A Look at Chief Public Defender Martesha Johnson

Martesha Johnson was in her early 20s in 2007, an intern at the Metro Public Defender’s Office, when she got her first assignment.

It was a murder case. She was to assist one of the office’s attorneys in representing the man accused of committing that violent crime, and her first job was to pick out the clothes the accused would wear to court. She felt prepared enough for the task — Johnson had long held an interest in fashion and entertainment. But standing in front of the office closet where public defenders keep an assortment of outfits for such circumstances, something else hit her: The job wasn’t just to clothe a poor man who’d been locked up and couldn’t get home to his own closet; the job was to put him in a suit that would allow a jury to see a person, not just a defendant in an orange jumpsuit. Her task was to dress him in such a way that would allow a jury to hear his story, not just the clanging of shackles.

It was the beginning of an awakening that drew Johnson to the criminal-defense side of the law, and in particular, to an office that represents Nashvillians who can’t afford an attorney on their own.

A little more than a decade later, Johnson, now 35, leads that office. In August, after running unopposed to succeed longtime Metro Public Defender’s Office chief Dawn Deaner, Johnson was sworn in as Nashville’s first African-American to serve as top public defender. After working in the office as an attorney for 10 years, she has a seat at the table where the city’s criminal justice system is shaped.

She says she’s still working out how to use that position, figuring out where and how she can be most effective.

Five months into her new job, one item on Johnson’s list is the money-bail system, although she prefers a term that gets more directly to the point: “wealth-based detention.”

“It’s not a conversation about the public defenders versus the bail-bonds industry,” she says. “That’s not the discussion we’re having. We’re having a discussion about wealth-based detention. Do we want to have a system that is designed surrounding wealth? If I have the money to post a million-dollar bond, no one is asking about whether I’m going to get out and reoffend.”

And in that case, there’s no intern in the public defender’s office charged with finding a suit for you to wear.

“You’re not in jail,” Johnson says, jumping back in. “You can prepare your defense from the outside. You have resources at your disposal to prepare a solid defense. And my client, who is indigent, deserves the exact same thing. Money should not be the determining factor of the type of justice you get.”

Because that’s currently the case, Johnson says, the presumption of innocence is eroded. And as a result, she says, people who are completely innocent of the crimes for which they are charged are regularly forced to take plea deals rather than risk sitting in jail, losing their jobs, and finding their lives in shambles at the end of the process.

“That should be outraging to anybody who cares about a true justice system,” she says.

That brings up the obvious question: Does she want Nashville to eliminate the money-bail system altogether?

“We have to move away from wealth-based detention,” she says. “Now, then that puts us into the interesting conversation. I think everybody says, ‘OK, fine, we do away with money bail. What next?’ And then you get into these discussions about risk-assessment tools and conditions and all of that, and unfortunately, I think where we are as a country, we don’t have a solid, perfect pretrial risk-assessment tool or a condition tool that is at our disposal to just eliminate money bail and bring those tools in. Because sometimes they can be more onerous than money bail. Sometimes to have a bunch of conditions on someone awaiting trial is difficult to do. If I have to go report to five different places in Nashville, that’s going to be a challenge for my client who’s poor. So there is no perfect structure at this point. But I think we need to be figuring out what the structure is that is not wealth-based detention.”

Johnson grew up in a different Nashville, one that was more small town than destination city. During an interview in her office, she notes with shock that Nashville now has a downtown New Year’s Eve celebration that people — lots of them — actually attend. She doesn’t claim a specific part of town, she says, because she spent time living on all sides of the city in the ’80s and early ’90s. For a time, she worked at the H.G. Hill grocery store on Dickerson Pike, and she says she can recall knowing just about every customer who came through.

As she graduated from Whites Creek High School and enrolled at Tennessee State University, she saw herself becoming an investigative journalist.

“Partially because I’m extremely nosey,” says Johnson.

She was interested in crime and frustrated by what she saw as a lazy disinterest in the humans and circumstances behind sensational events. To her, the questions often asked of traumatized witnesses — “how do you feel?” — by sound-bite-seeking reporters left a lot to be desired.

“I wanted to do it differently,” she says. “I want to know more about the action, I want to know more about the scene. What’s the build-up? What’s the background?”

A pre-law class at TSU taught by trailblazing civil rights activist and attorney Julian Blackshear showed her another vehicle for those passions. Johnson says Blackshear challenged her to pursue a career in law despite her own nagging doubts.

“She stood out as being ambitious,” Blackshear told the TSU News Service in regard to Johnson last year. “She really wanted to learn. She had a purpose for being in class. She soaked in everything I said, and she was hungry for legal knowledge.”

The hook was set. Johnson bought a bunch of test-prep books and put herself through an LSAT study course. She enrolled in law school at the University of Tennessee. But what area of law to pursue?

An internship at the district attorney’s office in Memphis turned her off to the prosecutorial side of the bar.

“That scared me,” she says. “My job at the DA’s office was to, every day, basically read through the most heinous files that you could read.”

The crime-scene photos, she says, would reappear in her nightmares. But moreover, she found she didn’t have a passion for working to find ways to punish people.

Briefly, she thought she might pursue entertainment law.

“I have a deep love for Beyoncé,” Johnson says with a wide smile. “I thought entertainment law meant that at some point, a young lawyer that’s all into music would make it on the red carpet with these artists. … I very quickly learned that it would mean I’d be pushing her paperwork behind the scenes.”

It wasn’t long before she landed an internship in Nashville at the Metro Public Defender’s Office, where she found herself standing in front of a rack of clothes, preparing to help defend a man accused of murder.

She became certain that she wanted to represent poor criminal defendants in her hometown. She was was so determined to do so that for a time, she volunteered at the office and worked part time at Macy’s in Green Hills to get by until Deaner could hire her.

Over the course of a decade working in the office, Johnson says, her “why” has evolved. She describes herself early on as a zealous crusader, someone who wanted want to “help people and change the justice system.”

“And that sustained me for a while,” Johnson says. “But it is very hard to do this work, and the reality is it takes more than just the public defender to help people and change the justice system. So what I found is, I was in court every day, and sometimes I felt like I literally was just a piece of this justice wheel — we’re doing things the same way, I’m making arguments, I get some good results, but for the most part I’m not getting the change that I thought I was going to get.”

Her focus narrowed, and her motivation came more and more out of the dramatic disparities between how the rich and poor are treated in the criminal justice system. A few minutes talking to her makes clear that Johnson is as passionate about that now as ever. But she says that as a younger lawyer, she became frustrated, increasingly convinced that few people really cared.

It was then, she says, that she started to think about the corner office.

“So then my ‘why’ transitioned into, ‘Well, I have to figure out how to change the law, or I have to figure out how to change the mindsets of the people in power,’ ” she says.

She remembers a meeting with Deaner in which the two were set to discuss Johnson’s professional development.

“She asked me sort of, ‘What are your goals here?’ ” Johnson says. “And, you know, I didn’t think through my answer before I said it, but I said to her, ‘I want your job.’ I quickly had to say, ‘Not, like, while you’re in it.’ ”

It wasn’t long after Deaner announced in October 2017 that she would not be seeking re-election that Johnson confirmed that she’d run to succeed her. In doing so, Johnson was part of a wave of women — women of color, in particular — who ran for office in 2018, many of them for the first time. In 2017, she was part of the first class of women to go through Emerge Tennessee, a program that aims to recruit and train Democratic women to run for office.

Those who have known and worked alongside her for years say they saw it all coming.

“I think it surprised her more than it surprised me,” says Aisha McWeay, Johnson’s close friend and deputy public defender, who is about to leave the office after 10 years. Throughout their time together, McWeay saw Johnson serve in a number of different roles. She describes her friend as someone who regularly advocated for changes needed within the office.

When it came time to schedule her swearing-in as Nashville’s first African-American to lead the Public Defender’s Office, Johnson was intentional about the date. She remembered the lessons of her single working mother, who’d impressed upon her the importance of knowing the history of civil rights struggles in America. Johnson selected Aug. 28 as her swearing-in date, and proud and painful moments from that date’s history echoed through the ceremony. On Aug. 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. On that same date eight years earlier, Emmett Till had been lynched in Mississippi at age 14. And on Aug. 28, 2008, a U.S. senator from Illinois named Barack Obama accepted the Democratic nomination for president.

That day was an important one for Johnson’s mother Jacqueline, who’d put herself through college, graduating on the same day that Johnson graduated from high school.

“She tells me she cried the whole time,” Johnson says.

And perhaps not just because of what the moment meant for her daughter Martesha, but also for her granddaughter. Johnson’s then-7-year-old daughter Jacari held the Bible as Johnson took her oath of office. As a candidate, Johnson had made a point of taking Jacari on the campaign trail with her.

“Now my daughter is fearless as it relates to that,” Johnson says. “She wants to run for everything.”

Aside from being the office’s first black leader — and just the second woman to hold the position in Metro’s history — Johnson brings something else to the role that her predecessor sees as significant. In a growing city that is increasingly filled with transplants, she’s from here.

“The office has had a long history of recruiting lawyers from other cities,” Deaner says. “I came in 1996 when [former Mayor Karl Dean] was the public defender, and I think everybody in the class that he hired was from another city. And that’s sort of been the trend of the office for a long time. Martesha just sticks out to me as someone who was born and raised in Nashville, who is just committed to this city and to the community that we serve in a way that all of us who came from somewhere else don’t really have. … To me that makes Martesha really special.”

For Johnson, that connection seems to have heightened her sensitivity to the effects of, for instance, Nashville’s growing affordability crisis. Parts of town she used to frequent growing up are now unrecognizable, with longtime residents squeezed if not pushed out altogether. It breeds a hopelessness, she says, among people who feel like there’s not room for them in their own city — a hopelessness that can contribute to crime. Beyond that, the human beings ensnared by the criminal justice system are not strangers to her.

“These people that we represent, our clients, are just like my family members,” she says. “Just like the people that I grew up [with] here in Nashville. In fact, I can’t tell you how many countless times I have encountered somebody in the court system that I either grew up with, knew a family member, ran in the same circles, same part of town. So to me, I automatically see everyone that comes in that courthouse as somebody other than ‘defendant.’ ”

Now that Johnson has a seat at the proverbial table, with local criminal justice leaders who each govern their own corner of a sprawling system, she’s aiming to alter the way they see the people caught up in it.

“I want them to know that I could be every single one of the people who come into that courthouse with handcuffs on,” she says. “I could have very much so been on a docket. Addiction has affected my family, mental illness has affected my family. There are just a few degrees of separation that kept me out of that. I was fortunate to have a parent who pushed me in a different direction.”

Still, Johnson says her current challenge is “finding the best way to use my voice.” She has said repeatedly that Nashvillians can expect to hear from her about areas that need reform or issues that need to be addressed.

One issue that has remained at the forefront of the local criminal justice discussion, and shows no signs of receding, is policing. As this story goes to press, a white Nashville cop is facing a criminal homicide charge for shooting a fleeing black man, and the city’s first Community Oversight Board is about to begin its work. Before all that, there was the 2016 report by the grassroots activist group Gideon’s Army that revealed significant racial disparities in traffic stops and searches. More recently, the NYU-based Policing Project issued a report confirming those findings, with the added conclusion that Metro’s high-traffic-stop strategy has no positive effect on crime rates. From Johnson’s perch at the public defender’s office, it wasn’t news.

“For me, I have heard the voices of my clients who talk about policing in Nashville for 10 years, right?” says Johnson. “For 10 years I have heard people say, ‘But they stop us more,’ [or] ‘In my community, my rights don’t apply.’ I’m asking them, ‘Well, why would you let them search your car? Why would you let them come in your house?’ And they’re like, ‘I don’t have a choice in that. We don’t have the ability to exercise our rights in the same way.’ So for 10 years I have heard that. And then you have a community organization in Nashville who compiles a report that spells out exactly what we have heard here for many years. And to have that report disregarded, to have it sort of picked apart, and then to have the Policing Project come in and essentially say the same things? It’s frustrating.”

But even as Johnson has plenty to say about the ins and outs of the criminal justice system, she is just as eager to talk about the way issues outside of that system determine who ends up being crushed by it. By all accounts, Johnson has rarely shied away from using her voice when something isn’t the way it ought to be. But now, a bigger circle of powerful people can hear her.

She offers a preview of what they can expect.

“A lot of what we deal with on a day-to-day basis is because people are filled with so much trauma, or so many things — illnesses — that affect them that have caused them to be charged with a crime, and that’s the kind of stuff that we need to be thinking about,” she says. “Just locking people in cages is not going to change anything. It’s not. And the larger this city gets, and the more resources we bring in, I hope that my new position gives me the ability to always poke people to think about it that way.”