Martesha L. Johnson: Nashville’s Newest Public Defender

On August 28, 2018, Martesha L. Johnson became the first African-American elected Public Defender of the Metropolitan Nashville Public Defender’s Office. A native of Nashville, Johnson ran for Chief Public Defender to raise her voice on injustices that impact low-income communities, like the criminalization of poverty. Yet, as she stood on the stage during her swearing-in, the weight of her accomplishment as the first African-American to hold this position became apparent. The day marked sixty-three years since the lynching of Emmett Till and fifty-five years since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his seminal “I Have A Dream” speech. Sharing the date with such momentous events highlighted the importance of Johnson’s election to office, which was possible only because of the fights won by civil rights activists. With those wins in mind, Johnson remarked, “I was completely overwhelmed by the honor that this bestows upon me but, also, I know that this is a great responsibility.”

Since graduating from law school in 2008 (the first in her family to do so), Johnson has worked as an assistant public defender in Nashville. She began her tenure in the office while still in law school during the summer of 2007 as an intern; by graduation, she had completed a second internship. “It was [at the Nashville Defenders] that I sort of found my tribe of people,” Johnson recalls. “This was really advocating for people who have so much more to them than just the charges on the paper.” But due to the financial restrictions of the recession in 2008, the Nashville Defenders had a hiring freeze and could not offer a paid position to Johnson. That did not stop Johnson from working to defend people who could not afford an attorney. “I made a determination after one summer being here that this is where I wanted to spend my career, this is the type of law I wanted to practice.” Johnson began volunteering at the office and worked nights at Macy’s to support herself. Her sacrifice was rewarded a few months later when Dawn Deaner, her predecessor in the Chief’s position, was able to offer her a paid position.

Despite her passion for the work and, perhaps, because of it, Johnson encountered certain frustrations with the work. “You’re arguing for reform, you’re trying to change the hearts and minds of people who make decisions, you truly believe that there’s humanity and dignity in all people, but that’s not always met with understanding,” Johnson said. She realized she needed a different opportunity to continue fighting for her clients. When Deaner announced she would not seek re-election, Johnson quickly concluded, “I have to do this.” As the elected public defender, Johnson would have a seat at the table with leadership from which to advocate for her clients.

While prepared and qualified for the job, Johnson still had to convince others to elect her. As a young, single mother with no background or connections in politics, running for office was terrifying; Johnson was concerned about whether she would be negatively judged.

“Deciding to run for office was extremely hard for me and ultimately a decision that rested largely on my daughter, Jacari. I needed her to see me put my fears aside and go after what I wanted. I am most grateful that I got to take her on this ride with me and show her in real time that anything is possible.”

However, from her first campaign fundraiser, she found the opposite to be true. “My passion was apparent,” says Johnson. “All of the things that I was fearful about, when I jumped out and actually started running, those things made people want to support me. They supported me because I was young and passionate and steadfast in my belief that we need to make some change in the justice system.”

As a career public defender, Johnson has plenty ideas on how to reform the justice system, including to prevent jails from replacing mental health hospitals. But she knows she will need collective action to support change, and so she aims to empower the community to get involved in the inner-workings of the criminal justice system and to raise their voices on the necessary changes. Johnson says, “I would like my legacy to be that I was a public defender both in the courtroom and the community.”

Written By: Cynthia Amezcua, Stanford Law Student

Photos By: Porche’ Belcher

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