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A retired prosecutor’s search for recognition

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — What is the weight of the story?

For Stephanie Wright, it’s as small as the thinnest of books, a 259-page volume that has changed her life for months, leading her on an unusually determined quest for recognition. She appealed to the Department of Justice and some of the highest ranking officials and judges in the federal court system in the Midwest.

None of it had anything to do with what was in the book. It’s what was left out of her that bothered her: her name.

Ms. Wright was a federal prosecutor in Iowa who made history in her own way. She was an Assistant United States Attorney for the Northern District of Iowa, the first African-American prosecutor in the office. For 24 years, from 1994 until she retired in 2018, she was the only black prosecutor in the federal district, which encompasses the largely rural northern half of the state.

Last year, while leafing through a new book, “The History of the District Court in the Northern District of Iowa (1882-2020),” Ms. Wright turned to Appendix A. It included a list of 88 assistant federal prosecutors who had worked in the prosecutor’s office for more than a century. To her surprise and dismay, her name was missing.

The book was published by the Northern District of Iowa Historical Society, a volunteer group. Ms. Wright, who had never been a member but had ordered two copies of the book, sent an email noting the omission.

Within minutes, he received an apology from CJ Williams, a federal judge and member of the historical society, who called the omission “clearly inadvertent.” Ms. Wright’s name was the only one left off the list of assistant US attorneys that had emerged thus far.

“Our focus was on the content of the book, not the appendices,” Judge Williams wrote in an email. He added that he could not take a call from Ms. Wright at the time “because I am in the dock at a jury trial.”

In a state of agitation, Ms Wright sent another email to the history society to convey “shock and disappointment” and demand action. she asked that an online version of the book be brought up to date, that two corrected bound copies be printed for her at no cost, and that notices be placed in Iowa newspapers that the book has been fixed.

The omission, Wright wrote, “blown my name from history.”

The online version of the book was corrected, but Ms Wright was told it was “cost prohibitive” to print a new hardcover version. No notice would be published in the newspapers.

She didn’t ease up.

“They won’t forget me,” Ms. Wright said in an interview. “This country has ignored black women, black people, and we didn’t learn our history until years later.”

He was having lunch at a restaurant in Cedar Rapids, where the Northern District is based and where, for the entirety of Black History Month in February, he had paid $4,000 for a billboard on top of a downtown building. Of her It featured a photo of her in a white dress with her arms crossed and her message: “Stephanie Johnson Wright, First African American Assistant United States Attorney, Northern District of Iowa (1994-2018).”

She said the billboard was part of her response to being left out of the history book. “I’m not going to be one of those people who hide,” she said.

Ms Wright said one of her two adult daughters had asked her why she was determined to correct a small line in an obscure book that very few people would see. No more than 100 copies of the book have been printed, and it is on file in only a handful of libraries in the Midwest that are not open to the public.

“Did you see the movie ‘Hidden Figures’?” she said, referring to Oscar nominated film about three black NASA mathematicians in the 1960s. I didn’t even know such women existed. I think there are probably a lot of people who were the first in their families, the first in this country. But they decided that they would not speak. But by doing that, you’re preventing anyone else from being encouraged and inspired.”

Ms. Wright, 71, was raised in the Ville district of St. Louis, a historic black neighborhood, by a single mother. Her father was incarcerated for part of her childhood. When she was a teenager, she won a scholarship to a Roman Catholic boarding school in Minnesota.

“I was the only black girl in my class at boarding school, which was actually great for me because I always felt comfortable around white people,” she said. “I was never intimidated.”

After graduating from the University of Missouri, he worked for John Deere in Iowa before attending Northwestern Law School in Portland, Oregon, where he entered at age 38. She was hired by the federal prosecutor in Cedar Rapids on the recommendation of a civil rights activist. with whom Ms. Wright had worked.

As a prosecutor, he won a guilty plea in the 1997 case of a cross burning in front of the home of an interracial couple. He later specialized in cracking down on companies that violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In May 2022, Ms. Wright sent a four-page letter to the Justice Department, which oversees US attorneys’ offices.

She wrote that she did not believe her omission from the history book was an accident. She alleged “intentional discrimination” against her as a black woman, which she said was part of a pattern that began when she was an assistant US attorney.

In the letter, she mentioned being passed over for a job overseeing civil rights cases, which she said was “retaliation” for her support of a fellow prosecutor who had sued the US attorney’s office for age discrimination after be fired. (He case it involved messy domestic politics and featured the weirdness of a federal judge, Stephanie Rose, taking the stand. The former prosecutor she had sued lost her case.)

Ms. Wright wrote to the Department of Justice that a private attorney had discouraged her from filing a discrimination complaint on her own because it could lead to her dismissal.

Timothy Duax, the US Attorney for the Northern District of Iowa, whose tenure as Assistant US Attorney in the office coincided with Ms Wright’s, declined to address her particular claims. But in a statement, Mr. Duax said his office “does not tolerate unlawful discrimination or harassment in any form, nor does it unlawfully retaliate against employees who make such complaints.”

Richard Murphy, a retired prosecutor from the Cedar Rapids office and former treasurer of the historical society, said he was the one who compiled the list in question for Appendix A, and that the omission of Ms. Wright had been an honest mistake, not a slight error. or any type of retaliation.

He said he had relied for the addendum on a spreadsheet kept by a person who worked in the prosecutor’s office. “Stephanie’s name was not added to the list of people who left office for any reason,” Murphy said. “To the extent that she can blame herself, blame her on me. I relied on something that was inaccurate.”

He strongly objected to Ms. Wright’s contention that the omission was deliberate discrimination. “Absolutely not,” she said. “I feel bad because he apparently feels the need to claim it was done for ethnic reasons, which is wrong.”

In an unsigned response to Ms. Wright’s May 2022 letter to the Justice Department, the general counsel for the Executive Office of US Attorneys wrote that there was no basis to suggest the omission was inadvertent.

The attorney general added that if Ms. Wright wanted to file allegations of “misconduct” with the Iowa attorney’s offices, she should contact the Justice Department’s Inspector General.

She didn’t do that. Instead, she found a ruling from another source, a judge on the US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, which reviews cases from the Northern District of Iowa.

Judge Jane Kelly, working with an Eighth Circuit librarian, Eric Brust, ordered in October that three corrected pages of Appendix A be printed with adhesive backing. They would be distributed to libraries that have copies of the history book, to be pasted over the inaccurate list of assistant federal prosecutors.

On a chilly Tuesday afternoon, Ms. Wright visited the federal courthouse in Cedar Rapids, an arched, glass-fronted building, to see if the new pages were pasted. Ms. Wright now lives with her husband, Charles, a retired Postal Service supervisor, in Virginia Beach, Virginia. She and her husband had previously traveled to courthouses in Des Moines and St. Louis, where copies of the history of the Northern District of Iowa are also kept.

In the fourth-floor library of the Cedar Rapids courthouse, Hilary Naab, the librarian, pulled the book, a decidedly modest tome for all the angst it had caused, from a shelf of dictionaries and other references. At a table with a red heart cut out and felt flowers (Valentine’s Day had just passed), Mrs. Wright opened the hardcover with her gilt title. He skipped earlier chapters on judges, prominent district court cases, and courthouses, until he reached Appendix A. Its 41 pages list court personnel through the decades.

The three new pages listing the assistant federal prosecutors were carefully taped together. For a moment, Mrs. Wright wondered aloud if they might have been added expressly for her visit, after she had called for an appointment. But she noted that the edges of the pages were slightly worn, suggesting they had been sitting there for more than a few days, compressed by the weight of history, in a place few visit now that most legal investigations are over. they do online.

“I’m pleased,” said Ms. Wright.

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