The Foghorn recently sat with USF law professor, public defender and newly published author Lara Bazelon. We touched base on how she got her start in law, her admiration for journalism and how her book, “Rectify: A Story of Healing and Redemption After Wrongful Conviction,” came to be.
Sarah Armendariz: Tell me a little bit about your background in law and how you got started.
Lara Bazelon: I went to law school [at New York University] and always knew I wanted to be a public defender. I didn’t have any interest in representing people who had money, and I found criminal law to be very fascinating. So after I worked for a judge, I got a job as a federal public defender in Los Angeles. I did that for seven years. That really influenced the rest of my career because it was just an incredible job on so many levels, although extremely stressful. It reinforced what I already knew, which is that if you are poor and a person of color in our criminal justice system, you need public defenders who are very good at their jobs and willing to represent you, because you are outmatched otherwise.
SA: Who were your main influences that drove you toward a career in law?
LB: It’s funny. My grandfather, David Bazelon, was the chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which is the court called a “heartbeat away from the Supreme Court.” I do have a big legacy in my family, and my dad is a lawyer. Three of my sisters are also lawyers. My grandfather would call us from D.C. and ask what we wanted to be when we grew up. I would tell him different things. Sometimes I wanted to be a ballerina, others I wanted to be a princess. He would always say the same thing, which was, “No. You want to be a lawyer!”
SA: Why did you choose public defending over, let’s say, corporate or personal injury?
LB: In my family, we were taught that we came from a position of relative privilege and that it was really our mission in life to help other people — not to simply get a job and make a lot of money. Our dinner conversations were all about social justice, race, feminism, the rights of defendants and the civil litigants that my dad represented. I was instilled with a sense that this was important and interesting and what I wanted to do.
SA: Where does writing fit in?
LB: I love writing, although I also hate it because it is so difficult — but I feel so compelled to do it. I have this inner compulsion to write. It also helps me process complicated ideas and emotions around issues that I care about. I wasn’t doing any journalism at all until I was the director of an innocence project in Los Angeles, and we had an exoneration where I was the lead counsel in that case. Slate Magazine, where my older sister worked at the time, asked me to write an anatomy of that exoneration, and that’s what really got me started.
SA: Did you continue to write for Slate or did you shop other publications?
LB: I started cold-pitching pieces. I cold-pitched to Politico, and they took it. The same applies to Slate. I have been doing more op-ed pieces, especially more recently. Usually [I write these] when I see an issue in the news — for example, when the Me Too movement broke around the judiciary, I wrote an article about judicial misconduct. I thought, okay, five people [would] read that article, including my dad. I quickly wrote about 800 words and it was published in The New York Times. So, all of a sudden this view that had been confined to a small academic circle was out there in the world for other people to understand.
SA: What was the feedback like for your op-ed in NYT?
LB: The feedback was pretty positive. [However], I got some negative feedback. I recently wrote again for NYT surrounding the Kavanaugh hearings to talk about what I perceived as the real sexism and cynicism by the Senate Republicans to basically outsource the questioning of Dr. Blasey Ford to this Arizona Republican prosecutor, and I got a lot of hate mail. Some of it was obscene. Just… nasty. And I think the more that one writes about that touches more of a cultural nerve from gender or race, the more likely you’ll get an outsized reaction.
SA: How did you process negative feedback?
LB: My feelings about that are similar to being a trial lawyer in that when you decide to step out into the arena, you should expect to get hit. That’s what I tell my students. When you take that on, you have to brace yourself for the fact that not only are people going to disagree with you, but in our age of social media, they are going to disagree with you in a way that can be profoundly personal and nasty.
SA: That brings us to your new book! Where did you seek inspiration from?
LB: That book came out of the representation of my client, whose [legal] name is Kash Register. He spent 34 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. I was his lead attorney, and we were able to get his conviction overturned. During that process, my world kind of turned upside down in that I realized how many victims there are in wrongful conviction cases.
I started talking to other crime victims who had come to that realization, and I quickly understood that there was this whole community of people who had also been deeply harmed. And also seeing that there was a growing movement to bring together people like Kash and the other original crime victims. They were the only people in the world who could understand the trauma that each one experiences, and I thought it was just fascinating. It quickly grew from a piece I wrote for Slate into a book proposal, and then into a book.
SA: What was the writing process like?
LB: The book was sold in the winter of 2016, at which point I had 18 months to finish it. So I started traveling the country and interviewing the people who are in the book. A lot of it was reporting — spending a lot of time with them over a period of months and following them through various parts and stages of their lives. That reporting process was happening while I was moving forward with the book in a chronological way. The book even helped me process my own life and experiences in a way that was really therapeutic. I would say it helped balance me emotionally.
SA: Do you see another book in your future?
LB: Oh, I hope so. I would absolutely love to write another book.
You can find Lara Bazelon’s “Rectify: A Story of Healing and Redemption After Wrongful Conviction” online and on bookshelves near you. Check out her website, www.larabazelon.com, for links to her published work in The New York Times, Politico and The Atlantic.
Listen to the related podcast episode here.