Kamilah Turner has been on a straight path for nearly 20 years, starting fresh out of Xavier University and going straight to the University of Memphis Law School at 21.
She knew exactly what she wanted and then moved deftly and strategically to get it.
Due in no small part to the influence of both of her parents, she has become both a criminal defense attorney and an advocate for ground-up parity and balance in the criminal justice system.
Her dad, Melvin Turner, was a criminal defense attorney and her mother, Elaine Turner, owns and operates Slave Haven.
“I’m carrying on the legacy of both of my parents … who were both involved in the Civil Rights Movement. As a child I was always in my father’s office, sitting in on meetings, going with him to the jail when I was probably too young to be going into the jail … but he seemed like he liked it.”
So, she picked up on this love of the law and ran with it.
At this point, a great many of us know that the criminal justice system is flawed from top to bottom. The systems in place for many years have created grave imbalances in the overall handling of black and brown and poor people.
“There are problems with every step of our justice system, from the initial arrest to the amount of bail that’s set to the trial to the sentencing to probation and parole to what happens after you complete a sentence…it’s all problematic,” Turner said.
A lot of people finish a jail sentence and struggle to reacclimate because current laws make it difficult to do so.
For instance, in Tennessee you have to apply to have your voting rights restored, including paying all of your court fees.
Some employers will not hire people with felony convictions. Depending on the kind of conviction, you can’t apply for public housing or a student loan.
Now, this is no Innocence Project. It’s not like Turner is representing choirboys.
“You don’t have to be innocent for me to represent you, but I believe in fairness and the Constitution applying equally to everybody. [However,] I don’t consider myself a social justice lawyer … that aspect just comes naturally when you’re trying to do that.”
Asked what is fulfilling about her work and what is challenging, she responded:
“It’s fulfilling to be a voice for those who may not have the legal vocabulary or knowledge to speak for themselves, but need an advocate. We don’t always win, but the win-loss record is irrelevant. It’s really about how well did you advocate.”
Of the challenges she said, “It’s challenging because we’re trying to navigate within a system that’s broken.”
Turner, who worked at the Shelby County Public Defender’s office for some years and still works part-time on the Juvenile Court side, represents many African-American children.
One of these cases became high profile. The defendant’s story made the front page of The Commercial Appeal because of Turner’s, who was his public defender, advocacy.
After being acquitted of all charges, the former defendant was trying to move forward, but found himself slogging through the negative coverage that surfaced every time someone looked him up. Only the charges were reported, not the acquittal, which raises the issue of selective media coverage.
Why was his acquittal not reported with the same vigor? Thanks to smart thinking and savvy maneuvering on the part of Turner, the rest of his story was revealed.
Turner reminds us that for every one or two cases you see in the media, there are hundreds of thousands of others.
“Anytime you tell someone’s story it awakens other people who may not know what’s going on. For people who do know it helps them see that they are not alone.”
Recently, she has been speaking out about children being questioned without their parents present. While it’s legal, it isn’t quite ethical and can lead to false confessions.
In another case she handled, Turner believes the youth was extremely frightened after being intimidated by the interrogating officers.
“His statement didn’t even match the witnesses who we knew were on the scene. I was amazed that they’d gotten this far with the evidence they had.”
She was able to get him cleared.
To that end, she advises parents to talk to their children. They do not have to speak to the police without a parent or lawyer present, especially if they think they are a suspect. She also advises parents to talk to their children about decision-making and positive conflict resolution.
She also advises that people, who have completed a sentence, look to government resources like the Memphis and Shelby County Office of Re-entry to help them get reacclimated into their communities.
We salute you Turner for being a voice for the voiceless and for making a difference in the lives of our young men.
(To learn more about Kamilah Turner and her services, visit www.kamiliahturner.com.)
BOSS UP – A 4-part series in celebration of Women’s History Month
- March 5 — Linda McNeil, development professional
- March 12 — Kamilah Turner, attorney
- March 19 — Dolen Perkins-Valdez, author of “Wench and Balm”
- March 26 — Munirah Safiya Jones, content creator/Juntland; Alice Faye Duncan, children’s book author