Daily Business Review Profile: Meet Melba Pearson, the Miami Lawyer Who Challenged a 27-Year State Attorney

“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.

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.

‘Steely-Eyed Determination’

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

Legacy of Chadwick Boseman & Black Panther: Why Representation Matters

This week, actor Chadwick Boseman passed away from colon cancer at the young age of 43.

Chadwick Boseman. Photo credit: Dan Hallman/Invision/Associated Press

Hearing of his death hurt me deeply. As an avid fan of the Marvel Studios movie franchise, seeing Black Panther for the first time was life changing on many levels as an African American woman. Watching people who looked like me prospering, creating, leading and saving the day on the big screen made my heart burst with pride – because so often Hollywood does not portray us in that manner. We are often relegated to the role of the gangster, the maid, the best friend or a lead character with messy tendencies. In real life we accomplish much of what is portrayed in Black Panther (i.e, girls of color in STEM) – but it is viewed as an outlier not the norm. While undoubtedly the narrative is slowly changing, Chadwick’s portrayal of King T’Challa/Black Panther singlehandedly destroyed stereotypes by the time the opening credits were completed.

Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther. Photo credit: Marvel Studios

In these times, we needed his portrayal more than ever. For two hours and fifteen minutes, I, along with so many others, were transported to a place of equality and justice – a Black utopia – albeit fictional. The Dora Milaje were strong African female warriors who reminded me of the fierce women of color in the real world who command respect while holding the world together behind the scenes. Chadwick’s smooth, effortless cool on screen was only exceeded by the good works he did in real life – as well as his superb portrayals of icons Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall and James Brown.

My father taught me basic African history – great empires such Timbuktu which gave us math; how there was trading and commerce – all the good things before the continent was divided, ravaged and pillaged by slavery and colonialism. Real African history began far before slavery, yet that is where US history classes begin.

As an adult you often get too caught up in day to day life to do the research needed to know our history. Between police shootings, fighting to prove Black lives matter and to make sure the system is actually equal, you get sidetracked away from history.

But Black Panther changed everything. Black folks were like “wait, does this place exist?”

And so the hunt began. Think pieces abounded as to where a modern day Wakanda could be. Some say Kenya, others say Ethiopia. Ghana didn’t miss a beat and in honor of the 400 anniversary of slaves landing in the US, Ghana did the “year of return” to encourage African Americans to reconnect with their roots. Our collective intellectual curiosity was peaked by Chadwick’s and his co-stars’ stellar performances.

Black Panther also took on a different meaning when I went to Johannesburg, South Africa for the first time to lecture at a conference. The contrast really hit home – everyone has a tribe or a people they can point to as their own, complete with language, clothing and customs. I and the other African Americans who were present felt so lost when it came to “where are you from?” Oh, born in NY, family from the Caribbean. It pales to the generations of tribal love and closeness they enjoy. Out of that experience, they gave us African names. Mine was Boitumelo (aka Tumi) of the Tswana people, native to Botswana and South Africa. It means “joy”. As a gift, they presented me with a beautiful handmade dress that I wore when I launched my political campaign this past January as well as on election night, as a reminder that whatever happens – my ancestors are supporting me and are proud. The locals in South Africa referred to the ancestors regularly as a sign of respect as well as to remember their history – much like in the movie.

From Johannesburg with love

My experience was enriched by having seen Black Panther – too often Africa is portrayed as a place of endless war and famine. Black Panther expanded our minds and countered that negative narrative. The concept of hiding greatness in plain sight so that it would not be destroyed resonated with me and so many others.

Losing Chadwick was part of the loss of a fantasy. But it is one that can be made into reality in so many ways. In the end of Black Panther, Chadwick’s character was able to address racism and poverty on a global scale by revealing the power of Wakanda.

The reality is, we are all powerful, and can stand up to address these same issues via the ballot box, building economic power in our communities and rejecting the narratives placed upon us. As King T’Chaka said when he saw King T’Challa and he knelt before him on the ancestral plane “Stand. You are a king”

Chadwick Boseman left an amazing legacy. While it really hurts, to quote the movie “in our culture, death is not the end”. While we mourn him, it is not the end for him or us. We must push forward to honor what was begun by our ancestors – who Chadwick joins on the ancestral plane.

Rest in Power, Sleep in Peace King T’Challa. Wakanda Forever 🙅🏾‍♀️

Legal Divas of Color: Pamela Carter

Hi RLD Fam!

Although the campaign trail has been absolutely insane, I could not let the month of February go without my “Legal Divas of Color” feature! Every Black History Month, I feature trailblazing female attorneys of color who laid the foundation for us to succeed. Today, I’m featuring Pamela Carter, who was the first African American woman elected to be a state attorney general in the nation!

Pamela Carter was born in 1949 in South Haven, Michigan. She received her undergraduate degree at University of Detroit; her Masters in Social Work at University of Michigan; and her law degree (Juris Doctor) at Indiana University School of Law. Before seeking statewide office, she worked for Indiana’s Secretary of State as an enforcement attorney.

Photo of Pamela Carter, 1992
Pamela Carter, as featured in Black Enterprise in 1992

She decided to take on an incumbent (Linley Pearson, no relation) for the seat of Indiana Attorney General. It was a brutal race and an uphill battle – she was a Democrat in a heavily Republican State. Only one African American had been elected to statewide office in Indiana before her. Nevertheless, she persisted! She won 52% – 48% in November of 1992.

Her election was historic. She became the first elected African American state Attorney General in the country; the first African American and the first female Attorney General in Indiana’s history; and the second African American to hold statewide office. She was also the first Democrat to serve in that post in 24 years.

Ms. Carter served from 1993-1997. She centered diversity in her administration by appointing women and minorities to senior positions where there were none previously. In reflecting on her term, she said “we had a fabulous office. We won more U.S. Supreme Court cases and more Best Brief Awards than any other attorney general’s office in the nation”.

After her term, she spent 18 years at the Cummins Distribution Business, retiring as President in 2015. She currently serves on the board for Teach For America.

Thank you Pamela Carter for being a trailblazing Legal Diva of Color!

Pamela Carter

My Unlikely Decade of Transitions: Prosecutor – Writer – Activist – Beyond?

Greetings Fam,

Wow, today is the end of an era.

For me, the last ten years have been a period of major growth. In the last decade:

I met and married my soulmate…

The Cowboy & I at the 2017 Indianapolis 500

I found my voice, stride, confidence and purpose. It took a few setbacks and closed doors to realize what direction I should go; but all of the disappointments came together to lead me to this place.

Speaking on South African television in 2019 on gender based violence

I became President of the National Black Prosecutors Association which exposed me to real criminal justice reform work – from sitting in the houses in our community to sitting in the (Obama) White House. I saw the injustices that got perpetuated not necessarily from ill intent, but from not knowing any better (myself included).

I made the big leap of leaving a comfortable sixteen year position as a prosecutor to becoming Deputy Director of the ACLU of Florida. My viewpoints on life were vastly broadened — from learning about the struggles of the transgender community to deepening my work on criminal justice reform and its intersection with voting rights.

I traveled to the Motherland. This year I had life changing trip to South Africa, where I walked in the path of the late great freedom fighter/leader Nelson Mandela. During that time, not only did I see the roots of what would become an international resistance movement, I was able to advocate for the safety of women on an international scale.

South Africa 2019

I survived heartbreak and heartache of losing my mom; but also learned to jealously guard my mental health.  Life will throw things at you that you believe you can never overcome. There will be days you can’t get out of bed. But day by day, step by step, it gets better. Be patient, and seek help from a professional if you need it.

Losing her also taught me to be fearless. Life is short; “sit and wait your turn” means you may never get a shot. Seize the day, make your own path and opportunity. Because you may look up and realize that you have less time than you planned on, and what then? Sit in regret? Nope, not me!

My mother and I at on my wedding day in 2012. RIP Mama P.

As we begin the dawn of a new decade, let’s take one final trip down memory lane on the Resident Legal Diva.  It’s been such a blessing to be able to write, and share my thoughts with a wider audience. I admit I did not post as much as in previous years — lots going on — but thank you for the love that was received for my writing this year!! Here’s what you read the most from me:

5. Legal Divas of Color: Jewel Lafontant – Mankarious

Every Black History Month, I feature female trailblazers of color in the field of law upon whose example I built upon.  Jewel Lafontant – Mankarious made history as a trailblazer in the field of prosecution.

4. “You’re So Articulate” Is Not A Compliment to a Woman of Color

This is a piece that continues to resonate with so many professionals of color. It started with an argument on Twitter (yes, this is definitely something to be left in the last decade) where a fellow attorney tried to explain to me that I should not be offended. At the end of the day, folks need to accept the following: if someone tells you xyz is offensive, don’t double down and keep doing it.  Just..stop.

3. Jay Z Was Right: We Need to Gentrify Our Hood

Jay Z received backlash over a few things in 2019; this one I don’t believe was justified at all.  As we look at economic equality and gentrification, people of color are always on the receiving end of the push out, and never on the benefits.  When gentrification arrives, it’s people of color who have to move further away from their jobs or conveniences we take for granted. Companies expand into newly gentrified neighborhoods, but it does not provide the jobs and economic advancement for the people who originally lived there.  So now what? More incentives should be provided so that people do not have to leave their neighborhoods. And, as people of color get more means, we need to buy up the block so that no one else does. We have to empower our own neighborhoods — as well as protect our history.

2. Kim Foxx Was Not Wrong: The Lonely Road of a Prosecutor of Color

The Jussie Smollett case garnered a great deal of attention on the role of a prosecutor — and how discretion should be used.  I analyzed the case in the context of having done this work. Was everything handled perfectly? No, nothing ever is.  But the backlash was excessive, and rooted in racism.

And the #1 post on RLD for 2019 is:

Legal Divas of Color: Cheryl Mills!

Cheryl Mills is known for her defense of President Bill Clinton during his impeachment hearing. She is the first African American to address the United States Senate in her capacity as Associate Counsel for the President.

Clearly my readers love the posts on history, and I will endeavor to share more in the coming year!

More challenges lie ahead in the next few years, but I am excited to be able to continue serving the greater good and putting my criminal justice expertise to work.

Wishing you an amazing New Year and new decade. Thank you for reading, your comments and your support. May you find prosperity, happiness, and grow in your purpose!!

Exploring Bail Reform

Greetings RLD Family, 

In the final days of the year (as well as the decade!) I’ve been working on the issue of bail reform. It’s sad to think many people will be spending the holidays behind bars due to poverty — not because they have been found guilty of a crime. There are some solid models around the country on how to reduce this. Please see my latest in the Florida Phoenix  on how we can make our bail system more equitable. 

grey steel grill
Photo by Cameron Casey on Pexels.com

Bail reform has received a lot of buzz lately.

Numerous states have implemented or are studying ways to make pretrial release systems more fair and effective, while improving public safety.  Taxpayers are saving tens of millions of dollars otherwise wasted by keeping people unnecessarily locked up. So far, Florida is behind the curve.

Monetary bail – also known as bond – is designed to ensure that individuals who are arrested will appear in court for their scheduled court date.

In order to benefit from our current bail system, individuals who have been charged with crimes, but have not yet had their day in court and have not been found guilty of any wrongdoing, must pay approximately 10 percent of the total bond issued by the court to a bondsperson in order to return to their lives and families, pretrial.

The underlying premise is “come back or lose the money,” but the devil is in the details, as those relying on bondsmen lose their money regardless. The 10 percent is not returned, even if the person complies with the terms of release and/or is found not guilty.

This raises significant concerns over who actually benefits from this system. Should an individual who has not been convicted of any wrongdoing have to pay in order to secure their freedom pretrial?

Read the rest here.