More Blacks Seeking Prosecutor Seats After High-Profile Shootings

Aramis Ayala started out as a prosecutor but became a public defender because she believed too many defendants were receiving inadequate counsel.
Aramis Ayala started out as a prosecutor but became a public defender because she believed too many defendants were receiving inadequate counsel.

African-American lawyers, racial justice groups and the liberal hedge fund billionaire George Soros are combining forces to try to elect more black prosecutors in response to what they see as an insufficient response by incumbent district attorneys to the killings of black people by the police.

The effort faces steep demographic and institutional obstacles that have kept the offices of elected prosecutors — those deciding whether to seek criminal charges against the officers responsible — among the whitest reserves in American politics.

Only a few dozen out of more than 2,300 elected prosecutors nationwide are African-American, according to two recent studies by liberal groups. Even the National Black Prosecutors Association, which has 400 members, can point to only about a dozen who were elected to their posts.

But that number has begun to grow, with activists and lawyers recruiting black candidates while outside groups — largely financed by Mr. Soros, who is as revered on the left as he is reviled on the right — hire political consultants to produce slick campaign ads.

Together, the candidates and their allies are often overwhelming white candidates — some of whom have complained that they were targeted merely because of their race.

Since last year, the effort has produced two black district attorneys in rural Mississippi and one in Caddo Parish, La. — known as the nation’s leading jurisdiction for death sentences. And on Tuesday, four black candidates are expected to cruise to election as the top local prosecutors in Chicago; St. Louis; Orlando, Fla.; and suburban Henry County, Ga.

“In many ways, it is just as important as the governor’s race or the presidential race,” said Benjamin L. Crump, a Tallahassee, Fla., lawyer involved in the push, who has represented families of the victims in some of the most highly publicized killings of African-Americans in recent years, beginning with the shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in 2012.

“It may have a more profound effect on your life than any national office will have, because this is going to determine whether your children get trumped-up charges and have the words ‘felony conviction’ on their backs for the rest of their lives,” Mr. Crump said, “or, even worse, if they are going to be killed in cold blood and broad daylight, and no one will be held accountable for it.”

Aramis Ayala, who defeated a Democratic incumbent in the primary for Florida state attorney for Orange and Osceola counties, was a television analyst during the trial in which Mr. Zimmerman was acquitted. And Kim Foxx was advised by Mr. Crump in her successful primary challenge to Anita Alvarez, the incumbent state’s attorney in Cook County, Ill., who was criticized for her handling of the 2014 fatal police shooting of Laquan McDonald, a black 17-year-old.

Mr. Crump has also worked with the family of Michael Brown, whose fatal shooting by a white police officer in 2014 set off days of unrest in Ferguson, Mo. Mr. Crump said the white prosecutor’s failure to obtain an indictment there led him to believe that black people were being “stripped of their fundamental humanity,” and to seek a new strategy to curb police violence: electing more black district attorneys.

Finding candidates, however, requires overcoming obstacles. These include a longstanding perception that legal careers in defense and civil rights work were more laudable, said Rashad Robinson, the executive director of Color of Change, a racial justice group whose political action committee has aided the effort. “The role of chief law enforcer for a community is not always the first role many people think of that are reform-minded,” he said.

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Source: The New York Times | YAMICHE ALCINDOR