Marcela Ximena Johnson '09 is a criminal defense investigator with The Bronx Defenders, whose mission is to provide innovative, holistic, and client-centered criminal defense, family defense, civil legal services, and social work support and advocacy to low-income people of the Bronx.
Johnson came to Hotchkiss in 2005 as a prep: "I grew up moving around often—by the time I was 12, I had attended five schools across three countries. I wanted some stability during high school, so I decided to consider boarding school. Hotchkiss seemed like a good fit. Once there, I found inspiration from many faculty members. Martha Perkins and Charlie Bell gave me a love of running, for which I'll be eternally grateful. I now fondly look back on the brutal runs up Cardiac Hill—I'll probably never run regularly in such a beautiful and pristine part of the world again. It was a gift. Tom Trethaway was an incredible mentor for me; he gave me a love of reading, writing, and learning. Wayne Gaynor encouraged me in math, and challenged me in what was not my best subject."
After graduating from Hotchkiss, Johnson matriculated at Columbia University, where she double-majored in English literature and economics. As an undergraduate, Johnson found a passion for public interest and social justice work and explored that across various arenas. She lived in Columbia's environmental house for two years and served as a food justice research intern at WE ACT for Environmental Justice in Harlem. And she facilitated workshops and discussions through the Rape Crisis/Anti-Violence Support Center and Columbia's FemSex, a student-designed seminar that explores topics such as feminism and power and privilege. Johnson also spent a summer as an intern at the Department of Justice's Criminal Division before graduating in May of 2014 with a B.A.
Following her time at Columbia, Johnson spent a year as a legal analyst at a financial litigation firm, Kobre & Kim LLP, where she worked on government enforcement defense, white-collar criminal defense, and pro bono criminal defense cases. "I learned so much and really enjoyed my time at the firm, but I also deeply missed the social justice and community engagement work that I was involved with in college. A few months into my time at the firm, I had the opportunity to work closely on a pro bono case in which our client was accused of gun trafficking, and it sparked my interest in public defense. Working on that case, as well as witnessing and participating in the Black Lives Matter movement, made me feel compelled to pursue public defense work."
Johnson joined The Bronx Defenders as an investigator in August of 2015. The Bronx Defenders is comprised of criminal defense attorneys; family, housing, employment, and immigration attorneys; social workers; investigators; community organizers; and civil legal and parent advocates, all of whom work collaboratively to provide holistic advocacy to low-income people in the Bronx. This model of holistic, interdisciplinary public defense was pioneered by The Bronx Defenders. Since its founding nearly 20 years ago, The Bronx Defenders has rooted its work in the knowledge that preventing people from becoming caught in the revolving door of the criminal justice system requires addressing both the conditions driving people into the system as well as the devastating consequences that result from criminal justice involvement.
As an investigator, Johnson works on a variety of cases, ranging from petty larceny and other low-level misdemeanors to robbery, assault, and homicide. For Johnson, public defense investigators are equalizers of sorts. They attempt to level the playing field for low-income defendants by gathering information from witnesses, camera footage, and so on: "The defense often doesn't get information, even if it's exculpatory, from the prosecution until just before trial, which could be years after the alleged incident. My job is to get as much information related to the case as possible, so we can best advise and advocate for our clients, especially early on in the case. I spend most of my time interviewing the complaining witnesses who brought the allegations against our clients, speaking with eye and defense witnesses, and obtaining and reviewing video surveillance. All of this is then used to put together a more informed defense strategy for our clients."
Much of Johnson's work involves understanding technology's impact on criminal cases, as well as how it can be used to bolster her clients' defense. "Part of my job is staying up-to-date on how people are communicating across various social media platforms, as well as collecting and analyzing digital evidence like video surveillance and cell site location data. For example, cell site location data can be critical in misidentification cases; we have used clients' cell phone GPS location data to effectively demonstrate that they have an alibi for the charges levied against them."
Johnson is critical of the criminal justice system. "Even minor contact with the system can have devastating consequences for our clients and their families. Certain criminal charges and convictions can mean our clients lose their job or employment license; they can become ineligible for public assistance and be evicted from public housing; child services can get involved and remove our clients' children from their home. For our undocumented clients simply an arrest, regardless of circumstances or their potential innocence, can trigger deportation. Often our clients are more concerned with some of these enmeshed consequences than with the criminal case itself—Bronx Defenders civil, family, and immigration attorneys represent clients in these cases, most of which have no right to counsel. I feel proud to be part of an office that is able to center our clients and their priorities."
Johnson explains the path that led her to The Bronx Defenders in terms of her own upbringing. "I grew up in various cultures and environments; as a result, I think we need to be open to different narratives of value and social identity. At Columbia, I came to distrust the stories we tell ourselves about America's meritocracy. Meritocracy is just an iteration of exceptionalism, and as it functions today, it mostly consolidates inequality and provides cover for systemic racism and social inequality that lead to lack of opportunity, poverty, and over-policing in low-income communities of color. For me, working at The Bronx Defenders is one way to erode at that narrative and reimagine different, more restorative, modes of justice."
To current students who might be thinking of a similar career path, Johnson says, "If there is an issue that you care deeply about, pursue and defend it. Don't be afraid to question traditional definitions of success in pursuit of what matters to you. To me, criminal justice reform is the civil rights issue of our time." Johnson will attend Harvard Law School this fall, and plans to become a public defender.