Get our free newsletter
An obscure lawyer plucked from the federal bureaucracy to become the District’s U.S. attorney two years ago, Wilma Lewis is getting
comfortable with getting tough.
Photographs by Darrow Montgomery
Wilma Lewis is looking for the Rev. Ronald Austin. He’s somewhere in the crowd of people lingering after an awards luncheon for Neighbors Who Care, a national group that trains people to work with victims of crime. Lewis, the U.S. attorney for Washington, D.C., has just given a short speech. She was less than riveting on the dais, but afterward, she is mobbed by well-wishers. As they come forward to pump her hand and load her up with platitudes and advice, she listens intently to each, nodding a subdued “Thank you” or “Terrific.” After about 15 minutes, she pulls away and finds Austin: He is leaning on crutches by the podium where she gave her remarks. Austin is an important person to Lewis, but he’s no powerful city official or high-level minion of Attorney General Janet Reno’s. He’s the victim of a high-profile carjacking two years ago, which left him without half of his left leg.
“Rev. Austin, good to see you again,” Lewis says warmly. She places a kiss on his cheek. “How are you doing? How’s the leg?”
“I’m still getting used to the prosthesis,” Austin replies. “But I’m wearing it more and more.”
She smiles again. Lewis specializes in small moments like this one.
In her two years as the federal prosecutor for the District, a fair number of locals have seen Lewis up close. She’s gone out to meet residents at police stations, inside school auditoriums, and in church basements. She’s gone to court to sit through sentencing hearings with victims and their families. And Lewis has won her share of friends in the community, not so much for just showing up, but because she’s able to articulate a clear agenda, which includes ferreting out public corruption in the District. And unlike her predecessor, she’s done more than talk about it.
Lewis’ slow, calibrated approach to becoming part of the judicial and political fabric of Washington gained an edge when Reno decided last month to pursue the death penalty against Carl Cooper, the alleged gunman in the 1997 triple homicide at a Starbucks in Georgetown. Lewis’ common touch and interest in community affairs got their first significant test since she took office.
Although the crime was pretty much a local robbery gone awry, Lewis made a federal case of it—a move that made Cooper eligible for the death penalty. When he was arrested last March, Cooper was initially charged with first-degree murder in D.C. Superior Court. But after prosecutors gathered evidence suggesting that he had also shot and wounded an off-duty Maryland police officer, killed a security guard in the District, and been involved in six other armed robberies, Lewis gave the go-ahead to charge him under federal law. Prosecutors returned with a 48-count indictment. It included three counts of using a gun in the course of a violent crime, brought under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act, also known as RICO. Reno is pushing for the death penalty if he is convicted of any one of the three.
But in the days following Reno’s announcement, Lewis quietly made it known that she disagreed with the attorney general’s decision. Lewis reportedly believed that, although Cooper’s alleged crimes warranted federal charges, they did not merit the death penalty. Cooper may still strike a plea agreement and receive a lesser penalty. In the meantime, Lewis has little choice but to try the case as a capital one.
Many people assumed that by opposing Reno, Lewis was reflecting the wishes of a community that rejected capital punishment in a referendum eight years before.
But a little over a week before Reno announced that she would push for the death penalty in the Starbucks case—and Lewis quietly demurred—Thomas Abbenante, a local criminal-defense attorney, received a letter from Lewis informing him that she was seeking capital punishment for one of his clients, Thomas Edelin. The District’s chief prosecutor, it turns out, has neither a personal objection to the death penalty nor compunction about seeking it against her city’s will.
Lewis is a technician, a careful student of the law. And her recent decisions suggest that she believes that prosecutors are on firmer ground demanding the death penalty for Edelin than for Cooper.
Prosecutors allege that Edelin led a violent gang of crack dealers known as the One-Five Crew, which allegedly ran a drug market at the Stanton Dwellings housing project in Southeast Washington. In court filings, Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Pfleger charged Edelin last year with ordering 11 killings, including a hit against his father after the two had a falling-out.
Using RICO statutes, prosecutors can try Edelin and his crew for all the crimes allegedly committed in the course of running an alleged criminal enterprise at once. If prosecutors had to rely solely on local laws, they might have to try Edelin and his gang in separate trials for separate crimes. RICO also allows prosecutors to try Edelin for crimes that occurred outside the District.
Prosecutors have charged five of Edelin’s co-defendants with RICO charges that carry the death penalty, but so far, Lewis is recommending capital punishment only for Edelin.
Lewis, who at first made it her business to stay out of the news, couldn’t stay out for long. Within the span of a week, she had implied publicly that her titular boss, Reno, was wrong on the law in the Cooper case and made it clear that she was willing to ignore the will of the people in the Edelin case. All the community appearances and careful avoidance of the spotlight don’t alter a fundamental fact: Wilma Lewis, an obscure lawyer plucked from the federal bureaucracy to become the District’s U.S. attorney, may be D.C.’s first prosecutor in 40 years to bring home a verdict that will result in a defendant’s being put to death.
Being the U.S. attorney in the District is significantly different from being a federal prosecutor anywhere else in the country. Because, unlike other big cities, Washington doesn’t have a locally elected district attorney, the president, with input from the District’s congressional delegate, appoints a U.S. attorney to prosecute both federal and local crimes. But being Washington’s de facto local prosecutor has never changed the fact that U.S. attorneys work for the attorney general. The citizens whom they serve—or don’t serve—can’t remove them. As a result, Washington’s top prosecutors have always seemed more interested in impressing their bosses at the Department of Justice than the residents who are afraid to walk city streets. District officials have demanded that the U.S. attorney be more sensitive to local sentiment—usually in vain.
Lewis came to the job in 1998 fresh off a stint as the inspector general of the Interior Department, where she’d managed an office of 300 people and overseen audits and internal investigations. She had no experience with District affairs. She had never been a criminal prosecutor. She had previously been an assistant U.S. attorney for seven years. But she’d worked on the civil side, handling cases involving employment disputes and Freedom of Information Act requests, lawyering in a world of rules and regulations.
Lewis was not an obvious fit for the job. Hardly anyone becomes a district attorney or U.S. attorney without having handled criminal cases.
“On the criminal side, one of the things people were saying was, ‘Well, she doesn’t have the background for it,’” says Robert Jordan III, a former criminal prosecutor and a partner at Steptoe & Johnson, who hired Lewis right out of law school. “She was an IG. That gets you pretty close to the criminal justice process. But the criminal-prosecution fraternity tends to thumb their nose at someone who hasn’t handled cases by the boatload.”
Lewis was also at a disadvantage because she was following Eric Holder, the first African-American to serve as the District’s U.S. attorney, who went on to become deputy attorney general. Holder “had been a sitting judge, a very photogenic individual,” observes Pauline Schneider, a lawyer who led the 17-member commission that recommended Lewis to D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton.
As a U.S. attorney, Holder once stepped in to argue part of a case so he could personally deliver a warning against killing crime witnesses. And Holder once slammed the police department in the Op-Ed pages of the Washington Post.
In using the office as a pulpit, Holder was hewing to a path well-worn by his predecessors. Both Joseph DiGenova and Jay Stephens, who served in the office during the ’80s and early ’90s, were grandstanders, prosecutors who often took their cases straight to the court of public opinion.
There will be none of that from Lewis.
“If I am hitting up against brick walls, then I would use other avenues to drive my point home. My first avenue wouldn’t be to run to the press and say, ‘Oh this house of cards is falling down,’” she says. “My first avenue would be to have that problem resolved by working behind the scenes with that particular agency or individual.”
For all their posturing, Holder, DiGenova, and Stephens didn’t make much of a dent in the municipal culture of permission and venality they were constantly complaining about. And even though Lewis’ predecessors, especially Holder, had enduring honeymoons with the press, the public was not always as impressed.
Lewis found out as much in February 1998, when she met with community leaders at the Charles Sumner School.
Dorothy Brizill, a civic activist on a variety of issues, including crime, had organized a coming-out party of sorts for Lewis, who had been sworn in just a few weeks earlier. The event was by invitation only, and the attendees were a mix of community activists and residents. Many had never heard of Lewis, who, until then, had mainly addressed members of congressional panels or her own staff in closed-door meetings. She had little feel for handling a collection of rabble-rousers. Her first mistake was to mention her predecessor, Holder. Given the notices he had received in the press, she thought she was on safe ground. Oops.
“Boo! We don’t trust Holder!” someone in the back shouted. And the crowd’s skepticism extended to Lewis as well. “She looked like she was so disjointed from a community that needed help,” says Jerry Phillips, a local radio talk show host who was at the meeting. “She appeared astutely educated, but she didn’t have the answers for me as a person who walks the streets who’s afraid of being mugged.” It was not an auspicious start for someone who was pledging to make community-based relationships a tenet of her tenure.
That night at the Sumner School, people wanted to know what she was going to do about public corruption. By public corruption, they meant crooked cops and city inspectors on the make, not powerful congressmen abusing their postal privileges, like Dan Rostenkowski, the Illinois Democrat and former chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, whom Holder indicted in 1994. A few years later, Holder shelved a major probe of waste and abuse at the Water and Sewer Authority to put more prosecutors on an investigation of Korean businessman Yong Yun and his ties to Mayor Marion Barry. Holder got Yun but never indicted Barry.
When Holder left for the Justice Department in July 1997, “frustration had been building. I don’t know how long it had been building for, but the
frustration was over a difference in strategy,” recalls former control board member Stephen Harlan. “[Holder] had a strategy of going after the big fish and letting the quote smaller fish through the net.”
And when it came to the little fish, Washington’s top prosecutor seemed completely oblivious to what was going on right down the street from him, at police headquarters.
Earlier in the year, Metropolitan Police Department Sgts. Christopher Sanders and Harry Hill had appeared before the D.C. Council, alleging that their boss, Lt. Lowell Duckett, had transferred them after they refused to falsify time sheets for Duckett’s friend, Detective Ulysses Walltower. Walltower had already been the subject of a federal investigation for his actions as a member of then-Mayor Marion Barry’s security detail. But the probe had petered out in January 1997, and prosecutors decided to drop the case.
In 1997, the last year of Holder’s tenure, the U.S. Attorney’s Office convicted only five police officers. Between the weak effort to root out bad cops and botched probes of corruption among low-level District officials, such as the Water and Sewer Authority case, many officials began to wonder out loud if there was anyone left minding the store. No one escaped blame, not even Holder, who up to that point had been untouchable.
“The U.S. Attorney’s Office obviously has not been aggressive enough,” declared Norton to the Washington Post
Norton had named Lewis as U.S. attorney in August. From the sidelines, Lewis had watched the fiasco in the police department unfold. The untested prosecutor now found herself in the odd position of stepping into some giant shoes that never seemed to walk their talk.
“[Lewis’] task is to do some house cleaning,” Ward 2 Council Member Jack Evans told the Post. “I’m waiting for answers on a lot of open cases, and it’s a management problem. If you wait too long, leads dry up, people move, and cases die.”
Over the past two years, Lewis has fulfilled expectations, proving to be an effective manager. She’s set definite priorities and backed them up with resources. The results are most startling in the area of public corruption.
Since January 1998, her office has convicted 23 police officers on charges ranging from extortion to sexual assault to theft, and seven are currently awaiting trial. The total number of individuals the prosecutors have convicted on public corruption charges over the past two years is 140, twice as many as in the previous two-year period.
Even though Holder was the one who preoccupied the newspaper headlines, Lewis may be doing the work that gets remembered.
Lewis is sitting in an armchair in a remote corner of her office. On a table across from her is a pair of metal stress-relief balls, sitting snug in their ornamental box. Next to them is a conch shell covered in sparkling glaze, a small reminder of her native St. Thomas. Perhaps she has the small fountain bubbling away on a table next to her for the same reason. The fountain is a miniature cove scene, with several small slabs of rock forming steps that descend into a pool of blue. When it’s turned on, water trickles down over the rocks.
The fountain gurgles away, filling the long, awkward silences while she mulls over questions.
For somebody in an office that used to get a ton of ink, she seems plenty comfortable sitting quiet. Ask her a question, especially one about her recent death-penalty decisions, and you may end up sitting quiet right with her. She’s proud of her work on public corruption but doesn’t speechify about it. When the words come, they are carefully parsed—vetted for legal implications—leaving no room for misinterpretation and even less for speculation.
She won’t discuss details of the Cooper or the Edelin case. Nor will she say whether she believes the death penalty can ever be applied fairly and consistently.
“I’m sworn to uphold the law,” she says. “That’s what I intend to do. The federal system includes some offenses for which the death penalty is a possibility. That system is separate from the local system.”
She won’t say what she thinks of Illinois Gov. George Ryan’s recent decision to impose a moratorium on executions, pending a review of the death penalty.
“I’m reluctant to get into a discussion on matters that are pending,” she adds.
She says she supports the death penalty, but she won’t say how she arrived at that position: “My personal views aren’t relevant. What’s relevant is what the law says.”
She clearly knows what it says. But opponents of the death penalty suggest that she knows the law just well enough to hide behind it.
“There are always nuances and technicalities in the law that prosecutors can fudge if they want to get a certain result,” says Brian Henninger of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
At first, death penalty opponents thought they had found an ally in Lewis. Norton, who played a critical role in her hiring, believes that the District’s historical uneasiness with the death penalty is something federal prosecutors should pay attention to, regardless of whether the crimes in question are federally charged. And she says she was pleased to know that in the instance of the Cooper case, Lewis seemed to agree with her.
“You ought to have a very good reason to choose a high-profile case for the death penalty when you have not allowed the death penalty in cases just as horrendous involving children, grandmothers, innocent victims shot down in the street by hoodlums. I could make a mirror case with the McDonald’s case to the Cooper case,” says Norton, referring to the 1995 murder of three McDonald’s employees in Southeast Washington during a robbery attempt. “I understand there can be fine distinctions between cases. I accept such fine distinctions as a lawyer, but the criminal justice system as a whole should not accept such fine distinctions.”
But it was fine distinctions that prompted Lewis, right before her position in the Cooper case became known, to bluntly suggest that Edelin belonged on death row. Norton praised Lewis for her recommendation in the Cooper case; but Norton was disturbed to learn that, yes, under certain very specific circumstances, Lewis was more than willing to prosecute out a capital case.
“I don’t think she should be bringing the death penalty. I don’t think she should be asking for it here,” Norton says. “We don’t want in this jurisdiction the hardening and incivility that is pervasive in our streets to be sanctioned by the application of the death penalty.”
If Lewis’ nuanced position vis-a-vis the death penalty is difficult to understand, defense attorneys say there’s really no mystery: She is using every means she has to strengthen the government’s hand in every case she has, including those of Cooper and Edelin. All prosecutions are negotiations, in which the prosecution tries to summon enough strong evidence and potentially dire consequences to get defendants to plea-bargain, as opposed to going to trial.
Death provides the ultimate leverage. Although federal guidelines expressly prohibit prosecutors from using the threat of the death penalty in order to force a plea, defense attorneys say that in practice, many prosecutors do just that. In fact, the last few times the U.S. attorney brought capital charges in the District, such as in the cases of drug kingpin Wayne Perry and cop-killer Donzell McCauley, the defendants pleaded guilty and were sentenced to life without parole.
Cooper and Edelin may end up avoiding the execution chamber the same way. Lewis still has the option of accepting plea bargains with lesser penalties. But that solution won’t satisfy some District activists, who now understand that she is willing to push for capital punishment in defiance of local sentiments.
“I’m strongly against Reno and Lewis going against the will of the voters,” says Melvin Sims, who chairs a Ward 8 advisory neighborhood commission. “It’s not that I condone these guys’ getting away with their hideous crimes, but there was a vote by the residents of the District of Columbia to not have a death penalty. These two are taking an attitude that the rest of these leaders in the federal government take: that they can make these decisions for the residents.”
Lewis points out that she and Reno have other considerations besides the feelings of D.C. residents. If there is going to be a federal death penalty, she argues, the attorney general has to be consistent and apply the same standards in every case, whether or not the crime took place in a jurisdiction that has no local death penalty.
“Consistency is always a major issue with the death penalty,” Lewis says. “If local sentiment became the dispositive factor, then certainly, consistency might not be well achieved.”
Lewis is a master of such lawerly responses. When she comments in newspapers or on television, she employs the driest of technical language. “She likes to be precise,” says spokesperson Channing Phillips. “She wants to mean what she says.”
To get beyond Lewis the lawyer, you have to take a circuitous route, and even then, you won’t find much. She won’t name a single hero besides her parents. And ask Lewis, a varsity tennis player in college, about people she admires on the court, and she can’t come up with a single name right away. Mention John McEnroe or bratty Martina Hingis to Lewis, and she wrinkles her nose: “People who make a spectacle of themselves, I find that a turn-off. I like people who are gracious in winning—and gracious in losing.”
Lewis is 43 years old, but you can see the good daughter within a minute of meeting her. You know, without asking, that there were never angry teenage outbursts, no period of adolescent rebellion. She’s the kind of person who turned out exactly the way her parents wanted.
Lewis’ mother, Juta Lewis, worked for the U.S. Customs Service for 30 years, and her father, Warren Lewis, worked for the U.S. Postal Service for 40. Her brother, also named Warren Lewis, has spent his entire career working for the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
“I grew up in a family of public servants. I have a great deal of respect for hard-working, dedicated public servants of integrity. I think government should be filled with people who are committed to the mission, who perform their duties and responsibilities with the greatest degree of fidelity, loyalty, and integrity,” Lewis says. “That’s the way I perceive public service. And so for me, the notion of having people in government who are not like that, who bring disrepute to the work of the government, is something I find—intolerable. I think the citizens that we serve deserve better than that. They are entitled to have a government that works for them on their behalf and not for their particular, personal fraudulent interests.”
Lewis has a hard time turning off the Dudley Do-Right schtick. But underneath the rhetoric about government service and the rights of the citizenry, she is who she says she is.
“She’s a very competent pro who slogs away at the unglamorous stuff and gets it done,” says Schneider.
Law school classmate Keith Calhoun-Senghor calls her “a real pillar-of-the-community type who carries a sense that there are a lot of people depending on you and looking up to you.”
“She’s not interested in impressing people. She doesn’t do something differently for the sake of doing something different,” Calhoun-Senghor says. “Wilma is who Wilma is, and Wilma knows who Wilma is.”
Lewis tolerates a reporter who insists on tagging along everywhere, but she clearly ranks the visitation just slightly above a plague of locusts. The day I follow Lewis to church, she outs me before the entire congregation.
“This is Annys Shin. She’s a reporter from City Paper. City Paper has decided it’s time to profile Wilma Lewis, so she has been shadowing me. She looks shy, but she isn’t,” Lewis says. It’s more true of her than me. Lewis isn’t shy so much as careful, and it’s reflected in her advice to her fellow congregants: “Watch what you say—you might read it in the paper.”
Lewis has been attending Faith Moravian Church on Riggs Road in Northeast for several years. It’s the only Moravian church in the District. The Moravian faith is one of the oldest Protestant denominations around, founded in 1457 by followers of Czech martyr Jan Hus. In the 18th century, Moravian missionaries fanned out into the New World to convert slaves in the Caribbean and Indian tribes in North America. St. Thomas, a small island located in the West Indies, hosts three Moravian churches.
Lewis grew up a Moravian, but she also attended an Episcopalian parochial school and belonged to a Lutheran Girl Scout troupe, so she’s used to explaining her religion to the uninformed. Most everyone who attends Faith Moravian is Caribbean or of Caribbean descent just like Lewis, who grew up in the capital of the Virgin Islands, Charlotte Amalie. It’s a slightly tacky, but historic, tourist destination, hosting both Blackbeard’s Castle and the Synagogue of Berecha V’Shalom V’Gemilath Chasidim. The people who come in on the cruise ships have lots of money, and the people on the island, who service the tourists, don’t.
The folks gathered at Faith Moravian are a warm but subdued crowd, as are Lewis and her parents, who happen to be visiting. Midway through the service, the choir breaks into a medley of spirituals. The U.S. attorney is one of a few people who clap along. “People clap more at home,” Juta Lewis tells me later.
When I first meet Lewis’ parents, she is off in a meeting. (She’s president of the church’s board of trustees.) I wait with them for her in a pew a few rows back from the altar. I notice that they’re sitting a couple feet apart, leaving a space for their daughter.
After the service, we make our way to coffee hour. Wilma helps each of her parents up the stairs to the reception area. She spends most of the next half-hour talking church business, while I try to chat up her mother and father. They’re friendly, just like their daughter—and just as tight-lipped.
Lewis liked her older brother, Warren, enough as a child that she didn’t like being separated from him when he went to school. So Juanito, a driver who delivered kids in the neighborhood to school each day, would let her ride along. But Wilma would still cry when her brother inevitably disappeared through the schoolhouse doors. She put up such a fuss that the principal, a friend of the Lewis family, let her stay. “Wilma started school when she was 3,” says the younger Warren Lewis. They’re still not separated by much. He works just across the Potomac in Fairfax as director of the Washington District of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
When they were coming of age, in the ’60s, home rule was taking root on St. Thomas, just as it was in D.C. But Charlotte Amalie was never as racially divided as Washington, says Jennifer Friday, who went to parochial school with Lewis. Extreme poverty was not widespread, and crime was low.
“People left their doors unlocked,” Friday recalls.
Juta and Warren Lewis made a solid middle-class living working for the government. Neither of them had finished college; they had landed their jobs after taking civil service exams. When Juta retired, she was the assistant director of the Customs Service for the Virgin Islands. Warren started out as a substitute clerk at the post office; he was helping run the place by the time he was done. According to her brother Warren, their parents told them that “being a public servant is a job where you don’t always have many friends or people who agree with what you’re doing. Sometimes the right thing is not a popular position. When you do the right thing and you withstand adversity, it says something about your character.”
The Lewises weren’t rich, but they made sure they sent both their children to All Saints Cathedral School, one of three private schools in Charlotte Amalie. The school had about 300 students,
mostly the children of doctors, lawyers, and small-business owners—strivers of all races, ethnic backgrounds, and income levels.
After school, Wilma Lewis would go to the territorial courthouse, where she would wait for her mother and father to pick her up. In the courtroom of another family friend, Eileen Petersen, or “Nennie Eileen,” as Lewis would call her, she would watch lawyers arguing their cases. She remembers repeatedly being struck by how much she agreed with the argument of one side, only to change her mind after listening to the other.
“I liked the trial atmosphere. I liked the courtroom atmosphere,” Lewis says. “From then on, I wanted to be a trial lawyer.”
Lewis’ ambition to go to law school carried her stateside, to college at Swarthmore, outside of Philadelphia. Her father had pushed Swarthmore, partly because one of the first civilian governors of the Virgin Islands had been a Swarthmore professor.
In the racially mixed confines of St. Thomas, Lewis had not experienced much racism. In the States, she was confronted by divisions—albeit subtle ones—that she hadn’t seen before. In the lunchroom at Swarthmore, she saw racial and ethnic groups self-segregate. She sat on a race-relations committee that hosted tepid forums on the issue. Lewis recalls one episode of direct discrimination that she experienced years later: Just before her first semester at Harvard Law School, she and a friend were looking for a place to live for the school year.
“I called a particular place, and they indicated they had available rooms. We were right around the corner. By the time we got up to the door, two minutes later, they didn’t have any more rooms,” Lewis recalls. “How they could have no more rooms in two minutes—you can draw your own conclusions.”
But the experience didn’t dampen her enthusiasm for being at Harvard.
“I thought if I was fortunate enough to get in and do well enough to get out, it would probably open some doors for me,” she says.
Her strategy worked. Even before she graduated, she impressed Jordan, a partner with Steptoe & Johnson, a white-shoe law firm in Washington. When she graduated in 1981, she moved to D.C. to work at the firm as an associate. She lived in the District, near Chevy Chase Circle. It was a long way from Charlotte Amalie.
Lewis says she enjoyed litigating on behalf of various clients, but some part of her DNA seemed to draw her back to government work. She left Steptoe in 1986 to try her hand at being an assistant U.S. attorney, handling civil cases. She hasn’t looked back. “As an assistant U.S. attorney, I never felt like a hired gun, and that is to say the ultimate resolution—the goal—is and always should be that justice is done, whether you’re working on the civil or the criminal side of the office.”
The criminal side of the law has brought with it more complications—and higher stakes—for Lewis than her time on the civil side. Last year, she spoke at a community meeting hosted by Faith Moravian. “There I was talking about the gang intelligence unit and going after criminals on the street. One lady gets up and says, ‘Ms. Lewis, Ms. Lewis, but doesn’t your heart just bleed for young men who are out there on the streets, and they don’t have the opportunities to develop themselves? Doesn’t your heart just bleed for them?’
“And I stopped, because I was on a roll about these initiatives and going to pick up these people who were committing crimes,” she recalls.
“So I stopped and I said, ‘Yes, my heart does bleed for those folks who don’t have all the opportunities we’d like them to have, but my heart bleeds more for the victims of crime, for when you have one of those people putting a gun to somebody and blowing them away.’”
Lewis does indeed make an effort to show empathy for people on both sides of the criminal equation. She’s proud of the fact that when she set up a new gang-prosecution unit, she also ordered the prosecutors to fan out into schools and preach against gang affiliation.
“Clearly, crime has some impact, whether it happens to be the victim, the perpetrator, the family members—they all go through an experience,” she says. “Besides vigorous prosecution, we need to be addressing the needs and concerns of victims, whether it’s keeping them informed of cases or referring them for counseling. On the prevention side, we have to help those who, but for some guidance, end up in the criminal justice system. We have to do our best so we can be as far-reaching in our influence.”
But her willingness to pursue capital murder charges against the likes of Thomas Edelin suggests that there are limits to her sympathies. At the awards ceremony for Neighbors Who Care, Lewis tells the president of the group, “Hearing the stories of victims—the horrors of what has happened to these individuals—has had the biggest impact on me as U.S. attorney.” Which may be why the same prosecutor who drapes a concerned arm around crime survivors can turn around and suggest that the person who perpetrates those crimes might just be the kind of person who deserves to die. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.