Public Defender Helps Reframe Memphis History

From riot to massacre: Shelby County assistant public defender leads effort to give truth to tribute

Phyllis and memorial.
Shelby Co. Ass’t Public Defender Phyllis Aluko at unveiling of the Memphis Massacre marker.

When Phyllis Aluko read Professor Stephen Ash’s latest book, “A Massacre in Memphis: The race riot that shook the nation one year after the civil war” she wondered why she hadn’t heard about it before.

Then, she wondered about other things — such as why it was not acknowledged with a historical marker, like so many other critical moments in Memphis’ past.

She also wondered why it was called a “race riot”  — a term used historically and still today as code for protests started by African Americans that erupt in violence.

What happened during that horrific three day period in 1866 was the murder of 46 black men, women and children, the beating or rape of many others and the burning of black churches, schools and homes — an unconscionable 36-hour killing spree carried out by white mobs.

Aluko, a supervising attorney and member of the appellate team with the Law Offices of the Shelby County Public Defender, decided to do something — about all of it.  As a board member of the Memphis NAACP, she worked tirelessly with other community organizations and the National Park Service to establish a historical marker with language that reflected the truth of that fateful day.

A dedication ceremony was held at the National Civil Rights Museum and the marker was unveiled at the Army-Navy Park at Second Ave. and Patterson St. near the museum.

You can read more about the marker and the Memphis Massacre here:

Do the Words ‘Race Riot’ Belong on a Historic Marker in Memphis? via NPR

Marker Finally Honors Truth, Victims of Memphis Massacre via The Commercial Appeal

Historian: It Was Both a ‘Riot’ and a ‘Massacre’ via The Commercial Appeal



The Radical Idea of Justice

Stephen Bush, Shelby County Public Defender

“We got it right here nearly 100 years ago when visionary leaders embraced the radical idea  that people facing incarceration in Shelby County deserved the help of an attorney,      regardless of ability to pay — and they got it right decades before the U.S. Supreme Court demanded the same for all Americans.

Abe Fortas got it right, too, and may have said it best. In 1966, by then an associate Supreme Court justice, he wrote in Kent v. U.S.: ‘The right to counsel is not a formality. It is not a grudging gesture to ritualistic requirement. It is the essence of justice.'”

– Shelby County Public Defender Stephen Bush, The Commercial Appeal, March 18th, 2016

Read this guest column written to honor the first Public Defense Day.

The Radical Idea of Justice via The Commercial Appeal


Watch this video about the wrongful murder charge that sparked the beginning of public defense in Memphis.




Jericho Project Recognized for Social Work Education

Kena Vassar learned the importance of connecting people in the criminal justice system to needed social services on the job — working with Shelby County’s Jericho Project. Since 2008, Kena has been serving people living with serious mental illness and substance use disorders, who often cycle through the justice system repeatedly.

Kena Vassar (right) was named the MSW Field Instructor of the Year by the University of Memphis Department of Social Work. Kena was nominated by UofM MSW student Stephanie Lovins (center) — an intern with the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office. Tavoiya Bell (left) of the Jericho Project was also recognized for her mentoring role.

She and a team of specialists from the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office and a local mental health service provider develop “community linkage plans” for people in the Shelby County Jail.  These plans are presented to the court in support of community-based, alternative sentences, and they connect Jericho clients to needed services after release.

The average recidivism rate among people with serious mental illness in contact with the criminal justice system hovers around 80%.  Jericho consistently cuts that rate in half.

Last month, Kena was recognized for her dedication to guiding others in this field when she was named the 2015 Masters of Social Work Field Instructor of the Year by the University of Memphis Department of Social Work.

She was honored at a symposium held by the University of Memphis at the Doubletree Inn in Memphis.  Kena was nominated by Stephanie Lovins, a Masters of Social Work (MSW) candidate from the U of M.

“Kena always was willing to help me learn and guide me,” Stephanie Lovins, former Jericho Project intern. “She epitomizes what social work is when it comes to helping persons who are vulnerable and oppressed.”

Child advocates in the Shelby County Public Defender's Juvenile Defender Unite are holding the regular team meetings so attorneys, investigators and social workers can review cases together and screen for needed services.
Child advocates in the Shelby County Public Defender’s Juvenile Defender Unit are holding regular team meetings so attorneys, investigators and social workers can review cases together and screen for needed services.

Stephanie is the first MSW student to intern with the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office.  The office is moving toward including more social work into its practice. For the first time, the public defender’s office has hired two full-time social workers. They are currently serving clients in the office’s new juvenile defender unit.

These small steps are part of an effort to provide more comprehensive and effective services for those who face the challenges of living in poverty and have been involved with the criminal justice system.

Dr. Elana Delavaga is an assistant professor with the University of Memphis Department of Social Work.  Her research focuses on poverty and how it intersects with oppression and exclusion.  She believes social work can and should play a critical support role in a public defender system.

“We feel the poor very often do not get a fair hearing and end up disproportionately imprisoned simply because they do not have access, the resources that more affluent groups have in terms of defense,” says Elana Delavaga. “One of the things that happens is that public defenders are overworked, they have tremendously large caseloads, they do an incredibly hard job and they have very little support. Our role as social workers is to support public defenders by providing background information by talking to the client, by doing psycho-social assessment, by ensuring the rights of those most marginalized are protected. So we want to be a support to the people already doing a great job in defending the excluded, those who do not have the backing of money for their own defense.”

Offices like the Bronx Defenders in New York have led the way in providing comprehensive services to clients, making social workers an essential component of their work. The Bronx Defenders believe that social workers help clients “achieve better outcomes in and out of the courtroom.”  These results  are good not only for clients, but the entire community. Results we may see more of in Shelby County.