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

Celebrating Dr. King…

martin-luther-king

As we celebrate the birth of civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, let’s reflect on his words, and how they remain evergreen until justice is attained for all.

In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends

Dr. Martin Luther King lamented the silence of his friends in his letters from the Birmingham jail. He lamented those who would support him behind closed doors, but in the public forum where it really counts, he and other peoples of color stood alone.

Dr. King also was not only about racial equality, but economic equality. Many alliances were starting to be formed during that time between various races around the issue of economic empowerment; Unfortunately, the power structure at the time was designed to oppress, and in many ways, continues to do so. The common fallacy is that poverty only affects one certain segment. The reality is, if you are struggling you are struggling no matter what the race. Poor whites in Mississippi are no different than poor African-Americans in Alabama; poor whites in Milwaukee are no different than poor African Americans in New York. We must be wary of the divide and conquer tactic which has worked so well in many corners and we are seeing more of it today.

Many times during Dr. King’s walk, he was told wait.  Wait.  Give the system a chance to work.  We agree with your protests, but you shouldn’t do it in this manner.  Sound familiar? Think of today with the actions of Colin Kaepernick and sports players who choose to peacefully protest injustice by kneeling during the National anthem.  We agree with your cause, but you shouldn’t do it while we watch football.  Others are not that kind in their sentiments.

Here was Dr. King’s answer was to being told to wait, as he sat in the Birmingham jail for peacefully protesting:

But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she cannot go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos, “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodyness” — then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.

He then goes on to say “Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

So what does it mean to be a true ally? What can I do?

First, listen. Listen to the concerns of marginalized people. Set aside your own feelings of defensiveness or comfort that may come from tough discussions.

Secondly, show up. If it’s a protest, march. If it’s phone banking to call your local legislator about issues of concern, do it. If it’s sending an email to your legislator, do it. Download an app like 5 calls to help you make calls to action.

Thirdly, align yourself with others who have the same concerns. Join the local chapter of the ACLU or other organization fighting these battles. Donate to the causes that mean the most to you — whether it is reproductive rights, the rights of the LGBTQ community, immigrants’ rights, or civil rights in general.

Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.

Listen. Show up. Align. And give a full throated repudiation to those who speak racism.  By doing this, you will keep Dr. King’s dream alive.

In Solidarity,

The RLD.

New in The Hill: Protest from MLK to Women’s March

Last week, my first piece for the policy blog The Hill was published.  I examined the legacy of protest in this country during the last sixty years — from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to Colin Kaepernick, and ending with this past Saturday’s Women’s March on Washington.

While it was wonderful to see so many women across the globe so engaged, the real pressure needs to be placed on local officials.  Take your key points of contention, and march on your Congressperson, Senator, Mayor, on down. These folks are more important in many ways than who is in the White House, because they touch your day to day life. Additionally, they can act as a check/balance on the current administration if they realize their political lives are on the line.

Please read the article and share your thoughts!

martin-luther-king-jr-day-memes-1

America has a long legacy of protest against injustice. When done effectively, protest serves as a catalyst for political as well as social change.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. marched against specific injustices, many times triggered by an incident. Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus, became the galvanizing figure in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Dr. King was central to the boycott’s effectiveness, which resulted in the Supreme Court finding segregation on public buses unconstitutional in 1956. He, in partnership with other nonviolent organizations, organized sit-ins, boycotts and marches to shed light on the injustices African-Americans were enduring at the time, including unfair hiring practices, segregation and police brutality.

Although history judges him as a hero, it was not so at the time.

Read the rest of the article here.

#TBT: Best of 2016

voting 2016

 

 

Hi RLD Family,

As we bring 2016 to a close, I wanted to share the stories on the blog that were the most popular this year. I’ve put the link to the post in the title, so go ahead and click to read it again…or for the first time if you missed it.

Let’s begin the countdown!

 

 

#5. Don’t Leave America, Fight For It!

This Presidential election definitely brought out some strong feelings — and the outcome came as a surprise to many. I shared my thoughts as to “where from here” and my resolve to fight for what is rightfully mine as an American. My forefathers planted trees on this land, and I intend to stay and enjoy the fruit of their labor.

 

#4. An Open Letter to Bill O’Reilly on Slavery

My response to the crazy and factually incorrect comments regarding slavery made by Fox News host Bill O’Reilly appeared in the Huffington Post. It remains the most commented on and liked piece that I have done so far.  We must be vigilant to make sure that those who wish to revise history, whitewashing it and trying to minimize the effect it had on this nation, are held to task.

 

#3. My Take on Police Shootings

This piece was published in the Huffington post as well. It was in response to some of the horrific shootings by police that we saw this year. Not every case merits an arrest;  if an officer can articulate legitimate reasons for being in fear, then the shooting is justified.  The focus must remain on deescalation tactics  to reduce the number of fatal shootings, and shining a light on those shootings that are not justified to ensure that everyone is equal under the law — facing consequences when the law is broken.

 

#2. #LoveWins: Interracial Relationship Realities

An innocent and sweet Old Navy ad featuring an interracial family drew the ire of Internet trolls. As a result of the racist backlash, many families started to post pictures showing what love is. I was no different;  not only did I post pictures of my husband and I, but I penned a piece to discuss some of the challenges that we face as a couple. At the end of the day, as long as you have a love and communication, you can overcome anything!

 

And the number one post of 2016 on the Resident Legal Diva is:

#1. Goodbye My Dear Friend…

This was one of the toughest pieces for me to write. Actually, writing it wasn’t that hard; reading and sharing it was the difficult part. My friend suddenly passed away earlier this year, and left a hole in my heart that can never be filled. This was a tough year for me with regards to friends and family transitioning to the next life. All we can do is cherish those we love while we have them, mourn those we have lost, and keep them alive in our hearts through our beautiful memories.

This year I also took a gander at vlogging! I did three videos — check out the links below.

 

So for 2017, what do you want to see on the blog? Do you want to see more articles? More Diva Talks videos? More Diva Reads where I discuss articles of interest that I have been reading?  I’d love to hear from you, sound off in the comments below.

Wishing you a happy, healthy, prosperous, and amazing New Year. I’ll see you on the flipside!

M.

 

createherstock-christmas167-isha-gaines
courtesy CreateHerStock