Reform-Minded Prosecutors: Ordinary People with Extraordinary Vision
By Victoria Sheber
2021 FJP Summer Fellow
Georgetown University Law Center, Class of 2023
I’ve always suffered from what I call “star-struck syndrome” — the inability to speak, or even think, around people whom I admire. I’ve been embarrassed countless times as I stumble over words, thinking of a way to express just how much this absolute stranger means to me. However, I don’t get this way around typical celebrities like actors or pop-stars. Instead, I am star-struck by community leaders and activists who have devoted their lives to making the world a better place. That includes people like Elizabeth Warren or Stacey Abrams, who have broken through institutional barriers just to be able to make change in the world.
It comes as no surprise, then, that I was remarkably nervous on my first day as a Fair and Just Prosecution Summer Fellow. I had been chosen to split my summer between two reform-minded prosecutors’ offices, starting in Loudoun County, VA with Commonwealth’s Attorney Buta Biberaj and thereafter working with Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón.
The questions swirled through my head as I prepared to start my summer: What if I ran into Buta Biberaj, the Commonwealth’s Attorney? What if we shared an elevator and I only had 10 seconds to describe what an honor it was to work in her office?
On my first day, I planned to arrive 30 minutes early but ended up lost in the courthouse for 15 of those minutes. No worries. I still had time to situate myself and make a good first impression. But when I arrived at the office, I was told to walk to a different office located a few blocks away. I rushed down a hill in heels, hoping to still make it to the orientation on time. When I finally stepped foot into the conference room, not a minute to spare, there was Buta.
Looking back now, it’s no surprise Buta herself wanted to meet us all. She embodies the principles of community and equality, knowing — and modeling — that no one is better than or above any other person. At the time, however, I was shocked. I had no idea she would be leading the orientation, that she’d be one of the first people I’d meet in the office. I assumed elected prosecutors had better things to do than meet first-year law students!
At the orientation, Buta introduced herself, cracking jokes and thanking us for the work we’d be doing that summer. She commanded a strong presence and got straight to the point during our discussion. It was inspiring to see a woman in her position control the room like that. And her demeanor immediately put me at ease.
As we walked back to our assigned stations, I figured that would be the last time I’d see her. Time to get to the more mundane work of preparing memos and briefs on legal questions. However, within a week, Buta called me into her office; she informed me that I’d be working directly for her, assisting on internal policy and research. I was incredibly nervous but honored to be supervised by an elected official. Besides, perhaps it would force the star-struck syndrome out of me.
In my time at Buta’s office, I worked closely with her nearly every day. I watched her argue at court proceedings, meet with other public officials, speak at meaningful community events, and negotiate with stakeholders. I couldn’t have asked for a better assignment or mentor. Not only did the experience open my eyes to the real-world complexities of policy-making and community-leading, but it humanized elected officials for me. I began to realize that Buta, like me, was a woman passionate about fairness and justice. A person dedicated to making her community a safer place for everyone, including those who have made mistakes.
Being mentored by Buta was an honor and experience I’ll take everywhere in my professional and personal life. When my short five weeks ended, I was sad to leave and unsure what to expect at my next placement: the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.
LA District Attorney George Gascón heads the nation’s largest prosecutor’s office and is seen as a leader of reform-minded prosecution. As I flew across the country, I prepared myself for my dual assignments with the Family Violence Division and working with the Special Advisors to the District Attorney. However, given the sheer size of this office and national importance of a figure like George Gascón, I never expected to meet him.
Once again, I was proven wrong. Within a week of my arrival, I was invited to watch George speak at a virtual event honoring teachers. Then, I was invited to watch him give an in-person interview for an upcoming documentary. At those events, George spoke openly about racial inequality and the need for prosecutors at every level to address inequities within the criminal legal system. He spoke of the inevitable critics of change and how moral courage was needed to make tough choices. It was pure magic to hear him speak.
So when I was invited to meet with him one-on-one, I found myself yet again nervous. Despite what I learned as Buta’s mentee, maybe this experience was different. How can a leader like George be like the rest of us?
When I walked into his large office, he stood up and introduced himself, as if he needed an introduction. But when I sat down and looked at the shelf behind him, I saw books that I had on my own bookshelf, a clue that maybe he was more like me than I thought.
Our conversation turned almost immediately to me. How did I like the office? What did I want to do in the future? How could he help me achieve those goals and whom did I want to talk to in the office about their own careers? He spoke softly and never broke eye contact. As with Buta, meeting him changed my perspective about leadership and reform-minded prosecutors.
When I began my summer, I thought my FJP experience would show me the secret to becoming a reform-minded prosecutor — some magic quality I could hone over the years that would open my eyes to the world of social justice and public safety. I thought that Commonwealth’s Attorney Biberaj and District Attorney Gascón were superheroes battling the frontlines of social progress.
By the end of my summer, however, Buta and George taught me something more important: they are human, just like me.
I realize now that elected prosecutors are ordinary people with an extraordinary vision.
I’m not sure my star-struck syndrome has been resolved, but I do know this: anyone can make a difference in their community, and if Buta and George can do it, I can too.
For more information about the FJP Summer Fellows Program, visit the FJP website.