He Was a Gangster. She Was His Prosecutor. Now Their Unlikely Friendship Is Changing Lives.

DeQuandre Davis was doomed to a cycle of gang violence. Then everything changed.

Oct_2016_prosecutor_opener_Christopher_Onstott_US161001APhotograph by Christopher Onstott

DeQuandre Davis’s father was a legend, a feared and respected leader of the Crips until rival gangsters shot him dead on a Portland, Oregon, street in 1990. He left behind a one-year-old, a son who would be schooled by the street, spend time in prison, and have an extensive rap sheet by age 24.

Stacie Beckerman’s father was a legendary Iowa attorney, a do-gooder who served on the boards of non-profits and his church and died of a heart attack three weeks after she graduated from Harvard Law School. By 41, she was a federal prosecutor with a reputation for toughness.

They were brought together three years ago.

From the outset, Beckerman knew Davis’s case would be easier than what normally came across her desk at the U.S. Attorney’s Office Gang and Sex Trafficking Unit. In June 2013, Portland police had stopped a car full of men and found a gun in the pocket of a coat that had been left by Davis. Already a felon after a robbery conviction as a teen, he was prohibited from carrying a gun. At arraignment, the judge released Davis from jail and required him to undergo random drug screening. He soon tested positive for marijuana. Beckerman thought he was dangerous and argued he be held until trial.

Instead, Judge Paul Papak released Davis and ordered him to participate in something called the Court Assisted Pretrial Supervision program. It’s a way to keep defendants out of trouble, and thus out of jail, while their cases make their way through the system.

“I was apoplectic,” Beckerman said. “He needed to be put away.”

Davis eventually pleaded guilty to the gun charge, and he faced up to ten years in federal prison. Over the months they awaited sentencing, though, Beckerman, Davis, his court-appointed defense attorney, and a pretrial employee were forced to meet twice a month with Papak.

“I was impatient, skeptical, and frustrated,” Beckerman said. “I’m an in-the-trenches prosecutor, and I had a million other things I needed to be doing.”

Davis also saw the presentencing meetings as pointless. “I thought she was going to say lies about me,” he said. “I know the system. Justice isn’t equal.”

So the prosecutor and the criminal both brought a certain attitude to that first meeting, in January 2014. Davis, about six foot three and muscular, didn’t smile or look anyone in the eye. He seemed bored—barely talking, and mumbling when he did—and kept his distance from Beckerman, who reminded him of a strict high school principal. Beckerman, a foot shorter, was all business. In her tailored black or blue business suits, she had one purpose: to put Davis behind bars.

Oct_2016_prosecutor_portrait_Christopher_Onstott_US161001APhotograph by Christopher Onstott

While Beckerman lived in a precise world—a defendant is either guilty or not—Davis lived in a gray place foreign to most law-abiding people, a place with its own rules and codes that must be understood to survive. Eight years after his father was gunned down, a nine-year-old DeQuandre threatened a classmate with a toy gun. He lived off and on with his mother and his father’s sister, and also in foster care. He spent time in juvenile hall and was expelled from an alternative high school after his freshman year. When he was 14, a close friend was shot to death. At 17, he was imprisoned after being convicted of robbing a man who was selling fake drugs.

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“I didn’t let anyone walk over me. I didn’t care if I died young,” he said. “My mama always taught me not to fear nothing but God.”

January passed.

February.

At meeting after meeting, Beckerman and Davis went through the motions. They’d pick benches on opposite ends of the hallway as they waited for the courtroom doors to open. Inside, Beckerman sat alone at one counsel table; Davis and his attorney sat at the other. Judge Papak ran the meeting from his bench.

March went by.

April.

It’s hard to pinpoint precisely when something changed between them. Neither Beckerman nor Davis can remember the specific date, time, or other details.

Perhaps it began the day that Beckerman decided to stop sitting at the far end of the hallway and asked Davis if she could join him on his bench. “I sat with him because I finally felt comfortable with him,” she said. “I recall he didn’t say much. I don’t think he was comfortable with me yet.”

Perhaps it was the day Davis listened to Beckerman talking about something—precisely what doesn’t matter—and smiled. “A smile,” he said, “goes a long ways.”

Perhaps it was the day they walked into court together, after he held the door for her and let her pass first. Perhaps it was when they began saying goodbye at the end of meetings instead of merely stalking off in silence.

Beckerman had come to believe that Davis was trying to make meaningful changes in his life, that he had found the right attitude. He took a job on an assembly line at a local food company that made granola bars. In time, he was promoted to sanitation clerk. He started classes at Portland Community College.

Beckerman noticed Davis never complained or missed a meeting, even though he had to take two buses from the halfway house where he was living during the presentencing period. Davis was doing everything the law and law enforcement required: working hard, attending life-skills classes, remaining sober, and staying out of trouble.

Oct_2016_prosecutor_bench_Christopher_Onstott_US161001APhotograph by Christopher Onstott

After one meeting, Beckerman returned to her office and glanced at her computer. Taped to the side was a quote from John Wesley, a cofounder of the Methodist Church. Beckerman had first heard the words from her father and kept them as a reminder of his values. Now they carried new meaning:

“Do all the good that you can
In all the ways that you can
In all the places you can
At all the times you can
To all the people you can
As long as ever you can.”

May passed. Then June.

At one of their last meetings before the September 2014 sentencing, Davis proudly announced that his girlfriend was pregnant with a boy. He’d picked out a name: DeQuandre Davis Jr.

A few weeks later, Beckerman walked to Target and bought a few books for Davis and his future son. “I wanted him to know I cared about him and his new baby,” Beckerman said. “But I was also nervous about what my colleagues would think, because let’s just say it’s not every day a prosecutor is buying baby gifts for a defendant.”

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“Seeing DeQuandre’s vulnerability up close made me want to do more,” says Beckerman.

“Those books changed the way I saw her,” Davis said. “It changed the way I saw the system.” Davis cut ties to old friends. He stayed clean. “I wanted to not just be a father,” he said. “I wanted to be a dad.”

The case Beckerman had once thought would be easy was now keeping her up at night. She believed Davis deserved a second chance, a different kind of justice.

And so, early one July morning, as her family slept, Beckerman sat at her home computer to write a letter to U.S. district court judge Michael Mosman: “If he goes to prison, he leaves behind another young boy to be raised by a single mother, or he receives a sentence of probation and is present the day his son is born, the day his son says his first words, and the day his son takes his first steps. The government votes for the latter path, in an effort to stop the cycle of paternal absence that likely played an important role in Mr. Davis ending up before this Court in the first place.”

On the day of Davis’s sentencing, he and Beckerman met in the hallway outside the court. He was wearing a sharp dark suit. He stood up, slipped on his jacket, and grinned at Beckerman. “See,” he said, “now I look just like you.” She smiled back, and he opened the door for her.

Inside the courtroom, Davis’s attorney and Beckerman asked the judge to place Davis on probation with conditions. Beckerman wanted Judge Mosman to restrict the neighbor-hoods to which Davis could travel, prohibit him from associating with gang members, and require random drug testing. She even wanted Davis restricted from traveling in a car with others, something that frequently led to trouble, without official approval.

Before ruling, Mosman asked Davis to explain himself.

Oct_2016_prosecutor_selfie_Christopher_Onstott_US161001APhotograph by Christopher Onstott

“I’m being given the chance to show I can do something different with my life than crime,” he told the judge.

Mosman agreed to the deal. Afterward, back in the hallway, the prosecutor and the felon hugged.

“I learned a lot about the law at Harvard Law School,” Beckerman said. “But no one taught me about why a 20-year-old black male in a tough neighborhood feels like he needs to be armed. No one taught me about what attracts kids to join gangs. I knew the law, and I could apply the law. But it is difficult to stand in judgment of other human beings without understanding human beings.”

In the ensuing year, Davis became a father. Although he didn’t live with his son, then almost the age Davis had been when his own father was murdered, he saw him often and read the boy the books Beckerman had given them. “When I was little and saw other kids with a dad, I used to feel so sad,” he said. “When I am with my son, I talk with him, hug him, kiss him, and sing songs to him. He goes to sleep every night listening to church songs.”

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Beckerman’s life changed for the better too. On June 5, 2015, she became a U.S. magistrate judge. The swearing-in ceremony at the courthouse was crowded with family, friends, and officials, all prosecutors or other representatives from the criminal justice system. Except for one person. When Beckerman entered with her family, she spotted Davis in the back and beamed. He smiled back.

A man in a suit took note of the exchange and asked Davis how he knew Beckerman.

“She was my prosecutor,” he said.

The man chuckled. “You’re joking, right?”

“No,” Davis said quietly. “She was my prosecutor.”

***

Some habits are hard to break. Davis started smoking marijuana and failed to show up for routine drug tests, resulting in a five-month jail sentence, which was subsequently cut to two months for good behavior. Since then, he has gotten a job, has checked in as required with his parole officer, and has taken all routine drug tests.

Beckerman offered some perspective to those who would criticize Davis. “Anyone who has worked with offenders knows that there will be bumps in the road to change,” she said. “It can be difficult for someone who has had no structure in his life for more than 20 years. I took a chance on DeQuandre because I believed he was ready to walk away from the gang lifestyle, and I continue to believe in him.

“I bought a DQ (Dairy Queen) onesie for DeQuandre’s kiddo a while back that I never had a chance to give to him,” she said. “Now it doesn’t fit DQ Jr., so I put it on a stuffed bear. I had a bag for DQ to hide it in when he walked out of the courthouse, but he tossed the bag aside and said he was going to walk around with the doll all day.”

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