Legal Divas of Color: Eunice Hunton Carter

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).

11. Eunice at work-Philadelphia Sun, date unknown
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.

3-8-16-LuckyLuciano
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!

eunice-carter-f8ccbba9-caec-4057-833b-2b7471aba91-resize-750

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

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!

kamala-harris
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

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.

Diversity Discussions: The Role of Prosecutors of Color

Diversity Discussions: The Role of Prosecutors of Color

20140217-103800.jpg

I was recently interviewed by Fusion  on my path to becoming a senior African American prosecutor.  In examining the criminal justice system as a whole, it is extremely important that all of the actors (judges, police, defense attorneys and prosecutors) reflect the community they serve.  The article revealed some disturbing statistics; in addition to the previously reported statistic by the Women’s Donor Network that 95% of elected prosecutors are white men, Fusion found:

In counties in the U.S. where people of color represent between 50% and 60% of the population, only 19% of prosecutors are prosecutors of color.

  • In counties where people of color represent between 80% and 90% percent of the population, only 53% of the prosecutors are prosecutors of color.
  • Only in places where 90% of the population are people of color does the prosecutor pool reflect the diversity of the community.
  • Overall, in the 276 counties in the U.S. where people of color represent the majority of the population, only 42%, or less than half, of the prosecutors in these counties are prosecutors of color.

This is why I am tireless in my efforts to bring more people of color into the career of prosecution.

Melba Pearson, a past president of the National Black Prosecutors Association (NBPA), is a woman of color and an assistant state attorney in Miami. She didn’t fully realize how powerful the role of prosecutor was until she became one — somewhat by chance.

Growing up, Pearson was pressed by her father to study the civil rights movement. He noted that heroes like Martin Luther King, Jr. were able to accomplish their work partly because “they had amazing defense attorneys to get them out of jail,” she said. “That’s something really ingrained in me since I was young.”

Read more here.

“My Life as a Black Prosecutor” via Marshall Project/Vice.com

“My Life as a Black Prosecutor” via Marshall Project/Vice.com

20140217-103800.jpg

I was approached as then President of the National Black Prosecutors Association to write an article for this collaborative project between the Marshall Project and Vice. It’s important to note, in a world where 95% of elected prosecutors are white, that diversity is a critical issue, especially in the upper echelons of the profession.  As we explore criminal justice reform, issues in policing and lifting up communities of color, it is even more critical that prosecutors reflect the communities they serve.

“The only way to help your people is to be a defense attorney.”

My father was the first to tell me that, but definitely not the last.

He went on to explain that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and all the civil-rights leaders of the 1960s had great lawyers to call whenever they got jailed for protesting. Without these lawyers, my dad explained, African Americans would never have advanced toward equality.

When I was in college and law school, I was also told that as a black woman, the only way to look out for “my people” and defend the Constitution was to become a defense attorney — and more specifically a public defender.

I followed that path, interning with the Legal Aid Society in New York City while I was an undergrad. A couple of the attorneys I met there formed their own shop, and I later interned for them during law school. But during my final year, I got an offer to become a prosecutor in Florida.

I accepted and never looked back.

Read the rest here.