SF prosecutor fights on the side of justice and victims

Justine Cephus pushed the heavy courtroom doors with her back, carrying a cart stacked with files, and walked into Department 23 on the second floor of the San Francisco Superior Court building.

She then disappeared into Judge Philip Moscone’s chambers along with a group of lawyers for the behind-the-scenes negotiations that take place before they face one another in court. After more than 45 minutes in the judge’s chambers, the court finally came to order.

“Justine Cephus for the people,” said the prosecutor with the District Attorney’s Office, standing at the lectern just past 10:30 a.m. The phrase would be repeated for much of the rest of the morning as she handled about 20 cases ranging from a slashing incident to a domestic violence charge.

Aside from her work on this recent Wednesday, Cephus typically handles 50 to 60 cases at any one time. Last year, she had five cases that went to trial.

Like her colleagues who work under District Attorney George Gascon and face off against an aggressive Public Defender’s Office as well as private attorneys, Cephus holds people who commit crimes accountable. But she also sees herself as an advocate — sometimes the only one — for the victims of crimes.


The 29-year-old Los Angeles native may not have been destined to be a prosecutor.

Her father, a black man born and raised in Tuscaloosa, Ala., saw the civil rights movement unfold. Her grandfather was born in a Japanese internment camp during World War II.

She recalled how telling her parents and family that she was going into law was not easy, as both sides of her family have not always seen law enforcement in a good light.

“You work for the other side,” she recalls them thinking at the time. Even some family members still think she works for the Public Defender’s Office.

When Cephus first pursued a law career she initially wanted to be a defense attorney.

“When I was younger, the idealized vision I had was more in the defense realm,” she remembered.

It was a stint during law school volunteering for the Innocence Project that altered her plans. The organization works to exonerate wrongly convicted people through DNA testing. Assigned to go through a massive pile of letters from inmates and decide which cases might warrant a second look, she remembers rejecting them all, thinking it was too late to do anything by that point.

She instead took the advice of her professor to become a prosecutor, which she did starting in 2010 for two district attorney’s offices before coming to San Francisco about two years ago.

For Cephus, her passion for law is rooted in a motivation to help people. While she says she retains some of the goals she had when she wanted to be a public defender, they have been inverted. In seeking to become a prosecutor, her aim would be to work to prevent wrongful convictions instead of trying to free people years after they’d been sent to jail.

“It’s not as if we are out for blood and trying to charge every person for every crime,” she said.

Instead, she looks at each case by itself for a variety of objectives: Can it be proven in court? Is it deserving of prosecution? Would diversion or some other outcome be better for everyone involved?

Working in San Francisco, Cephus says, has allowed her to practice law as a prosecutor on her own terms. During her time with other district attorney’s offices, however, if a case could be prosecuted, she was ordered to prosecute and hard. That did not sit well with her, she said, because draconian prosecution isn’t always the answer.

Her new boss, Gascon, has made a name for himself by moving away from the hard-on-crime model and instead advocating for restorative justice and a lessening of drug and other nonviolent crime convictions. In The City, she says, prosecutors have more discretion and are not pressed to prosecute all cases no matter the details.


In Department 23, Cephus spent the rest of that recent Wednesday morning dealing with her cases — all of them past the preliminary hearing stage and getting close to trial.

She also had business in another courtroom. At one point, when another prosecutor stood up to address the judge, Cephus looked at her cellphone: Her colleague in an adjacent courtroom had texted about one of her cases that was up next. She briskly walked

out of the room and into the courtroom onedoor down before returning to Moscone’s chambers.

For much of the morning, Cephus had a particular case on her mind concerning an attempted murder charge. The prosecutor hoped to bring the victim to court, but the victim was nowhere to be found. The woman was afraid to confront the man accused of attacking her, Cephus said.

That worry is a constant in her line of work.

For Cephus, prosecuting crimes is just one of her roles; another key responsibility is providing a source of support to victims. That support is especially important, she notes,when those victims are reluctant to come forward.

Last fall, she had an unusual domestic violence case in which the victim was a man, she recalled.

“I don’t think it’s easy for a man to say he was hurt, physically hurt, especially by a woman,” she said. “Even though he is the man, somebody should take that seriously.”

Eventually the man came forward and the case was prosecuted. The defendant was ordered to get treatment in hopes her pattern of domestic violence ends, Cephus said.

“Turned out it wasn’t the first time,” she said of the defendant’s record of domestic violence.

Alluding to her concern for victims’ well-being and the goal of her daily duties, Cephus said her hope is the outcome will prevent the same crime from being repeated.

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