Inspired by the role models he saw as a kid, Adewale Oduye decided around age five that he wanted to be an attorney. “I used to watch a lot of legal shows as a kid,” he says, “but the idea of becoming a lawyer didn’t come to fruition until I saw other black people doing it.”
For Oduye, this was Johnnie Cochran.
“I remember watching his closing argument in the OJ Simpson trial. He was the one guy everyone was afraid of,” he says. “That’s when I saw the power of law and what it can do to transform how people are treated, or change the policies of a system that is, a lot of times, antagonistic toward people of color — namely, Black folks. That’s when I knew I wanted to do trial work and work in a criminal law capacity.”
For Oduye, making a difference has been the guiding principle in his career — “It’s always been about using [my] talents and skills to help those who can’t help themselves,” he says — whether that be by working as a public defender or in another field entirely. Now a Consortium fellow, Oduye is earning his MBA at the University of Southern California (USC) Marshall School of Business and hopes to use the lessons he learned in the legal profession to make a difference in other ways.
The son of Nigerian immigrants and one of seven children, Oduye’s parents began their life in the United States in Nebraska. In response to the racism they experienced there, they moved to Chicago and subsequently Brooklyn, N.Y., where Oduye and his six siblings were born and raised. He attended public school and later Columbia University, and when the time came, Oduye moved to Chicago to study law at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, with hopes of using the law to improve the lives of marginalized people.
But, after graduation, when an opportunity came up to take a job in the largest DA office in the country – the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office – Oduye hesitated. How could he take a job within an organization infamous for its mistreatment of people of color? After many conversations, however, he felt convinced of his ability to have an impact through the role.
“I didn’t realize how powerful being a DA could be until I talked to people who are similarly situated,” he says. “That’s when I was like, ‘OK, this might be something that I can do in a way that helps people.’”
It didn’t take long for Oduye’s enthusiasm to turn to disbelief.
“The first felony trial I had is where I saw it, when the cops planted a gun on a guy who was mouthing off [because] they were looking to convict him,” he says.
When Oduye’s supervisors dismissed him and his concerns, that’s when he says he realized “the system doesn’t necessarily work for certain groups of people.” Filled with rage, Oduye contemplated quitting. “Someone told me, ‘Don’t quit. That’s why you’re here.’ From then on, I had to make a concerted effort to really fight discrimination and wrongful arrests — but do it in a way that allowed me to continue doing it,” he says.
The experience of witnessing such misconduct and discrimination but having to keep face, Oduye says, was one of the hardest things he’s ever had to do. He would have to develop a strategy in order to survive in his role while continuing to make a difference — as well as an exit plan. “Once you decide to stay, then you have to move in a way that will allow you to get to the end goal, or the end destination, which is justice,” says Oduye. “It was hard to do, and not many DAs understood what I was going through, but I knew that if I was there to try to make change, or to try to help people, then that is the price I had to pay. But you can only do it for so long.”
For Oduye, this meant working weekends, reviewing surveillance tapes, talking to witnesses — doing what he could to exonerate individuals who were the victims of police misconduct.
“I worked maybe 16 hours a day,” he says. “That usually meant me finding the evidence, going and getting video, talking to witnesses or finding witnesses to subpoena who would contradict something that was said in a police report or working with the defense attorney to get more time to find evidence.”
Oduye’s belief that the way in which a person uses their power speaks to what kind of a person they are guided him as he sought to help those who couldn’t help themselves. “I used [my power] to find the truth, get the evidence that I needed, that when presented to a supervisor, was incontrovertible,” he says. “That takes more work than most people would have done.”
Difficult as it was, Oduye was empowered to stay the course as his efforts began to bear fruit. In one case, a man accused of stealing faced 35 years to life in prison. Oduye, for his part, began listening in on the defendant’s phone calls.
“He was talking to his mama, and he denied everything. He says, ‘Mom, I’m not a burglar. I don’t burglarize houses. I burglarize cars.’ That resonated with me,” explains Oduye. After securing and reviewing video evidence, the man’s case was dismissed. “Before that, when I told my boss that I didn’t think he did it, based upon stuff that I had already gathered, he told me, ‘It’s not your job to make that call. It’s the jury’s job,’” Oduye says. “The job of a DA is not necessarily to convict. Their job is to seek justice. We are there to make sure that there is fairness in the process.”
Sharing His Story
For nearly 12 years, Oduye maintained appearances, not lying but also not speaking publicly about his crusade against injustice. On May 25, 2020, however, everything changed.
Oduye recalls the video of George Floyd’s death and the DA’s delay in bringing about charges. “Mentally, it affected me,” he says. It was then that he decided to begin speaking out publicly about his experiences and the internal workings of the LA County District Attorney’s Office. “What I wanted to do was add to the conversation of what it means to work in the largest prosecutorial agency in the nation and what the struggles are, particularly as an African American man,” says Oduye. “Seeing a black person in that role means a lot to a lot of people out there, and that is a lot of responsibility.”
With a desire to contribute to the larger conversation, but do so in a way that protected him at the time, Oduye began publishing articles on Medium under the alias “Spooky Brown Esq.,” from Sam Greenlee’s 1969 spy novel The Spook Who Sat by the Door. His stories took off, giving him the motivation to keep sharing and sparking chatter among his colleagues.
“I think the reason why I decided to come out was that people were saying that the DA didn’t write it, that it might have been a public defender because no DA would work that hard. I was offended by that,” Oduye says.
In one of his last published stories, Oduye expressed rage at the response of the DA’s office to a recent million dollar settlement made to a Black woman who had faced discrimination from the office for years. Questioning the facts of the case, the DA refused to admit liability, stating only that it was in the office’s best interest to settle.
“I basically was like, ‘This story, or this lawsuit, is not the only story that’s going on in the office.’ If you talk to any Black woman in the office, they’ll have some crazy story about racial or sex discrimination. It’s not just one person,” says Oduye. “I put my name on [the story], and posted it. I wrote an article immediately after that, titled ‘12 Years a Prosecutor, No More,’ talking about my experience. Right after that, I quit.”
Although his colleagues were shocked, Oduye says the experience of sharing his story — and eventually putting his name on it — was cathartic.
“I didn’t have any ulterior motive, other than just trying to tell the story. Once I told it, it was like healing, it was like therapy,” he says. “You get it out of your system, and then you realize this is as far as I can go, so it’s time to do something else. I was blessed to be able to do that.”
That was in October 2020. As part of his exit strategy, Oduye is now in the second semester of the full-time MBA program at USC Marshall and hoping to make a difference in other ways — this time, through education. With the help of a grant, Oduye is in the process of founding a charter school focused on community involvement, and through his MBA program, he is gaining invaluable insight via two USC-run charter schools.
“I really wanted to do something that I felt was more productive, which was working in education with kids,” he says. “In some ways, I think the educational system might be more flawed than the criminal justice system.”
Through his charter school, Oduye will use restorative practices, “instead of punishing [kids] to the point that we’re pushing them out of the system,” he says. “What I want to do is add value to the system and add value to the community.”
Oduye realizes what he’s up against. But, if he learned anything from his past experiences, it’s the value of telling your story.
“It’s not something that you can change immediately, but [what I’ve learned] is you have to tell these stories so other people can understand it, other people can identify with it, so you can try to carve out some change,” Oduye says. “But, you have to tell your story, and it has to be authentic to you. The more you talk about it, the better you feel, and the better other people feel, because they can identify with it, resonate with it and help along the journey.”