Melba Pearson, Deputy Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

Veteran prosecutor Melba Pearson learned something the day she wheeled a paralyzed shooting victim into a courtroom on his hospital bed so that he could tell his story to a jury.

As the witness, a 38-year-old African-American named Michael Smathers, described the shooting incident and recounted his murdered friend’s last hours, she realized that everyone in the courtroom was crying, including the jury, the families and the court clerk. Even the judge was tearing up, she said.

Pearson, however, was not. The seasoned prosecutor reminded herself that she represented the state of Florida. “I am the only person here who is not allowed to cry,” she thought at the time.

The shooter, a security guard who argued self-defense and a “stand your ground” defense, was found guilty and received two life sentences. But Pearson never felt like celebrating her win. She thought the “stand your ground” law was problematic. She believed that attempts by the victim’s family to push for legislation requiring mental health assessments of armed security guards wasn’t getting the traction it deserved. It made her start thinking about how she could effect change on a more widespread level.

In February, Pearson, a 16-year Miami-Dade prosecutor, became deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

When the ACLU called her last year to see if she knew of someone for the opening, Pearson was president of the National Black Prosecutors Association and her identity was so tied to her job at the State Attorney’s office that it was hard to commit to leaving, she said.

But it was Pearson’s experience as a prosecutor that the organization wanted, both for a commanding understanding of the issues and greater credibility when discussing matters of criminal justice and race.

“One of the big issues for the ACLU is criminal justice reform,” Pearson said. “I find that I am able to navigate those waters a little more easily.”

She can explain, for example, how a civil citation program is more effective than incarceration—both for the individual and for the system. She can talk about how prosecutors benefit if they can present more options to offenders than a one-size-fits-all approach that requires jail time. And she is able to describe how a jail stay for a minor infraction can result in a domino effect that starts with the loss of a job, a car and even a home. Too many cases in the criminal justice system today are related to mental illness and addiction, she said.

While a move by a seasoned prosecutor to the top ranks of the ACLU may appear unusual, it was not such a great leap for Pearson. She is black and her husband is white, and it was the ACLU that convinced the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down anti-miscegenation laws in 1967 when it represented Richard and Mildred Loving in the landmark case Loving v. Virginia.

“That is the seminal case that … allowed people of different races to marry,” Pearson said. “That’s why I’m at the ACLU.”

Knowing the history of the organization, of course, wasn’t the only force that prompted her to make the move. She also knew the team she would be working with. And the outcome of the last presidential election made it at obvious decision for her, she said.

Pearson grew up in New Rochelle, New York, in an intellectual household that prized reading, good grades and education as the great equalizer. At home, her family would have long discussions about the civil rights movement, racism and how misconceptions affect people’s lives. Her mother was a pharmacist from Trinidad; her father was a Jamaican retired merchant marine and sometime writer who was interested in civil rights at the international level. He once nearly died of appendicitis on a ship when his captain insisted he was malingering­­­—a judgement made based on his race.

“My father used to always tell me that Dr. King and all the great civil rights leaders had amazing lawyers to help them when they were arrested for protesting or trying to challenge a particular issue in the courts,” Pearson said.

In her household, it was understood that someday she would be a lawyer.

Pearson was hired by the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office in her last year at Hofstra University law school, and she worked there for a time after graduation. But on her first try she failed the Florida Bar exam, which made her question her career path.

“That was a really tough blow for me because I had never failed at anything in my life,” she said.

Then, 9/11 happened. After some soul searching, Pearson, who had taken a job in events planning, resumed studying for the bar before and after work. She passed the exam and called the State Attorney’s Office to get her job back.

But after 16 years as a prosecutor, Pearson said she was troubled by the rhetoric coming from President Donald Trump’s campaign. His election pushed her to decide it was time to make the move to the ACLU.

“People see us as a line of defense against all the craziness,” Pearson said. “Lawyers were integral in the civil rights movement the first time around, and with the battles to come, lawyers are going to be integral in moving us forward and making sure that civil rights and civil liberties are preserved.”

Since joining the ACLU, Pearson has been working on the organization’s internal procedures and meeting with communities to raise awareness about what the ACLU does. In her eyes, the organization is made up of constitutional purists ensuring that the Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments are respected. She recognizes that not everyone is going to agree with the group’s stance in each case.

“But the reality is, we’re backed up by the law and we’re backed up by the Constitution,” Pearson said. “That, to me, is huge. And that’s where you find justice.”