By April Christin • October 26, 2010•Writers in Residence
Assistant United States Attorney Carmen Lineberger exemplifies grace under fire. A graduate of University of Pennsylvania and Temple School of Law, Carmen is not only a federal prosecutor, but also serves as President of the National Black Prosecutors Association (NBPA), an international association of Black law enforcement professionals. Although I have known Carmen for several years since attending NBPA’s annual conferences, this is the first time I had a chance to sit and talk in depth with Carmen. It was very enlightening. This is the first of a two-part interview in which Carmen talks candidly about what it is like being a prosecutor, and how she balances her professional and personal life, and what skills she believes make a good prosecutor. I hope you enjoy the interview. May the prosecution call its next witness.
Why did you want to become a prosecutor? My father was in the military, so I grew up outside of Fort Dix Army Base in New Jersey. I graduated from high school and then moved to Philadelphia to go to University of Pennsylvania. I initially
majored in political science and then realized I could easily earn a double major because many of the courses counted for multiple majors, so I took a few more courses and received a double major in communications.
After I graduated from Penn in 1985, I attended law school at Temple University. Temple was known for its trial advocacy program, and that’s where my father had gone to law school ten years before. He graduated in 1978, and I graduated in 1988.
I knew I wanted to become a prosecutor in high school because my father was a prosecutor. He worked in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office, so that was what I wanted to do. I clerked for a Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas for two years and then joined the DA’s office. By the time I got to the DA’s office, my father had already left to become a defense attorney, and shortly thereafter, he ran for judge in Philadelphia. In 1990, I started in the DA's office prosecuting misdemeanors and I stayed for 18 years. By the time left the DA’s office, I had been prosecuting homicides for about three years.
Part of my reason for wanting to become a prosecutor was because prosecution was my idea of a criminal attorney. I knew I wanted to go to law school and the attorneys I knew through my father were criminal attorneys. At the time, I did not want to become a defense attorney because I thought it would be difficult for me to represent someone I knew was guilty. Now I have a much better appreciation of the role defense attorneys play in the criminal justice system, but back then, that was all I knew. Also, while I was in law school my family was a victim of a crime. Someone broke into our apartment and was caught wheeling my stereo down the street. Of course I wanted punishment, retribution, rehabilitation and everything else for those guys. So, I became a prosecutor and worked my way up through the DA’s office trying cases. In 2008, I left the DA’s office in Philadelphia, and joined the United States Attorney’s Office as a federal prosecutor.
What is it like to be a federal prosecutor? Well, as a federal prosecutor, there are not as many trials as a state prosecutor, and I do not have as many reactive cases, that is, cases where the defendant is charged after he has been arrested for the crime. While the case load of reactive cases may be lower, what I have now that I did not have as an Assistant DA are long term investigations that can last a couple of months or a couple of years depending on the complexity of the investigation.
Another difference for me is that I am in a smaller branch office where there is a deputy chief who runs the office, me and one other AUSA. There are fewer prosecutors handling all of the cases so I don’t specialize anymore. I may have a drug case today or I might have an alien smuggling tomorrow. I may also have a drug importation the next day or child pornography or theft from the government or mortgage fraud. Basically, I prosecute a little bit of everything.
My responsibility as a federal prosecutor is much broader because I no longer represent just the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania; I now represent the entire United States. The ramifications are more serious and certainly the jail time that individuals receive for their crimes in many cases is more that they might receive for the same offense in the state system.
What has been the most memorable case you tried? The most memorable case I have tried was when I was a state prosecutor, and it was a case that I actually lost, so to speak. The case involved a woman that was killed when she was going up the steps into her building. She was killed with one shot and there were no eye witnesses to the murder. I called about four witnesses to the stand; one was a neighbor who was a transvestite, one was a friend, and two were co-workers because the victim was being stalked by her ex-boyfriend. Yet, even with all of the evidence of his prior antics and the fact that the victim told people if I am ever killed so-and-so did it, I was not able to prove the ex-boyfriend murdered her beyond a reasonable doubt. So, that case has always bothered me because I felt the defendant did it, and he acted like he did it, but I could not prove it. It still bothers me today.
What was one of your more interesting cases as a prosecutor? An interesting case was one that I did not try but prepared for trial. It was a cold case from the 1980s. Two skin heads came to Philadelphia to kill a black man and they did kill a black man in the middle of the night on an empty street. The case went unsolved for a number of years until the girlfriend of the main skin head was being threatened by him and was afraid of him. She went to the police and told everything he had ever claimed and boasted about, and we were able to put the case together. He was eventually convicted of conspiracy to murder. That was an important case.
What, if any, impact has being a federal prosecutor had in your personal life? I would not say that being a federal prosecutor has changed my personal behavior, but I can tell you there are things that made the difference between my getting the job and other former state prosecutors not being able to become a federal prosecutor. These are things people do without realizing how it is going to affect them years down the line.
For instance, I have a friend who stated working in the DA’s office at the same time I did. We had the same job and we both had the same student loans, but I paid mine off and she did not pay hers. She defaulted on her student loans and had to enter into a payment plan. She also did not pay her taxes on time when she owed money. She kept putting it off and putting it off, saying, “Oh, I’ll do it when I get the money.” The same prosecutor also had bad credit. She will probably never be able to get a job as a federal prosecutor because we prosecute people who have committed fraud on loans, and who do other unlawful things involving federal monies. You can’t very well chastise somebody for lying on a federal form if you don’t take care of your own federal business. That’s the difference, which is the impact. So I try to pay my taxes on time, I file for an extension if I can’t, and I comply with that extension deadline.
I also pay my bills on time and I have to make sure my husband does as well. In a regular job, they may not check credit history or look at how many credit cards you fail to pay, but they look at those kinds of things for federal prosecutors. It makes a difference.
I also can’t act crazy when I got out socially, even if I wanted to. A federal prosecutor cannot get a DUI or disorderly conduct conviction. We have to lead by example. These are some of the ways in which being a federal prosecutor can impact one’s personal life.
The prosecution requests a recess at this time. Please join me next month for Part Two of my interview with Assistant U.S. Attorney Carmen Lineberger.