully hidden by pretense, political correctness and the false sense of complacency after the election of President Obama.
So what now?
I keep fighting, keep resisting. I pledge to you to continue to bring you quality content when I can. But, the new year awaits — one of my goals is to focus more on writing — not just for RLD, Huffington Post and Blavity, but for newspapers as well. In order for me to grow as a writer, I need to be more intentional about how I work. Stay tuned!
Before we close the year that was, let’s take a look at the top 5 pieces on the Resident Legal Diva for 2017! Be sure to click the link in the title to see the original post.
I shared my personal experience with sexual harassment, which was super tough to do. I realized that I’m a wee bit more of a private person than I first thought; but it was critical (in my opinion) that more voices be heard. It originally appeared in Blavity, and received a ton of feedback wherever it was shared. As Gabrielle Union stated, and as we learned from the revelations coming from the floor of the Ford factory, sexual harassment is not a rich white woman Hollywood problem. It is a disease of power and entitlement — which can take many forms.
#BlackWomenAtWork was trending on Twitter, and many of us shared experiences of how some folks can be dismissive or downright insulting of our abilities, I shared how “you’re so articulate” is not a compliment — it’s backhanded at best and based in the stereotypes of where or how a woman that looks like me should be in life.
2017 saw the first African American elected prosecutor in Florida take office. She took the stance that she will not seek the death penalty in any murder case in her jurisdiction. Governor Rick Scott promptly took away her death penalty eligible cases, and the legislature later cut funding for her office. I believe that his was a gross overreach of his power — it should be the voters who decide what direction their community and their public servants go in. Prosecutors are given wide discretion for a reason; re-election (or not) is the way to send a message as to what is acceptable.
I shared my disturbing encounter with a law enforcement officer in the Huffington Post as well as the RLD. It was my personal reminder that following the rules to the best of your ability does not guarantee your safety as a person of color; this is NOT the way it should be.
Thank you to each and every one you who have supported, commented, read, shared, and suggested post ideas. As I enter my 5th year of the RLD, I look forward to making it stronger while continuing to educate folks on life and the law! If you have a question or a topic you want me to write about, tell me in the comments or contact me.