New Faculty: Professor Vida Johnson
August 26, 2019
Professor Vida Johnson always knew that she would end up doing civil rights work.
Johnson’s grandfather had been deeply involved in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, even before his family’s Mississippi home was bombed by the Ku Klux Klan in 1967. Becoming a civil rights lawyer, she thought, was going to be her way of carrying on her grandfather’s legacy.
But during a summer internship after her first year of law school at New York University, she found herself face to face with inmates on Mississippi’s death row. Johnson, a native of San Diego, realized that these men, branded the worst of the worst, weren’t the monsters she had anticipated. Most were poor and uneducated, and had made poor life choices that landed them in the criminal justice system, where their race and lack of resources almost guaranteed a harsh sentence.
“I had a picture in my mind of what I thought a convicted murderer would be like. I expected them to be scary,” she said.
Instead, the men were so grateful for the research she was doing for the Louisiana Crisis Assistance Center — which had filed a lawsuit seeking inmates’ right to counsel in order to file post-conviction appeals — that they spent what little money they earned in prison to buy her refreshments. “That experience really made me think more about criminal defense.”
After serving as a visiting professor for the last decade in Georgetown Law’s Criminal Defense and Prisoner Advocacy Clinic as well as the Criminal Justice Clinic, Johnson now joins the full time faculty.
It’s been a natural process since that 1L summer: from death-row inmates in Mississippi, she turned her attention to indigent defendants in the San Francisco public defender’s office and juvenile clients in an NYU clinic while in law school. It was a transformative experience. “Once I was in that clinic, I was sure that was what I wanted to do. I was completely hooked.”
She came to Georgetown Law as an E. Barrett Prettyman Fellow, spending two years representing indigent adult defendants in D.C. Superior Court and supervising students in Georgetown’s Criminal Justice Clinic. Johnson is now deputy director of the Prettyman program, established in 1960 to provide quality representation to adults and adolescents accused of crimes and to provide to recent law school graduates a comprehensive education concerning trial advocacy, litigation and clinical teaching.
In between, she worked for eight years in the Trial Division of the District of Columbia’s Public Defender Service and became a supervisor. It is one of the best public defender services in the country given its federal funding, which allows for lower caseloads, more supervision, and more resources for social workers and investigators, Johnson said.
“It sets you up to do your job instead of just putting out fires,” she said. “We were actually able to have trials and counsel our clients instead of just processing them.”
As a public defender, Johnson represented clients charged with felonies, including indigent clients accused of homicide, sexual assault and armed offenses.
“It was one of the best experiences I’ve had. Now I’m replicating that for my students,” she says as she teaches in the criminal clinics and supervises six Prettyman Fellows.
Today, Johnson researches and writes in the area of racial justice and criminal procedure. And she holds high hopes for what her students will achieve in righting wrongs and addressing disparities in a criminal justice system that disproportionately punishes the poor and people of color.
“I am always encouraged by the number of our students who are committed to addressing these issues,” she said, noting that she’d ended up doing a kind of civil rights work after all, just like her grandfather. “That’s what I decided to do with my life.”