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A shifting landscape: Women practicing criminal law in Richmond share their experiences | Richmond Local News

Commonwealth's Attorneys

From left, Richmond prosecutors Sarah Heller, Shannon Kohler, Caitlin Kelly, Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin, Brooke Pettit, Katherine Groover, Hillary Brown and Christine Cestaro are shown in the John Marshall Courts Building in Richmond on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021.

For decades, like many professions, criminal law has been dominated by men, especially white men. While male attorneys still vastly outnumber women, in Virginia and nationally, a recent visit to any Richmond courtroom shows a shift to more women handling criminal cases.

Women hold the top spots in both the city prosecutors’ office, led by Colette McEachin  the first woman elected to the role — and the public defender’s office, whose chief is Tracy Paner. And both offices are predominately staffed by female attorneys — 65{e421c4d081ed1e1efd2d9b9e397159b409f6f1af1639f2363bfecd2822ec732a} of the city’s 40 commonwealth’s attorneys are women, and 27 of its 33 public defenders are women.

In the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office, the team that handles the prosecution of violent crimes and murders is exclusively female, with the exception of the deputy in charge. Of the roughly 71 murder cases currently in court, 54 are being prosecuted by women, according to statics provided by the office.

Though McEachin and Paner said they don’t believe gender plays a significant role in how they practice the law, both said they are committed to making their offices more racially diverse to better reflect the community.

Across Virginia, there are 120 commonwealth’s attorneys, 38 of whom are women, including in Richmond, Petersburg and the counties of Henrico, Chesterfield, Dinwiddie and Prince George, according to the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys.

The Virginia Bar Association, a voluntary organization, has a Criminal Law Section that includes government lawyers, judges, law school faculty, lawyers in private practice and lawyers working full-time in the nonprofit sector. The section’s membership is 70{e421c4d081ed1e1efd2d9b9e397159b409f6f1af1639f2363bfecd2822ec732a} male and 30{e421c4d081ed1e1efd2d9b9e397159b409f6f1af1639f2363bfecd2822ec732a} female, mirroring its overall membership, according to the association.

Nationwide, women make up just over 1 in 3, or 38{e421c4d081ed1e1efd2d9b9e397159b409f6f1af1639f2363bfecd2822ec732a}, of all lawyers, according to Census data, though women account for 51{e421c4d081ed1e1efd2d9b9e397159b409f6f1af1639f2363bfecd2822ec732a} of the state’s and the U.S.’s population.

The American Bar Association, found that only about 1.5{e421c4d081ed1e1efd2d9b9e397159b409f6f1af1639f2363bfecd2822ec732a} of its members are women practicing criminal law. In 2019, the association launched a Women in Criminal Justice Task Force that aimed to recruit and retain more women to criminal law. Research by the task force found that woman actually outnumber men in law schools across the country, and that the leadership of women in criminal justice reduces corruption and increases confidence in the system and in the rule of law.

Commonwealth's Attorneys

Richmond prosecutors, from left, Brooke Pettit, Katherine Groover, Caitlin Kelly, Hillary Brown, Sarah Heller and Shannon Kohler talk at the conference room of Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office at the John Marshall Courts Building in Richmond on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021.

This case study in Richmond courtrooms is especially noteworthy considering the impact COVID has had on working women. Labor and economic experts call it the first female recession or a “she-cession” after nearly 2 million women — nearly four times the number of men — dropped out of the workforce, due to child care needs when schools and day cares shut down, during the pandemic.

Here are the stories of seven women who shared the changes they’ve seen as more women have entered the courtroom, in their own words, lightly edited for length and clarity:


Current title: Judge, Richmond Circuit Court

Cardwell was credited by many other attorneys as a trailblazer, breaking the glass ceiling for many women behind her as a prosecutor, defense attorney, and now, a judge. She credits those who came before her. Cardwell began practicing criminal law in 1984, and was first appointed to the bench in 2017.

“I tried my first jury trial as a third-year law student when I interned at the Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office. It was completely exhausting and exhilarating at the same time and I was hooked.

Carol Breit was my supervisor in that internship and she quickly became a wonderfully supportive mentor. In my mind, she was a true trailblazer. Carol was the only woman who I saw trying jury trials. I distinctly remember riding with her to her home in the middle of a trial so that she could hurriedly nurse her infant son and return to court. Once back at the courthouse, I watched her deliver a compelling closing argument to the jury without missing a beat. I have been blessed with people like Carol throughout my career who never entertained the idea that women could not be successful in criminal law.

Perhaps naively, I thought that as long as I worked hard and believed in myself, my gender would never be an issue. I do recall that a long-serving judge once said to me, in what I am sure he thought was the highest compliment, ‘I like you because you practice law like a man.’ I never quite understood what he meant. On another occasion, a judge yelled to me across a crowded courtroom at the end of a trial, ‘Hey Blondie, come see me in my chambers.’ I responded, admittedly with some trepidation, that I would join him if he called me by name. He did, and I did.

These incidents were very isolated. Frankly, they were more humorous than offensive to me likely due to the confidence gifted to me by my parents.

The very few women who practiced criminal law when I entered the profession worked predominantly in Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court. While those courts are supremely important, I surmised that women attorneys were assigned there because the cases involved children and families: two areas which were related to a more traditional female role.”

Colette McEachin.jpg

Current title: Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney

McEachin was first tapped in 2019 as the city’s top prosecutor. She is the first woman to hold the role. She retained the position in an election later that year to finish out the term of her predecessor, Michael Herring, and won re-election in 2021. The wife of Rep. Donald McEachin and mother of three, she graduated law school at the University of Virginia in 1985. She worked at private law firms in Atlanta and Richmond before starting at the Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office in 1991 as the crack epidemic hit the city sending annual murder totals into the triple digits.

“So when I got here, I was the third or fourth African American woman, and maybe the fifth or sixth woman that had ever been hired by the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office, so it was very much predominantly male, predominantly white, predominantly older males.

The incident that I always remember is I had been with the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office for a number of years, and I had three children under the age of 6, and Donald was a lawyer — is a lawyer — and he was doing a deposition or something. He couldn’t be home when our sitter left for the day. I was in the middle of a jury and the jury went into deliberation. It was getting to be close to 6 o’clock, so I went to the judge’s chambers and I said, ‘Judge, I have to go home get my kids and bring them back to the courthouse. There’s nobody to watch them.’ And the judge didn’t even blink. He said ‘I understand, Mrs. McEachin. Go ahead.’

So I left the courthouse, I drove home, picked up all three of my kids, brought them back to the courthouse. There was nobody in the office; there was no victim-witness person to watch them or anything. They all sat underneath the counsel table, where the jury couldn’t see them. To all three of them, I said, ‘You can’t say anything’ and gave them some like M&M’s or something. And the jury came back — I don’t even remember what the jury verdict was — and the whole time my three kids were under the desk. But you know those are the things that a woman at that time had to do.

I think nowadays that that type of situation would be handled differently.

It used to be that there were [private] firms that were very clear about, we don’t hire women or if we hire women, it’s highly unlikely that you’re going to make it to partner. We’re not wanting to make any kind of concessions or acknowledgments that there are cultural differences between the way men and women are perceived and have to act and are treated in our world. That has changed over time. And I attribute that to the men and women who came before and just the culture is better. The culture is more understanding.

Women did not wear pants in court when I first started. They did not wear pantsuits. They wore stockings or hosiery. This sounds so old, but really, it was like 25 years ago. I never had any negative comments from a judge, nobody ever said ‘sweetie’ or ‘honey.’ So I never had any of that. But there was a way that a woman lawyer was supposed to look, and then over time society kind of mellowed and changed and became more casual.”


Title: Richmond’s Chief Public Defender

In 1992, Paner got a job in the Richmond Public Defender’s office just out of law school at the University of Richmond. Public defenders are appointed by the court to represent people who cannot afford to hire their own lawyer. She was the 11th person hired in the city’s office that now has a staff of 50, 33 of whom are attorneys, making it the largest in the state. For three years, from 1996 to 1999, she worked as a prosecutor, but returned to the public defender’s office, where she’s held every role. In 2016, she was appointed by the state’s Indigent Defense Commission to lead the office.

“Today, people are going to law school to become public defenders — because of the social justice movement; because they’ve learned about what’s going on. And I mean, there’s classes on this in college undergrad now. So these folks are coming out much more aware than I was. I was really clueless, you know, a middle class, white girl, clueless about what I was walking into in the city of Richmond. But then, saw that the rules apply differently to the frat boys and to my clients. And I was like, oh hell no. And then the fight was on.

Back then, there were not even close to as many female criminal law practitioners on either side.

But most of them were in the juvenile court. I don’t know who made that decision, whether they were told go to juvenile court, or they made that decision for themselves. And to be honest, I made sure that wasn’t me.

Back in the early 90s, there was a lot of testosterone. It was the swagger. It’s how you went in front of the jury and talked about things. It’s how you negotiated, it’s how you did the work. It was really bad. But yeah, there were definitely times when I had to prove something, to my clients or to the judge.

It was ‘I’m not gonna give you a rape case.’ I’m like, Oh, the hell yes you are. That still exists with the judges today. I think to a lesser extent, but I’ve still heard it from the judges: ‘Well, I can’t appoint this young woman to represent this big bad man.’ With a client charged with assaulting a girl, or female or something, that it makes a difference, like I said, that they can see me with them, close, not scared of them. I think that plays into a lot of our cases, especially the younger women, where the Commonwealth is trying to say my client is this horrible badass. I’m like, I’m not quaking in my boots. I’m not terrified here. We’re working together.

Now, my office is overwhelmingly [female], and what’s changed is, it’s not that swagger. It’s what does my client need? And a lot of times my client is not going to benefit from going head on head at trial. We still do that. But there’s much more awareness of let’s look at our client’s story. It’s humanizing our clients. Now, stereotypically, that’s going to be a female approach. Now, we do have men that do it.

You can be the best trial attorney in town. But if your clients don’t feel like you respected them, they’re gonna walk out of there feeling like they can’t speak, even if you win.

Does my client feel like he had a fair shake? That’s arguably just as important as the outcome. If you want legitimacy in the system — which I suspect they could use a little more of it — people have to feel like they had a fair shot in their day in court.”

Brooke Pettit.jpg

Years of experience: 10 

Title: Richmond Supervising Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney over homicide prosecutions

Pettit recently began a new role as homicide supervisor after long-time prosecutor Learned Barry retired earlier this month. Barry mentored and recruited several of the women featured in this article, but few rose through the ranks as quickly as Pettit, who started in 2011 under a fellowship program. “She got the case, because she was the best one,” Barry said of Pettit, who is prosecuting the gunmen who opened fire in a South Richmond apartment complex last year killing a mother and her infant and injuring three other women and girls.

“Even in the 10 years since I started in 2011, I would say you’re seeing a lot more female attorneys coming in, and particularly in criminal law. When you look at the private defense bar, who have been doing this a lot longer, you see a lot more male attorneys, whereas if you look at the people who are coming in, either in prosecution or defense, we’re seeing a much larger number of female attorneys. I don’t know if that’s the nature of criminal law, or if that has to do with that just more women are going to law school or what. There’s definitely been a shift to more female attorneys in general.

I think women are, in general, are detail oriented and are empathetic, able to put ourselves in the shoes of a victim.

If you need to be held accountable, it doesn’t matter if it’s a man or a woman that convicts you.

In general, I think being a woman actually helps. Because when you’re dealing with the families, when you’re dealing with witnesses, lots of times I think they’re more comfortable with women. And it can be a little easier to talk to us about what’s happening. Now, I’ve also had defendants say, ‘Oh, you don’t want a female prosecutor, they’re mean.’

Maybe, we’re a little meaner.

I don’t feel as though I get any sort of different outcome in my case, or, you know, sentences are different because I’m a woman. I don’t think it changes the outcome of the cases, sometimes it just changes, or colors some of your personal interactions.

A lot of what I enjoy about this job is the human aspect of it. Because by the time someone gets to us, they’ve already lost someone, they’re already hurting. And I think that they should have someone to speak up for them. It’s not just about winning cases, it’s about getting to the truth and getting to justice. That’s not necessarily, you know, the highest sentence you can get, it’s about making sure that you get the right results. Because being able to be a voice for them is very appealing to me and to bring some comfort to people who are hurting in a situation that they didn’t ask for.”

Christine Cestaro.jpg

Title: Richmond Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney

Cestaro first worked as a newspaper reporter in Fairfax and found herself frequently at the courthouse looking for stories. She closely observed some of the best defense attorneys and prosecutors — all men, she noted — and later, while in law school at George Mason University, asked them for a job. After seven years in the Richmond public defender’s office, Cestaro became a Richmond prosecutor. She recently adopted a daughter, who is now 7. She said she was grateful for a boss like McEachin, who had raised children and understood the stress added when COVID broke out.

“I was scared to bring her to the office. People in our office were getting knocked out left and right. I was actually terrified of bringing her here because there were so many people who are getting sick here. And with the sheriff’s and the police were all getting sick and it was a really. I didn’t want her here.

When everything shut down, her school shut down, I hired every single daughter of my friends who had been sent home from college. I called them my sitter squad. I was spending $600 a week. I had them in shifts and four-hour shifts, because they’re not babysitters. They’re not professional nannies. So I was doing it in four-hour shifts, in the hopes that it’s easier to watch a 6-year-old or 5-year-old for four hours at a time when you’re not used to it. So I have this first shift come in the morning, then I leave here, go home, pay them, transition for the next person, and then have another four hours. I was just back and forth, back and forth. I really don’t know what I would have done without them.

“I wanted to get experience and become a really good public defender, and I thought that would make me a better prosecutor. So this was always the end.

That was a really hard switch. My former clients would come out for a bond hearing, see me and they’d wave, then they realize I’m not their attorney — I was the prosecutor.

When I’d go to the jail to see my clients [as a public defender], most of them when asked me when they’re gonna meet the real lawyer, the paid lawyer. And I think part of that was I was very young, but also because I was a woman, and that was just a normal reaction. They wanted to paid lawyer, no matter who it was.

I don’t think of myself as a woman when I’m trying a case. I just never, it’s not something I think about. I don’t think of myself as a female lawyer; I just think of myself as a trial lawyer. And it’s such a rare, in terms of lawyers, it’s such a rare percentage of people with the personality to be a trial lawyer. Usually, you’re much more type A than most people. So it’s interesting to have all these type A women running around the courthouse.”

Caitlin Kelly.jpg

Title: Richmond Supervising Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney overseeing General District Court and robbery prosecutions

Kelly came to the city to attend law school at the University of Richmond. She interned at the prosecutor’s office, and then was hired after graduating. She grew up in northwest Ohio, where there was little crime, but has become one of the city’s toughest prosecutors on violent crime.

“A lot of what we do is rooted in so much historical procedure. And there’s a lot of pomp and circumstance to it that is not, and from the beginning was not, inclusive of women.

I think a lot of times men get a benefit of the doubt that women don’t. I don’t think it’s intentional. I don’t think people realize it. But for an attorney, a new attorney, who is male, I think they have a much easier time of it, a much easier time developing credibility. When they walk into the courtroom, they automatically have a level of credibility that women don’t.

And so I think for me it took a lot more work than my male counterparts to earn the respect of everybody involved, whether it’s the defense bar or judges or police officers. It took a lot longer and it took a lot more work on my part, to do that, and I think that similarly, when I made mistakes, that took a lot more time and effort to overcome those mistakes, which I’ve observed, and I can’t speak for anybody else, but I’ve observed that it doesn’t seem to take quite as long or it is not quite as significant when, like a new male attorney makes the same sort of mistake.

People just make assumptions based on size, certainly, and gender, and so I think that it was pretty surprising to people to learn how tough I was. They’re expecting someone a bit more meek, a bit more quiet, a bit more submissive.

They want, you know, the best, obviously. They want the person who is the absolute best at it to be prosecuting the defendant who killed their loved one. And when I walk into the room, they think I’m the paralegal or something. They think I’m the intern, even now, and so I have to start with them from a position of real strength and assuredness, that I think sometimes comes off as more abrupt than others, and definitely less gentle.

I don’t think I do things any differently, because I’m a woman, I don’t. There are a lot of different ways that you can be a good prosecutor.”

Hillary Brown.jpg

Title: Richmond Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney

Brown is born and raised in Richmond. She spent six years as a public defender before joining the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office about three years ago.

“As a female public defender — even though most of the public defenders I’d say are female — gaining client trust could be an issue, and I think that some of it had to do with age and gender. I found that clients, if they were to go on and retain another attorney, it would be a male attorney.

I think that women are just generally more intuitive and perceptive, and particularly when you’re dealing with the crimes that involve victims and victim’s families, that I think women are very good at interacting with the victims and the victim’s family, and showing empathy. Possibly more so than men, I’m not sure, but I think that’s an inherent female quality that really stands out when you’re dealing with these victim crimes.

I think as females, we want to be sure that we are not seen as meek or seen as overly deferential. We want to be sure that we are strong representatives of our office and our community, as well.

In law school, they taught us, for a jury trial, go the conservative route, wear a skirt suit, wear pantyhose. I see the best female attorneys in this office wear pants, suits, wear dresses, wear skirts, whatever they want to wear, and nobody seems to pay attention to that anymore.

You don’t want anything that you are wearing or doing to distract from the evidence that you’re presenting. I don’t think that the men think about that.

I’ve never been in a position, as a prosecutor, that I feel like my being a woman makes any difference whatsoever.”

[email protected]

(804) 649-6527

Twitter: @AliRockettRTD