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Trauma-Informed Leadership in the Law: And Why It Matters

Updated: Nov 14, 2023

Although trauma-informed leadership is gaining traction in the education and healthcare sectors, it is not a topic reserved for these industries. In fact, private, public and government should all be considering moving a trauma-informed framework not just for their customers, or clients but for their staff. Additionally, trauma-informed leadership is meaningful and beneficial in nearly every sector, including law.

Melissa Lucio’s Wrongful Conviction

In her recent article, Michelle Charness explores the need for trauma-informed interrogation, particularly regarding the case of Melissa Lucio, who received a death sentence in Texas.

Lucio claims that she was wrongfully convicted of capital murder, and her family, attorneys, and advocates, who include Kim Kardashian, John Oliver, Amanda Knox, and the general public, agree.

Sentence to death in 2008 for the death of her 2-year-old daughter, Lucio was granted a stay of execution in April 2022. The stay does not remove Lucio from death row, and it is only a small step towards her exoneration.

The Many Missteps in Lucio’s Case

Several things went wrong during Lucio’s case back in 2008, leading to her wrongful conviction.

An accident labeled as child abuse. Lucio was blamed for the murder of her infant daughter, and the court was led to believe that injuries sustained from a fall down the stairs were evidence of child abuse.

Unheard evidence. Some evidence was suppressed in court, including the fact that Lucio’s daughter had a physical disability that made her prone to tripping.

Traumatic and abusive interrogation. Hours after the death of her child, Lucio was yelled at, threatened, and repeatedly shown images of her dead daughter. While coping with shock, grief, and loss, she could not make eye contact and held a quiet demeanor.

This lasted for hours, and officials did not offer a drink of water or a bathroom break. Instead, they coerced her into hitting a doll repeatedly while officials screamed at her to hit the doll harder.

To end this experience, Lucio confessed to a crime to never committed.

Bribery. The county’s district attorney at the time of Lucio’s conviction was sentenced to 13 years of prison for a bribery scheme shortly after Lucio’s sentence. He was found to side with the prosecution in exchange for money in cases like Lucio’s.

Systemic abuse and a lack of trauma-informed care. It’s typical for victims to experience self-blame, and Lucio was a victim of physical and sexual violence herself. She was psychologically vulnerable, as many people who find themselves entrapped in the legal system are.

Her interrogation was an incident of re-traumatization and abuse. And it’s not an exception.

Why Our Justice System Needs Trauma-Informed Leaders

I spent over two decades working as a Law Office Administrator for a General Practice Office. It was that work that ultimately led me to wanting to help organizations implement trauma-informed practices across systems and industries. It was the strength of our clients, that help me tell my personal trauma story, and set out on my current mission to transform systems as places for hope and healing instead of traumatization.

Our justice system is in place to serve and protect our communities and our families, but when incidents happen, our communities and families suffer not only at the hands of the perpetrators—but also the justice system.

Our legal system needs to be trauma informed. It needs trauma-informed leaders and practices to avoid situations like abusive interrogation tactics and wrongful convictions.

Most often, we speak of trauma-informed leadership as a tool for improving your organization—as it most certainly is. But trauma-informed care is also necessary for certain industries—including the legal sector—if we want to protect our community and prioritize mental health.

Not just in the case of wrongful convictions but using a trauma-informed approach in family courts, criminal court and civil courts would lead to addressing societal issues that often wind up in the legal system. For some, as we begin to approach this topic, they feel that addressing trauma in the courtroom lets the bad person “get away” with something. The truth is, a trauma-informed approach is not an either-or framework, but a yes and approach. In other words, you can hold someone accountable in a trauma-informed framework. You can be firm and compassionate at the same time.

If you are considering implementing trauma-informed practices, you might start with our Trauma-Informed Masterclass that begins in August.


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