Laura Coates Joined the DOJ to Help People. Instead, She Found Injustice
Before she was a radio show host and CNN legal analyst, Laura Coates was an attorney for the Department of Justice. Raised on the stories of Ruby Bridges and the Freedom Riders, she wanted to make a difference by upholding the Constitution in ways that affected every-day Americans. At first, she worked in the Office of Civil Rights, enforcing the Voting Rights Act. But when she became a prosecutor — going after those same citizens she was so excited to defend, she found that it not only changed how she saw the government, but how she saw herself. In her new essay collection Just Pursuit: A Black Prosecutor’s Fight for Fairness — published Tuesday by Simon and Schuster — Coates pulls together over a dozen vignettes that illustrated the kind of injustice she was not only witnessing, but in which she was often forced to participate. “The transition from enforcing civil rights legislation to criminal prosecution represented a seismic shift in how others perceived me, and even how I perceived myself,” she writes. “I had been a trusted champion of people who looked like me. But now, I was often distrusted as an agent of a system that disproportionately filled prisons with people who looked like me.”
In this excerpt, which has been edited for length, Coates finds herself assigned to cover a courtroom, a routine assignment in which an attorney for the government was delegated to take care of “the more mundane aspects of [the] most inconsequential cases” for other prosecutors. But when a defendant claims mistaken identity — that they’ve got the wrong man — she sees first-hand the kind of mistreatment citizens are subjected to at the hands of the government.
There was always a tension brewing beneath the surface between those who were skeptical of the system and those who were skeptical of the people impacted most by it. Working at the Department of Justice, at times it wasn’t clear which camp you were in. Some days you were weary from having to fight against the system in the pursuit of justice. Other days you were wary of trusting those who were supposed to fight with you. You compartmentalize. You wonder whether your presence in the system perpetuates injustice ordisrupts it.
After all, we were not investigators, not detectives. We did not make the arrests or give the Miranda warnings. We played the hand that we were given, and the hand was given by the cops’decision to arrest. The police controlled the deck. I vacillated between wondering if my skepticism was warranted or not, until one moment validated it completely.
Standing before a particularly persnickety judge, I was handling the government’s matters on her calendar docket that day. No trials were scheduled, just status hearings and a few sentencings. The prosecutors assigned to the matters before the court had dropped off their files with a memo stapled to the front explaining how to handle them. The memos gave the background, the requested dates formotions to be filed, the pendency of plea discussions, and the timeline for discovery to be handed over.
The clerk called the next item on the docket as I was putting away the file for the previous one, and I turned to locate the corresponding file on the desk. There was no memo, only a sentencing recommendation scribbled onto a line on the file itself. I waited for the court’s prompting to present the government’s position.
A Black defendant in his thirties approached the defense table with his attorney, also a Black man in his thirties. The attorney asked for the court’s indulgence while he explained why this case should not go forward.
“Government?” the judge said, seeking my objection.
I was unfamiliar with the case and had no basis on which to protest.
“I’m not assigned to this matter, Your Honor, so I’d ask for his rationale before I canmeaningfully respond.”
She sighed dramatically. “Proceed.”
The lawyer began by noting his frustration that the assigned prosecutor was not here to address this issue. The prosecutor had also failed to return his multiple calls and emails. He had been unresponsive to his letters or requests to resolve this issue in advance of this hearing date.
“I understand you’re not the assigned prosecutor,” the defense counsel said, turning toward me, “but I want his lack of responsiveness on the record. We should not be here today. My client should not be here today. His life has been turned upside down all because the Metropolitan Police Department can’t tell two Black men apart!” He pointed with outstretched hand to the gallery as if the department itself was an individual seated in the courtroom.
He passionately claimed that the police had arrested the wrong man on a warrant for his failure to appear in court. Yes, his name was the same as the other man’s. Yes, they were about the same age. Yes, he had been in the area of the warrant squad that day. A warrant was out for failure to appear at trial for the brutal assault against a woman with a child by the man of the same name.
Upon being picked up by the warrant squad, he was permitted to retain personal counsel, was temporarily released, and was required to appear before this judge. The shallow file was a procedural mess. The sequence of events that had led us to this hearing wasn’t immediately clear. I regretted not having reviewed the file with the assigned prosecutor and knew I’d have to glean the full purpose of today’s hearing from the judge’s lead.
As the judge read the defendant the riot act for wasting the court’s time, his counsel repeatedly interrupted to insist that he was not that person.
Each time, the judge dryly responded, “Yes, I understand. You’re not that person anymore.”
“No! I’m not that person, period!” he protested. The judge promptly admonished him to communicate only through his attorney. His attorney continued in vain, pleading his case to the disinterested judge. Finally the attorney turned toward me: “Madam Prosecutor, help me out here.”
I was intrigued by his insistence, but annoyed by his lack of specificity and proof. This wasn’t the first time I’d heard a defendant profess his innocence — it was the precursor to every trial — but it was rare to hear someone claim mistaken identity at this stage in the game, and I assumed there’d be more than a bald assertion that “it wasn’t me.”
Before I could respond, the judge laughed aloud — not just a laugh, a guffaw — and said, “Well, she’s not going to help you,” as she nodded toward the marshals to handcuff the defendant. She proposed to hold him in jail until a new court date could be set.
His attorney held up his hands in defeat and said, “Look, I tried. That’s all we can do.”
I watched as the defendant’s eyes flickered across his attorney’s face, searching for some semblance of persistence. Finding none, he advocated for himself, again asserting his innocence: the warrant squad hadn’t done their job correctly.
Again the judge laughed, and then, taking offense at the insinuation of sloppy work by the warrant squad, she rolled her eyes with impatience. She swiveled her chair toward me, smirking asif to say, “Likely story.” She leaned forward, crossing her arms, and volleyed her head emphatically from me to the defendant. “So you’re telling me that the warrant squad and the police officers and the mug shots and, my word, the whole world has conspired against you? We all got it wrong?”
She turned to me, fully expecting camaraderie, and robotically said, “Government, what do you want to do?” As she asked the question, the marshals were already handcuffing the defendant. I looked up, admittedly doubtful that the man was telling the truth, but, frankly, something about watching a White woman laughing at and belittling a Black man from her perch based on the misguided assumption that police were infallible profoundly annoyed me. I resented her incredulity and obnoxious tone so much that I was compelled to pause.
“Your Honor, I don’t see the humor in this. There’s a more respectful way to address this issue, wouldn’t you agree?” I posited, and asked to address the man directly.
Taken aback by my refusal to join her laughter and my willingness to shame her, the judge indulged me, though she barely hid her irritation that I was prolonging this spectacle. As if I were a dog, she warned me that I was on a short leash.
I turned, beginning with the questions the judge should have led with instead of laughter, and asked the defendant why he hadn’t raised this issue before. With pleading eyes, he told me that he had, but that no one would listen to him. He claimed that the officers just kept saying that they didn’t believe him, and laughed at him repeatedly. The victim had never appeared for any hearing, and due to victim security and privacy laws, he didn’t have any way to contact her. His lawyer and an investigator had attempted to find her, but her whereabouts weren’t known. And, according to the police, she wasn’t cooperative anyway. He said that he could prove he wasn’t the man we were looking for if someone would just give him a chance to explain. The judge interrupted him. I interjected.
“Your Honor,” I began, feigning deference toward a woman I now didn’t respect, “there’s no harm in looking into it. If he’s lying, we can easily bring him into custody. The marshals are right there. If he’s telling the truth, the warrant squad needs to know so they can find the right person.” I was becoming increasingly annoyed at her unnecessary obstinance. “Can we have a brief recess?”
The judge threw down her pen. “Fine, if you want to waste your own time, then go compare his fingerprints. In the meantime, get one of your colleagues to stand in for you.” She knew full well I was already the person assigned to stand in for other prosecutors that day. “Be quick about it. I don’t have time for this.”
Time, I thought. If convicted, the government would be prepared to ask for this man to serve more than a year in prison. The outlandishness of her demand refocused me. “You want me to compare his fingerprints to what, exactly, Your Honor? I’m not a fingerprint expert. You want me to hold ’em upto the sunlight?” I knew that my directness could very well infuriate her. But she was a former prosecutor and knew just how absurd her request was. She had a habit of berating attorneys and seemed to enjoy the public humiliation inflicted. Time and again I watched her exploit a prosecutor’s deference, berating them with impunity. They feared retaliation down the line and often made the choice to submit. But I had been before this judge so many times, successfully navigating her unjustified wrath, that I had grown immune to its sting.
By now she was seething. “No,” she said, “I want you to stop holding up my docket. You’ve got 20 minutes to figure it out.”
I signaled to the defendant and his lawyer to meet in the hallway. The defendant seemed scared as he walked out of the courtroom and tried to gather his thoughts. I extended my hand to calm him down. “Sir, my name is Laura Coates. What would you like to tell me? I’m listening.” He shook my hand and started to cry, covering my outstretched hand with his other hand as if in prayer.
“We don’t have much time . . . the judge said there wasn’t that much time,” he mumbled. His voice cracked and his eyes blinked rapidly.
His attorney placed his hand on his shoulder. “It’s gonna be alright. We’re not giving up yet.” The word “yet” lingered.
I picked up on his lead, reluctant to appear too sympathetic. I didn’t want to give him false hope. “Judges can’t tell time, sir. I’ll return when I have an answer. Now,” I said, with a tinge of exasperation at the prospect of wasting my time, “what’s going on?” I wanted to be open-minded but I felt guarded.
He started to speak but kept looking at the crowds in the hallway, nervous that someone might recognize him. His voice trailed off each time someone passed by — he was reluctant to finish if anyone was within earshot. His voice was inaudible over the hallway chatter.
His lawyer spoke up and asked whether we could speak privately. I said that there were no free meeting rooms on the floor— that they were all being used for trial prep. He repeated his client’s story but said he really couldn’t add much more, and that he was sure his client had not fathered achild. His demeanor outside the courtroom was so muted I wondered if he actually believed his cli- entor whether his advocacy was merely perfunctory.
“How do I know that? Give me something to work with,” I implored.
He looked at his client for consent to proceed. I was beginning to get annoyed and hoped therewould be some meat on the bone. I had just ticked off a judge with a long memory and a penchant for holding grudges.
The man looked at me, stammering quietly. “She’s, any, she, well, that’s not my type, miss, but Idon’t want to get into that here. I don’t have girlfriends, you understand. So how could I be accused ofbeating one up? And a child—I don’t have kids. I didn’t have sex with her or any woman ever. You understand what I’m saying? No women. I’m… well, I’m…”
“Gay?” I completed his sentence, immediately reading between the lines. I hoped this was not his only offer of proof. He dropped my hand and stepped back.
His head rose, stunned that I had really said it aloud. He paused for a moment before nodding.“ You’re not going to say that in the courtroom, right? Like, it’s not going to be in some sort of record, right? Right?” he frantically asked his attorney. His attorney shrugged.
“I mean, if it helps, I don’t…” His attorney reconsidered, turning to me. “Will you tell the court?”
“Tell the court what, exactly? That your client has told me his sexual orientation?” I realized thatmy tone was more biting that I had intended and would be misconstrued as identical to that of the judge, whose behavior I resented.
I exhaled, my voice immediately softening at the realization, and said to the defendant: “Thank you for sharing that with me. I can tell it wasn’t easy and you certainly didn’t want to do it under these circumstances. Please understand that I’m not questioning your sexual orientation ortrying to be dismissive of it. It’s really . . . it’s none of my business, personally.”
I turned to his lawyer. I didn’t see how I could make this my business professionally, either,in the way he needed. “You know that won’t be enough. I can’t prove that here.”
I turned back to the defendant. I didn’t want to talk about him as if he wasn’t there, so I spoke to him directly again. “Sir, from the judge’s standpoint, and mine, standing here right now, there’s no way for me to prove that you: a) weren’t in a relationship with that woman, b) didn’t assault her, and c) didn’t father a child with her.”
His eyes widened as he jerked his head back. I could almost read his thoughts. First, disbelief that you could be asked to prove your sexuality. Second, concern over how you would actually prove it. Defeat stretched across his brow as he stood rigidly in the hall.
I tried to ease his mind by focusing on what the court needed to know. “I’m not asking you to prove anything to me, other than your actual identity. Look, let’s not overcomplicate this. You said the cops were sloppy and never really interviewed you, right? So, let’s start at the beginning — how the conversation should’ve gone in an ideal world. Did you ever see the mug shot for theperson they were looking for?
“You never saw anyone compare you to the photo?” “No.”
“They asked to see your license?” “Yes.”
“The names matched?”
“Yes. I don’t have a middle name, though.”
“Did they take your height or ask for your address or anything like that?”
“Did they say anything to you about why you were being arrested?”
“Not really, but everything happened so fast, and I kept telling them I hadn’t done anything wrong and was asking them, like, why they were arresting me if I hadn’t done anything wrong, and it was crazy, and it all happened so fast . . .” He divulged all this without taking a breath.
I paused for a moment to call the assigned prosecutor. He didn’t answer, and his voicemail was full. His email gave an out-of-office automated reply. I wondered if this was one of the federal prosecutors who had recently announced they were leaving the office, but I didn’t have time to scan through my emails to find out.
I turned to his lawyer for confirmation that what I was being told was consistent with his understanding. There was nothing in my file to corroborate any of it. He nodded.
“Okay, so let’s start with finding out who they were looking for and then see if that’s actually you.”
I asked him for his license and told him to walk with me to a satellite prosecutors’ office, located in the basement of the courthouse to enable prosecutors to prepare for trial and review arrest paperwork with officers before arraignments. When we arrived, I asked him to wait outside with his lawyer. Defendants weren’t permitted into the basement office. A courtroom marshal had followed us to the basement and was standing nearby — a gift from the judge still intent on proving a point.
I pushed the door open, shaking my head at the way it had been rigged to prevent it from being locked during the day. I wondered off-handedly what we would do if someone wanted to come inside. If someone was mad enough to barge in, they wouldn’t bebringing a box of cookies.
The second I entered the room, the flurry of activity hit me. I stepped over an officer’s outstretched legs, almost stumbling as he simultaneously tried to lift them out of the way.
“Ooh, sorry! Did I getcha?” he said.
“It’s okay, don’t worry about it.” I kept moving.
“Anyone had a mistaken identity defendant case before?” I shouted to the room.
The question momentarily paused the commotion, before one officer deadpanned, “Every single arrest.”
Laughter erupted as the bustle instantly resumed. I wondered if the defendant on the otherside of the door had heard the laughter. I already regretted having asked the question.
Several prosecutors were milling at workstations, preparing for trial. I asked one to move so I could use the computer. “For what?” he said, shoveling a half-eaten sandwich into his mouth. A glob fell onto his pants as he let his irritation be known. “Oh come on! I’m in front of a jury with a fucking stain now, Coates. All because some asshole told you you’ve got the wrong guy.”
“Well, maybe you’ll finally dry-clean the suit now. That stain is not the problem. And if you already knew why I needed the computer, you shouldn’t have asked. Can you please just move?”
He scooted over six inches but remained seated. I leaned over his armrest and typed quickly. My breast skimmed his arm and he jerked it away. “Didn’t mean that — my apologies,” he said, suddenly self-conscious.
“And who eats tuna fish before a trial?” I said. “You stink.” I was early in my pregnancy and hadto suppress the urge to dry-heave.
He sighed and kissed the air as his stench swirled. He winked as he walked away, not self-conscious anymore.
I began searching through the records, unsure both of what I was looking for and what precisely I’d find. I relayed the story to another group of prosecutors preparing for their individual trials. One asked, “Which judge is this in front of?” The group collectively winced at my response and warned me that I was wasting my time and would lose my credibility with the judges if I fell for these stories.
I glanced at the clock: 15 minutes had already elapsed since I’d left the courtroom. I was sure the judge would be staring at the clock.
“We’d lose more credibility if he’s telling the truth. Don’t act like cops don’t get it wrong sometimes.” I cocked my head to underscore the point.
One prosecutor motioned with his eyes toward the uniformed officers within earshot, warning meto be more aware of my surroundings. The prosecutors snickered as they walked away.
I swallowed, wondering which officer I may have just offended. I hoped it wasn’t one that I would need on my trial. I quickly looked around to see if anyone met my eyes, but no one did. I felt relieved. Perhaps my mistake of pointing out the truth would go unnoticed.
I returned to the computer, trying to access the mug shots, wondering if this would end up being really as simple as comparing a photograph. I contemplated the odds that it really was the wrong guy and a cursory scan in the courthouse basement could prove it. I chuckled aloud, shaking the scenario outof my mind in disbelief. It would all be too absurd.
Mary, another Black female prosecutor, rolled her litigation bag into the room, noticed my chuckle, and approached me to hear the joke. She was in need of a laugh after the morning she’d had and said so. I reluctantly shared the story, half expecting her to respond like the others but hoping she would understand. She didn’t laugh. Instead she turned toward the peanut gallery of officers I had just hoped not to alienate and said, “They often fuck this up. Let me help.” That the officers heard. She chided them with lifted brows.
One officer looked at her, removing a headphone from one of his ears. “What do we always fuck up?” he challenged.
“You heard me,” she said boldly.
He sucked his teeth and replaced the headphone. They obviously had a history.
“You’re gonna have to tell me that story later,” I said, intrigued by the tension between them.
“It’s a long one,” she said, lowering the handle into her rolling briefcase.
Six minutes later, I was watching the printer release a photograph of the right man. He was six inches shorter, 50 pounds heavier, at least three shades darker, and looked nothing like the man who was nervously crying out in the hallway. I walked over to the female prosecutor, nowsitting across from the officer she hated and to whom she’d directed her earlier comment.
“You won’t believe this,” I said, asking her to look at the man in the hallway before showingher the printout.
We looked at each other and shook our heads in mutual disgust. “Wow.. what if…”
“What if,” I ended, and started toward the door to speak with the defendant.
“This was your case?” she asked, prepared to berate me. “Nope. It’s his.” I pointed to the name written with a Sharpie on the file.
She forced herself to exhale, opening her lips only slightly as if whistling without sound.
“Oh, you should’ve told me that from the beginning. I could’ve told you how he is. Doesn’t give a fuck about anything.”
“Is he the one—” I asked, recalling the gossip about this prosecutor.
“Yup!” she said. I wondered if we were talking about the same person.
“Wait till I tell…” Her cell phone interrupted her plans. “Thank you!” she said. “Jury question! I gotta go.”
She turned toward the offending officer, speaking loudly in case he tried to turn up the volumeand drown her out. “Some of us are going to go do our jobs right now.” She enunciated the last three words. “Some of us actually answer our phones. So we know when to be where we are supposed to be!”
The officer again removed his headphone from one ear, holding it an inch from his face. “Did you say something?” he said, taunting her.
I stepped over his legs on my way back to the hallway, unwilling to stay and see how the play would end.
As I approached the defendant, I saw that he was sitting with his head in his hands, his elbows bouncing on his thighs. I extended my hand again, this time handing him the picture of the right man.
“I guess we all do look alike, huh?” I said.
As the defendant clutched the page, his lawyer touched the corner of it and then stood and turned around in a circle, resting his hands on his hips. I wondered whether there had been a way for him to obtain the photo himself, and, if so, why he hadn’t done so sooner. “Really? Really.” First dubiousand then incredulous. He pulled at his suit jacket as he spoke.
The defendant stared at the picture in disbelief and shook his head. He exhaled for a moment and turned his eyes toward the ceiling. I thought he was about to cry again, when I noticed that his hands, holding either side of the paper, began to crumple its edges. Now he was pissed.
He started to yell at me, obviously frustrated and enraged by the absurdity of the confusion andthe anguish that he had endured. As the marshal approached, I held up my hand in protest and signaled his retreat.
“I know you’re upset and you’d like someone to yell at. But I’m not the one. You’ve still got an active warrant on you, and now I’ve gotta find the right person. Let’s go back to the courtroom and inform the judge.”
We made our way back to the courtroom in shocked silence. My mind was racing at how easy this had been to clear up, how little effort it had taken. I just couldn’t wrap my mind around it.
En route, I called the assigned prosecutor again, giving him another chance to resolve it personally. I checked my email again to see if he had responded to me.
“Can’t reach him, huh? I’m telling you, this guy…” The attorney shook his head as he reiterated just how unresponsive and unprofessional my colleague had been. I couldn’t defend him. There was certainly more than one person to blame.
Upon seeing me enter the courtroom, the judge recalled the case. Before any of us could make our way back to our respective tables within the well of the courtroom, the judge sarcastically asked the defendant, “Well? Are we going to jail today or not, sir?”
“Your Honor,” I said, “it seems there has indeed been a mistake.” I approached the skeptical judge as I presented her with the documentation, along with a family court order that acknowledged a different man as the child’s father. The judge stared at me with disdain.
“Very well, Ms. Coates. Sir, it seems that you are free to go. Have a good day. I’ll quash the warrant with respect to you, but there remains a warrant for the other individual. I’m assuming you’ll try to find the right person this time, government? Call the next case,” she said, scribbling onto paperwork before handing it to the clerk.
“That’s it?” I heard him say. “That was all they needed? That’s all it took after all this?”
Remembering his role, his defense attorney spoke up. “Your Honor, you laughed at my client. At the very least, some kind of apology…”
The judge interrupted him, turned to me, and expectantly asked, with raised eyebrows, “Ms. Coates?”
“Yes, Your Honor?” I retorted.
“He’s owed an apology,” she said, impatiently gesturing with one palm face-up, the index finger of her other hand wrapped around her pen. She cocked her head to one side with delight as a smirk subtly reached the left corner of her mouth, dying to spread into a full shit-eating grin.
Indignant, I begged her pardon. I was irritated not just because the judge did not apologize for her own unprofessionalism but because of the role she had played in this man’s mistreatment. I was irritated by her demand for other reasons. She knew full well the implications of a federal prosecutor’s acknowledging any form of misconduct and the potential civil exposure that might create for the department, albeit perhaps justified. I considered belaboring our stalemate, but my ego deferred to the fact that while I was not personally to blame, the United States had wronged this man, and he deserved an apology.
So, this Black woman turned to the Black man who was deserving of that apology and said, “Sir, I am very sorry for what you had to experience, not just today but before today. I’m sorry that no one listened to you or took the time to perform even a cursory inspection of those photographs. You’re obviously not the man who the warrant squad was looking for, and you should not be here today answering for his crime. I’m sorry. The United States apologizes for any inconvenience.”
I instantly regretted my word choice. “Inconvenience” was a gross understatement and Iknew better.
“Excuse me, not just inconvenience,” I said. “That wasn’t the right word to use. It doesn’t cover it. It never should have happened. To you. Or anyone.”
He bobbed his head at me as if taking stock of my words. He shook his head at the judge, snorted, and looked down. He exhaled loudly and placed his hands on the table in front of him, tapping it twice with his left knuckles before gripping it as if he were about to upend it. You couldhear his fingernails clawing the underside. He released his grip and started out of the courtroom.
He paused as he passed my table and pointed at me.
“That, that..” Clearly he was torn between choosing his words and mincing them. “That shouldn’t have come from you.” He pounded once on my desk and stormed out of the courtroom as the judge spoke.
“I guess the exception proved the rule today. You must be proud of yourself, Ms. Coates,” the judge half-heartedly offered.
This time, it was my turn to guffaw. “Proud, Your Honor?” I frowned. “No one should beproud of what happened here today. But just out of curiosity, which part did you think was the exception and which part the rule?”
The clerk stole a quick glance at the judge.
The judge stonily commanded her to call the next case as we held each other’s eyes.
I expected the next four defendants to claim misidentification through their counsel, if only in jest. Instead, each of the four Black defendants who had been sitting inside the courtroom when the apology was issued stopped to nod at me when they walked to their table. I understood the meaning. They knew who I was. And who I was not.
JUST PURSUIT: A Black Prosecutor’s Fight for Fairness by Laura Coates. Copyright © 2022 by Laura Coates. Published by Simon & Schuster, Inc. Reprinted by permission
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