Two High-Powered Black Attorneys Confront a Justice System’s Flaws

Betty Q. Hixson

A Black Prosecutor’s Fight for Fairness
By Laura Coates

How America Criminalizes Black Youth
By Kristin Henning

Trial lawyers are storytellers — and they especially love telling stories about themselves and their courtroom exploits. The typical (or at least stereotypical) teller of such a story is a grizzled white man in a rumpled, ill-fitting suit, and the typical tale involves his triumph at trial before a rapt jury. The point of these stories, besides entertaining the listener, is to demonstrate what an amazing lawyer the storyteller is: a brilliant strategist, skilled interrogator or eloquent advocate.

Laura Coates, an attorney turned CNN senior legal analyst, is a talented storyteller. Her new book, “Just Pursuit,” is a compelling collection of engaging, well-written, keenly observed vignettes from her years as a lawyer with the U.S. Department of Justice. But Coates’s stories, instead of trying to aggrandize her as an attorney, have a different and more profound purpose: They illustrate the injustices of our criminal justice system, exploring the ambivalence and even guilt that Coates felt as a Black female federal prosecutor working within — and for — that system.

After obtaining degrees from Princeton and the University of Minnesota Law School and working in private practice, Coates joined the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. She took pride in the division’s mission but grew frustrated with the bureaucracy and political interference she encountered in many voting-rights cases. Seeking to try cases instead of push paperwork, she moved within the department to become a federal prosecutor in Washington, D.C. — and quickly confronted a host of moral quandaries.

“The pursuit of justice creates injustice,” Coates writes in her opening sentence. “Before I became a prosecutor, I never imagined that could be true. I thought that the job would be an uncomplicated act of patriotism and that justice was what happened when a person was fairly tried and convicted for their crime.” As the stories of “Just Pursuit” make clear, this belief turned out to be woefully naïve.

The opening episode powerfully illustrates how the pursuit of justice can create injustice. While prosecuting a car theft, Coates ran a standard background check on the victim and discovered that Manuel, the middle-aged Latino man whose car was stolen, was an undocumented immigrant. He had come to the United States some two decades earlier, when he was 16 — and there was a warrant out for his immediate deportation.

Can she simply ignore this fact, pretending she never saw it? Or must she report Manuel to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as her job requires, knowing it will surely lead to his deportation? Can she report him to ICE but give him a heads-up about it? She struggles with her decision — and to this day wonders whether she did the right thing.

Another gripping story also involves the theft of a car, this one stolen from an older Black woman. Although the case took place several years ago, the ever-observant Coates describes the victim vividly: “She laughed like a woman accustomed to holding court. She resembled an aged jazz singer, still physically in her prime. Her hair was perfectly coifed in a silver bob. Subtle freckles adorned her face, and she spoke through plum lips accentuated by a peaked Cupid’s bow.”

When the woman learns that the defendant is a 20-year-old Black man, she tells Coates she plans to attend his sentencing in person. But instead of taking the stand and describing how the crime harmed her, she surprises Coates — and the courtroom — by urging the judge to show lenience, imploring him not to send the defendant to prison.

“Your Honor, don’t make an example out of him for my sake,” she testifies. “He’s a child. He made a mistake. White children get to joy-ride. But this Black boy’s chained on the other side of a table and you’re asking me to help keep him that way.” She goes on, “I know what this so-called justice system does when it gets its claws into Black boys,” adding, “I want no part of that.”

What the justice system does to Black boys and girls is the subject of “The Rage of Innocence,” by Kristin Henning. Like Coates, Henning is a Black lawyer with a glittering résumé, including degrees from Duke University and Yale Law School and an endowed chair at Georgetown, where she both teaches and oversees the juvenile justice clinic. Before becoming a professor at Georgetown, she helped organize and led the juvenile unit for the Public Defender Service of the District of Columbia — a principal antagonist of the U.S. attorney’s office where Coates once worked.

For the past 25 years, Henning has defended minors accused of crimes in Washington, almost all of them Black. This experience as a defense lawyer and children’s advocate informs her book, a rich combination of stories about her clients, copious data about juvenile justice and painstaking research into high-profile cases like those of Emmett Till, the Central Park Five, Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice.

“The Rage of Innocence” is reminiscent of Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” (2010) and James Forman Jr.’s “Locking Up Our Own” (2017), to which Henning acknowledges intellectual debts. But because “our nation’s obsession with policing and incarcerating Black America begins with Black children,” she explains, “the policing of Black adolescence requires a special telling.”

“We live in a society that is uniquely afraid of Black children,” Henning writes. “Americans become anxious — if not outright terrified — at the sight of a Black child ringing the doorbell, riding in a car with white women or walking too close in a convenience store. Americans think of Black children as predatory, sexually deviant and immoral. … There is something particularly efficient about treating Black children like criminals in adolescence. Black youth are dehumanized, exploited and even killed to establish the boundaries of Whiteness before they reach adulthood and assert their rights and independence.”

Henning makes her case by looking at everything from rap music to city ordinances banning “saggy pants” to sexual stereotypes about Black teenagers. The result is a book that is comprehensive and convincing, exhaustive and exhausting — occasionally repetitive, and sometimes bogged down in a flurry of facts. But these quibbles aside, “The Rage of Innocence” is a serious and thoughtful book about a subject of great importance, and it deserves to be widely read.

In her last chapter, Henning offers recommendations for how to address the problems she has diagnosed. These include reducing the number of police officers and increasing the number of mental-health workers in schools; requiring lawmakers to analyze whether a bill will disproportionately affect Black youth by providing a “racial impact statement” for proposed legislation; and eliminating or cabining the judicial doctrine of qualified immunity, which historically has shielded many police officers from liability for the consequences of their misconduct.

And like Laura Coates, Kristin Henning believes in the redemptive power of storytelling. It’s storytelling that can make people understand the racial inequities of the legal system, and it’s storytelling that can restore the humanity this system has cruelly stripped from its victims. Henning’s final piece of advice for how to protect and honor the Black children who are so often harmed by our justice system, of a piece with “Say their names,” is simple: “Tell their stories.” She ends her book with a promise: “I will keep telling them until there are no more stories like this to tell.”

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