Woman to Watch: Satana Deberry, Durham’s District Attorney

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When Satana Deberry left her hometown of Hamlet, NC to pursue higher education at Princeton University, her purposeful plan didn’t include the words District Attorney appearing in front of her name one day. 

“Since I was five years old, I wanted to be a doctor,” noted Deberry. “My goal was to go off and have a medical career, kind of like every kid who grows up in the rural South. My idea was that I would go to the “big city” and that’s where I’d set up shop.”

Then Organic Chemistry happened and it altered the trajectory of her life. 

“I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the meme on social media ‘What book changed your life,” she asked. “For me it was that Organic Chemistry book. After I decided I wasn’t going to be a doctor, I literally didn’t know what I was going to do.”

Rural roots

Tucked away in the central part of the state, near the South Carolina border, is the small town of Hamlet. Population: approximately 6,300. Although petite in size, the town had an enormous influence on the former physician hopeful. Reared in a home with a mother and father who were both teachers in Richmond County, she learned at an early age the importance of giving, reciprocation and fellowship. 

“I thought life was great growing up in Hamlet,” recalled Deberry. “It was a tight-knit community. I grew up with people who loved me. I grew up learning about my commitment to my community and others.”

Although her home turf was one filled with comfort, “like everybody who grows up in a small town in North Carolina,” she wanted to leave because there wasn’t an abundance of opportunities available. The railroad and textile industries, which were at one time thriving in the county, had become nearly extinct. 

College Quest

Back at Princeton, Deberry was on a mission to sort life out. With her former career goal now buried, she shifted her focus to her next step. As is the case at most colleges, there was a class on campus that was popular amongst students. At her alma mater, that class was Sociology 201: Social Basis of Individual Behavior. The North Carolina native wanted in and she soon knew why.

“For the first time, I began to understand how race, class and ethnicity really influenced the paths of our lives in the United States,” she noted. “Up until that point, I thought, Hey! I’m smart. I can do anything. If I want to be president, I can be president. It was in college when I realized how many cultural and social factors kept me, as a black woman, from doing that.”

As a result of her awakening, Deberry became a Sociology major. 

“I really got interested in how systems impact the lives of people and that led me to law school.”

Upon graduation, Deberry, whose favorite place to visit in North Carolina is Wilmington, returned to her home state to attend Duke University and study law. The decision shocked her.

“That was not part of my plan,” she said, laughing.  “When I left Hamlet to go to Princeton, I would’ve never told you I’d be in law school or back in North Carolina. I was only away four years.”

Community Advocate

Upon graduating, the next challenge for the new attorney was charting her plan of action 

“I really didn’t know what I was going to do with my law degree, at that time,” recalled Deberry. “I just knew that I had an interest in the law and politics. At law school, I became more interested in race, inequality and gender studies.”

After graduating from law school, Deberry decided it was the optimal time to give “big city” life a try.  The Duke alumna, moved to Washington, D.C. for a few years. However, her southern roots called and she found herself dropping her landing gear in the one place she never expected to call home again: Hamlet. 

Crediting her upbringing and passion for being a change agent, Deberry saw an opportunity to make a difference in the very village that had poured out a wealth of encouragement, kindness and belief into her during her formative years.

Embracing this rare chance, Deberry and childhood friend, the late Stephany Hand Biggs, opened their own law office in town. With high expectations of making a difference, Deberry accepted the advice that she visit the courthouse and add her name to their list of lawyers.

“That’s how I became a criminal defense attorney,” she remembers.  

However, what she received in return isn’t what she expected. Daily, layers of systemic failures that had altered the course of many in her hometown started rising to the surface. 

“Remember I’m back in Hamlet with people I know, people who I grew up with and I began to see how our lives had diverged,” Deberry said. “A lot of the people who ended up being my clients were people I knew. I knew them, their families.”

The more clients she accrued, the more she noticed a common thread that prompted her to recognize how she could have easily been the one searching for a name on the lawyer list.

“I understand that really the only difference between me and them was that I had somehow found opportunity for myself and that I had the support I needed to get out of Hamlet,” she said.  “For some of them, they didn’t have that. Even after they left, they were forced back. There were no living wage jobs left unless you had a college degree. I saw how a lot of people had turned to really the only economic opportunity left in that community which was drugs – either selling or buying. That, for me, was a real eye opener.”

The revelation didn’t stop there.

Deberry tried cases in multiple areas of practice, from traffic offenses to homicide, but for her, it was never enough.

“I couldn’t do anything for my clients,” she noted. “By the time they got to me, especially in felony cases, everything had already gone wrong for them. They had been failed by every system available to them. My job was to pull them a few feet back from the edge. I felt like I didn’t have the tools to help them. I felt like I didn’t have what was needed to make a difference, so I quit.”

With her hands seemingly tied in her work as a lawyer, the community advocate set out to confront the root issue that she encountered repeatedly: systemic inequality. 

After leaving Hamlet, again, she held a few roles within various organizations which allowed her to help those in need focus on health and economic independence. In 2013, Deberry was named the Executive Director of the North Carolina Housing Coalition. It was in this role, where she was thriving, when an opportunity she would’ve never imagined came knocking.

A Change Comes to Durham

When she was first approached about running to become Durham’s next District Attorney, Deberry’s answer was simple.

“No, thank you.”

Having been on the opposite side in courtrooms, she didn’t like prosecutors. Her opinion of them was rooted in her experience that they didn’t consider life circumstances when deciding whether to pursue a case or recommend a sentence. What she’d encountered from them didn’t line up with her beliefs and moral foundation.

After being consistently approached by a colleague, she was encouraged to research persons who had recently become district attorneys that sought the type of change in which she was invested. She decided the risk was worth it after learning one important fact. 

“I came to the understanding that in North Carolina, the District Attorney has 100% discretion in what moves forward,” Deberry noted. “I thought like many people thought. If law enforcement charged, DA prosecuted. For me, it was like what if I get to use that discretion on everybody? Wow! That was an important realization for me.”

And for the citizens of Durham County, it was an important realization for them.  They had the opportunity to elect a DA whose proposed policies focused on attacking the root causes of crime. The people of Durham believed in platform she stood upon and Deberry was elected as DA in May 2018 and sworn into office in January 2019.

With an ambitious game plan focused on criminal justice reform, she stepped into office adamant about implementing strategies that would ensure change takes place sooner rather than later.  

Last month, the DA’s office released a report emphasizing the progress that has been made since Deberry assumed her role. Highlights include:

  • Implementation of a pretrial release policy which has reduced the jail population by 12%
  • 22 homicide cases resolved
  • Monthly meeting with the Durham Police Department about sexual assault cases
  • Waved unpaid traffic fines and fees for 2,118 people who lost their licenses at least two years ago putting them one step closer to regaining them
  • Refusal to accept court referrals for school-based incidents, with rare exception for serious crimes
  • Ending the practice of threatening criminal charges for parents of children who miss school
  • Approved 104 applications for U-Visas

Although her plan was to establish practices that could impact the citizens of Durham County in major ways, the District Attorney admits the success of the implemented practices have caught her by surprise.

“We didn’t expect to get so much done so quickly,” she admitted. “We’ve had to really refocus what we’re going to do next. Here in North Carolina we’re coming up on a really important milestone which is ‘Raise the Age’ in which 16- and 17-year old’s who’ve been charged with certain crimes will appear in juvenile court as opposed to adult. We’ve already started to do ‘Raise the Age’ here to give us some idea of when the law changes what’s our caseload going to look like and what  services are available to 16- and 17-year old’s in our community. To treat them like adults does a disservice to them and our community. We don’t want to throw kids away.”

Throughout Deberry’s approach and her commitment to the citizens of Durham County, it’s evident that the ethics and values that were instilled in her as a child play a key role in how she handles every case that lands on her desk. 

“My parents were really clear that you’re not better than anybody but nobody’s better than you, either”

Her moral compass is also in tune with a larger purpose for self.

“We, the black woman in America, are the most vulnerable people in all of the systems.  How do I want to be seen? Do I want to be seen in the fullness of my humanity? Absolutely. So why would I deny that to another person?”

What’s next?

For the self-proclaimed, “small town girl,” a commitment to the citizens of the county is not the only priority on her list. Deberry is the mother of three teenage daughters, Kimberly, Grace and Zora. With a career as demanding as hers, she admits that time has become very precious for her especially when it comes to her role as a parent.

“With this job, it’s been tough,” she said. “They’re older now so they have a little less time for me. It balances itself out. I would say to anybody who says, “you can have it all” that it may be true, but not at the same time.”

As the transformative DA continues to press forward in her work at home and in the community, she does so knowing that the people in her district are striving for better as they look to thrive in the place she’s glad to call home.

“Durham is still a community in which you get to know people and you get to know them deeply while still having the amenities of “big city life,” said Deberry. “In every corner of Durham, people are trying to do better. There are enough black people for there to be power in community and you don’t always get that in other places.  We have universities, great entertainment, great food. It’s almost the perfect place to live. It’s hard not to love it here.” 

Kassaundra Lockhart is a freelance writer.

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