Just Pursuit: A Black Prosecutor's Fight for Fairness - book cover
  • Publisher : Simon & Schuster
  • Published : 18 Jan 2022
  • Pages : 272
  • ISBN-10 : 1982173769
  • ISBN-13 : 9781982173760
  • Language : English

Just Pursuit: A Black Prosecutor's Fight for Fairness

"A firsthand, eye-opening story of a prosecutor that exposes the devastating criminal punishment system. Laura Coates bleeds for justice on the page." -Ibram X. Kendi, National Book Award–winning author of Stamped from the Beginning and How to Be an Antiracist

When Laura Coates joined the Department of Justice as a prosecutor, she wanted to advocate for the most vulnerable among us. But she quickly realized that even with the best intentions, "the pursuit of justice creates injustice."

Through Coates's experiences, we see that no matter how fair you try to fight, being Black, a woman, and a mother are identities often at odds in the justice system. She and her colleagues face seemingly impossible situations as they teeter between what is right and what is just.

On the front lines of our legal system, Coates saw how Black communities are policed differently; Black cases are prosecuted differently; Black defendants are judged differently. How the court system seems to be the one place where minorities are overrepresented, an unrelenting parade of Black and Brown defendants in numbers that belie their percentage in the population and overfill American prisons. She also witnessed how others in the system either abused power or were abused by it-for example, when an undocumented witness was arrested by ICE, when a white colleague taught Coates how to unfairly interrogate a young Black defendant, or when a judge victim-blamed a young sexual assault survivor based on her courtroom attire.

Through these revelatory and captivating scenes from the courtroom, Laura Coates explores the tension between the idealism of the law and the reality of working within the parameters of our flawed legal system, exposing the chasm between what is right and what is lawful.

Editorial Reviews

"A compelling collection of engaging, well-written, keenly observed vignettes from her years as a lawyer with the U.S. Department of Justice. But Coates's stories, instead of trying to aggrandize her as an attorney, have a different and more profound purpose: They illustrate the injustices of our criminal justice system, exploring the ambivalence and even guilt that Coates felt as a Black female federal prosecutor working within-and for-that system."
-New York Times Book Review

"What we fear most-what we avoid-is actually the thing that will save us all. I am now convinced that no one knows that better than Laura Coates. Her Just Pursuit is a brilliant guided journey into discovering other's humanity by becoming aware and comfortable with your own. Proximity is how we fix America's ailing justice system by first taking a clear-eyed, magnified look at the court system-prosecutors, lawyers, and especially judges. Only someone with the required DNA to channel the souls of black folks, living and dead, could manage a feat that at once conjures anger, frustration, vulnerability, love, and hope. What will transform the system? Perhaps a Black woman with Black children in America. A thing to behold! A thing to read!"
-Don Lemon, CNN Anchor and author of This Is The Fire: What I Say to My Friends About Racism

"Just Pursuit is a firsthand, eye-opening story of a prosecutor that exposes the devastating criminal punishment system. Laura Coates bleeds for justice on the page."
-Ibram X. Kendi, National Book Award-winning author of Stamped from the Beginning and How to Be an Antiracist

"A searing and soul-searching book. At a time when the American justice system is being reexamined, Laura Coates forces readers to do their own self-examination."
-Jose Antonio Vargas, founder of Define American and author of Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen

"Laura Coates, one of our most brilliant observers of the law, has written a tour de force about a crucial aspect of our legal system. She has also pulled off a valiant reversal to achieve a higher, more poetic justice: a woman who once prosecuted Black folk now stands as their mighty defender. In stories both chilling and heartbreaking, Coates details in searing prose how justice is too often fugitive in a system supposedly meant to serve it. After reading the gripping Just Pursuit, no one can deny that color and cash weigh the scales of justice in favor of those who are neither Black nor poor. This wise and compelling volume is a must read!"
-Michael Eric Dyson, author of Entertaining Race: Performing Blackness in America

"Coates clearly demonst...

Readers Top Reviews

Margo Spencermarvin
This book is no nonsense. The author shared the core of her soul in this book!
Scott J Pearson
For four years, Coates served as a federal prosecutor for the US Department of Justice (DOJ) in the District of Columbia. This gave her an up-front view on social ills plaguing America. As the title reveals, she, herself black, wrestles at length in this book with the dynamics of race and justice in the legal system. Her analysis does not provide easy answers. Someone surely is not guilty just because he/she is black, but neither is that person automatically innocent. Justice and fairness lies somewhere in between, and in her portrayal, it is difficult even for the best lawyers to tell the difference. In this book, Coates provides 16 short essays (along with an introduction and conclusion) that describe various cases she encountered as they intersect with events around her own life. The cases are deeply embroiled in the details of life and legalities. Likewise, her emotions are understandably involved with her personal life while she and her husband were starting a family. She sees race and gender as heavy, inescapable realities through which the governing system must dimly search through towards justice. The stories she shares are profoundly tragic and can cause unease in many readers. Only those who are willing to have their eyes opened should open this book. Human nature does not come off as admirable, and errors lie not just in criminals but also in the “good people.” In the text, police, prosecutors, judges, and even the author have their actions questioned rigorously in pursuit of a better, fairer way. Coates’ pursuit of justice is admirable but arduous. Not everything is about race; indeed, the middle of the book veers towards primarily other areas of injustice. Racial topics begin and end the book, and the author is at her best when dissecting and describing these. She tells stories about visiting rural Mississippi during the 2012 federal elections as a monitor. She talks about identifying with black defendants while also identifying with the DOJ, her employer. She wonders about the fates of her husband and children in our imperfect society. Those involved in her cases sometimes walk around rather blind to racial matters and come off as not very self-aware. Problems are readily acknowledged with no easy solutions forthcoming. This book contains no simple narratives, just a relentless contention for justice. Obviously, those involved in the legal system can benefit from perusing this book as well as readers interested in racial matters and wider social issues. This book is serious in tone and content, and potential audiences should include only mature readers. I can only hope that other federal prosecutors approach their work with a similar seriousness that Coates pursues hers with. She readily acknowledges her own faults and tries to imbue in readers the ability to acknowledge their own, whether racial or othe...
Amazing read. These stories are eye opening and are told in a very unbiased truthful tone.

Short Excerpt Teaser

The pursuit of justice creates injustice.

Before I became a prosecutor, I never imagined that could be true. I thought that the job would be an uncomplicated act of patriotism and that justice was what happened when a person was fairly tried and convicted for their crime.

For years, I stood inside a courtroom, representing the people of the United States. I witnessed firsthand how our just pursuits caused collateral damage in ways I couldn't have imagined when I answered my calling to leave private practice as a civil litigator and join the Department of Justice.

My time at Justice began as a trial attorney in its Civil Rights Division. As a child, I knew the stories of Ruby Bridges and the Freedom Riders better than the tales of Dr. Seuss. My mother grew up in a segregated North Carolina, only migrating north when her parents found work-her mother as a domestic worker and her father, a butler and chauffeur-for some of the wealthiest White families in the Northeast. These families were the namesake of industry leaders-companies that I later happened to represent while working for large law firms. My father spent most of his childhood in foster care, and, although he was raised in a relatively integrated Massachusetts, he was still a Black boy in 1950s America.

In spite of their humble beginnings, my parents propelled themselves to becoming among the first generation in their families to not only go to college but also earn advanced degrees. My parents' paths crossed in western Massachusetts, when they were students at neighboring Smith and Amherst Colleges, each only one of a relative handful of Black students at their respective schools. They met just two years after Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, when the fight for equality was far from over. They spoke often of the housing discrimination they had experienced while raising my two older sisters and me, and I watched the economic struggles faced by my father while trying to build a dental practice in a country where financing eluded Black people. While laws were in place, the nation's conviction for equity never seemed to catch up. I was taught to understand the civil rights era not as finite but as a movement that we were all duty-bound to keep in motion.

Joining the Civil Rights Division in their work to enforce the Voting Rights Act was in service of that duty. The pride I felt working for the DOJ was immeasurable, but the bureaucracy was unbearable. Unsurprisingly, lobbyists and elected officials at the state and federal levels were particularly interested in our voting rights work, and would often interfere, rendering an investigation futile. I needed a reprieve from the paperwork. I thought being in trial would help, but federal trials in the enforcement of voting rights were few and far between.

One of my Black colleagues told me about a program he had participated in early in his career that allowed DOJ attorneys with few trial opportunities to go on temporary detail to a U.S. Attorney's office in Washington, D.C. He always spoke so glowingly about his experience, regaling me with hilarious stories of courtroom antics and theatrics. My request to participate was repeatedly denied, however, since the program wasn't readily available to voting rights lawyers, so I applied to work at the United States Attorney's office directly.

When I received my offer, I headed to my colleague's office for his congratulations. Instead, his normally jovial mood darkened when I told him that it was not a temporary six-month detail but a permanent position with a four-year commitment.

He closed the door, saying, "Two words, Coates: human misery." He counted each word on his fingers. "I don't know how to describe it other than to say that you're not going to be able to get used to that type of human misery every day. There is nothing you can really do about it either. It just keeps coming."

I was shocked. As a prosecutor, I assumed he would have been the only one in the courtroom who actually could have done something about the misery. Isn't that what was meant by justice?

"Look, all I can tell you is be careful. You gotta protect yourself. You're better off staying here at Main Justice," he said, distinguishing our work from that of United States Attorneys across the country. "It's a lot to deal with."

I felt apprehensive as I watched him close his eyes in remembrance. But I wasn't leaving the Department of Justice, I told myself, just working in a different capacity. I assumed it would be similar enough and that my work as a federal prosecutor in a criminal courtroom would be held in the same high regard as my work within the Civil Rights Division. I chalked up his admonishment t...