Joyce Vance: Sweet Home
Chuck Rosenberg: Welcome to The Oath. I’m Chuck Rosenberg, and I’m honored to be your host for another thoughtful conversation with a fascinating guest. Many of you know Joyce Vance from her work as a legal analyst on MSNBC. Before taking on that role, Joyce was the Northern United States District Attorney for the state of Alabama in Birmingham. Joyce shares a deeply personal and tragic event in her own life on the show. In 1989, her beloved father-in-law, federal appellate court judge Robert Vance was killed by a mail bomb delivered to his home. That mail bomb also grievously injured Judge Vance’s wife. The cold-blooded murder of Joyce’s father-in-law inspired her to become a federal prosecutor in her adopted home state of Alabama. It also helped shape her views on criminal justice issues, including the death penalty. As a federal prosecutor, Joyce handled a wide variety of important cases, including a difficult and disturbing corruption case involving a small Alabama police department. She is here to share her story with you.
Joyce Vance, welcome to The Oath.
Joyce Vance: Thanks for having me, Chuck.
Rosenberg: Oh, it’s a pleasure to have you. Tell us a little bit about Joyce Vance.
Vance: I grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, raised by a single parent mom who taught preschool and was very dedicated to education. So, I had a very sort of a rich upbringing. She was interested in a lot of different things and I benefited from that exposure.
Vance: No siblings with my mom. She and my dad were divorced and I’ve got four half-brothers from his second marriage.
Rosenberg: Wonderful. So, I assume you graduated from high school in Los Angeles too.
Vance: I did barely because I spent a lot of time at the beach. But I did manage to get through high school and then went to college in Maine to Bates College in Lewiston, Maine.
Rosenberg: We think of you as an Alabama woman, but the roots are really on the West Coast.
Vance: We say in Alabama, we say: L.A. and it means lower Alabama, but I actually grew up in the real L.A.
Rosenberg: After college, after Bates, you went to the University of Virginia for law school.
Vance: I did. I went to UVA, “Wa-hoo-wa.”
Rosenberg: As I should point, out the defending national champions in basketball.
Vance: I was there during the Ralph Sampson years. It was–I loved law school.
Rosenberg: What did you love about it?
Vance: The people. You know, we had a wonderful class. We came from a lot of different backgrounds brought a lot of different beliefs to the table but it was a tremendously fun and very loyal group of people. I’m still very close with most my law school friends.
Rosenberg: Well how did you end up in Alabama?
Vance: My husband is from Alabama. We met each other in law school. I was working for a firm in D.C., I was working for Arent Fox when we got engaged.
Rosenberg: Was he a classmate?
Vance: He was a classmate. It’s actually worse than that, Chuck. You’ll appreciate this. We were in the same small section, which in UVA is sort of like marrying a member of your family, but nonetheless, Bob intended to move up to D.C. where I was and ironically go to work at the Justice Department. But I had a case in Jackson, Mississippi, a really interesting case, and was spending a lot of time in Birmingham and ultimately decided to move there.
Rosenberg: Bob is Bob Vance and he is a judge.
Vance: He is, as we like to say at the family dinner table, not a very good one but he is no he is a really good judge. He’s a state court judge in Birmingham and is just tremendously dedicated to what he does.
Rosenberg: You have many fans some of whom know this many of whom I assume do not, but your father in law Bob’s father, was also a judge. Can you talk about him?
Vance: Yeah. My father in law was an 11th Circuit judge a federal court of appeals judge and before that he had been a plaintiff’s lawyer and was involved in some voting rights litigation, was involved in litigation on behalf of consumers before he went on the bench. He was murdered in 1989 by a mail bomb sent by an individual named “Moody” who sent mail bombs to a number of people and was ultimately cotton prosecuted in both the federal and state systems.
Rosenberg: You were married when your father in law was murdered.
Vance: I was. We had been married a couple of years earlier and got married in Alabama, not at home in Los Angeles. I’ve always been really grateful that we made that decision because my father in law who had two sons and no daughters really enjoyed the fact that we got married there.
Rosenberg: Tell me a little bit about the day you learned of his murder and by the way in that bombing, your mother-in-law was seriously injured.
Vance: Bob’s mom and dad were sitting around a little white table in the breakfast room when he opened the box that contained the bomb. She was sitting right across from him. So, she was wounded very seriously. I was in New York taking depositions in a case. Bob, my husband, had come up to meet me for the weekend. So, we were actually in New York with friends from Birmingham and with some friends from law school when we learned about it and flew back home right away.
Rosenberg: You mentioned Moody had sent the bomb. That’s Walter Leroy Moody.
Vance: Walter Leroy Moody.
Vance: You know, I think it’s hard to know what people’s motives are. But he had had a criminal conviction, could not get it removed so he could go to law school, had a history of building bombs. He had an ex-wife who had been hurt when one of his bombs when she discovered it in the home. He just seemed like one of these people who was thoroughly unhappy with his own life and took it out on other people.
Rosenberg: Ironically, tragically, your father-in-law had nothing to do with moody. They never intersected in their professional lives in any way.
Vance: No, in no way at all, and in fact, when he sent the bomb he used a return address from one of the other judges on the court. So, there was no reason for Bob to think twice about opening the box that came in the mail.
Rosenberg: Was he killed instantly?
Vance: He was killed instantly, and it was, it was loud. My mother in law who was a really amazing woman, she’s since passed away. She immediately realized a couple of things simultaneously: that he was dead, that it was a bomb, and that other people that she loved were at risk. So, with horrible injuries she got in her car, and they lived sort of in an area where the houses weren’t close together, and she drove to their closest neighbor and told him we need to call Frank Johnson, Bob’s just been killed we need to make sure Frank doesn’t open his mail. Frank Johnson was the judge on the 11th Circuit who had a tremendous track record for civil rights and mom was really worried about him.
Rosenberg: Amazing with what had just happened to her that she had the presence of mind to do that.
Vance: She was a remarkable woman.
Rosenberg: Moody killed others.
Vance: He did. He killed an alderman in Savannah, Georgia named Robbie Robinson, who had a track record of doing civil rights work. Also sent a bomb to the NAACP in Florida, and then one to the 11th Circuit, to the main court in Atlanta.
Rosenberg: Now, the one that was sent to the main court of the 11th Circuit in Atlanta was intercepted.
Vance: It was intercepted. This was close to Christmas. It was a week ahead of Christmas. So, one good thing that happened was there was slower mail delivery in those last two parcels were intercepted before they could go off.
Rosenberg: What happened to Moody?
Vance: Moody was ultimately prosecuted in both the state and in the federal systems.
Rosenberg: That’s a bit unusual.
Vance: It is. There was no death penalty in the federal system at the time that he was prosecuted and so the state of Alabama subsequently prosecuted a capital case.
Rosenberg: And by the way, the prosecutors in the federal case are quite well-known.
Vance: Louis Freeh was the lead prosecutor in that case assisted by at the time, a young lawyer named Howard Shapiro. And they came down from the Southern District of New York to work on all of the cases.
Rosenberg: Louis Freeh later served as the director of the FBI and Howard as his general counsel.
Vance: It’s a small world, right.
Rosenberg: Your mother in law and your father in law obviously victims of the crime, but you and Bob as well.
Vance: You know, it was really hard for my husband. He loved his daddy so much. We were close to his parents. We used to spend Sunday nights eating dinner with them and spent a lot of time with them. I always remember that when my mother-in-law who was in surgery and was intubated when she could finally speak she looked up at my husband and the first thing she said was: “I’m sorry about your daddy.”
Rosenberg: You’ve told me a story about going to visit your mother in law in the hospital which is I think charming. Do you mind sharing that?
Vance: So, I was unexpectedly pregnant with our first child, just a couple of weeks pregnant when Bob’s dad was killed and I went to visit my mother in law in the hospital. She had had extensive surgery, still had some nails in her body. They stayed in her body for the rest of her life. And she, you know, was exactly what you would expect. She was depressed, she was sad, she was down, and I told her that I was pregnant and she was, you know, she was happy, she wasn’t exuberant, but she was happy, and I came back to see her again later that afternoon and she there was no one in her hospital room. And I was frantically worried because her injuries were serious and so I went flying out to the nurses station and asked where she was and they sort of laughed a little bit and they said you know, after you left she got out of bed–she had not gotten out of bed at all before then and she got up and she said: “I’ve got to get ready, I’ve got to go home I have a grandbaby coming,” and that I think, you know, by the grace of God, was what helped her recover initially.
Rosenberg: Howard Shapiro and Louis Freeh convicted Moody in federal court. He was also convicted in state court and received a sentence of death. Can you talk about that?
Vance: You know, the federal conviction came relatively quickly. The case was tried in Minnesota because there were concerns about conflicts if it was tried in the south. Both my husband and my mother-in-law were able to watch that trial which I think was very good for them. The state case was a little bit slower, it came a couple of years later.
Rosenberg: Was your mother in law called as a witness at trial?
Vance: She was a witness in both cases and she was a good witness. I have to say I’ve put a lot of victim witnesses on the stand and in my life, you know she just was a genuine person and that’s who she was when she testified. And we had the two different prosecutions. The second one was a capital case. There were some members of our family who felt very strongly that the death penalty needed to be sought against the man who had killed their father, brother, cousin. So, the death penalty is always one of those issues that people can debate.
Rosenberg: Did you have a view on it at the time, did you think it was the appropriate sanction for the man who killed your father-in-law?
Vance: I did have a view on it at the time and I was strongly in favor of the death penalty in this particular case. I loved my father in law, I was emotional about losing him, I was emotional about him never getting to meet his first grandchild, and very much eye for an eye, at that point in time, as was his, his sister and a number of other family members. My mother in law never was a supporter of the death penalty and her point of view was it wouldn’t bring Bob back
Rosenberg: Now, in the state prosecution he was found guilty, and in fact, was sentenced to death.
Vance: He was sentenced to death and because there’s a long lag between sentencing an execution, something that I experienced personally is how your view can change over time, and how that emotional response that you have in the first year after you, you lose somebody that you love in that very violent manner, I ultimately came to believe that my mother in law was right, that there was nothing that would bring Bob back and it really was part of a change in my viewpoint about the death penalty.
Rosenberg: Did you notice a similar change in other family members?
Vance: I think people really do change. I think there is an instinctive reaction right in that moment where you’re searching for some way of making sense, some way of restoring order to your life. The death penalty maybe seems easy for people in that situation. I’m not proud of that. It’s just where I was. I mean, you know, I was mournful, it was a terrible lost in our lives, but ultimately in addition to having some really pragmatic concerns as a prosecutor about whether the death penalty serves the deterrence interests that we think it serves, it just felt like the wrong way to address this situation of, of loss.
Rosenberg: Your father in law was murdered in 1989. Walter Leroy Moody was finally put to death by the state of Alabama in 2018.
Rosenberg: Twenty-nine years later.
Vance: It’s a long gap, right. I’ll talk about in a cold way and say: that takes a lot of prosecutorial resources. There’s a lot of effort that’s being spent on that sort of capital litigation and the issues that are unique to death penalty litigation. Could those resources be better spent in other ways? You know, that’s a judgment call for policy makers. I did have a capital case in my office that was started by my predecessor. She served for eight years, I served for close to eight years, by the time I left my office, that case was only just close to being resolved and the resolution would be to take capital punishment off of the table simply because it’s so difficult in so many ways to get there.
Rosenberg: When Moody was executed, were you given the option to attend?
Vance: We were, we weren’t interested. You know, we had, I think, made our peace with it years ago.
Rosenberg: As a result of your father in law’s murder, you became a federal prosecutor. Is that a fair connection?
Vance: Yeah, it’s an extremely fair connection. You know I had a good friend who you may know: Rob Chestnut, who was in the Eastern District of Virginia.
Rosenberg: Rob was my boss when I was a federal prosecutor.
Vance: We worked together one summer when we were both in law school, we remain very good friends, he and Bob are very good friends. I knew that he had gone to the Eastern District of Virginia. Every time we saw him, he talked about how much he loved his job as a prosecutor working in the criminal division. So, it was maybe in the back of my mind
Rosenberg: Rob was a terrific prosecutor, by the way, and a good boss.
Vance: Great guy. It was really watching Louis Freeh and watching Howard and watching this team of FBI and ATF agents who we hadn’t previously known in Birmingham. It wasn’t just their commitment to getting the right guy to protecting the community by taking a bad guy off the street. It was their entire approach. They were so rigorous, they were so ethical, there were multiple potential defendants that they had to make decisions about, they had to think about the evidence they had to deal with a victim’s family that really wanted to know a lot of information that they couldn’t share with victims, in part, because it was grand jury and covered by secrecy, or, or for other reasons. And they did it so well and I was so impressed and I felt an obligation to try to pay that forward.
Rosenberg: This may be apparent, but for agents and prosecutors, the murder of a federal judge is an assault on the system. They take all crime seriously, but this they also took personally, I imagine
Vance: They did. And my office was co-located. I say my office, the U.S. attorney’s office in Birmingham was co-located in the same federal office space with my father-in-law. They knew him, they interacted with him, so it was in so many ways very personal. Birmingham’s a small community.
Rosenberg: But that inspired you.
Vance: It really did. And it was–it’s hard to leave private practice when you’ve got student loans. And as the kid of a single parent mom who taught preschool, I had loans, but we made a decision that it was right for us, for our family. And so, with my husband’s blessing I joined the U.S. attorney’s office the Monday after Louis Freeh got a conviction of Walter Leroy Moody.
Rosenberg: And when was that?
Vance: July 1, 1991.
Rosenberg: Is that when you took the oath?
Vance: I took the oath a few days later I joined the office at the same time as two other people. And then another lawyer came on board the following week. So, I took the oath internally that morning, but in court the four of us took it together the following week.
Rosenberg: Do you remember that occasion?
Vance: I do. I remember it very well. My husband came, our oldest child was in a stroller. I don’t know if they did this in all offices, but the practice in our office has always been to go across the street to the federal courthouse and be sworn in by a federal judge in their courtroom. And the federal judge makes comments and this federal judge had been an AUSA. So, she talked about how being an AUSA was the best job she’d ever had and how important it had been for her to stand up in court and say: “I represent the people of the United States.”
Rosenberg: Was it the best job you ever had?
Vance: There’s just no doubt. I mean, and she was dead on the money. There was nothing like standing up in a courtroom and saying: “I represent the people of the United States.”
Rosenberg: How long were you a AUSA?
Vance: I was an AUSA until I became the United States attorney. I was in our, our criminal division for about 10 years, was moved over to our appellate division–we formed an appellate division during the Bush administration–I was one of the original lawyers in it and then became the chief of the Appellate Division several years down the road, became the acting U.S. attorney in April of 2009, and then was confirmed in August.
Rosenberg: Tell me a little bit about your tenure as an AUSA. Some of the things you worked on, some of the things that remain important to you to this very day.
Vance: When I went to the office, I had a big concern. You know, I was the daughter in law the federal judge who had just been killed, and that undoubtedly had something to do with my ability to get hired to that highly sought-after job. And I didn’t want anyone in the office–my new colleagues to think that I couldn’t pull my own weight. So, my strategy when I went on board was to volunteer to second chair every case that went to trial. I just literally walked around the office and said: “hey do you need help? I’d like to help.”
Rosenberg: We should explain that cases are often team-try. There are two prosecutors on each. The first chair would be the lead, or perhaps the more senior prosecutor, the second chair would be the more junior prosecutor.
Vance: And we were, in fact, a small enough office that many people tried cases on their own. So, for some of these folks having a second chair, especially somebody coming out of private practice who they knew they could get to do some of the written work and write motions responses, that convinced them to take me on and help me learn how to try cases.
Rosenberg: You were a luxury.
Vance: It was nice, I think, to be able to do that. I learned a tremendous amount trying cases with people. You know, I had been in Washington, I had been in Birmingham, I was unusually blessed as a young associate to spend time in court including to try some cases in federal court. The lawyers, the prosecutors in my office were extraordinarily people. And the first case that I tried with one of our senior guys who went on to be a magistrate judge: Harwell Davis, Harwell had tried a big drug kingpin case. And one of his key witnesses had been firebombed after he testified.
Rosenberg: Firebombed and killed?
Vance: He was not killed. It was a Molotov cocktail, it was thrown into a window in their house where their children were sleeping and by great good fortune everybody got out. No one was killed. No one was seriously injured, but we tried the case, and something really interesting happened during the case. On cross-examination of one of the witnesses, it became apparent that the defense lawyer had been able to access some law enforcement material that he should not have been able to. And Harwell immediately realized that there was an ethical problem, and he advised the judge that we needed to sit down in chambers and deal with the situation. He did it very calmly. There was no perception on the part of the jury that anything was wrong. The situation, which was sort of complicated, was ultimately handled but everything about his bearing the way he conducted himself the integrity he approached the situation with–he didn’t make any unfair accusations. He stuck to the facts, and that, in my mind, has always been such a picture of integrity.
Rosenberg: And I assume how you conducted yourself
Vance: How I always tried to. You know, you learn on the job, right, but the most important thing is your integrity, and what we always said in our office was there was no case that was more important than the integrity of the office.
Rosenberg: Yeah, I used to caution young prosecutors, new prosecutors, and this is a formulation I’ve heard from others, that it takes a lifetime to build a reputation, and an instant to lose it.
Vance: You know, I think that that’s true and for prosecutors because you have an obligation to your community to make sure that you can get convictions in cases. You have to protect that integrity rigorously.
Rosenberg: What happened in that first trial, Joyce?
Vance: So, we convicted a blind man of driving the getaway car from the firebombing. Strange, but true.
Rosenberg: You’re going to have to explain that.
Vance: It was a crazy case. The reason that we had the evidence and identified the defendants was that one of the tires was, you know, sort of down to the metal. And so, there was a rut literally a rut in the road that went from the house that was firebombed about two and a half miles back to the house of these guys. And they were arrested, two men. We had figured all along that the guy who drove the getaway car was the guy with sight. But as it turned out, when they finally decided one of them to talk with us, it was the legally blind guy who drove the getaway car, with the other guy telling him go left, go right, go left.
Rosenberg: Once they were convicted, did they end up cooperating with you in other cases?
Vance: One of them cooperated in other cases
Rosenberg: And that’s not unusual,
Vance: Particularly in these drug cases, where you’ve got a network of people that are working together, it’s very common that they cooperate often before they’re convicted.
Rosenberg: I believe that this cooperation and other evidence eventually led you to a drug kingpin named “Teeny Man.”
Vance: Teeny Man: Roy Mack West, we had a prosecutor in our office who had been a state prosecutor, named Bob McGregor, and Bob worked in our OCDETF unit. This was the unit that looked at organized crime and drug trafficking.
Rosenberg: Explain what OCDETF is.
Vance: OCDETF is a unit that exists I think in every U.S. attorney’s office across the country. And you know, you have lower level drug cases which are predominantly handled by state prosecutors.
Rosenberg: What does OCDETF stand for?
Vance: OCDETF is the Organized Crime and Drug Enforcement Task Force, units that exist and in every office across the country, and that go after the most serious organized drug trafficking. OSU death is dedicated to networks that traffic in drugs across state lines, often across international lines.
Rosenberg: So, who is Teeny Man?
Vance: Teeny Man, whose given name was Roy Mack West, was from Sand Mountain Alabama. He had a fourth-grade education. Ultimately, he was indicted on federal drug trafficking charges, that he became a fugitive. And for the 10 years that he was a fugitive on those charges, he ran a nationwide drug trafficking organization. At the point where we arrested him, he was running a poly drug organization. He had three farms in New Mexico where he was growing the marijuana that he sold. We took down a meth facility in Arkansas and at the point in time where federal agents went in with a search warrant, there was half a million dollars-worth of lab glass in that facility.
Rosenberg: What do you mean by lab glass?
Vance: The equipment that was used to manufacture methamphetamine. So, this was at least, for little Birmingham, Alabama, a very significant meth lab, probably the biggest formal meth lab we’d seen at that point in time in the mid 1990s
Rosenberg: And meth labs, by the way, are extraordinarily, or can be extraordinarily dangerous.
Vance: I have never put a meth cook on the witness stand who hadn’t had some sort of explosion. the head meth cook, in this case, in fact, had been blinded in an explosion off of some of his stuff.
Rosenberg: The organization that Teeny Man ran–was it violent?
Vance: It was violent. They used violence to enforce their code of silence. You know, this isn’t “mafia” as somebody like Pat Fitzgerald or folks in the Southern District of New York would think. This is what we call “Dixie mafia,” and in many ways, they were equally violent, although motivated by that same, you know, sort of family connectedness that you see in other criminal organizations.
Rosenberg: Was there a code?
Vance: There was absolutely a code. You didn’t cooperate. You didn’t tell. That’s what enabled somebody like teeny man to avoid federal authorities for 10 years.
Rosenberg: I have to ask you, Joyce: so why Teeny Man? Why was that his nickname?
Vance: He weighed 300 plus pounds. And so, that nickname had been given to him years before I became involved in the case.
Rosenberg: Did Teeny Man go to trial?
Vance: He did go to trial. Bob McGregor and I tried that case together in Birmingham for three weeks. A lot of witnesses, a lot of complex moving pieces in that case, including witnesses who had to come from the witness security program to testify about some of the cocaine deals.
Vance: Convicted on, on all counts, it wasn’t really a close call. Teeny man was represented by three lawyers, including now Senator Doug Jones. So, he was represented very capably the trial judge Bill Acker tried a very tight case. It was the outcome that we expected.
Rosenberg: Did Teeny Man end up cooperating or were you done at that point?
Vance: He never cooperated. We didn’t need his cooperation. We had obtained the cooperation of some of his lieutenants. We tried additional cases against some major players after that. And the importance of doing that, of making sure that you go after the key players, is interdicting the supply of drugs, and this organization was responsible for a significant amount of the drugs that were moving into the northern part of Alabama at that point in time.
Rosenberg: Where were they coming from?
Vance: They came from all over the place. You know, I told you that he grew some marijuana. They had connections with traffickers who are bringing drugs across the southern border. So, they were positioned to a point where when they lost one aspect of their supply chain, they could replace it pretty quickly.
Rosenberg: We’ve talked on this podcast with other guests about how receiving a verdict in a federal courtroom is actually a somber moment, not a moment for celebration. Did you find that to be the case?
Vance: I always thought as a prosecutor that if you were happy at the point in time where somebody went to jail, if you looked at that as a happy moment, that you needed to be done as a prosecutor, because it’s never happy when someone goes to jail. it’s Justice, it can be important, but they have you know they’re individuals with families and a life story, even when they’re bad people who’ve hurt other people that’s brought them to that path. I’ve never felt any sense of happiness at that point in a case.
Rosenberg: I was a prosecutor for a long time, and I can probably count on one hand, quite easily the number of evil defendants that I saw. Most were greedy, or reckless, or some combination, but evil tended to be something that you saw in movies and not in real life.
Vance: You know, I can think of some cases involving child predators where I was happy to see that particular defendant go to jail, but that’s really the notable exception.
Rosenberg: Agreed, with a few other cases here and there thrown in, but most were not evil.
Vance: I think that’s right.
Rosenberg: The last case you tried as an assistant U.S. attorney, involved a fascinating set of facts out of a relatively small police department in Boaz, Alabama. Can you talk about that?
Vance: The entire night shift of the Boaz Alabama Police Department took a bad turn. Their captain had influenced all of the men on his shift–and this is a small shift with only five other people, but they had realized that they could arrest Hispanics who were working in that area and essentially steal their money. So, this is how that worked. There are a number of poultry plants in that part of the state, and the people who own those plants advertise heavily, or did at this point in time, in newspapers in Central America for workers. So, you would have large numbers of people without legal immigration status working in these plants, and they were unbanked. On pay day, they would get their check, they would cash it, they didn’t deposit into a bank, they carried it around. This particular captain, Tim hooks, knew that. And so, he and his men began a practice of arresting these folks on payday, holding them overnight, un-arresting them the following morning, they were never charged, but keeping their money. And this went on for a period of time until they made the mistake of arresting someone who is an American citizen.
Rosenberg: To that point, the undocumented immigrants working in the poultry plants weren’t coming forward to law enforcement to report what had happened to them.
Vance: That was what made this scheme work. They knew that because these folks were undocumented, they would never report the crime. And that was why it was able to continue uninterrupted for so long. This was essentially police officers who were sworn to protect people taking advantage of you know, whatever your views are on immigration. These were people who were there to work, and they took advantage of that.
Rosenberg: But you began to say, one of the people who were arrested, was actually not an undocumented immigrant.
Vance: They arrested an American citizen, a young Puerto Rican man, who was in Boaz visiting some, some family. And as soon as he was un-arrested, he went straight to the closest FBI office: Gadsden, Alabama. He was outraged, he was angry. The FBI agents spoke with him and immediately started to make some connections. And so, they called me on a Friday afternoon and said: don’t go home. We’re coming to visit you.
Rosenberg: Now, the Gadsden office of the FBI is what’s known as an R.A.
Rosenberg: It’s a satellite office of the Birmingham Field Office. Some RAs are quite large, stands for resident agency. This one was quite small.
Vance: This was a small office. At the time, they had four agents and a secretary. And it was a great office. I had done a good bit of work with them at this point in time. They had some very senior agents. They were very good at what they did.
Rosenberg: So, they called you up and they told you don’t go home. They were coming to see you. What did they bring?
Vance: They brought a witness, and we sat down and we talked. So, Doug Jones seems to always play into my stories because at this point, Doug was the U.S. attorney. And we talked with Doug about the case and early the next week, Doug and I drove up to Marshall County, where Boaz is, to speak with the district attorney up there and we agreed that the case would be handled federally. And so, the Gadsden agents did all of the investigation, put the case together. You know, we had a language problem because back at that point in time, we had very little access to translation services, our witnesses, who were all frightened, spoke Spanish, it took some doing to convince them to trust us. Many of them did speak English and once we were able to build relationships, we were able to go ahead and put the case together.
Rosenberg: But you have another challenge in a case like that. The code of silence that you find in some police departments when there is an investigation of wrongdoing. Was that an issue here?
Vance: It was absolutely an issue here. None of these defendants wanted to cooperate with us and we had a series of meetings with these defendants and their lawyers, and this was the sort of a situation where we had to put the case together and then show them what we had, and ultimately, one by one, they began to agree to cooperate until only the captain went to trial.
Rosenberg: Because cooperating with you and with the FBI meant cooperating against fellow officers.
Vance: They did. They all had to take the witness stand. They all had to testify against him. As it turned out, the incident that had put us onto their wrongdoing was not the full extent of their wrongdoing, and they had just been in essence operating like a criminal gang: stealing air conditioning units, going into car dealerships and getting keys and stealing stuff out of cars. And it was shocking because that’s not what the face of law enforcement in that part of the state looks like in any way, shape, or form.
Rosenberg: Was the captain convicted?
Vance: He was convicted.
Rosenberg: Was he sentenced to prison?
Vance: He was eight-year sentence.
Rosenberg: Joyce, after serving for 18 years as an assistant U.S. attorney, you became the acting United States attorney for the Northern District of Alabama.
Vance: That’s right.
Rosenberg: And then soon thereafter you were nominated by President Obama and confirmed by the United States Senate as the U.S. attorney.
Vance: Right. I was actually the acting after I’d been confirmed and while I was waiting for confirmation.
Rosenberg: I imagine that being an AUSA was an even better job, but being U.S. attorney is a great privilege.
Vance: It’s an important responsibility. And it actually took me a while to be convinced that it was something that, that I wanted to do because something that you know as a U.S. attorney, is that you’re a short-timer, right–you’ll only be in the office during the time that you serve the president who’s appointed you. So, I had to think really hard about whether I was willing to exchange one set of responsibilities for another very different.
Rosenberg: Yeah, I struggled with that a bit too because I always thought of myself as a career prosecutor.
Vance: Me too.
Rosenberg: And not a politically appointed one.
Vance: I thought that way the whole time I was U.S. attorney I had a hard time remembering that I was no longer career
Rosenberg: Right. Because that becomes the way in which you define yourself. One of the things you did as U.S. attorney, and I had this honor as well, was to serve on the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee. Can you explain what that was, and what you did, what the role was?
Vance: So, the attorney general has a council of United States attorneys from across the country, geographically dispersed from extra-large, large, medium sized, and small offices, really a bird’s eye view that gives the attorney general advice on issues that he or she believes he needs advice on. And the AJAC, the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee, also has a number of subcommittees that deal with different substantive and procedural aspects of the work that’s done in U.S. attorney’s offices and has focus. So, early on–and look, I have to say, in all honesty, the reason that I ended up on AJAC, is because early in the Obama administration, the Senate was slow confirming U.S. attorneys, so there were only five of us for a really long time, and I was the only woman. Attorney General: Eric Holder asked me to serve on a AJAC, which was an incredible privilege, and asked me to co-chair the criminal practice subcommittee, which turned out to be some of the most interesting work that I did as a U.S. attorney.
Rosenberg: What was the remit of the committee? What was it looking at?
Vance: The criminal practice subcommittee looked at a broad spectrum of issues, anything having to do with criminal practice. Early on, for instance, we were asked to look at an issue involving discovery practices. Discovery is the evidence that federal prosecutors are required to turn over to criminal defendants typically at a fairly early stage in the case. But there wasn’t a uniform practice in the 94 U.S. attorney’s offices across the country. And so, we were asked to take a look at that and come up with policy. Similarly, an issue came up involving charging and sentencing policy and we were involved in that. Attorney General Eric Holder, though, was committed to reforming the criminal justice system and some of the aspects of it that weren’t working as well as they could have been. And that was where the meat of our work was.
Rosenberg: So how did you go about that choice? What did you do?
Vance: It was a big remit, and I have to tell you, Chuck it was an area that ran a little bit against the grain for a career prosecutor.
Rosenberg: Why was that?
Vance: The way that I was brought up in my office was to believe that the most important thing that I could do to protect my community was to get serious criminals off the street and to lock them up for as long as possible. Criminal justice reform theory looks at the system a little bit differently. And it says: we need to think about prevention. We need to think about preventing recidivism. And it’s not always true that putting someone in jail, in prison for the longest possible time is the best way of keeping a community safe.
Rosenberg: Fair enough, though there are still some people who need to go to jail for a long period of time.
Vance: That’s absolutely true and you know, the most important work that prosecutors do–if you think about the criminal justice system of a three–as a three-legged stool and you need to keep all three of the legs in balance, and that would be prevention, prosecution, and reentry, or, or work to avoid recidivist crime that prosecution work is the most important work that U.S. attorneys offices do. What we’ve tried to work on, was building awareness that these other aspects of the problem were things that we could do in connection with other criminal justice stakeholders in the community. And by creating a synergy among people who really weren’t used to working together and coordinating, we could do a lot to help our communities
Rosenberg: For instance, which groups that you bring into this effort?
Vance: It’s interesting that we had worked with state and local law enforcement like prosecutors always do on prosecution issues. They were a lot further along though than we were on the prevention side of things. And so, we developed relationships where we began to work with people in law enforcement and on issues that we had not worked on before. We also began to develop some really unusual partners. We developed partners in public health. And you and I have talked about this over the years, for instance, in the area of addiction, where we began to understand that as much as our job as prosecutors was to try to cut off the supply of drugs coming into our communities, we could also work with public health to think about the demand for those kinds of drugs.
Rosenberg: Right. Well, I think one of the important changes in recent years, is thinking of addiction as a public health crisis, which it is, and not as a criminal justice issue.
Vance: That’s a hard switch for prosecutors, and you know, I’ve often heard people say when your entire tool kit is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. And that’s true and so, it’s important for prosecutors to understand that they don’t have to deal with every problem that comes along, that they can make other partners in the community. And so, I think where we were particularly successful, and this came out of the AJAC work, attorney General Holder was a big proponent of reentry work. A lot of people go to prison in this country, something like 1 in every 4 people have contact with the criminal justice system. Most of them are going to go back to their communities, and a large number of them will commit new crimes fairly short term after they’re released. So, the question becomes, how do you keep that from happening? And we began to look at structural issues, what are the problems that people who come out of prison face? It seemed pretty clear that they have a problem getting a job, right. We knew that. What we didn’t fully understand was how difficult it was to, for instance, get a driver’s license, get your Social Security card. These baby steps that you have to take before you can even think about getting a job. What do you do if you live in an area with no transportation? How do you get housing? What do you do about medical care? And so, we began to work with a number of community stakeholders on those issues in Birmingham. At the same, time that the subcommittee in Washington was getting an enormous download of data and information so we could study the problem at that wonderful luxury of being exposed to experts and, and really understanding the problem with fresh eyes, and then being able, in my own district, to put some of that information to good use.
Rosenberg: What type of reception did you get for these initiatives, both in your office, and in your community?
Vance: In my office, the initial reaction was very cold. We used to say to each other, you know, we’re not social workers, we would recognize our boundaries, we were prosecutors, we were there to put people in jail to solve crimes we weren’t there to handle these other aspects of the problem. And that, as it turns out, is I think a very short sighted and limited version. It was more difficult for some of the older prosecutors, people like me in the office, to bridge that gap. The younger prosecutors seemed to really access these ideas much more easily. But what we all ultimately understood was this: we were in office like all officers with limited resources. We wanted to use our resources on the most serious crimes, crimes that really impacted our community in a negative way. If we could keep crime from being committed, then we were really serving our community. And so, we had people who originally were very put off by this notion, ultimately invest in some of the community partnerships we made. We didn’t anti-gang program that involved bringing in some youth who had committed low level crimes who were susceptible and working with them. And I had prosecutors who gave generously of their time on nights and on weekends to attend those meetings because we began to understand that we could actually reduce the amount of crime that was being committed with this kind of programming.
Rosenberg: And what about employers in Alabama? Were they receptive?
Vance: So we had a great partnership–I had actually done some work in Washington with people from the Coke Foundation. And Coke advocates strenuously for what’s called “banning the box.” That means that you don’t remove somebody from your pool of potential employees just because they have a criminal conviction–that you get to know people in and assess their talents and make a decision about whether to hire them without knowing about their criminal history. You do learn about it at that later stage, it might impact the kind of job that you give someone, but Mark Holden, the foundation’s general counsel, is deeply committed to this work. He has an interesting background. He started in Worcester, Massachusetts and worked his way through college working and in jail. So, it was a heavy lift to convince Alabama businesses that we should think about banning the box, and, and hiring people who had convictions, right it’s sort of a hard notion initially. And Mark was incredibly gracious. He came down to Birmingham. He met with people from across the community, including some of our largest employers. And we were able to begin to make some inroads in that area. Ultimately, the city of Birmingham adopted policies where it no longer asks people about criminal convictions early on in the hiring process. And many of our large local employers have become to take on a really advanced sort of point of view in that area.
Rosenberg: Is that what “banning the box” refers to? Not asking potential employees to check a particular box on a job application?
Vance: Standard job application pretty early on has, you know, a bunch of boxes that you check and one is: “have you ever been convicted of a crime? have you ever been arrested?” And that’s what this program proposes, not that employers don’t collect that information, but that they collect it at a later stage in the game. And I had one fascinating conversation with a man who was the CEO of a large business that was heavily regulated, so he felt like he couldn’t employ people with felony convictions. In Alabama, a company that operated nationally, and I said to him sure you know in your regulated positions you can’t hire people but you’ve got a cafeteria, you’ve got janitors. And the amazing thing was he opened up and told me the story of his sister who had struggled in her twenties, who had been arrested, who had gone to prison, who had problems with drug addiction throughout her life, and finally much later in life, was able to get her act together and come home and take care of their mother, and he had sort of kept that story inside all of those years, and he finally told it publicly to help convince other companies that it was important for us to take the step. If you’re a businessman and you think about this pragmatically, if 1 in 4 people in your employment pool have some sort of previously disqualifying criminal history, you’ve really cut your pool significantly and there’s good data on employing people with old convictions that says that they make good employees. Johns Hopkins, the, the university, has about 15 years of data now. They aggressively hire people with convictions. They find that they’re loyal employees, that they don’t have problems on the job, and they don’t reoffend once they have that job.
Rosenberg: So generally speaking, it’s working.
Vance: It’s working well.
Rosenberg: One of the things you also worked on, and this was in the civil division of your U.S. attorney’s office in Birmingham, was a bill passed by the Alabama Legislature: HB56. Before I ask you about HB56, say a word about the civil division because they do extraordinary work around the country and U.S. attorneys offices but we sometimes don’t sing their praises enough.
Vance: Everyone knows what criminal prosecutors do, right—they, they prosecute when people violate the law. But civil divisions are incredibly important and I think you’re right Chuck. People don’t know about their work and they should know about their work. Not only did they defend the United States when it gets sued, they collect, in some cases, significant debts owed to the United States that couldn’t be collected without their hard work. Every year that I was U.S. attorney, my office made more in those collections than it cost to run the office. We were a very good bargain for the taxpayer because of the dedicated employees in the Civil Unit. And in cases like the one we’re about to discuss, HB56, sometimes civil division lawyers became plaintiff’s lawyers, and in my office, that typically in involved protecting the civil rights of people in our district.
Rosenberg: So, explain it please, Joyce.
Vance: So, Alabama’s legislature passed HB56. It was a measure that they described as a “deport yourself immigration bill.” And the goal was to make life so miserable for undocumented people living in Alabama that they would leave. And there’s only one problem with that. And it’s not about immigration policy and where you stand on those issues. It’s a constitutional issue. Under the 10th Amendment, the state of Alabama didn’t have the right to create legislation that was contrary to federal policy.
Rosenberg: That was the argument you were positing.
Vance: That was the argument that we made. You know, in some areas, Congress has articulated a federal interest and said that the federal government will set policy on issues–immigration is one of those issues–and it’s pretty easy to understand. In a football game, if you had 50 different quarterbacks throwing passes, it would be a mess. Immigration is the same sort of an issue. You’ve got to have one quarterback. Imagine being a foreign country and having to deal with different rules in 50 different states. It would just be impossible.
Rosenberg: So, what did you do?
Vance: Initially, we tried to convince the attorney general in Alabama that he shouldn’t defend the bill, that it was clearly unconstitutional. That didn’t work. And so, along with colleagues from DOJ, Tom Perez who was then the head of the Civil Rights Division, and Tony West, who was the head of the civil division, we filed a lawsuit. The federal government interestingly enough had standing to challenge some aspects of the bill. There were a number of objectionable provisions, but just because we thought they were wrongheaded provisions didn’t mean we could go to court and sue over them.
Rosenberg: And what does standing mean, Joyce?
Vance: Standing is who has a right to challenge faulty provisions in a law. And because we couldn’t challenge everything in the law that we thought was unconstitutional, there were actually two parallel suits that were filed along with ours. One was filed on behalf of the Episcopal Church and the Catholic Church, and there were issues because parts of the bill made it illegal for religious volunteers who had been in the practice of driving people who were undocumented to doctor’s appointments and other appointments. The bill made that a criminal act. And so, the faith based institutions came in to challenge that. And then there was another lawsuit that was filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the ACLU challenging some other provisions of the bill. But the three suits were put together. They were combined in front of one judge and preceded together.
Rosenberg: What happened?
Vance: In front of the district court, we were successful in invalidating some of the provisions but not all that we challenged. Ultimately, the case ended up in the 11th Circuit. We were successful in challenging about 10 of the provisions of the bill, essentially gutting the worst provisions in the bill. And the Supreme Court did not take the case on cert. So that 11th Circuit holding stuck.
Rosenberg: Now interestingly, some of the local law enforcement departments in Alabama had a view on this, which was perhaps not what you would have expected.
Vance: I think that’s true. One of the provisions of the bill required state and local law enforcement, when they came across someone who was undocumented, to turn them over to the federal government. That might not sound like a big deal, but it means that if you’re a Birmingham police officer or a police officer in a small police department in rural Alabama, and you make a traffic stop, and one of the people involved is undocumented, you have to stay with that person on the side of the road sometimes for hours, until a federal agent could get to you. We had an immigration strategy in my district–our priority was to prosecute people who were violent criminals. We didn’t have the resources to prosecute everybody who was out of status. Our decision was to go after the ones who were a danger to the community.
Rosenberg: To prioritize your work, which is what every U.S. attorney’s office does.
Vance: And we did that in coordination with state and local law enforcement. They all understood the priority. We worked together on it, but the Alabama Bill criminalized in essence mere presence, and it misallocated law enforcement resources. So, sheriffs and chiefs were uniformly up in arms about the bill. Many of them didn’t feel like politically, like they could do that publicly, sheriffs are elected in Alabama. But we did at the time where we filed the lawsuit had affidavits from chiefs and sheriffs, three of them who publicly went on record and just said this bill is bad. It misallocates law enforcement resources. It won’t let us do the best job we can do at keeping our community safe.
Rosenberg: Did they pay a price politically for that?
Vance: Interestingly, they didn’t, it didn’t cost any of them at all. One of the ironies of this bill was the people who passed it and the people who defended it, for certain in the attorney general’s office, had good intentions, but as we were further into the litigation, one of the lawyers on the other side told me I didn’t understand when this bill passed that it would have the impact of tearing families apart. And this happened in 2011, immigration wasn’t really on the national radar screen like it is today. The biggest problem with this bill was it did result in that. It resulted in kids who went to school and when they got home their mom or their dad wasn’t there. And it was heartbreaking.
Rosenberg: Do you miss the work?
Vance: I do, I think I’ll always miss the work, I’ll always miss the people. In fact, this morning before I came to meet you, I was on the phone with the current U.S. attorney in Birmingham, someone who I have a lot of respect for, and and I, I miss the office. But he said something to me, they had just gone through an office evaluation and they came through with flying colors, which made me really happy.
Rosenberg: That’s something that each office has to do every three or four or five years.
Vance: And we really look forward to it. Boy oh boy. But Jay told me that they had come through and that when he had spoken to the office afterwards, he had made sure to give me credit, which was you know, crazy. He’s two years in and he’s doing a tremendous job. And so, although I missed the office, I take a lot of comfort knowing good people doing good work on behalf of all of us.
Rosenberg: Joyce, all of us who grew up in the U.S. attorney community had mentors. I know you must have had mentors as well. Would you talk about one or two of them?
Vance: I had a wonderful office when I joined it. It was small and it was close and the criminal chief was a lawyer named Bud Henry, who’d been in the office almost forever. We didn’t have a lot of women in the office. In fact, there was a point in time where I was–when I was in the criminal division where if I wanted to have lunch with the other women in the office I sat down and ate at my desk alone. And so, with that absence of role models, it was particularly important to have a good mentor. And Bud was an outstanding mentor. What he instilled was this notion that the integrity of the office, the integrity of the prosecutors mattered more than anything else. And so, the ethic in our office when you had a problem, was not to solve it on your own, it was to grab everybody that you could, sit down and to get different opinions and to move forward. Bud, in terms of helping you figure out–you know, those difficult things that prosecutors have to understand: when do you have enough evidence, when do you need to push back and tell your agents to go back and, and get more, how do you charge a case–what’s, what’s the right way to charge a case, what’s not charging a defendant too heavily, but at the same token, not too lightly, those sort of judgment calls. Bud had such a nice way of teaching those issues, and, and never making you feel stupid, which I spent a lot of time feeling stupid as a young prosecutor.
Rosenberg: I still feel stupid just about every day. Our bud Henry in the Eastern District of Virginia, was a man named Justin Williams. I remember back in the day when we actually had libraries, at the library coming out of my office was to the right, and Justin coming out of my office, sat to the left, and I never went to the right, because the answer was always to the left. It was always to walk down to Justin’s office. He had been there forever. He was the criminal chief. And it didn’t matter who you were, how much tenure you had in the office, he would drop everything he was doing if you knocked on his door and asked for help. You became the most important thing in his professional life while you were in his office.
Vance: And that was comforting, right knowing that you had somebody that you could go to who would help you make the right decision because as a young prosecutor, you have a lot of discretion. I talked to one of our senior judges in Birmingham when I first went on duty, a wonderful judge named Clarence Allgood. And he told me that I would have more authority and more power as a 31-year-old prosecutor than really anybody should have, and that what was the most important thing for me, was to remember that cases that we charged, that they weren’t statistics, that that was a living human being on the other end of that case. That was the same sort of message that Bud Henry always had for us. And what we were told was to always do the right thing.
Rosenberg: So, what is the goal of the criminal justice system in your view? I mean, obviously it’s justice and integrity and respect and responsibility but what were you trying to accomplish?
Vance: To do justice.
Rosenberg: That’s simple.
Vance: I think it is that simple it’s making sure that the system functions with integrity, that it treats everybody fairly, that we protect the community. That’s not to say that the system is perfect. And we know that there are issues with the system but we have to always work towards making it a better system.
Rosenberg: Well, the system is nothing more than a group of men and women and people are fallible, all human beings are.
Vance: That’s absolutely right, and I think one of the things that good prosecutors learn, is that they’re not infallible and that they have to admit when they make mistakes, learn from them, and move forward. And I remember there was a point in time when Sally Yates was the deputy attorney general and she became very interested in the notion of implicit bias, which simply says that we’re all human beings, our brains are hard wired to accept messages from around us from media and advertising, and sometimes our brains function even though we’re good people who aren’t–don’t believe that we’re discriminatory in any way. But sometimes those messages can cause us to act in that way, with implicit bias. And Sally became committed to training for both agents and prosecutors. You know, a lot of people didn’t like that, a lot of people felt like that was accusing them maybe of being racist, but good prosecutors understand that we have to always be open to examining our behavior to make sure that the system works the way it’s intended to.
Rosenberg: And when you make a mistake, identify it admit it, and fix it.
Vance: Absolutely, and sometimes that means telling a federal judge that you’ve made a mistake, and those are never easy moments. But that’s what the law and our oath demands of us.
Rosenberg: Joyce, there’s another passion in your life which I have to ask you about. You’ve talked about your knitting community. Time to give a shout out to your knitting community.
Vance: Knitters are really wonderful people. So, here’s something interesting that I learned, Chuck: a lot of appellate lawyers at DOJ and in the state system are knitters. And so, knitters go on retreats like other people with similar interests do, and I would hang out with other knitters who are appellate lawyers inevitably. But knitting is wonderful. There’s nothing like knitting to make the time that you’re waiting between when the jury gets your case, and when they return a verdict, tolerable. I was always a bad waiter when one of my juries was deliberating on a verdict and knitting helps.
Rosenberg: And what do you do with the stuff that you make?
Vance: I have four kids, so I knit socks and hats, and I force them upon my children and hope that they wear them.
Rosenberg: Well Joyce, it’s really a pleasure to have you on The Oath. Thank you for doing this.
Vance: Thanks for having me, Chuck.