Commentary: Prosecutor Kym Worthy is the Queen of Spin

Kym Worthy – via Getty Images

By Rory Fleming

As a half-abandoned city wrecked by deindustrialization and deprivation, modern Detroit has never been safe. So the people look to politicians who make them feel safe, even when they aren’t.

Kym Worthy, the Wayne County Prosecutor, is one of those politicians. She has long been painted by prominent media venues as “the toughest woman in Detroit,” as well as a “woke” prosecutor. Mariska Hartigay, popularly known as the actress who plays Detective Olivia Benson on Law and Order: SVU, has also lifted Worthy up for bringing attention to the problem of untested rape kits.

The mainstream take on Worthy, however, leaves out the context necessary to get an accurate view of her tenure.

Worthy first took office in 2004, long after the city’s homicide rate peaked in the 1980s. While homicides have decreased over the decades, Detroit has continued to be extremely violent under her watch. As recently as 2019, it had America’s second-worst violent crime rate and fourth-worst murder rate.

In the past, she has used her prosecutorial discretion for draconian ends, like when she obtained a 52-year prison sentence for a mourning father when his daughter actually shot his son with a shotgun that was not safely secured. According to a study from USA Today and the Associated Press, it was the harshest sentence like that in the country from 2014 to 2016.

She engages in petty power struggles to show other court professionals who is boss. As a part of former Michigan State Senator Virgil Smith’s plea bargain in a domestic violence case involving his ex-wife, Worthy wanted a condition forcing him to resign from office. However, Wayne County Circuit Judge Lawrence Talon rejected the condition as violating the state constitution. Worthy then responded by forbidding her deputies from offering plea bargains to all defendants in front of Judge Talon for several months.

Even Worthy’s work on reducing Detroit’s rape kit backlog is suspect, since she has given credence to a media narrative designed to shield the party responsible for the problem in the first place: the cops.

Now Worthy is back in the national news because it turns out that her newest initiative to pretend she is effective at maintaining public safety — a scorched-earth approach to gun possession prosecutions — is essentially only locking up Black people, according to the Detroit branch of the Neighborhood Defender Service. That public defender office just issued a report on how the number of carrying a concealed weapon (CCW) charges have “quadrupled since March 2020, and 97 percent of those with the crime charged are Black.

Perhaps Worthy knew this story was coming, which is why her office approached Detroit Free Press with the idea of a lengthy and bizarre puff-piece about her assistant prosecutor, Opolla Brown. Brown apparently idolized famous prison abolitionist Angela Davis, which somehow inspired her to take a job locking predominantly Black and brown people up. Having her prosecutors look “woke” was probably good political fodder for her, even if the article was roundly mocked by public defenders online.

Kym Worthy may look good now in much of the press. But there are ample reasons to suspect that history will not be so kind to her, a Black woman who has made perpetuating mass incarceration her life’s work.

Rory Fleming is a writer and an attorney

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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