The Truth of “True Crime”

Ashley Richards '17
Ashley Richards ’17, Project 55 Fellow at the New York District Attorney’s Office

Ashley Richards has lived in Brooklyn, NY and Greenwich, CT, before coming to Princeton to pursue a variety of academic interests. While at Princeton, she chose to combine her interests in literature and economics by majoring in English and minoring in Finance. Ashley is excited to continue to pursue elements of both fields while working as a paralegal in the Major Economic Crimes Bureau of the New York District Attorney’s Office. She is hoping to learn more about the role of the judicial system in promoting social good, particularly through the public sector. During her time at Princeton, Ashley also played on the varsity squash team and joined the Student Athlete Wellness Leadership program to provide support for her team members. She has always loved theater and has performed in several plays and acting projects.

 

I have always been drawn to stories of the justice system, from procedural dramas to true crime podcasts. During college, my mom would joke that my arrival home for a holiday was unfailingly followed by the theme song of Law and Order playing incessantly in the kitchen. The predictable pattern of these stories – from wrongdoing to investigation to suitable consequences – always struck me as satisfying, empowering, and somehow right. While a post-exams binge of Law and Order certainly did not dictate my interest in law or the District Attorney’s Office, I cannot say that the glamorous and righteous portrayals of ADAs and courtroom dramas did not inform my expectations of what this field might hold.

 

The reality of my job in Major Economic Crimes at the Manhattan DA’s Office has, not surprisingly, been quite different. Like most things in life, it is much messier and more complicated than TV would have us believe. I have run into cases in which it is glaringly obvious that some nefarious activity has occurred, but that perfect piece of evidence that TV lawyers find at just the right moment continues to evade us. Even more frustrating and difficult than these situations, however, are those in which culpability itself is not cut-and-dry. After the fact, it is easy enough to create a narrative in which the “criminal” is blatantly guilty and bad. However, in the midst of an investigation, all manner of ambiguities and mitigating circumstances can creep in. Who is really responsible? What charges are most suitable to the circumstances? What if this person is otherwise well liked, or has a family?

I expected that selecting a job in the public sector would mean that, however hard the work, I would go home at night knowing that I am doing good. Although I am confident in the mission of the DA, I have nevertheless accumulated questions about what is best and what is right for each case. However, as I have watched the ADAs and senior paralegals grapple with these questions with thoughtfulness and integrity, I have begun to realize that it is precisely this ambiguity and complexity that makes our work important. Cut and dry cases may be satisfying, but the investigation and thought that goes into determining the best course of action for our bureau’s less obvious cases is both what makes this job difficult and what makes it necessary.

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