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!!

Diva Reads: #FarewellObama

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Today is Inauguration Day, which marks the official end to the administration of President Barack Obama.

In honor of his departure into the former Presidents Club, I am sharing some pieces that I found interesting, as well as some of my favorite pictures by White House photographer Pete Souza.

past-presidents-club

First, let’s start with President Obama’s legacy.  Washington Monthly  did a great roundup of all that he accomplished in two terms.  Even though steps are underway to completely dismantle the Affordable Care Act, for a time, every American had healthcare. But number 50 on this list should not be ignored.  President Obama is the first President since Dwight Eisenhower to serve two terms without any major personal or political scandal.

Let that sink in for a minute.  Eisenhower was President from 1953 – 1961.

Like Ta-Nehisi Coates said so eloquently in The Atlantic article My President was Black:

“he walked on ice but never fell”.

Since I know some may be struggling today, a little humour is in order.  News One  put together a list of the best comebacks by President Obama at the White House Correspondents Dinner. My top two are teasing sworn enemy House Speaker John Boehner (yes, the one who led the charge unsuccessfully to make him a one term President) with “orange is the new black”; and when he literally dropped the mic.

Lastly, I share the Atlantic’s  review of 44 photos taken by White House photographer Pete Souza.  All photos in my blog post are credited to him as well.

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U.S. Senator Barrack Obama talks with his daugher Malia, 6, outside the U.S. Capitol after he was sworn in on January 4, 2005. Chicago Tribune photo by Pete Souza

On a personal note, I remember the tremendous pride I felt on Election Night 2008, when I saw, after 250 years, a family in the White House that looked like me.  A family who reflected my values.  A couple that fought the odds to get to the highest office in the land.

I remember when I met the President in 2015 – I was so in awe that words never came out of my mouth.  Yes, very shocking, because I am never at a loss for words. But so much was going through my mind and my heart that nothing came out of my mouth.  So I will take the moment now to simply say:

From the depths of my soul, thank you President Obama.  Thank you for being a role model, for being strong, and for doing the best you could for the American people.  History will judge your legacy, and give it the full credit it deserves. This is the end; but I accept this as a challenge to rise and finish the work that was started so long ago. You did your part. I and others will carry the torch on the path to Dr. King’s mountaintop.

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Rape: What Do We Tell Our Girls?

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Photo courtesy of CreateHERStock

It is a tough time to be a parent of a girl in the United States.  The recent headlines in the news give conflicting messages on the crime of sexual assault.

 

On the one hand, we have President Obama signing into law a Sexual Assault Survivors Bill of Rights, which will give more of a voice to victims and protecting rape kits nationwide from destruction.

On the other, we have a Presidential candidate discussing grabbing women by their private parts, which, if done without consent, is a crime  in all 50 states.

In the middle — several high profile cases of light sentences given to convicted rapists, as well as a movie director Nate Parker who is unapologetic for his acquittal in a rape case nearly two decades ago.

With all of these issues swirling around, what do we tell our daughters about sexual assault? How do we protect them?

Sentencing decisions by some judges in recent months have sent a deafening message: the perpetrator’s future is more important than the victim’s trauma. In California, Colorado, Massachusetts, and even Canada, stories have been released regarding the incredibly low sentences in relation to depraved acts. 

The narrative is the same. 

She was drunk

She didn’t respond. 

He’s not a bad kid

He has a future

When we discuss mass incarceration/over incarceration, we can’t lose the basic fact that violent offenses need to be punished accordingly. A theft should not be treated the same as a robbery with force. 

A sexual assault is a violent act, based not in desire but in the need to dominate and hurt . 

As I examine the Stanford University (California) rape case, my heart breaks for the young woman who was so horribly violated. Her life will never be the same. Her letter  lays out the classics symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder from a traumatic event; I hope that she is getting the therapy and support she needs for the long road of rebuilding her life. 

But there are additional victims in this case as well. The witnesses are victims as well. We often forget that witnessing a crime is traumatic. Often actors in the criminal justice system become immune. I’ve come to that painful realization by noticing the dark, cynical jokes we tell to diffuse a situation. I can look at autopsy photos while eating a sandwich (not preferable mind you, but time is often of the essence). However, the average person is not equipped to deal with such an experience.  I look at the two brave young men  who rescued the Stanford survivor, pinning down her rapist Brock Turner. The men were students from Sweden, who came to our country to work on their Masters degrees. They, no doubt, were enjoying California and the rich academic environment at Stanford…until that fateful night. That night, their innocence was shattered. So much so that when the police tried to talk to them about what they witnessed, one of the men was crying uncontrollably. 

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Words of the University of Colorado sexual assault survivor; graphic by the Huffington Post

What is also disturbing to me is after the publicity the Stanford case garnered, a similar situation occurred in Colorado this August. Yet again, a campus rape, this time at the University of Colorado-Boulder. Yet again, a light sentence; 2 years of work release followed by 20 years of probation. The reason given by the judge?  Because the defendant “has a future“. What about her future?

Also in August, a judge in Massachusetts sentenced a young man sexually assaulted TWO women to two years probation.  His lawyer calls the defendant’s actions “a mistake”.

The defendant inserted his fingers into two women while they were sleeping. 

I fail to see the mistake in that. 

In Canada, it recently came to light that Judge Robin Camp asked a victim “why couldn’t you keep your knees together?” to avoid the rape. He further referred to the victim as “the accused”, and stated that “sex and pain often go together“. I guess he didn’t understand the dynamics of forced sex and violence, even though his own daughter was a victim. 

Actors in the system, especially judges, must be aware of implicit bias. It differs from racism in that it is not a deliberate act against an ethnic group; but assumptions as to who belongs in prison and who does not can unfairly affect the decision making process.  If two similarly situated individuals of different races would not receive the same sentence, there is a huge problem.  That same concept of implicit bias applies to who can be a victim, or what is viewed as a “legitimate” rape. 

Going back to the Stanford case, the judge has since transferred to the civil division.  This is good, because there is clearly a disconnect in believing 6 months (with credit  for time served effectively reducing it to 3 months) is appropriate for raping an unconscious woman. His lack of documented criminal history is not the beginning and end of his recidivism risk. One must look at the manner in which the crime was committed. The level of depravity — seeing someone vulnerable, becoming aroused, and attacking — shows the instincts of a sexual predator. The statements of the defendant’s father referring to  20 minutes of action” shows that he was raised in a household that condoned this type of behavior. If he lacks the moral compass to understand his behavior was wrong, his risk of recidivism increases even more. Additionally, it has come to light that the defendant repeatedly lied to officials, claiming that the crime was “consensual” in order to get a lesser sentence.

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Director Nate Parker.  Photo credit Fred Prouser/Reuters

 

The latest debate around sexual assault involves Birth of a Nation director Nate Parker.  In college, he and friend Jean Celestin were accused of raping a fellow student.  They were tried; Parker was acquitted and  Celestin was convicted, with the conviction later overturned.  The prosecution declined to try the case again due to issues in locating witnesses 5 years later.  Parker has been asked repeatedly about the incident, and refuses to apologize, stating he was falsely accused. 

To be clear, false reports in sexual assault cases hover at 7%, but more importantly, 63% of assaults go unreported. What are we doing to change that number?

Not believing the victim is a hurdle, especially when alcohol is involved. Nate Parker was acquitted, making him legally innocent. He is not guilty, which means the prosecution couldn’t prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. Does that mean he is factually innocent? Maybe. Maybe not. The victim maintained until her death by her own hand that this crime occurred. He says he was falsely accused.

Was he part of the 7%? Someone has to be.

All we know is the tragedy that ensued on the victim’s side. She went through the worst case scenario — she told her story but was not believed. This is the deepest fear of all victims. 

So what do we tell our girls? I have previously written  on this topic: travel in groups when attending college parties, and take care of each other, especially if one of the group is heavily intoxicated.  Try to always keep your wits about you. And if the worst case scenario happens — speak up immediately! Despite some judges who don’t sentence appropriately, the majority do.  The only way to change perceptions and attitudes towards sexual assault is for victims to come forward.  Yes, it is a risk — but silence will not bring justice.  We have to support victims/survivors, letting them know that they are safe in telling their story.  By victim blaming, we are sending a message to other women not to speak out.

No matter what, rape is not the victim’s fault. It is due to the actions of a defendant — the same way getting murdered is not the victim’s fault.  We must make sure our girls understand this.

And for our men and boys — here is a simple British video that summarizes everything you need to know about sex.  Just remember — unconscious people do not want tea. Or sex.

Criminal Justice Reform

My op-ed on criminal justice reform ran last Sunday in the Miami Herald. Enjoy and share your thoughts!

We can create a smarter criminal-justice system

In his final State of the Union Address, President Obama called for criminal-justice reform — one of the most important issues facing the country. The cornerstones of the criminal-justice system have been punishment, deterrence and rehabilitation. For too long, the focus has been on the first, with some mention of the second. Rehabilitation has barely been in the equation. This should change — and can change.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 95 percent of inmates are eventually released. What are they coming back to? If you went in without job skills and a solid education, plus an addiction, and your time in prison addressed none of those issues, how are you going to succeed?

Read the rest of the op-ed here

Racist and Proud: Is This What it Means to be Free?

White gunman sought in killing of 9 at black church in South Carolina
RIP Senator Clementa Pinckney — you are truly free

I saw disturbing hashtag on Twitter the other morning.

It said #RacistandProud.

While I applaud the efforts of Governor Haley of South Carolina, the representatives and the legislators such as Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn, who are fighting to take down the Confederate flag, the bottom line is you cannot legislate the hearts of men and women. Try as we might, we cannot make hatred illegal.  Acts of hate, yes.  But we need to do more to change the belief systems that lead to the acts of hate.

President Obama made this very point in a recent radio interview which caused quite a stir. People are very focused on his use of the N-word rather than the point he was making. The point is, it’s not about oh, we no longer can say the N-word in public therefore racism is dead. Everyone can drink from the same water fountain. We can use the same bathrooms. We can all enter the same places. Therefore, racism is no longer a problem.

Many people are afraid to even admit racism still exists, let alone even have the dialogue. How are we even to move forward, if people won’t even sit down at the table to have the discussion and hear opposing points of view?

This is why I was so disturbed by the Rachel Dolezal debacle. As you may recall, she was the White woman who was the President of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, and had held herself out as African American in recent years.  Her lies finally unravelled, resulting in her stepping down from her position in disgrace (but with a few prime time interviews). She, as a White woman, could have been a White female advocate on civil rights and social justice causes.  If she had been authentic, she could have helped facilitate this discussion with White America, potentially in a non-confrontational manner. But, this is a missed opportunity — the ship has sailed. Thank God for Jon Stewart and the Daily Show. Jon Stewart uses comedy as a vehicle to take on serious issues of race, making some salient points.  In the days after the shooting in Charleston, South Carolina Jon Stewart issued a blistering monologue that cut right to the heart of the issue of discussing race in America.

All good people watched in horror as nine innocent people lost their lives while worshiping in Bible study in Charleston, South Carolina. The bottom line is, the alleged killer, Dylann Roof was not a lone (although he acted alone), mentally ill, marginalized, sad boy who acted in a random manner. If you examine his manifesto his behavior and the flags he wore on his jacket, he is part of a greater movement.

A movement of #RacistandProud.

These are people who want to “take back the country” from what they feel are African Americans “moving above their station”. We as African Americans are no longer slaves, serving our masters the way they deemed we are supposed to be. We are becoming Presidents, Attorney Generals, Senators, Congresswomen, and having real power with the ability to change the world in a positive way. This idea is so revolting, so abhorrent, that the only way to react is to commit acts of murder and terror.

Think this sounds dramatic? Think back into American history, and how when African Americans protested simply for the right to vote and be treated equally, they were beaten and killed.  Think about how Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the proponent of non-violence, met his end.

So forgive me, if I shudder, when I hear certain politicians say “it’s time to take back our country”…because I’ve heard that language before.

I had the distinct honor and pleasure of being present for the historic installation of Loretta Lynch as the 83rd Attorney General of the United States in May. Two points of foreshadowing arose: first, in her speech, she stated “we do not look to the twin pools of revenge and retribution; we look to the law”. And secondly, the DEA Black and Gold Band played Amazing Grace on the bagpipes as they saluted General Lynch and blessed her for her term.

How ironic that within weeks of this incredible moment, we as a nation would see ourselves looking to the law to give us relief after a horrendous terrorist act against innocents; and hear President Obama make very poignant points (as well as sing) Amazing Grace at the funeral of slain South Carolina pastor and State Senator Clementa Pinckney.
President Obama reminded us during Senator Pinckney’s eulogy that we are all born with God’s grace — do we choose to use that grace to shine with positivity? Or do we cover that grace with hatred, racism and anger? Do we stand by while racist comments are made in our presence, ignore the cries and plights of others, saying “it’s not my problem”, or “it’s not so bad, they’re being dramatic”?

My heart goes out to Emmanuel AME church. To the victims, you are gone, not forgotten, and your death will not be in vain. As a country, still we rise. We will overcome this, as we have overcome so much adversity in our history. Together. As one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.

People pray and listen to the Sunday service outside of the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 21, 2015. Large crowds arrived at Sunday's service at the black church in Charleston where nine African Americans were gunned down, as a chilling website apparently created by the suspected white supremacist shooter emerged. The service will be the first since the bloodbath on Wednesday at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in the southern state of South Carolina, which has fuelled simmering racial tensions in the United States and reignited impassioned calls for stronger gun-control laws. AFP PHOTO/ MLADEN ANTONOV        (Photo credit should read MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images)
People pray and listen to the Sunday service outside of the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 21, 2015 in the first service after the murder of nine victims. AFP PHOTO/ MLADEN ANTONOV /Getty Images)
This is the true meaning of freedom and Independence Day.

In case you missed it, see the stirring rendition of Amazing Grace .