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

RLD on The JustPod: Prosecutorial Discretion

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Hey RLD Family!

I had the privilege of appearing on the American Bar Association podcast “The JustPod” this week.  The host Emily Johnson and I chatted about what the ethical obligations of a prosecutor are from charging until trial.  I also shared my thoughts on the Jussie Smollett case, then US Attorney Alex Acosta’s handling of the Jeffrey Epstein case, and other recent high profile cases. Lastly, I discussed my upcoming book on prosecutorial discretion that will be coming out early next year.

Listen to my comments here!

Legal Divas of Color: Eunice Hunton Carter

Every year for Black History Month, I produce a series entitled “Legal Divas of Color”.  The aim is to highlight female legal eagles of color, past and present, who blazed the trail for me (as well as many other sisters and brothers to follow).

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Eunice at work-Philadelphia Sun, date unknown

Did you know that it was an African American female attorney that brought down mobster Lucky Luciano?

I surely did not!

A dear friend of mine Louise brought this to my attention on Facebook. She posted:

Just finished “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster” by Stephen L. Carter. The book is about Eunice Hunton Carter, the author’s grandmother. The granddaughter of slaves, she was a graduate of Smith College, and later became the first black woman to receive a law degree from Fordham University in New York City. In the mid-1930s when special prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey selected twenty lawyers to help him clean up the city’s underworld, she was the only member of his team who was not a white male. And it was her work that brought down Lucky Luciano, the most powerful Mafia boss in history. This is a remarkable story about a truly remarkable woman.

So of course, I had to investigate!

Eunice Hunton Carter was born in 1899 in the city of Atlanta.  Her parents, who were social activists, encouraged her to push boundaries. After graduating cum laude from Smith College with both undergraduate and graduate degrees in 1921, she pursed a career as a social worker.  Later, Ms. Carter became the first African American woman to graduate from Fordham Law School in 1932.

Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia appointed her to “women’s court” to serve as a prosecutor of women perpetrated crimes — at the time, mostly prostitution. This made her the first African American female Assistant District Attorney in Manhattan.

While working in this court, Ms. Carter started to see a pattern — certain prostitutes kept getting arrested all over New York City, and were consistently bonded out by the same bail bondsmen, and represented by the same attorneys. The bondsmen and attorneys were connected to the mobster Charlie “Lucky” Luciano.  Lucky Luciano created the infamous “Commission” — which brought all five mob families together to settle disputes and carve up territory. He was ruthless, running rackets and “whacking” or murdering anyone who stood in his way.

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Charlie “Lucky” Luciano, photo courtesy of Mob Museum

Armed with her observations, Ms. Carter spoke to her boss, special prosecutor Thomas Dewey, and they began to build a case.  They were able to prove that the prostitutes had to kick back half of their earnings for protection as well as representation. This meant Luciano was benefiting from prostitution.  Due to her hard work, they secured a guilty verdict, and Luciano was sentenced to 30-50 years in prison. He served 10 years before being deported to Italy (after cooperating with authorities).

Ms. Carter continued to serve as a prosecutor until 1945, when she entered private practice. She married Lisle Carter, Sr., who is one of the first African American dentists in New York. She also advised the United Nations on women’s issues and was active with the United Council of Negro Women and YMCA until her death in 1970.

Get the book by her grandson Stephen L. Carter here.

Ironically, when I first became a prosecutor, my goal was to do mob and drug trafficking cases. Life took me on a different path, but I’m thrilled to see a sister who blazed the trail and was an unsung heroine in the fight against organized crime. With the knowledge that the mob (in general) did not have a high opinion of African Americans or women, learning about her work made it that much sweeter.

Thank you Eunice Hunton Carter for being a true Legal Diva of Color!

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

Hi RLD Family,

Please see my first piece on theRoot.com.  I tackle the issue if whether or not Senator Kamala Harris’ time as a prosecutor should take her out of the race for president.  I also share my perspective as a former prosecutor of color.

The piece caused quite a stir on Twitter and in the comments section of the Root.

To be clear, I am adopting a wait and see approach — with an open mind and proceeding with caution, as with anyone who wants to sit in the Oval Office.  It seems like some politicians are allowed a “complicated” past while others are faced with a high level scrutiny. I think people are allowed (and should!) evolve and grow around issues of policy. Let’s see what the next year brings!

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Senator Kamala Harris. Photo credit: Chip Somodivella/Getty Images

Since announcing her intention to run for president this past Martin Luther King Day, a firestorm has swirled around Sen. Kamala Harris. Some attack her for her personal life; others attack her based on her record as a prosecutor in California. Kamala served as San Francisco district attorney from 2004 to 2011 and as California attorney general from 2011 to 2017. She joined the United States Senate in 2017, where she still serves today.

Some accuse her of not being “pro-black” because of her work as a prosecutor, stating that a prosecutor upholds a racist system.

Let’s get thing straight—you can be pro-black and a prosecutor.

How do I know this?

Because I was both.

Read the rest on theRoot.com here.

Legal Divas of Color: 10 Ladies Rise in Alabama

Photo Credit: Andre WagnerEvery Black History Month, I have done a series on this blog on the topic of “Legal Divas of Color”. The intent is to highlight African-American women who are doing great things in the legal field. Many serve as an inspiration to me to keep fighting the good fight and pushing the boundaries as far as they can go. It is also a reminder that the term “diva” is not a pejorative term; a diva is a woman who is strong, self-assured, and commands her worth.

When one thinks of the state of Alabama, sadly what comes to mind is the long history of racism and segregation. One thinks of the work of Dr. Martin Luther King; the actions of brutal police officers; and the last state in the country to overturn miscegenation laws as required by the Supreme Court.

However, Election Day 2016 showed that times are slowly changing in this southern state. 10 female attorneys of color rose to the highest positions that one can hold in the legal field in Jefferson County. The newly elected District Attorney is Lynneice Washington; and nine women of color were elected judges in Jefferson County. The nine new judges are Javan Patton, Debra Bennett Winston, Shera Craig Grant, Nakita “Niki” Perryman Blocton, Tamara Harris Johnson, Elisabeth French, Agnes Chappell, Brendette Brown Green and Annetta Verin.

District Attorney Lynneice Washington ran on a progressive platform of reforming/reducing the use of the death penalty, creating alternatives to incarceration for low level offenders, and creating a citizens-police advisory board. In doing so, she defeated the incumbent who had been appointed to the position after the retirement of his successor.

Photo Credit: Lynneice Washington campaign

These wins are even more significant when you look at the fact that the current administration carried Alabama, and defeated Hillary Clinton resoundingly.

In this day and age, there seems to be a resurgence of the “tough on crime” rhetoric coming from the Justice Department and the White House. These policies have proven to be ineffective, leading to mass incarceration and no rehabilitation to be found in the criminal justice system. Now, there is a rise of a more progressive approach to criminal justice, which has shown to be effective in reducing recidivism and integrating people back into their communities. This is why it is more important than ever to elect progressive district attorneys and judges so that the whole defendant is being considered, as well as what is right for the victim, and the community at large. Local politics have become more critical in criminal justice than national policy. Groups such as the ACLU, and activists such as Shaun King are mounting voter education campaigns on this critical issue.

The wave of power seen in Jefferson County, Alabama is absolutely historic. I look upon these wins as hope for the future!

Congratulations ladies for being Legal Divas of Color.

Please see the bios of the nine judges here as well as a great piece detailing the District Attorney Lynneice Washington’s plans for the future of her county.