The Nashville Public Defender’s Office works endlessly to fight for equal justice for the indigent and accused. As Deputy Public Defender, Aisha McWeay is reframing the idea that because you’re poor, you deserve less. She is passionate about her position, albeit it’s not how she imagined her future as a lawyer. A Birmingham, Alabama native, Aisha attended Vanderbilt University Law School with the hopes of a fruitful career — meaning, she wanted to make a lot of money. Things changed when, as an intern at the Public Defender’s Office, she fell in love with the work. “I am not someone who always wanted to do this work. It is a calling — something I was supposed to do, not something I fashioned my life around. In fact, I tried really hard not to do it,” she tells us. Although it wasn’t what she had planned for, she followed her passion and accepted a job offer at the Public Defender’s Office the day before her law school graduation in 2009. According to Aisha, that was the happiest day of her life. In 2014, Aisha became the General Sessions Division Chief, and in 2017, she became the Deputy Public Defender for Nashville-Davidson County. Each day, she does work she believes in, surrounded by people who believe in the work as well. Today, she walks us through her position, her joys and frustrations and what’s on her current reading list. Welcome Aisha McWeay as today’s FACE of Nashville!
You are about a year into your role as the Deputy Public Defender for Nashville-Davidson County. What has been the biggest surprise about the work thus far?
The severity of the criminalization of mental illness is not something I realized. There are so many things that are broken in the system, but if I could only change one, it would be that. We do a lot of things well, but we are screwing that up. Nashville is under-resourced.
What is the most rewarding part of the job?
The most rewarding part is helping clients and the people attached to them — without a doubt.
It is rewarding to help clients overcome one mistake, so it isn’t the defining factor in their life. Doctors are wonderful, noble people who get to patch us up and help us get through difficult times. I think public defenders are the doctors of the criminal justice system. It’s not about getting the praise. Being able to help clients and see positive progress, even for a brief moment, is incredibly rewarding.
Having been a public defender, how do you view your role vs that of a prosecutor?
That is a complex question. From my perspective, both roles are essential to the adversarial process. We both have distinct roles, but there is the ideal that the roles should not be that different. When you look at the mission of our office, and that of the DA’s office, they are not in conflict, but the practical nature is very different.
The biggest challenge on both ends is that the work is not about us. I am here to effectively advocate for my client. Both offices are seeking justice. But justice is abstract, and therein lies the rub. What justice looks like to me, doesn’t look like to you. For me, justice is never incarcerating someone who is mentally ill. Jail is not the proper punishment for that. For you, justice might be doing that so a business can enjoy peace without a public nuisance. If we have a different perspective on what the just outcome is, there is an inherent conflict.
Telling someone else their worldview is wrong doesn’t come up much in other careers. Your philosophical beliefs and worldview are wrapped up in your roles as prosecutors and public defenders.
Do you see the rules of criminal procedure being weighted in favor of the defense? Why or why not?
I do not. I believe most procedural rules weigh in the light most favorable to the prosecution. I think even most prosecutors would tell you that.
Does it affect your representation when you know your client is guilty? How?
It doesn’t. That is a common misconception about public defenders: that you spend your time getting guilty people off. Despite what I would like to see happen, most clients plead guilty, whether they are guilty or not. People plead guilty because having a case drag on for months jeopardizes their livelihood. I would much rather have a guilty client than an innocent client because they shouldn’t be in the system, to begin with, and getting them out unscathed is unbearable. It’s rare that I have a client asking me to make something go away.
We are mitigators who are able to tell the story of why something happened, not that it didn’t happen. Yes, my client had drugs, but my client has been addicted for five years and hasn’t been able to get help. That is important.
When you have a client who is guilty, that is where the work begins. You must address the issue of why, so they don’t come back. We had a discussion in a law school ethics class. The teacher asked if we’d rather see a guilty person go free or an innocent man locked up. More people said locked up. I still think back to that class and it colors how I do my job. It helps me frame my approach. I see my job as being able to humanize clients – to tell their stories and give context and perspective to the people who are punishing them.
What is your solution to the issue of incarceration?
There are three main areas: the criminalization of mental illness, criminalization of poverty and criminalization of addiction. If you addressed each of those, we would absolutely not have an over-incarceration issue.
We need more resources for people with mental illness. If a person is not a current and active danger to themselves and others, they cannot be committed to a mental health facility. You can be experiencing active psychosis and not be actively violent. The mental health hospital we currently have, Middle TN Mental Health Institute, has limited beds and limited resources. Family members and loved ones call the police because they don’t know where to turn, so there is a vicious cycle.
For me, criminalization of poverty ranks second behind mental illness. I understand that we live in a capitalist society. Before working in the office, I wanted to create wealth. But working in this office has opened my eyes to see that I have so much more privilege than I ever realized. I have been able to travel the world. I can leave the country, let alone the state. For so many of my clients, and so many people I interact with, that is not their reality. If you are arrested for not having a home and sleeping under the interstate, that is mind-boggling. As a society and as a city, we won’t pay for a place for folks to go, but we will pay to house these folks in jail. Take that money and create spaces for them, so they are not sleeping under the bridge. Where would you be if you lost your home?
Criminalizing addiction is now being talked about with discussions of the opioid crisis, but there are so many layers to the crisis. Addressing it as a public health issue, not a criminal issue, is the first step. I find it incredibly problematic that the opioid crisis is different from the cocaine and crack epidemic. Addiction is a public health concern, no matter what the drug is. It is not a moral concern, and it definitely is not a criminal concern. It is a public health crisis.
If we address those three things, and the desperation that comes out of each, the crime rate would drop dramatically. Until we do that, we will never address the issues that plague the criminal justice system. It is not easy. It involves education, reframing the issues and strategic planning — then execution. These issues are independently challenging and together it sounds almost impossible.
When you aren’t working, where can we find you?
I travel a lot. I am single with no kids, so you can usually find me in a new city. In Nashville, I am at local restaurants.
What books are on your bedside table?
I just finished The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, which has been my favorite book this year. Next is Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah.
What is the best piece of advice you have received and from whom?
The best piece of advice that has served me well was from my Dad: “No one can be you the way you can be you. So just do that.”
What are three things you cannot live without (aside from faith, family and friends)?
Travel, healthy/intelligent conversation and laughter
Thank you, Aisha, for your public service and to Ashley Hylbert for these stunning photos!
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