Chiraag Bains: Protecting the rights of defenseless victims

Will Denison, Partnership for Public Service

Chiraag Bains is based in Washington but can seldom be found at his desk. As a trial attorney prosecuting hate crimes, assaults by law enforcement and other criminal cases for the government, Chiraag Bains crisscrosses the country interviewing witnesses and trying cases to help protect the rights of some of the country’s most defenseless populations—victims of cross burnings, arrestees beaten by police officers and prisoners abused by guards.

The victims Bains fights for aren’t always the most sympathetic victims to juries. They might have committed crimes themselves. “Our witnesses sometimes have baggage other witnesses do not. It’s a challenge for us,” said Bains, who works in the criminal section of Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Civil Rights Division.

Who is Chiraag Bains?

POSITION: Trial Attorney, Criminal Section, Civil Rights Division, U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ)

RESIDENCE: Washington, D.C.

AGE: 32

EDUCATION: Yale College, B.A.; University of Cambridge, M.Phil. in criminology; Harvard Law School, J.D.y

AWARDS: DOJ Special Achievement Award; Harvard Law School Heyman Fellowship; Soros New American Fellowship; Gates Cambridge Scholarship; Truman Scholarship for Public Service

HOBBIES: Running marathons, studying the civil rights movement, baking, spending time with his wife and daughter

VOLUNTEER WORK: Fundraising for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society

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“Not only do we have to prove the crime occurred, but we have to make them care,” he said. “They may not because they don’t like the victim.” That distaste can lead to juries acquitting defendants even if they believe them to be guilty.

But everyone in this country has rights, Bains asserted, including the belligerent man who was already in handcuffs when a police officer assaulted him at the police station. “It’s a crime no matter who it happens to,” he said.

In another case he handled, two police officers were parked on the side of an Alabama highway at night, stopping drivers to steal from them. They specifically targeted Hispanic motorists, hoping they’d find undocumented immigrants unlikely to report the crime. With the help of state investigators and a victim who reported the crime, the two officers were caught, prosecuted and pleaded guilty.

“It was an egregious violation,” Bains said. “This is a vulnerable population with very little recourse and no political constituency.”

Bains said that prosecuting officers who commit crimes sends the signal that even people who aren’t likable can get justice. He said it is important because it’s “vital to society” that the public has faith in law enforcement.

Officers often support cases against other law enforcement officers, who make people in positions of authority look bad, he said.

“Being a police office is a tough job already. The vast majority are honest people. The ones who commit crimes and abuse these powers make it that much harder for the rest of them,” Bains said.

Criminal civil rights cases can be complicated and extremely challenging to try. Prosecutors often have to figure out what they will use to prove a case.

“There are a lot more nuances to it,” said Jim Felte, deputy chief in the criminal section. “Cases can turn on just a few facts and [Bains] doggedness in his investigations is very important.”

Another challenge is getting people to tell the truth, Bains said. A police officer might have to testify against a colleague. Or a victim harmed because of his sexual orientation might not want to testify in a hate crime trial and out himself. Someone arrested and victimized after having too much to drink might not want to reveal unseemly conduct.

As a result, witnesses sometimes lie, or they don’t want to come to court. “It can be remarkably difficult to get people to be straightforward with you, but it can be inspiring when people come around despite the risk to themselves,” Bains said.

Fellow trial attorney Henry Leventis worked with Bains on his first trial, an Arkansas case that resulted in the conviction of a police officer for choking a belligerent man who was already handcuffed and in a police station.

Given Bains’ level of performance, Arkansas attorneys “were blown away by the fact that this was his first jury trial,” Leventis said.

While in college, Bains developed an interest in hate crimes and civil rights, and the large role that prosecutors played in the civil rights movement. He studied criminal justice reform and racial justice issues, got a master’s degree in criminology and then a law degree.

He intended to become a public interest lawyer, but developed an interest in the equal administration of justice. And then, he said, “I found this job where you could do both.”

He works on cases with state and local partners, as well as with the FBI and other investigative agencies.

“We’re in the business of investigating crimes and holding people accountable. We are trying to ensure fairness in the system, protecting and defending people’s dignity,” he said. “It’s a phenomenal job.”

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Go to www.servicetoamericamedals.org/nominate to nominate a federal employee for a Service to America Medal and http://washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/fedpage/players/ to read about other federal workers who are making a difference.

 
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