Elected prosecutors wield an enormous amount of discretion and power. They decide who to charge with a crime, and what charges to bring. The community relies on them to be fair, honest, and trustworthy in the pursuit of justice. The public’s confidence in the entire justice system is reliant on the integrity of the prosecutor. However, this pubic trust can quickly erode when prosectors post racist or sexist comments on social media, participate in events held by divisive organizations, or form allegiances with instigators of hate speech. Not only are these actions against best practices, but citizens deserve to have prosecutors who do their jobs fairly and without prejudice. We have decided to shine a light on a few of the most egregious occurrences of this troubling behavior because the consequences of leaving this behavior unchecked are serious.
County Attorney Bill Montgomery
Maricopa County, AZ
Bill Montgomery maintains an active Twitter account where he is very public about his distaste for marijuana. But, he also has appears to have an unseemly history with white nationalists and other propagators of hate speech, which is disturbing considering his support for anti-immigration policies. For example, the Phoenix New Times reported that while campaigning in 2010, Montgomery attended nativist rallies in Phoenix, including one at the ranch of Glenn Spencer, the leader of the non-governmental organization the American Border Patrol. (To be fair, Montgomery says he hasn’t been back since.) The American Border Patrol organization has been classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League.
Montgomery also spoke at an event hosted by the Minutemen Civil Defense Corps (MCDC) — an anti-immigration group — and may have once participated in a “border watch” with MCDC leader Chris Simcox, who was recently sentenced to prison for almost 20 years for child molestation. (MCDC has since dissolved.) Simcox’s victim has even alleged that Montgomery offered Simcox a preferential plea agreement in his case because of their relationship. (Montgomery denies this.)
Montgomery’s disturbing proximity to these racially divisive organizations has more recently extended to anti-Muslim groups. In 2014, Montgomery spent $40,000 to bring in disgraced former FBI agent John Guandolo to train local law enforcement personnel on the “threats posed to our local communities by Hamas, Hezbollah and Sharia Law.” According to the ACLU of Arizona, Guandolo “has a well-publicized history of making inaccurate, biased, and inflammatory statements regarding Islam, promoting racial and religious stereotypes, and utilizing blatant anti-Muslim rhetoric.” Despite protests and calls by Muslim community leaders and the ACLU of Arizona to cancel the event, Montgomery went ahead with the training.
Assistant Prosecutor Teana Walsh
Wayne County, MI
In 2015, in response to the protests that followed the police killing of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Wayne County Assistant Prosecutor Teana Walsh (who is white) wrote a Facebook post saying that protesters should be shot: “Simple. Shoot em. Period. End of discussion.” That same day, a federal immigration officer shot a young Black man in Detroit, which is in Wayne County.
Walsh quickly took the post down and resigned. But, rather than censure her, the Prosecuting Attorney for Wayne County and Walsh’s boss, Kym Worthy, defended her through a spokesperson and allowed her to return to work this summer on a contractual basis.
Deputy Prosecutor Bryant Bushling
Kootenai County, ID
Kootenai County Bailiff Todd Hartman posted to his Facebook page a picture of a white officer with text reading, “If we really wanted you dead all we’d have to do is stop patrolling neighborhood…and wait.” In response, 30-year veteran prosecutor Bryant Bushling of Kootenai County wrote, “Great point. Where the police are under attack from politicians, and the police become less aggressive, the murder rates go up. I say, let them have their neighborhoods, they will be like Rwanda in a matter of weeks.” (Notably, FBI crime statistics show 2015 with the sixth lowest murder rate of any year in the past half century). Bushling quickly edited his post to eliminate the genocide reference and instead referred to his years of experience as a prosecutor in Los Angeles, referring to the people he prosecuted as “thugs.”
Kootenai County Prosecutor Barry McHugh defended Bushling, calling him “rational, fair and highly ethical.”
Deputy District Attorney Zoe Smith
Washington County, OR
Earlier this year, Washington County Deputy District Attorney Zoe Smith wrote a Facebook rant where she supported racial and religious profiling: “If you’re looking for a terrorist, look at a young Muslim male. If you’re looking for a gang shooter, look for a young black guy. If you’re looking for a child molester or a mass shooter, look for a white guy. That’s just common sense.”
Smith was quick to defend herself and say that her post was not intended to be taken literally. Washington County District Attorney Bob Hermann distanced himself and the office from Smith’s comments and denounced racial profiling, though it is unclear if any disciplinary action was taken against her. The Oregon State Bar is investigating Smith for her comments.
District Attorney Michael Solovey
Juneau County, WI
Juneau County D.A. Michael Solovey has been accused of making racist comments to his colleagues, on top of other unprofessional behavior. For example, he asked a co-worker attending a Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade, “Are you going to wear your black face?” In another incident, he told an employee that an individual’s name had been spelled wrong, as “he doesn’t spell it like a white man.” He also made a comment that he expects a defendant to start beating his wife, and, when asked why, he responded, “Because he’s mad and that’s what Chinese do when they are mad, they beat their wives, it’s their culture.”
Despite widespread complaints and a vote of no confidence from the Juneau County Board, Solovey has refused to step down from his elected position. He’s admitted to most of these comments and has various excuses.
Hamilton County, OH
Joe Deters is known for making off-color racist comments and butting heads with Black Lives Matter, leading to a current campaign by the Color of Change PAC which says, “Joe Deters sees us as suspects first, people second,” next to an image of a Black couple. For example, he described a group of Black men who were on trial for assault as “soulless” people who “will hurt your grandma.” BLM activists say that Deters has also tossed protesters out of the courtroom and accused them of being “mouthy.”
Finally, when a 3-year-old fell into the gorilla pit at the Cincinnati Zoo — leading to the death of the gorilla — Deters awkwardly defended the mother by making a comment with inappropriate racial and socio-economic overtones, “Had she been in the bathroom smoking crack and let her kids run around in the zoo, that would be a different story. But that’s not what was happening here. She is being attentive by all witness accounts, and the 3-year-old just scampered off.”
Assistant State Attorney Kenneth Lewis
Former Assistant State Attorney Kenneth Lewis wrote a Facebook post reading, in part, “Happy Mother’s Day to all the crack hoes out there.” He accused Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor of being an affirmative action pick and hinted that without preferential treatment, she’d be working in a fast food restaurant.
Finally, 2016, after the Orlando nightclub shooting that killed 49 people, Lewis posted a statement on Facebook that read in part, “The entire city should be leveled. It is void of any redeeming quality,” and, “It is a melting pot of 3rd world miscreants and ghetto thugs.” Former State Attorney Jeff Ashton fired him after he made this repugnant statement.
Prosecutors should always aspire for the highest level of integrity, but even when they fall short of the mark, they should never fall so short as to undermine the integrity of the justice system. While it’s easy to depict some of these comments as careless, it’s not too much to ask that public servants maintain fairness and integrity in their public dealings. By shedding light on the harm these kinds of comments and actions cause to the public’s confidence in the justice system, we hope to encourage prosecutors to eliminate these divisive behaviors.
About the Fair Punishment Project
The Fair Punishment Project uses legal research and educational initiatives to ensure that the U.S. justice system is fair and accountable. As a joint initiative of Harvard Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice and its Criminal Justice Institute, we work to highlight the gross injustices resulting from prosecutorial misconduct, ineffective defense lawyering, and racial bias, and to highlight the unconstitutional use of excessive punishment. The Project also closely partners with The Bronx Defenders, which provides invaluable strategic, research, and writing assistance.