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

Stepping into 2021!

Well, it’s finally here.

We’ve waited, we’ve prayed, we fought, we cried…and now, 2020 is in the history books, replaced by the blank slate of the new year.

It’s a strange feeling in some ways. For me, 2020 was very much a mixed bag. There are some parts that I couldn’t wait to have behind me – watching friends suffer with their health as a result of COVID19; lockdowns; and toxicity brought on by the political climate. At the same token, it was a year of breaking boundaries as well as new beginnings.

On the positive side, I’m thankful more than ever for my health. It’s something we should never take for granted. I was able to work remotely, which is a privilege many people did not have, placing them and their families at risk. Thank you to everyone that went out to work because they were essential; I stand in solidarity with those who were forced due to corporate greed.

George Floyd protest in Miami

2020 was definitely a year of pushing boundaries and taking on new challenges. The biggest challenge for me was running for the office of Miami Dade State Attorney. In the best of times, running for office is intense, back breaking work. I knew it was going to be hard, but there was no real way to know how hard until I was in it. You spend hours on the phone asking for donations; then more time is spent trying to maximize what you have raised in order to get your message out effectively. It became clear to me why many of those in government either come from wealth, or are beholden to special interests who financed their campaigns. It’s simply very difficult to do without financial support. Add on the layer of a global pandemic, where there is uncertainty around people’s financial future as well as the loss of the ability to connect in person at local events or door to door — now it’s uncharted waters.

With all of the hurdles, we managed to leverage social media to elevate the discussion of key issues confronting Miami and America at large in the criminal justice system. The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and others encouraged national activism; but it also made people look in their own backyards to see what injustices may be occurring. The racial reckoning- painful as it was for me personally to watch people that look like me die for no reason – was a turning point in highlighting why change is needed locally and nationally.

With fellow activists at Women’s March Miami rally

Even though my bid was not successful- the jury is out as to whether I will do it again – it was such an honor to connect with people I never would have met otherwise. It also allowed me to thin out my contact list. Not everyone who says they are there for you really mean it. The lesson is one that is repeated often, but it is welcome in that it clears the path for new relationships to be forged. I am so grateful to everyone who donated, volunteered or assisted in some way. So many folks showed up and showed out – it was really appreciated!!! Special shout out to my beloved husband the Cowboy. His unconditional love and support made this possible.

Me and my Cowboy! Photo credit: LocShotz

Continuing on the topic of elections, I cannot wait to attend the swearing in ceremonies of Harold Pryor in Broward County (first African American man to be elected State Attorney in Florida), and Monique Worrell who will continue the legacy of Aramis Ayala as State Attorney in Orange/Osceola County. On a national level, the first African American female will be inaugurated as Vice President. The new presidential administration under Joe Biden will be not only a breath of fresh air, but very needed oxygen for us to rebuild as a country.

My new beginning came in September when I joined Florida International University as the Director of Policy and Programs for the Center for the Administration of Justice. My father always had a saying – “watch how you conduct yourself in the street because you never know who is watching”. The associate director of the Center had been watching my campaign and how I addressed the issues. He texted me on Election night when the results became final, and I began work a month later (after a much needed vacation!). It’s been great to work with prosecutors’ offices to show them how using data and alternative ways to measure success can bring more equity to our communities as well as our system. We are bringing on new offices this year, and will be expanding the work internationally. My greatest goal is to create several test sites as models of real community engagement between prosecutors and the people they serve.

So what is on deck for 2021?

There will be a lot more writing this year (yay!). I published a book on prosecutorial discretion last year; I’ll be continuing to promote it as part of the bigger dialogue as to what is next for the criminal justice system. I’m excited to be able to travel again internationally – for pleasure and for work – once the vaccine is widely available. There will be more work on a grassroots level around criminal justice – raising awareness and empowering people with the information they need to fight for change while holding those in power accountable. Make sure to tune in to Mondays With Melba every Monday at 6pm on Facebook Live. It is also posted later in the week on my Resident Legal Diva Instagram page.

Thank you for being a part of the RLD family. I wish each of you a healthy and prosperous New Year. Please let me know any topics you’d like for me to explore on the blog or via Facebook Live. Let’s make it a great year together!!

Image of Melba Pearson embracing joy on the waterfront
Happy New Year! Photo credit: LocShotz

Reset, Recharge, Relaunch!

African-American woman meditating in lotus position. Photo credit: Getty Images

Hi RLD Fam!

I hope this email finds all of you healthy and well.

2020 has been quite a whirlwind for everyone without a shadow of a doubt. It was also the year I decided to run for Miami Dade State Attorney. The phrase “how oft go astray the plans of mice and men” rings so true. While I deeply wanted to serve my community in this way, life had other plans.

After the election ended on August 18, I was offered, and accepted, the position of Director of Policy and Programs at the Center for the Administration of Justice at Florida International University. I will be working on prosecutorial reform and other criminal justice issues nationally as well as globally. It’s really exciting!

In the meantime, it’s all about November. We are constantly being reminded how elections have far reaching consequences. With the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, we are seeing her reliably progressive voice being replaced by someone who is the exact polar opposite of her values. I wrote about Justice Ginsberg’s legacy in the Miami Times; see more here.

But in more positive news, I’m thrilled that someone who is a true trailblazer and role model for women of color – Kamala Harris – be on the ticket this November! It would be amazing to see her as the first female Vice President, and the first African American Vice President in our history! After going through a grueling campaign for eight months, I feel a special kinship with her. We faced similar criticisms, including having our “Black card” tested. Long time readers of the blog know how I feel about Senator Harris – but if you need a refresher, here are some of the pieces I’ve written about her work over the years.

Legal Divas of Color: Kamala Harris

Legal Divas of Color: Kamala Harris – Again!

New on The Root: You Can Be Pro-Black and a Prosecutor

As the year winds down, I will be looking for new ways to engage with everyone and give you the content you want to see! Please sound off in the comments – what would you like on RLD? More videos? Personal reflections? More legal analysis? Let me know!

 Mondays With Melba continue weekly!
Every Monday at 6pm, I discuss current events, politics and the law.
Please go to either Facebook or IGTV to catch up on past episodes. Recent topics include how to vote safely, amendments on the Florida ballot, and legal analysis of the Breonna Taylor case.
I’ll be adding more videos to the blog in the future too!

Betrayed By the Bench?

n-CRIMINAL-JUSTICE-RACE-628x314
Photo credit: ONEWORD VIA GETTY IMAGES

This morning, it was reported that Judge Stephen Millan used racial slurs as a judge.

It’s a tough pill for me to swallow.

He is someone I knew well — I practiced against him when he was a defense attorney, and before him when he became a judge. I never had an inkling of any racial animus in the way he referred to his clients or those before him.

But, there you have it — an “unnamed attorney” reported the comments two years later.

You read that right — two full years.

If you are a defense attorney, charged with protecting the interests of your clients (who, due to many systemic reasons are overwhelming black and brown), why do you sit on that information for two years?

How does one let a judge who is purportedly racist sit on the bench for two years — presiding over cases, and the fate of other black and brown people when you allegedly know the person is racist?

To give some context, judges in Miami-Dade County easily hear hundreds of cases a week. So for 104 weeks, someone who purportedly held racist views was able to affect the lives of many defendants.

It was said that the attorney feared “repercussions” — what about the repercussions to the affected persons whose life and liberty hung in the balance?

This, to me, says one of two things: either 1) the attorney did not view the conduct as that egregious; or 2) there is an ulterior motive.

This is yet another reason why diversity in the legal field is so critical.  When there are more defense attorneys, prosecutors and judges of color, we will have less instances like these.

It’s not a cure, but it’s a start.

If you are not a person of color, and want to be an ally in the struggle for racial equality, here are a few tips.

  1. Don’t condone racial slurs.  If it’s said around you, give a full-throated repudiation those statements.  Folks continue to speak that way if they think it’s ok and can get away with it.
  2. Provide evidence to help the struggle.  Take a page out of Deborah Baker-Egozi’s book, where she bravely filmed an officer using excessive force on a man of color, and offered the man legal representation.
  3. Use your voice and privilege to help the struggle. Shine a light on these issues, and raise awareness in circles that people of color do not have access to.
  4. Be aware of your own biases, and work on them.  Take the Harvard implicit association test, which helps show where your biases lie.  Once you know, work on it.  Pause before you make decisions — are you making a decision based on assumptions, stereotypes or pure hard facts?
  5. Engage with people who do not look like you. Let’s be clear — having a “black friend at work” doesn’t cut it.  You need to go to events, places of worship, and do things on your downtime that are outside of your comfort zone.  It has to be a choice for one to say s/he is fully engaged.

In this instance, I blame the judge for his comments, and the attorney for staying silent for so long.

Both are different sides of the same coin.

 

Sitting idly by as injustices occur is not the definition of being an ally.

It’s being part of the problem.

 

New in HuffPo: What It Means to Survive a Hurricane

Hurricane Irma photo
JOSE JIMENEZ/GETTY IMAGES

It’s never a good feeling to lock the door to your home, and not know when, if ever, you can really return.

At present, my husband, my 81 year old father and I are hunkered down in a hotel in central Florida. Our home in Miami is in the path for a direct hit from Hurricane Irma; the storm may follow us to where we are, causing us to consider running again. We are luckier than most in that we are able to leave town, and not head to a shelter. Hurricane shelters, contrary to how one sheriff in particular portrays them, are not centers of crime and assault. It is literally a a building (often a school) in a safer area that allows you to lay a blanket on the floor until the danger is over. A shelter is safe but not at all comfortable.

Many of my friends have chosen to stay put in their homes. There are many reasons why folks do not leave. Some can’t afford the crazy airline prices out of town; others worry that it is too late to leave, and don’t want to get caught in the storm due to traffic jams on the major highways.

Recently, it has come to light that some in the media show great disparities in how they report the aftermath of hurricane, based on race. Many of us reflect back to Hurricane Katrina, where there were pictures of residents doing whatever they need to do to survive. Unfortunately, when white folks were depicted taking food or items from stores, they were portrayed as survivors. When people of color did the same, they were portrayed as looters.

Read the rest here.