Image for post
Image for post

On Being an African American Prosecutor

Contributing Authors: Kimberly Henderson Baird, Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney and Brittany Scordo, Director of Victim’s Services, Fayette County Commonwealth’s Attorney Office (KY)

Image for post
Image for post
Photo credit: Zach Lucero/Unsplash

ince I was 9 years old, I knew I wanted to be an attorney. Every legal show on TV and stories from “those” family members about how they were messed over by the ‘system’ compelled my desire to be a defense attorney, then a judge, and to ultimately land a seat on the US Supreme Court. (As a strong admirer of Thurgood Marshall, Clarence Thomas and I needed to have a serious conversation). I wanted to fight for justice and for the rights of those who had been trampled by corrupt police officers and overzealous prosecutors. All the way through my third year of law school I was prepared to fight the fight from this defense angle.

Then I met the then Fayette Commonwealth’s Attorney, Ray Larson.

I worked at the Urban League during undergraduate and law school, and for years I had to pass the prosecutor’s office to get to my car. Occasionally Ray would be standing outside, and I would receive what I perceived as the obligatory political nod and smile. One day during the first semester of my 3rd year, the law school was having a public sector career fair and I saw Ray standing in the hallway. I introduced myself (no reason why, other than God made me do it), and after some small talk, he told me to sign up for the internship for his office. I said no. I had already turned in my schedule and had signed up for the judicial internship. But just before the registration deadline I went to the registrar, whited out my internship selection, and changed it to the prosecutorial one. What in the world?! (What was God doing to me?!)

I started my internship in January of 1996. I was assigned to train with a truly awesome prosecutor. There were only 10 prosecutors in the office, so I got to know them very well. We talked about why they wanted to be prosecutors and how they saw their role in the justice system. They wanted to fight for victims and believed defendants who commit crimes should be punished. But they also recognized the discretion and power they had in resolving cases, and knew they had a duty and obligation not to abuse it. The prosecutors I watched on all the legal shows I loved so much were not portrayed this way!

In April, my boss offered me a job. I didn’t immediately give him an answer — I was conflicted. The prosecutors were nothing like I had envisioned in my head. And my friends were questioning how I could work in the office and prosecute my own people. Was I selling out?

I struggled with this conflict for a while. When my boss asked why I had not accepted the position, I told him my concerns. In the first of many “fatherly” conversations, he told me he understood my reservations. Then he said that as a defense attorney, I would ensure justice one client at a time; as a prosecutor, my obligation is to ensure justice for every defendant, and to set that standard in the office. My ethical obligation was to make sure the defendant’s rights are protected even if the defense attorney or judge does not.

I was sold and have been there ever since.

Image for post
Image for post
Photo credit: Clarisse Meyer/Unsplash

In preparation to write this blog, I read posts from other African American prosecutors. I was surprised to learn that others had a similar experience — the conflicts, the doubts. But the difference for these younger prosecutors is that they have a village supporting them.

My county is the second largest jurisdiction in my state. When I started my career here, I was the only African American prosecutor and the first African American female. It was just me. I was navigating this new world of felony prosecution alone, with no one to talk to about the unique challenges I was facing. I was by myself at the table with no one from whom to seek guidance, to look up to, or to get advice from. Don’t get me wrong, I had other mentors who gave me advice, but not about being a sellout, setting standards in the office, and how to check questionable officer behavior while still maintaining a working relationship. Even though the National Bar Association was founded in 1925 and the National Black Prosecutors Association was founded in 1983, without someone to guide me to those organizations, I was not aware of them as a resource.

Today the table has many more chairs. There are African American prosecutors in other offices with which to share experiences. Since I started, we have had 6 other black prosecutors in our office, one who still works there. One has become a District Judge, one is our Governor’s Chief of Staff, one is the First Assistant in the largest county in the state, one is a US Bankruptcy Trustee, and one is an Assistant US Attorney. I am now the First Assistant in my office. Our office became the training ground for these prosecutors to go on to be tops in their new fields. We are not all in very public professions, but we are fighting hard to make sure there is fairness across racial and socio-economic lines and that all points of view are considered.

In this current political and social climate, being able to talk with colleagues who have had similar experiences helps. You may vent without judgement. You will learn how to handle the sensitive and uncomfortable topics like race, stereotypes, and biases that challenge precedent and office policies. We have a long way to go, but I still have hope that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream will still come to fruition — that people will be judged, not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

Image for post
Image for post
Photo credit: Ashley Byrd/Unsplash

If you work with African Americans, and especially if you supervise African American people, it’s important that you make a concerted effort to create a work environment that is physically and emotionally safe. Understand that we are not a monolith, so what one person needs may be different than what another person needs — this is the concept of equity rather an equality. And when you educate yourself about how your black colleagues may be feeling right now, their silent suffering of racial battle fatigue, and microaggressions that you may have been committing, consider the culture and norms of your office. Are racist jokes commonplace? Do people use racially coded language to talk about defendants and victims? (“baby mama,” “thugs,” etc.) Are you tokenizing these employees by asking them to speak on behalf of an entire race? Are you expecting them to educate everyone in the office about race issues? Are you overlooking qualified black employees for leadership positions, and allowing their voices to be heard in the decision-making process? Are you intentionally creating spaces for black employees to debrief, providing time to access mental health services, training your staff to be anti-racist (see this example of an NDAA training last year), and holding people accountable when they engage in harmful behavior? Each of these endeavors takes time, money, and considerable energy — this is the moral imperative of our time. Honest effort toward these endeavors moves us away from performative allyship and lip service toward meaningful inclusion and wellness for our African American colleagues.

Resources:

Alica Forneret, One Black employee’s answer to “How can I help?” https://www.cultureamp.com/blog/how-to-help-black-employees/

Morgan Taylor Goodwin, Racial Battle Fatigue: what is it and What are they Symptoms? December 7, 2018, https://medium.com/racial-battle-fatigue/racial-battle-fatigue-what-is-it-and-what-are-the-symptoms-84f79f49ee1e

How microaggressions are like mosquito bites, https://www.youtube.com/watch?app=desktop&v=hDd3bzA7450&feature=youtu.beHow

NDAA, Webinar, Virtual: The Anti-Racist Prosecutor — The Obligation to Act, August 26, 2020, https://ndaa.org/training/virtual-the-anti-racist-prosecutor-the-obligation-to-act/

Image for post
Image for post
Pictured: Brittany Scordo & Kimberly Henderson Baird

Kimberly Henderson Baird is an Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney in Lexington, Kentucky. She is the First Assistant to Lou Anna Red Corn, Well-being Task Force member.

Brittany Scordo, MSW, is the Director of Victim’s Services in the office of Lou Anna Red Corn, Well-being Task Force member.

The National District Attorneys Association (NDAA) is the oldest and largest national organization representing state and local prosecutors in the country.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store