For decades, two things have been true about criminal justice in Jefferson County, Alabama: The district attorneys have been white men, and a lot of people have been sentenced to death.
Lynneice Washington is about to change that. Washington, a judge in a Birmingham suburb, defeated the incumbent DA, Republican Bill Veitch, in last month's election. Her victory was finally certified this past week after a recount showed she won by 299 votes.
When she takes office next month, Washington will be the first black woman serving as a DA in the history of the state. She will also join a very small club nationwide: Ninety-five percent of elected prosecutors are white and just 1 percent are women of color, according to a report released last summer by the Respective Democracy Campaign.
"Thanks to the voters here, I have broken that glass ceiling," Washington told VICE in an interview. "It's an awesome feeling, but I also understand it comes with great responsibility… I stood on their shoulders to get here, and I intend to continue to make them proud."
Washington also marks a departure from her predecessors in that she is personally opposed to the death penalty, and even campaigned on reining it in. Since 2010, Jefferson County has sentenced five people to death—more than 99.5 percent of counties in the US, according to Harvard Law School's Fair Punishment Project found. All five of the people it sent to death row since 2010 were black.
While Washington has vowed to uphold the law—the state is not exactly a bastion of death penalty repeal sentiment—the way capital punishment works is "unfair and arbitrary and unbalanced," she told me. "We need to face that, and until we face it, things are going to get worse."
The other newly elected DA in Jefferson County (which is divided into two judicial districts), Charles Todd Henderson, has also said he is personally opposed to the death penalty and wants to reform how it is used.
Henderson and Washington speak to a larger nationwide trend of reform-minded DA candidates winning elections against tough-on-crime incumbents, especially in some of the counties that use the death penalty most frequently. So even as Donald Trump won the presidency on a tough law-and-order platform, challengers triumphed down-ballot, offering hope for the broader criminal justice reform project given how much of the system's machinery operates at the local level. Rob Smith, director at the Fair Punishment Project, told me that just in the last year, reformer DA candidates won elections in at least five of the 16 counties that sentence the most people to death.
"For a long time, we had this arms race of how punitive DAs could be," he explained. "Voters are paying attention now, and saying they want humanity and dignity in their justice system."
Washington, who is 48 and speaks with the shadow of a drawl, grew up poor in a Birmingham that was just starting to move past segregation. She was always interested in criminal justice, but when she dreamed of going to to law school, her mom told her that the best she could hope for was to be a teacher or a nurse. Being a lawyer "just wasn't one of those things that a lot of black people, particularly in our family, had as a career path," Washington said. "My mother looked at that like an impossibility,"
That only inspired her more. "I've always been one where, if you tell me that I can't, that ignites me to show you I can," she said with a laugh.
After graduating law school and working as a defense lawyer, Washington became an assistant DA in the county. For the past five years, she's been the presiding municipal judge in Bessemer, outside Birmingham, where the cases that come before her are typically misdemeanors and traffic violations. "My courtroom may be your first point of contact with the judicial system, so I've made it my goal to make it your last point of contact," she said.
On the bench, Washington has focused on young male defendants. While she likes to "speak to them in a stern tone," she offers to dismiss first-timers' cases in exchange for their attendance at a special program on Saturday mornings where her husband, Jude (who also served as her campaign manager), and a bailiff lead discussions about life, masculinity, and history. Former inmates tell the young people their stories, and Washington personally brings them lunch from Chick-fil-A. "I want them to see me serve them," she said. "I want them to know that just because I sit on the bench in my robes does not mean that I don't care and I just sit there and hand down an order."
As long as the defendants attend the program and pay their court fees, their small charges are wiped clean, Washington told me.
She wants to bring the same spirit to her new DA gig. Among other initiatives, she plans to beef up the convictions integrity unit that probes possible wrongful convictions, launch a citizen-police advisory board, and divert low-level offenders from prison by creating alternatives to incarceration.
Check out our documentary about the HIV crisis in the American South.
Still, it's the death penalty that likely represents the greatest challenge for Washington. Judges hold the final authority to sentence defendants to death in Alabama, but district attorneys have a lot of discretion on whether to recommend capital punishment in murder cases. Anthony Hinton, who served 30 years on death row for a crime he didn't commit, was freed last year after prosecutors struggled to link his mother's gun to bullets used in the murder.
Washington says she will only recommend death for the "worst of the worst" offenders, pointing to a case where defendants burned their victim alive and showed no remorse as an example. "A lot of the people who are placed on death row are exonerated," Washington said, adding that with her in office, "death is not going to be the automatic charge" in murder cases.
(Veitch, her opponent and the incumbent DA, did not respond to a request for comment sent to his campaign.)
In addition to making state history, Washington will also be the first ever black DA in Jefferson County. It's a major milestone 53 years after Birmingham faced one of the worst acts of terrorism of the civil rights era, the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing, in which KKK members killed four young black girls. And Washington isn't the only candidate breaking barriers in the county—voters also elected nine black women to local judgeships, a record.
But Washington is too focused on the task ahead to dwell for long on her place in history. The phones in her small law office have been ringing off the hook since the election, Washington said, which just serves to drive home the stakes.
"Don't sit and talk about what a problem is," she told me, "if you're not going to be one of the proactive people who actually does something to change it."
Follow Casey Tolan on Twitter.