Howard University Alum Paves the Way for People of Color to Become Prosecutors
In Justice My Way, Martinis Jackson chronicles his life-changing experience serving as a black prosecutor in Washington, D.C. Martinis offers readers an opportunity to experience the criminal justice system from the perspective of an African-American man.
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing and learning more about the career field from Mr, Jackson. Check out the interview below:
Growing up and still to this day who are your mentors/inspirations? How did they impact your life?
I have encountered so many people who have served as inspiration in my life. I admire greatness no matter the profession or endeavor. If I had to provide a top 5, I would say 1) my immediate family collectively, 2) Malcolm X, 3) Ta-Nehisi Coates, 4) Thurgood Marshall, and 5) Lebron James.
All of these people represent greatness in areas of life that I’m most passionate about whether its family, civil rights, sports, or the legal system. I would say each of these people provided a road map for me to follow in pursuing my goals of achieving greatness. Their stories alone inspired me to pursue excellence in everything I do.
When did you first discover your passion for the legal system?
I was reading “A Journey to Justice” by the late Johnnie Cochran. His experiences with racism and using the law to fight against the LAPD and bring justice to black families in LA made me want to become a lawyer. Also, I’ve always loved reading and writing, so the transition from teaching to attorney made sense to me.
Did you always know when you started your legal career that you wanted to be a prosecutor? How did you come to the decision to become a prosecutor?
I never considered becoming a prosecutor ever in life, until around my second year of law school. I took a trial advocacy class taught by two black judges, one was a former prosecutor and the other a former defense attorney. That class made me want to become a trial attorney in general; however, when I took federal criminal law in my third year of law school, and came to understand the importance of prosecutorial discretion and the lack of minorities in these positions, I knew If I ever got the chance to become a prosecutor, I would take it.
When you were named prosecutor how did you change? What changes were you looking to make?
Initially, I hoped to help as many people as I could, especially defendants who I believed deserved a second chance. I grew up in low income neighborhoods and understand how systemic racism plays a role in black over-incarceration. I wanted to do something about. However, when I started working my thought process about the criminal justice system changed significantly. Prosecutors deal with a lot of practical considerations of which the public may not be aware. High caseloads make plea bargains a necessity to manage the volume of cases.
Also, most of my victims were also black, so I had to balance the need to protect the community from dangerous people, but also offer second chances where necessary. The process led to a lot of sleepless nights. Eventually, I decided to end my time as a prosecutor. Now I practice criminal defense.
Can you tell us some difficulties and adversity facing black prosecutors in the American legal system?
Lack of representation poses the biggest hurdle. Of the 20 states that report the ethnicity of their attorneys to the American Bar Association, only around 5% of lawyers in those states identify as black. This number shrinks even further when you look at the demographics of most DA offices around the country. Thus, being black and getting the opportunity to secure a job as a prosecutor is rare in itself. Once you get the job, the most difficult part, in my opinion, is determining your identify and adhering to your values while seeking career advancement.
As a black prosecutor were your morals challenged when having to prosecute young black men and women?
Anyone who understands the history of racism in America knows that the criminal justice system plays an integral role in perpetuating it. As a person who despises racism and the system that maintains it, prosecuting black men and women never made me feel good, especially for victimless crimes such as drug possession or distribution. However, I had more power than anyone else in the system to help those trapped in it. I often dismissed cases and offered favorable pleas when I could to do my part to offer a more tempered approach to prosecuting.
How many cases did you try in your career? Were there any particular cases you still think about to this day?
I took dozens of misdemeanor cases to trial. I conducted approximately six jury trials. Each case left a lasting impact on me, because no two cases were alike and each one told a story about human nature from which I learned a lesson. However, the cases that involved child victims or witnesses held a special place in my heart. I never got used to watching innocent children tell their stories of trauma.
You’ve also written a book Justice My Way: Memoirs Of A Black Prosecutor, what encouraged you to write this book?
Knowing that only a few people of color from low income backgrounds become lawyers, and if they do become criminal lawyers, they typically go the defense route. I felt that this book would help those from similar backgrounds understand what it means to be a prosecutor and how to avoid making rookie mistakes that many young prosecutors make, especially those who have no idea what to expect from the work.
What message and image are you trying to tell and portray with the readers?
I use real cases to offer raw accounts of what really goes on in the criminal justice system. I want readers to leave with a realistic perspective on what prosecutors go through when making decisions that impact people’s lives. I want readers to see the inside of the system from the eyes of a black man.
After writing such an insightful book about your career, how does that make you feel?
I am happy I completed the project. I’ve received a lot of positive feedback. Memoirs and biographies from prominent African Americans had a profound impact on my life. If my book can have the same effect on others, I would have done my job.
What great words of wisdom and advice can you offer the readers?
Never doubt your ability to make an impact on the world, no matter how seemingly small. Your contribution may be the inspiration that leads to significant progress.
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