2020 Founders Fellowship
The 2020 recipient was Chidiuto Cobb, a law student at Howard University School of Law.
Personal Essay on Summer Internship in the Domestic Violence and Special Victims Section of the Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia
I was a summer associate in the Domestic Violence and Special Victims Section (DVSVS) of the Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia (OAG). DVSVS is embedded between the Juvenile and Criminal sections of the OAG. The Section handles cases of domestic violence, sexual assaults perpetrated by juveniles, elder abuse, and other crimes against vulnerable victims. At the beginning of my virtual internship, I had no idea what to expect as I would not physically meet the team I would work with or meet any other summer associates. However, by the end of my time at the OAG, my passion to fight against domestic violence and sexual assault was strengthened.
Advocacy against sexual and domestic violence became a priority for me during my sophomore year at Duke University. I took a course called Hidden Voices: Stories for Social Change , where I learned, for the first time, about the prevalence of sexual assault and intimate partner violence on campus and around the country. Since then, I have sought out opportunities to help fight against this violence in any way that I can. The fact is that reducing domestic and sexual violence will take time and drastic cultural changes. In the meantime, I found that through prosecution of sex crimes, I can seek justice for those who have already been victimized. At the OAG, I had that opportunity to be a part of the justice-seeking effort when wrongs have been committed, primarily against girls. I found that this is the way that I can help bring about change for young girls and women in my community.
The highly dedicated and passionate team of attorneys that I worked with inspired me to put forth my best effort despite working remotely. Because of the unique positioning of the team, I was exposed to more case types than I initially expected. My first project was exactly what I hoped to work on: a sexual assault case. I got hands-on experience working with a victim and witness’ testimony in preparation for trial. At first it was difficult to read through the gruesome details of the alleged attack. However, the commitment to seeking justice for the young survivor made the work worth every moment spent on it. This experience gave me an accurate picture of
what it would be like in my future career. I worked on similar projects throughout my time at the OAG, and I am more confident than ever in my choice to advocate for survivors of sexual and domestic assault.
Through this opportunity, I witnessed the unique circumstances that surround prosecuting juvenile defendants for sexual crimes. When prosecuting teenage boys that had allegedly perpetrated these heinous acts against girls and women, I observed the members of the section grapple with the tension that the crime and the youth of the defendant created. I am a black woman and have often felt that tension in trying to protect the women and girls I am committed to, while also protecting young black boys from being unfairly prosecuted. I got to see the prosecutors I worked with consider and protect the rights of the juvenile defendants they prosecuted. I learned how to hold both of those ideas in tension in order to bring about the best outcome in prosecuting these crimes.
In an effort to make sure defendant rights were protected, one of the projects I worked on was in relation to juvenile defendant rights in the context of COVID-19 virtual trials. Because of the new platforms through which we were conducting court hearings, new policies and constitutional concerns arose. Not having in-person hearings meant that prosecutors in our office had to be intentional about presenting the case without breaching any constitutional rights that would have been taken for granted under normal circumstances. For example, defendants have a constitutional right to confront witnesses against them. When trials were held physically in court
this was not usually an issue as both the defendants and witnesses were physically in the same room. However, because of virtual trials, I conducted legal research on how the OAG could ensure that the right to confront a witness was not violated when the defendant and witness were not physically in the same space. I found that protecting the defendant’s rights did not harm the advocacy for the victims involved, but rather strengthened the integrity of the prosecutorial process. The commitment to prioritizing defendants’ rights is one that I will take forward in my career as a sex crimes prosecutor. It is possible to be a prosecutor that cares
about the victims and survivors as well as the rights of the defendant.
I am grateful that I had the opportunity to work on such cutting-edge legal research on the viability of virtual court proceedings as it pertains to defendants’ rights. Even after COVID-19 is over, it is possible that virtual hearings can become more common in the future, given that they have already been tested out in this time. I believe the research I did will affect policy that will shape the judicial landscape and ensure justice in our communities. Finally, another project I worked on involved police use of excessive force in mental
health-related calls. While this project was not directly related to domestic violence and sexual assault, it is one that I am passionate about as a person of color given the current public attention on police brutality. Too often officers are not thoroughly trained in recognizing when people are in distress and they use lethal force where it could have been avoided. I researched and wrote on creative alternatives to armed officers responding to mental health crises that can be implemented in the District of Columbia. I am glad that the OAG is considering these projects, and I am grateful to have been a part of the process.
The road to justice is long for survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence, and I got to help make it a bit smoother. The WBAF Fellowship made it possible for me to help seek justice for women and girls in the D.C. community through my work with the OAG. As a Fellow, I was able to focus my work mostly on things that pertained to women and girls because my supervising attorneys knew of my interests and goals as a WBAF Fellow. Although the summer was unlike any I could have imagined, I knew that I was supported by a community of people who advocate for women across D.C. in different ways. It has been an honor to represent Howard University School of Law as a WBAF Fellow. I look forward to more opportunities to advocate for women in my career, and my time as a WBAF Fellow is just the beginning of that journey.