Prosecutor Cynthia Wright handles cases of children slain in the District


Assistant U.S. Attorney Cynthia Wright, left, and Kelly Blakeney, paralegal specialist, are seen at the U.S. Attorney's Office on Feb. 6 in Washington. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

After she helped convict a man who killed a 4-year-old boy, D.C. prosecutor Cynthia Wright stood in a circle with the child’s family in a busy hallway just outside the courtroom. They all clasped hands.

Wright bowed her head as Kamari Zavon Taylor’s great-aunt led them in prayer. “Lord, heal us as only you can. Strengthen us. Protect us, and give this family guidance, in Jesus’s name.”

Kamari’s family was surprised Wright had stopped to share that moment with them. “I just never thought a prosecutor would do that. You expect them to be mean and tough,” Kamari’s mother, Calessnia Ferguson, 22, said later. “But you can see God in her,” added her aunt Armanda Brown.

Wright said she believes in prayer. “I have to,” she said.

The 53-year-old Wright, a former nanny and mother of a grown daughter, is with the Special Victim’s Unit of the U.S. attorney’s office and specializes in cases involving the deaths of infants and young children. Since late fall, Wright has been working on 15 first-degree murder cases. The victims include newborns allegedly killed by mothers and toddlers beaten to death.

Her job is technically difficult, as she works with detectives to decipher autopsy photos and suspect and medical examiner interviews. It also is emotionally exhausting.

“These are the truly innocent victims,” Wright said in a recent interview. “Someone has to be the voice for these children who now, can’t speak for themselves.” And as she fights for justice for the children, Wright believes one of her best qualities is her compassion for the victims and even, at times, for the defendants.

But that, she said, does not mean she is soft.

“Don’t confuse my empathy and compassion,” she said. “I’m fair, but firm.”

An emotional toll

A little after 9 a.m. one recent Friday, Wright rushed to D.C. Superior Court where she was set to handle hearings in three cases. The first involved Tisheena Brown, a 31-year-old District mother accused of giving her month-old son a fatal dose of prescription medication.

Then, 15 minutes later, Wright headed to the sentencing of Peter I Hendy II, the 33-year-old District man who killed Kamari in August. He was dating the 4-year-old’s mother at the time and was babysitting while she was at work.

“He beat this child repeatedly,” Wright told the judge, pausing between each word to slam her fist into her other hand. Hendy, in a jail jumpsuit and shackles, watched.

“Every working mother’s nightmare,” Wright said. Hendy was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Wright barely had time to hug each family member before she ran to a hearing for a 62-year-old District woman charged with fatally beating 7-month-old Reise Jones while babysitting for the child.

Wright’s boss and the District’s top prosecutor, U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr, acknowledged that Wright’s job is one that very few want to handle.

“I’m inspired by her motivation and drive to achieve justice for these young innocent victims and their families,” Machen said. “When I was a homicide prosecutor, I didn’t want to handle these cases. But I respected those prosecutors who were able to do them. It takes an emotional toll.”

In recent months, Wright took on the case of a 26-year-old woman who was studying to become a nun when, according to authorities, she secretly gave birth to a son and then allegedly smothered him. And as the prosecutor prepared for Thanksgiving dinner with her family, a detective called to tell her about yet another case involving an infant: a newborn who police say was suffocated and dismembered by his 21-year-old mother.

Wright said some cases have caused her to shut her door and cry over medical examiner photos. She also stops to pray. Then, she said, she gets back to work. “When I think of how this baby suffered, it motivates me to do what I do,” she said recently as she looked at one photo of Kamari.

Machen noted that it takes an experienced and savvy prosecutor to handle such cases. Often the adult charged says the child died as a result of an accident. The accused is usually a family member or close friend. There often is no witness, no gunshot wound or stab wound, leaving the prosecution to rely heavily on nuanced medical reports.

“She possess an unbelievable amount of experience,” Machen said of Wright. “She’s talented and committed to what she does. But there’s no substitute for experience.”

Career path to prosecutor

Prosecuting child death cases can be an isolating job. When colleagues go out for lunch or drinks at nearby Clyde’s, they chat about the latest gang case, politician indictment or homicide case. No one wants to talk about Wright’s calendar. “I understand it,” she said. “We all have children and it’s very difficult to talk about these kind of cases.”

Her therapy, she said, is being “around healthy, happy children.” She teaches Sunday school, and she and her husband live near an elementary school where she watches families interact with their children. She loves to cook and has even taken a few classes. She never had cable in her home, preferring instead to read novels and biographies. But she recently discovered Web TV and light comedies such as “Big Bang Theory” and “ ’Til Death.”

Growing up in rural Pennsylvania, Wright’s plan was to be a nurse. She attended Pennsylvania State University thanks to the Army ROTC program, becoming the first in her family to attend college. But she became nauseous during a medical class and decided to switch majors to pre-law.

Wright went to law school at Pepperdine University in California. While there, she supported herself by working as a nanny. “I’ve always loved children,” she said.

After law school, Wright enlisted in the Army. For six years, as a major, she worked in the Army Judge Advocate General’s Corp, or JAG. There, she defended enlisted soldiers charged with crimes. Her husband of 28 years is still in the military.

Then she got a case that made her decide that she no longer wanted to be a defense lawyer. Wright was assigned to defend a man accused of raping a 6-month-old child. She said she fought on his behalf and helped win an acquittal, but the case changed her.

“I knew then I wanted to protect children,” she said. “I felt I needed to be a prosecutor.” She joined the U.S. attorney’s office in the District in 1991.

Her years as a defense lawyer, Wright said, allow her to see cases differently from prosecutors who have never worked on the other side. She can anticipate strategies that the defense may use.

After years of working these cases, Wright has noticed some patterns. She has seen many women with abusive boyfriends who leave their children with the men, mistakenly believing the men would never harm a child. Those men — many with their own anger, mental health, physical or drug abuse issues — sometimes snap at the sound of a crying baby. Wright encourages women to do simple Internet criminal background checks on a man before getting serious.

“Some people make mistakes with no intention to kill, she says. “There but for the grace of God go I.” But some people, she says, “ are just truly evil.” Her job is to see the difference.

In some cases, she has sought psychiatric evaluations of defendants who might be troubled.

During one sentencing hearing, Superior CourtJudge Ronna L. Beck praised Wright, calling her “a very experienced prosecutor who is very thoughtful in cases like this.”

The kind words from family members of the victims, judges and even her bosses mean a great deal. But for Wright, it’s about getting “some” justice for the children.

“I can never bring a child back,” she said. “I could get life for the killer, but it won’t bring the child back.”

Keith Alexander covers crime, specifically D.C. Superior Court cases for The Washington Post. He has covered dozens of crime stories from Banita Jacks, the Washington woman charged with killing her four daughters, to the murder trial of intern Chandra Levy.
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