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.

A Tribute to Whitney – 6 years later…

A Tribute to Whitney – 6 years later…

February 11, 2012.

It was the night of our wedding rehearsal. The DJ was spinning great tunes, and friends/family from around the globe had joined us to celebrate our wedding the next day.

The news broke: Whitney Houston had been found dead in her hotel room.

My photographer had to step out of the room to collect himself. I was completely stunned. The DJ, herself in shock, agreed to play a tribute to Whitney during our wedding the next day. She did so — and we toasted her memory during our wedding dinner to the song “Exhale“. It was the perfect selection:

Sometimes you’ll laugh

Sometimes you’ll cry

Life never tells us

The when’s or why’s

When you’ve got friends to wish you well

You’ll find a point when

You will exhale

You may have noticed I write a fair amount of tributes to artists that pass away such as Prince and George Michael. This is because (cliche as it may seem), music is truly the soundtrack of my life. I often have a song lyric for any given situation. As with most people, music will rocket me back to a place, a time, or a person.

With Whitney, she takes me back…

…To summer camp as a teen in Toronto, where our project was to do a group lip sync performance to “I Wanna Dance With Somebody“.

…To watching the 1988 Olympics and remembering how her voice in “One Moment in Time” would give me simultaneous chills and pride.

…To the New York City club scene in the ’90’s with the remix of “It’s Not Right, But It’s OK“. That song is still a timeless anthem that will bring down the house at a club, party, drag show, or just about anywhere else to this day.

And of course, to my wedding day.

How she met her end was tragic; in my opinion, no artist to this day could match her vocal range. Her legal troubles, drug use and troubled marriage highlighted the dark side of fame.

But in the end, she left the world, and me in particular, with a great soundtrack to life’s memories.

Sleep in Power, Rest In Peace Whitney Houston. We’ll always love you.

Toxic Tribalism: Why Diverse Judges Are Needed More Than Ever

Toxic Tribalism: Why Diverse Judges Are Needed More Than Ever

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Judge Rosemarie Aquilina during sentencing. Photo credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Judge Rosemarie Aquilina drew headlines this week with her sentencing of former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar.  All week long, we were riveted by the powerful victim impact statements made by young gymnasts as to the abuse they suffered at the hands of someone they trusted.  Testimony was given by Olympians, faces we recognized (such as Simone Biles and Aly Raisman) and some we didn’t. Irregardless, the pain was the same.

Each woman had the same story. They were young (starting at early teens), and they received a sexual violation rather than treatment by this doctor.

As she sentenced the disgraced doctor to 175 years in prison, Judge Aquilina made note of several aspects — the desire of the defendant to silence the women by asking the judge to stop the stream of victim impact statements; the large number of women who had come forward with similar tales of abuse; and Nassar’s unrepentant attitude. She read portions of a letter he sent, in which he laid blame upon the victims, the investigators, the prosecutor and the media.

Judge Aquilina made the statements to the effect of “I wouldn’t send my dog to you for treatment” and  “I’ve just signed your death warrant”.

There are some that claim her comments went over the line, and that she has taken this “too personally”.

One male judge stated that Nassar’s sentencing was “the most violative” sentencing proceeding he can recall.

Let’s look at the role of the judge. At sentencing, a judge may consider a wide variety of factors, such as how dangerous the defendant is, likelihood to re-offend, the facts of the underlying case, impact on the community, and remorse of the defendant.

The facts that came to light include that this doctor abused over 150 women during a time span of close to 30 years, with similar facts.  It is clear that he is likely to re-offend. The impact of this case is obvious — it has rocked the Olympic world, and shocked the public.  The president of the University of Michigan, where the doctor was employed, resigned in the wake of this case.

As for remorse — this defendant had none.  He exhibited signs of a classic abuser and manipulator, attempting to explain his actions away. See excerpts from the letter he sent Judge Aquilina below.

The judge stating that “she signed his death warrant” is a fact.  He will not live to see the end of his sentence.  Stating that “she would not send her dogs to him” for treatment? This, to me, was a direct response to his assertion that his actions were not molestation, but were some form of treatment.

To keep things in perspective, remember the reactions to the judge in the  Stanford rape case, and how a Montana judge thought that a girl could not be a victim because “she acted older than her age“.

In reading the derogatory comments from some men regarding this case, it appears that toxic tribalism and toxic masculinity continues to thrive.  These abuses happen, and continue to happen, as a result of some men believing that they are entitled to take liberties with whatever woman they choose.  It is the very essence of the #MeToo movement — from Anita Hill, to the women allegedly victimized by Bill Cosby, to the female employees at the Ford Motor Company.  The actual facts and abuse may change, but the pathology is the same.  It is rooted in power, entitlement, and a misguided belief that women do not deserve the same respect as men.

We must continue to vote for diversity in the judiciary. In doing so, you have judges who are keenly aware of the impact of their decisions, as well as the impact of a defendant on a particular underrepresented community.  This is not to say a male judge would not have reacted in the same way in this case; but this judge was able to acutely see the pain that these young women were showing in their statements.

It is time to put aside the theory of “us men have to stick together“, and shift to a “respect all equally” motto. In doing so, victims who were violated in the worst way possible will be supported.

All That Glitters…

All That Glitters…

Is not gold. 

My dad always told me this phrase growing up.

This warning came to mind again as I read fellow blogger Allison Jones‘ story about being a true “Basketball wife”.

She attained the dream of many girls and women — marrying a professional athlete with all the perks and attention that goes hand in hand with this lifestyle. However, she cautions that you have to marry for the right reasons, because like any relationship, there are ups and downs. She and her husband have weathered the storm because their relationship is based on true love and friendship.

The path to maturity tells you that money does not solve everything (and can create more problems!). A marriage is not something to be entered into lightly. Being a wife, as I have learned, requires love, understanding, patience and compromise.  Being a baller’s wife comes with its own set of challenges that are not easily conquered if one is focused on attaining money, status or fame. If you’re not sure, check out any “Real Housewives” episode as a point of scary reference.

As women, we should be focused on finding that loving, healthy relationship, while building our own path to success.

As a society, we must encourage our girls to do the same!

Please share your thoughts as always.

 

A few months ago, as I sat alone in a three-bedroom apartment in Cantù, Italy, a small town outside of Milan, I scrolled through my Instagram requests. Something stood out to me that I’ll never forget. A young girl, who looked about 14 years old, requested to follow me. I often get requests from teenage girls because, let’s be honest, those are the only people who still watch My Super Sweet 16 reruns on MTV and come across the almost decade old episode featuring my 16th birthday party. Usually, I approve as long as the page doesn’t look creepy and go about my business, but as I read the young lady’s bio, I stopped. It read: this school, that city, emoji, emoji, whoever’s bestie, “future basketball wifey.” When I read the last three words months ago, I couldn’t help but wonder who in their right mind would purposely seek out this lifestyle and as I think about it now, I wonder the same thing.

Read more here.

The RLD on DV: Final Thoughts

The RLD on DV: Final Thoughts

20140712-155146-57106832.jpgAs I bring this series to a close, I cannot end without talking about the most hotly debated topic in the country, as well as in domestic violence circles — the use of firearms. Statistics show that a woman is eight times more likely to die at the hands of her abuser if there is a firearm in the home.  African American women are 2.5 more times likely to die than their White female counterparts.

This past May, I had the honor of joining a roundtable discussion/working group with the Battered Women’s Justice Project. As a prosecutor, I came in with the very specific mindset that if there’s any opportunity to protect a domestic violence victim by removing a firearm from the home, I’m going to take it.

But it was very interesting to hear of the other participants in the discussion, who came from the perspective of victim advocates, as well as law-enforcement. The participants came from across the country, from cities, rural areas and native tribes. The biggest debate came from the fact that sometimes the victims will say “yes my spouse is abusing me, but he never uses the gun to abuse me”. “Yes I am afraid of him, but he never threatened me with the gun he always hits me with his hands. If you take his gun, this will make him more mad and place me in more danger.”

Another consideration that was discussed is that of survival. The folks in rural areas will use guns to hunt, which is a major component of how they eat. There’s no driving to Publix, Walmart or Whole Foods, which some of us take for granted. Taking their gun is literally taking their ability to survive. Additionally, there are cultural concerns, where you have firearms or rifles that have been handed down from father to son. So by taking away the firearm, you are literally taking away a family’s history or disrespecting a tribal symbol.

This is why the battle continues. It was very eye-opening for me, and a reminder that life is not cut and dry, black-and-white. As a city dweller, I learned a lot from that discussion. On a personal note, I am married a man who has a ranch in Idaho. When I first went out to the area with my husband (aka the Cowboy), there was definitely a few cultural differences (high heeled boots are never the fashion in that particular town in northern Idaho. I am a Diva after all!). I had some exposure to using firearms in the past; but I definitely learned a new respect for them because it is the instrument of your survival in the woods when wildlife is your next-door neighbor. I understood the arguments that were made at the roundtable; I found some more persuasive than others.

Ultimately, the prosecutor/women’s empowerment side of me strongly believes that it takes just one angry word, one moment of rage, one moment in that explosionary part of the cycle of violence coupled with the easy availability of that firearm for a domestic homicide to happen.

So the discussion continues. There are no easy answers. But I believe that if we keep talking, if we keep raising awareness, and if we keep rallying around victims — letting them know that they are loved, supported, and that they do not have to stay with their abusers, we will find a way to eradicate this problem. And if we give victims support in testifying against their abusers, and getting justice, whether it be in the form of a prison sentence or psychological counseling for their abusers, we will go along way in restructuring how our society thinks about violence along with how relationships should be.

Here are a few resources.

National Domestic Violence Hotline  (800) 799-SAFE (7233) or (800) 787-3224 (TTY) or visit their website

National Network to End Domestic Violence List of State DV Coalitions visit their website

American Bar Association For legal assistance visit their website

Stalking Resource Center (800) FYI-CALL or visit their website.

Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (800) 656-HOPE or visit their website.

Whatever you are going through, you are not alone. There is help — you are loved, you are worthy, and you are STRONG!

M.

The RLD on DV: Introduction

The RLD on DV: Introduction

IMG_2825October is Domestic Violence Awareness month. In honor of a subject that I am very passionate about, I am doing a multi part series addressing this deadly issue.

Why?

Because as a prosecutor who specialized in domestic violence crimes for close to four years, and still continues to handle domestic violence homicides although I work in a different unit, I hear the same old stories.

What did she do to provoke it?

Many violent incidents happen behind closed doors, away from the public eye. The only people who know what happened are those in the room — or their children that witness it.  I have had witnesses tell me “he’s such a nice guy, I mean she must have done something to have made him do this to her

Meanwhile, the victim is dead.

Really?

Domestic violence is a family matter, to be dealt with quietly.

I had a victim who was beaten within an inch of her life with a weightlifting bar by her husband. He then took her from the house with the intention of disposing of her permanently.  It was only through a harrowing escape and the kindness of very frightened strangers that she survived to tell her tale.  The defendant’s family had the nerve to tell her in open court “if he was beating you, you should have come to us.  You never should have called the police. This was a family matter”.

I have never heard of a family that persuaded a husband to stop beating his wife.  If you have, please let me know.

She didn’t leave so she must have enjoyed it.

I have actually heard people say this, fully believing it is true. There are a multitude of reasons why someone doesn’t leave an abusive relationship. Over the next few weeks, I will feature some of the stories, so you can see for yourself.  But the reason is never “I liked being beaten“.

She hit him back so they just had that kind of relationship.

Yes, they did. It’s called an abusive relationship.  It’s not something that should be played down or minimized.  It is not acceptable or healthy. As friends and family members, we should be encouraging anyone who is in that type of relationship to end it, seek counseling, and find a better partner.  Once we as a society start to accept hitting as a new norm, we lose our humanity.

They were a passionate couple.

Let’s not confuse “passionate” with “messy“.  We look at certain celebrity relationships, with their ups and downs, as well as every “Real Housewives” franchise, waiting for the next plate to fly or the tea to spill.  No couple is perfect; however, a healthy relationship is based on mutual respect. Once the line is broken with physical abuse (which can be as simple as a push or a slap) or verbal abuse (you’re stupid, you’re ugly, no one will want you), then the line has been crossed from healthy to sick.

Men Can’t Be Victims.

Wrong.  This is about power and control.  The abusive wife derives power from hitting and humiliating her husband; the husband stays because he loves her, and hopes that she will change. Same pathology, different gender.

So For Now…

Here is an interesting article from the Huffington Post about the states in the US where women are most likely to die at the hands of men by domestic violence.  Sadly, African American women die at a rate of 2.5x that of their White counterparts; and if the abuser has access to a gun, the woman is eight times more likely to be killed.  Read the details here.

I hope you will find this series informative and thought provoking. As you will see, domestic violence does not discriminate. It affects relationships rich and poor, straight and gay, of all ethnic groups.

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As always, I welcome your feedback!

M.

It’s All About OPPORTUNITY…

It’s All About OPPORTUNITY…

Opportunity.
It’s a powerful word.
Viola Davis had a historic win at the Emmys this week, being the first African American actress to win an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama for the show “How to Get Away with Murder.  The show is written by Shonda Rhimes, an African American writer.  It is always uplifting to see a talented woman being acknowledged — breaking through gender, color and stereotype barriers, and attaining what she has rightfully earned.
In her speech, she discussed the importance of opportunity.
Without opportunity, one never gets the chance to succeed.
People often ask why do I write, why do I get so involved in causes, what drives me.

Opportunity.

I was a beneficiary of those who sacrificed before me. Those women who paid a high price, so that I can have the opportunities I have today.

It’s great. There is no reason that I can’t relax, while enjoying the fruits of their labor.

But the ultimate thank you to those women who came before me, those trailblazers, is to create opportunities for the next generation.

At the last National Black Prosecutors Association conference, a young prosecutor came up to me and told me “I interviewed with you several years ago. Although I did not accept an offer with your office, opting to stay closer to home, you showed me being a prosecutor was possible”.

This is why I do what I do. We must show and empower.

The Miami Herald ran a story on Gwen S. Cherry, who, because of her strength, determination and sacrifice, gave African American women lawyers like me the opportunity to succeed. I have previously acknowledged her on my blog (see the story here), but read this powerful Herald piece here. I am proud to continue to serve as the Vice President of the organization that bears her name, the Gwen S. Cherry Black Women Lawyers Association.
gwen cherry
When you get an opportunity, seize it with both hands, then drive a truck through it. That way you leave the path clear for others to follow. Not only must you take, but you must always be mindful of who is following you.
M.
#JusticeForRenisha: Theodore Wafer Found GUILTY Of Second Degree Murder

#JusticeForRenisha: Theodore Wafer Found GUILTY Of Second Degree Murder

The evidence speaks…and justice was served! The best moment as a prosecutor is to give a family closure. I am glad this ended in a guilty verdict.

HelloBeautiful

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After 10-days of trial and hours of deliberation (that began on Wednesday), a jury found Theodore Wafer, 55, guilty of second degree murder, manslaughter and felony firearms charges in the shooting of Renisha McBride, 19.

A reporter (@Idabeewells) inside the courtroom tweeted, “People have moved for immediate remand. Monica McBride, mother of #RenishaMcBride, in tears.” Wafer will be remanded immediately and sentencing has been set for August 21.

Wafer admitted to shooting and killing Renisha last November after she had been banging on his door in the wee hours of the morning. Renisha had been in a car accident and sought help. Wafer’s attorney Cheryl Carpenter argued that Renisha was banging so hard, the windows shook thus, scaring her client. Wafer’s main defense was that he was in fear for his safety and sought his firearm for protection. It later came out in the trial that Wafer…

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Racism: In Case You Weren’t Sure — Judge Attacked in Chicago

Racism: In Case You Weren’t Sure — Judge Attacked in Chicago

Hubbard_Arnette_wmFor those who believe racism does not exist….

For those who believe we are in a “post racial society”…

For those who think that African Americans are overreacting, and keep living in the past.

NEWSFLASH. 

This week, Judge Arnette Hubbard was spat on and struck by a business owner in Chicago.

Here is a judge. The highest level one can achieve in the legal profession.

Granted, she was not on the bench in her official capacity.

She was standing in public, as a silver haired, older African American woman. Minding her business. Smoking her cigarette.

And she was subjected to insults, being struck in the face, and the most degrading thing I think one human can do to another (short of rape) – she was spat upon.

The best part? This ignoramus, this “business owner” called her “Rosa Parks”

Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks, the civil rights icon.

Rosa Parks, the woman who, while minding her own business on a bus in the year 1955, launched a movement.

Clearly this was not meant as a compliment; but a reminder of where her place should be – at the back.

Ironically, we are having the same discussion 60 years later.

What was it all for?

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964…here is a perfect example of why these laws are still needed.

Because in some folks minds…we will never be equal.

No matter how hard we work. No matter how much we achieve.

A judge was hit and humiliated.

Simply because of her race. 

See what happened here

 

Goodbye Maya Angelou…

Goodbye Maya Angelou…

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We lost an amazing icon yesterday. To me, Maya Angelou was a vision of strength and resilience. My favorite quote that carried me out of more than one relationship–

Never make someone a priority when all you are to them is an option.”

But the poem that will always give me chills is “Still I Rise

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

Maya Angelou, thank you for all that you were. You taught all of us to stand tall, be proud, and be original. Thank you for being a TRUE diva!

M.