On a weekday morning, the security lines at the DC Superior Court’s Moultrie Courthouse can wind out the front doors all the way to the parking area. A mix of jurors, witnesses, defendants and their family members, and some lawyers await their turns through the metal detectors.
The crowds are mostly African-American—one morning, 3 of the 40 people in line were white. As a testament to the racial and socioeconomic divisions that still run through DC, the majority of violent crimes take place in predominantly African-American neighborhoods, and according to DC’s Pretrial Services Agency, about 87 percent of people arrested in DC are black.
Though a few people in line may be in suits, most are in jeans, T-shirts, and other casual clothes. Sometimes ambulances are out front for witnesses or defendants who are drug addicts and have passed out from dehydration or other medical emergencies while in court. Because this is where the District’s street crimes are prosecuted, Moultrie is a gritty place.
This scene outside the courthouse offers a glimpse into one of the biggest challenges faced by the prosecutors who try cases in the District. They have to overcome their cultural and socioeconomic differences from many of the witnesses and jurors they count on to make their cases. Often, these individuals come from parts of the city, such as neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River, where trust in law enforcement and the judicial process has been eroded by years of crime.
The AUSAs’ new boss, Ronald Machen, has made confronting those divides a top priority since arriving in February 2010. The line assistants have noticed the change since Machen took over. They receive regular e-mails requesting—though not mandating—that they attend neighborhood meetings and other activities.
“Residents need to feel connected to their prosecutors,” Machen explains. “You need to be there in times before tragedy strikes, so when tragedy does strike, they know who you are, they trust you, they’re willing to be witnesses, they’ll go into court and serve as jurors.”
One attendee at a Southeast DC event hosted by the US Attorney’s Office says law enforcement didn’t take her son’s shooting seriously enough. “They never caught the guy,” says Mona Toatley, who lives in a housing project in the Barry Farm neighborhood. “They say, ‘That’s just another black guy who got shot.’ ”
Her remarks highlight another problem prosecutors face: No witnesses to the shooting are willing to come forward. “People in this area are afraid to report anything because they’re afraid of retaliation,” Toatley explains.
Michelle Thomas knows that reluctance all too well. She first noticed the divide between residents and the justice system while she was growing up.
Although she hails from a middle-class, college-educated family—her mother was a hospital administrator, her father a postal worker—she grew up, in her words, in “the ’hood” in Oakland while the crack-cocaine epidemic was at its peak. Thomas watched as her friends became pushers. She saw some of them get thrown in jail for years while bigtime dealers went untouched.
That environment, Thomas recalls, created “a culture of ‘you don’t trust the police, you don’t rat on people, and you just handle things yourselves.’ ” That sense still permeates her interactions with the witnesses in her cases.
The line assistants understand the importance of community outreach, but it can be hard to make time for the events in their overpacked schedules.
Thomas is also now dealing with another set of challenges. After feeling lethargic and experiencing muscle pain, she went to the doctor in January.
By April—when she’s trying the domestic-violence case against Lisa’s boyfriend—the doctors are still running tests. They can’t figure out what’s wrong with her. Thomas doesn’t want to tell her family—the doctors don’t even have a diagnosis, so there’s no use worrying her loved ones unnecessarily.
And Thomas’s work is keeping her plenty distracted. It’s a busy week—by Thursday, when she gets to Lisa’s case, she has had three other trials.
When she accepted the job, she knew it would take a toll. At night, she no longer tunes in to the dramas—such as Law & Order—that she used to love. Instead, she watches episodes of her favorite Disney Channel cartoon, Phineas and Ferb, and looks at photos of her nieces to clear her thoughts before she goes to sleep.
Thomas doesn’t want or expect any sympathy. She knows that all of her colleagues balance a demanding workload with other stresses. “Everyone who works here has issues,” she says. “We have lives.”