Recently, I got to hear one of my heroes – Bryan Stevenson – speak at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati, Ohio for the Mary S. Stern Lecture series. His lecture recapped his recent cases and his book, Just Mercy. Stevenson has influenced my career. Through his client-centered representation, I learned how to be a better advocate. His book indirectly led me to my mentor and guru, David Allen Singleton, who contributed to many of my accomplishments. (They say the mentor is only as good as the mentee. And, by “they,” I mean me!) At first, I thought I’ll be the “next Stevenson” or “the next Singleton.” However, throughout my mentorship with Singleton, I learned that I am one of kind. I will be the first and only Nikita Srivastava!
During Stevenson’s lecture, he shared a story with us that reminded me of my time working at the Indigent Defense Clinic (IDC). While working on a federal case, a judge thought Stevenson was a defendant – not an attorney. The judge saw a black man and assumed that he was a criminal. Stevenson politely reminded the judge that he was the attorney and produced identification. However, the judge was still skeptical. It wasn’t until Stevenson’s client appeared that the judge realized Stevenson was, in fact, an attorney. Stevenson could not react to the encounter since any reaction could hurt his client. So, he went along with the “misunderstanding” and tried to put it past him. Although this racist occurrence offended Stevenson, it didn’t prevent him from zealously advocating for his client.
After his lecture, I thought back to my time fighting for my clients during IDC. Before I share my story, I need to give you some background information about IDC. The University of Cincinnati College of Law offers a unique year-long clinic where third-year students can obtain their limited law licenses and represent indigent people charged with misdemeanors. A limited law license allows students who are not licensed to practice law yet work on cases with already licensed attorneys. For a year, the students act as public defenders. They represent their clients in all phases with the supervision of an experienced attorney. During my time at IDC, I represented a variety of people. It was a truly humbling experience that reaffirmed my dreams of becoming a public defender.
Srivastava and Stevenson.
During my first case at IDC, I represented a young woman charged with assault. The case was set for a bench trial. I had interacted with the prosecutor before the trial, so I thought he knew me. But, as it turns out, he didn’t recognize me after our several encounters. On the day of the bench trial, I approached the prosecutor and explained my client wasn’t interested in the initial plea deal. The prosecutor offered to talk to the prosecuting witnesses again to negotiate another deal, but he had other cases to attend to. I waited outside the courtroom with my client until I saw the prosecuting witnesses exited the courtroom. There is no rule against public defenders talking to the prosecuting witnesses, so I approached them. I asked if they would settle for a smaller restitution fee than the one originally presented. After some time, they agreed. I told them to tell the prosecutor so an official deal could be reached.
When my supervising attorney arrived at the courtroom, I recapped what happened. He was pleased and excited that we got our client a great deal. So, both of us went up to the prosecutor.
“So, do we have a plea deal?” my supervisor asked.
“No, because your client broke her stay away order by asking the victims for lesser restitution.” The prosecutor said. My supervisor looked at me as I nodded no, which he took to mean that never happened.
“Do you mean Nikita talked to them?” He asked pointing to me as I waved at the prosecutor.
“Um, who?” the prosecutor asked. I handed my supervisor my large trial binder and stood in front of the prosecutor.
“Hey man, I am Nikita,” I said sticking out my hand, “a certified legal intern, not a ‘defendant.’ But, we’ve met several times before.” The prosecutor reluctantly shook my hand. Instead of apologizing or feeling embarrassed, the prosecutor said,
“Oh, you’re the intern? I thought you were…someone else.”
I looked back at my supervisor and took my binder back. As my supervisor convinced the prosecutor that the plea we sought was in the best interest of justice, I thought:
I shouldn’t be surprised. I should cut the prosecutor some slack because he meets a lot of people, but…it’s 2018. Granted, I am only the brown woman attorney in the room. However, that doesn’t excuse his racism. We had interacted several times, but the prosecutor did not recognize me as anything more than a ‘defendant.’ He saw a woman of color and immediately thought ‘criminal.’ That’s not cool. Brown women can also be attorneys, but my skin tone indicated otherwise. I hate that I have to go through this. I am more than these recurring microaggressions.
Instead of losing my cool, I opted to act professionally. For the sake of my client, I could not overact because it would hurt her. We got the plea we wanted and the client walked away happy. She gave me a big hug and told me how grateful she was. Naturally, her gratitude made me cry on my way back home. I did exactly what Stevenson did when the federal judge thought he too was a “defendant.” However, my style of handling the situation was different from his. I know minorities are encouraged to keep their heads down so they can quietly move up. By climbing upwards, they can create change on a higher level. But, staying quiet doesn’t guarantee that minorities will reach those top positions. At that moment with the prosecutor, I decided to reintroduce myself and state that I was not a “defendant,” because I wanted him to know what he did was wrong. I pointed out bias and, hopefully, it made him reflect on his behavior. But, more importantly, I was still capable of representing my client without jeopardizing her future.
Srivastava and Singleton.
I remember telling Singleton this story at the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, where he is the director. He never told me how to handle that situation, but nodded along when I told how I handled it and will handle these in the future. Singleton always gave me great advice about handling my cases but never advised on navigating my public defender career as a person of color – rather, as a woman of color. After telling him about my encounter with the prosecutor, I asked Singleton why he became a public defender.
“Because I am broken inside,” Singleton said. “So are you, so is everyone. But you and I use that brokenness to help others who are maybe more broken than we are.”
“I get that,” I replied. “I hope I can be half the attorney you are.”
“Don’t say that. You will be better than any of us. Stay true to yourself, follow your instincts, and take guidance where you can get it,” Singleton responded. During that moment with the prosecutor, I knew that I could not lose my temper but I handled the situation differently than Stevenson. Looking back at that moment, I am proud of the way I handled it.
The Only Nikita.
I love each of my mentees who look up to me. They’re all unique and talented. None of them are like the other, which will make them great advocates. So, when they tell me that they want to be like me, I recall Singleton’s wise words. I tell them to not measure themselves to my achievements or my style. If you try and be someone else, you will only stress yourself out. Stay true to your character. I am here for all my mentees if they need me.
That’s all for now. Stay tuned.