When you walk into the square gray box that is the Durham County courthouse, you find yourself in a sterile administrative wasteland of brownish stone walls and cold hard floors. You can feel like you’re in trouble even if you’re just there to visit.
But on the eighth floor, in an office nestled in the back, there is a speck of color on Satana Deberry’s feet – bright red Chuck Taylor high-tops. Before she goes to work as Durham County’s district attorney, she laces up those sneakers to complement her pantsuit and her silver hoop earrings.
Satana Deberry does not resemble the district attorneys you see on crime shows or in most cities. She can be stern and serious when the occasion demands it, but she laughs a lot – so much that her staff tracks her location by the volume of her laugh echoing through the halls. (She’s been a stand-up comedian.)
In addition to being a woman of color in a field where 95 percent of elected prosecutors are white and 76 percent are men, Deberry has a unique way of looking at justice. She is the antithesis of the Harvey Dent-style white knight of Gotham City, intent on locking up all the bad guys. She is part of a national movement of new district attorneys working to address mass incarceration and disparities in the justice system by being more deliberate about prosecutions.
With her policies, persona, and personnel changes – she says there’s been a 50 percent turnover in her office since she arrived – Deberry is challenging the status quo. That makes some people uncomfortable, but she is accustomed to that.
She is a queer single mother of three whose birth certificate categorizes her as “negro” and whose great-great-grandmother was enslaved just two hours southeast of Durham in Anson County. She graduated from Princeton and then from Duke Law School. She has never fit neatly into the box of others’ expectations.
The end game is not convictions, the end game is justice
Prosecutors – the real ones as well as the fictional ones like Harvey Dent – often see their work as good versus evil. But Deberry says it’s more complex and she sees people carrying the weight of their experiences when they walk into the courthouse.
That’s a shift in the script for district attorneys, who often vilify criminals in their campaign ads and boast about high conviction rates.
The “tough on crime” era, beginning in the 1980s with policies such as mandatory minimum sentences and truth in sentencing laws, packed the nation’s prisons. The number of people incarcerated has quintupled in the past 40 years, giving the United States the highest rate in the world, with black people incarcerated at more than five-times the rate of white people.
Prosecutors have tremendous power – not just about which cases to pursue, but what the outcome should be. Through plea bargains and sentencing, they have immense control over people’s futures. Deberry looks at her job holistically. “I’m not the police, and there are not many prosecutors offices who will say that,” she said. “My job is to get to the truth.”
She emphasizes that the prosecutor represents the commonwealth. That includes the victim, but it also includes the community and the defendant.
Deberry said she will focus her office’s resources on prosecuting homicide and violent felonies instead of low-level crimes like marijuana possession for personal use. She also implemented a pretrial release policy that enables people to get out of jail on a written promise to appear in court – limiting the use of cash bail – which has led to a 12 percent decrease in the jail population.
“There are a couple of ways you can do this job,” Deberry said, noting that her approach is more difficult. “It’s a lot easier to be tough on crime because you don’t have to think about your impact on people’s lives or on the community. That makes it easier to do the work and it leaves it on your desk… it’s harder to look at each individual case and look at each defendant as a human being.”
Occasionally you can see glimpses of how she has challenged courthouse norms.
During homicide status day – which occurs four times a year to give the judge an update on all of the pending homicide cases – Deberry asked a court deputy to retrieve a defendant from jail so he could hear an update on his case. The deputy refused, arguing that it would cause too much chaos in the courtroom. He said they never brought defendants under the former district attorney. Deberry tensed up, frustrated that he would challenge her authority in open court.
After a lot of back and forth, she eventually got her way. But Deberry was not happy.
“Corporal!” She shouted as he was stepping onto the elevator. When he turned around, she looked him in the eye and said, “When I request a defendant, the defendant comes.”
“It is important that a defendant be present for a hearing pertaining to his rights,” she added.
He replied that he was only doing his job to avoid a disruption and that he reports to the sheriff, not her.
“I absolutely respect what you do in there in terms of safety and security,” Deberry said. “But we need to come to an understanding about who is in charge of that courtroom. When I am standing outside on the steps of the courthouse, I defer to the sheriff. But inside the courtroom, I have the final say as the elected district attorney.”
Back in her office, she told her prosecutors about the incident. “I am slow to offend,” she said while leaning on the door frame, but this had irked her.
Kendra Montgomery-Blinn, an assistant district attorney, agreed with her boss and said that she thinks all defendants should be present for homicide status day. “Otherwise they won’t see the light of a courtroom for like two years,” she said.
Deberry said policies have been easier to change than attitudes. “The interaction with the bailiff today shows that the culture in the courtroom hasn’t changed as much as it should have.”
The 50% turnover in her legal team gave Deberry an opportunity to shift the focus in her office. Most of her hires had been defense attorneys or worked in academia, which Deberry says has brought fresh perspectives.
Not everyone believes her new hires have what it takes.
“Frankly, almost everyone with experience has left,” said Daniel Meier, a criminal defense attorney who ran against Deberry for district attorney in the 2018 primary. “You need people who actually know the system.”
But Deberry says their experience outside the role of prosecutor is precisely what equips them to implement her reforms.
For example, she hired Beth Hopkins Thomas, former juvenile defense attorney and school teacher, to handle all juvenile cases, from low-level nonviolent crimes to homicide.
Together she and Deberry made the decision to stop taking court referrals for school based-incidents because they believe that students’ behavioral challenges are better handled by educators. Kids who are exposed to the criminal justice system often grow into adults who stay in the criminal justice system.
“I was a teacher before I went to law school and I watched that pipeline stem from my school,” Hopkins Thomas said. “Having the ability to say we are not going to be participating in this pipeline is very empowering.”
Meier said that Deberry’s hires, many of whom come from social justice backgrounds, don’t have the right stomach for prosecuting criminals. He pointed to Alyson Grine — a prosecutor for homicide and violent crimes — as an example. “She went from a liberal position – reform the system, fight racial bias – to having to send people to prison for the rest of their lives.”
Deberry said the heavy caseload can quickly tempt her new hires to be more prosecutorial than they expected, so they are constantly having conversations to ask themselves “not only can we prosecute this, but should we?”
“We see horrible things. It is natural as a human being to respond to those.” She said even if the crime is nonviolent, the desire for retribution is often a natural reflex. “And so we really just want to always be double checking ourselves and saying, is our response getting to the truth? Is it fair? Is it just?”
A national movement
Deberry is part of a new movement of progressive prosecutors. They come together frequently through an organization called Fair and Just Prosecution that is trying to redefine the role of district attorneys.
Members have traveled to Germany and Portugal to compare other countries’ approaches to justice. “The number one thing I learned from both of those places — that I already knew but is driven home when you go somewhere else — is how punitive we are in the United States,” Deberry said. “We really like to punish people and we think of that almost as a virtue.”
Deberry is particularly close to Rachael Rollins, the district attorney from Suffolk County, Massachusetts, which includes Boston. Rollins took office the day before Deberry and the two have a lot in common.
“Particularly the black female DAs, we have a text chain we are all in. We like to remain in contact with each other. If somebody has a particularly terrible day, we are there for each other, which is really nice,” Rollins said.
As a woman of color from the rural South, Deberry faced countless obstacles to get where she is today. In high school when she interviewed for a prestigious scholarship at the University of Chapel Hill, she was accused of plagiarizing her essay by one of the committee members. “He just could not believe that a black kid from Hamlet could have written it.”
“I thought I was growing up in an America where I could do anything, but really there were other people making these decisions about what schools I got to go to, and what classes I got to take, even what schools I applied to.” When she decided to apply to Princeton, she got a lot of pushback from guidance counselors and teachers. “There was a lot of discouragement because they thought I was doing something that was ‘above my raisin’.’’’
Both Rollins and Deberry also have family members who have been involved with the justice system. After law school and some time practicing in D.C., Deberry returned to her hometown of Hamlet, North Carolina, and she was asked to defend her cousin who was charged with murder.
“I saw people who I had grown up with involved in the criminal justice system, many of whom had never left and did not finish high school,” Deberry said. “I also saw how, in a community that was not majority black, the criminal justice system is almost entirely black.”
Those experiences are why Deberry balks at comments from Meier, who says she “has a fundamental lack of understanding of the system,” and U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr, who says that the work of progressive prosecutors is “demoralizing to law enforcement and dangerous to public safety.”
“I would say in response to that, they are the ones who don’t understand the role of the prosecutor,” Deberry said.
“I think we understand fully what the discretion of prosecutors has wrought in this country. There was nothing wrong with the discretion of the prosecutor for the hundreds of years in which it was used to marginalize and criminalize people. Now all of a sudden, because people who look like me have that discretion, they want to paint it as illegitimate.”
She makes a similar point when she introduces herself in speeches:
“I am Satana Deberry,” she says. “I am the district attorney of the 16th prosecutorial district… I tell you my name, not because you don’t know it. I tell you my name because every day in this country and this community there are people who go nameless. People who have been failed by one system after another. People who often look like me.”
Update: This story has been corrected with details about Deberry’s office, her Chucks and the role of prosecutor Alyson Grine.