A Trailblazing Pursuit of Justice

A Trailblazing Pursuit of Justice

A Trailblazing Pursuit of Justice
 
The Honorable Judge Pamela Baschab has been paving the way for women in the justice system since she began her legal career in 1983 after graduating from St. Mary’s School of Law in San Antonio, Texas. Judge Baschab, a resident of Muscle Shoals, was a first-generation college student, who despite the overwhelming lack of females in the field, chose to pursue a law degree because of her desire to understand and seek justice.

Judge Baschab began her career as Assistant District Attorney in Mobile County, but after several years of practicing law, she felt led to run for Baldwin County District Judge. The election was a three-way race that resulted in a runoff, but Judge Baschab ultimately won. With this win, Baschab was now one of only four female judges in the District Courts of Alabama, marking the beginning of her historic achievements.  After serving for four years as District Judge, she was elected as Baldwin County Circuit Judge.

It was while serving as District Judge that Judge Baschab hired the first black man to work at the Baldwin County courthouse, Mr. John Cox.  “It never crossed my mind not to hire John Cox; he was the most qualified applicant!” she expressed. 

Mr. Cox, a Bay Minette city councilman and US Army retiree, served as bailiff and Judge Baschab’s right-hand man. He became an ambassador for the black community in the courthouse, a much-needed friendly face. His desk sat right outside of Judge Baschab’s office and he would help and guide all who entered.  The pair became fast friends and had a growing reputation in the community for fairness and approachability. Judge Baschab feels that her relationship with Mr. Cox helped her connect with the black community and understand that inequities existed.

The Judge noted that when she decided to run for the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals, she enjoyed support from the black community, who saw her as an honest and fair judge who pursued justice according to the law. This helped her gain support and ultimately win votes. At the time she was elected, only one Republican, Judge Frank Long of Lauderdale County, was on the Criminal Appeals Court.   She served twelve years on the Criminal Appeals Court, retiring as Presiding Judge.  “A Republican supported by the black community wasn’t exactly standard at the time,” Judge Baschab explained. “I think my relationship with Mr. Cox helped me gain that support and overall trust.”

One month after taking the bench as Baldwin County Circuit Judge, Judge Baschab picked up the case of Walter McMillian, a wrongfully convicted death row inmate represented by a young attorney named Bryan Stevenson.  This was one of the highest profile cases of her judicial career.

Mr. Walter McMillian, known to friends and family as “Johnny D,” was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of a young, white woman from Monroeville, Alabama after a trial that lasted just a day and a half.

Despite no substantial evidence to convict him and a conclusive alibi, the jury still found Johnny D guilty of murder and sentenced him to life in prison. At this time in the state of Alabama, elected trial judges had the authority to override the jury’s verdict and impose the death penalty. Unfortunately, this is what happened to Johnny D, before being sent back to death row for the next six years. Later in Judge Baschab’s career, she worked to help overturn this statute to ensure that the fate of one man was not entirely left up to another.

Bryan Stevenson, attorney and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, began working on Johnny D’s case post-conviction and proved that the State’s key witness lied under oath to illegally convict Johnny D. EJI presented this evidence, along with the State’s many other erroneous claims of evidence, to multiple courts, but it was a lengthy six-year process to prove Johnny D’s innocence.

Finally, after years of appealing to judges who were seemingly unwilling to listen, Johnny D’s case landed on Judge Baschab’s desk in Baldwin County Circuit Court. Johnny D’s previous appeal had been shut down by Judge Baschab’s former election opponent and presiding judge, Judge Tom Norton.

The day of the hearing, Judge Baschab and Mr. Cox, went to visit Johnny D in the holding cell behind the courtroom. Typically, judges did not visit the defendant on the day of a hearing, but because of the huge crowd and media present, she felt that a visit and Mr. Cox’s presence might put Johnny D. at ease for the events that were about to take place. She will never forget the moment she and Mr. Cox walked in and saw Johnny D, still dressed in his white Alabama Department of Corrections uniform, with his head bowed in prayer.

Shortly after, in front of his family and community, Johnny D’s case was dismissed when the state decided not to object to Mr. Stevenson’s motion to dismiss all charges, making Judge Baschab’s job easier than she had anticipated.
Johnny D walked away from this hearing with his freedom, and Judge Baschab took with her a new perspective.

“I feel like I became a better judge because of my involvement in this case,” Judge Baschab explained. “I believe our criminal justice system is designed to be fair and just.  But I have learned that this fairness and justice depends on the men and women we elect as our judges.  It is a judge’s job to respect all persons and remember that under law, all people are innocent until proven guilty.”

While Judge Baschab’s contribution to this case is seen as incredibly noble to some, to her it was just another day of pursuing justice within a system that she respects. “I don’t consider myself a social justice warrior,” said Judge Baschab. “I simply do what I swore to do when I took an oath administer equal justice to all.”

Judge Baschab’s upbringing perhaps allowed her to enter the justice system in Alabama with less unconscious bias than others. She was raised in a military family who exposed her to different cultures and broadened her perspectives on equal liberties and life.
“I never attended segregated schools growing up,” she said. “My father was in the Air Force, so none of our schools were segregated. I didn’t get exposed to party politics either,” she continued.

In fact, Judge Baschab was attending Florence State College, now known as the University of North Alabama, when the Civil Rights Movement was happening in Selma, AL. “My friends thought I was ‘radical’ at the time for listening to The Beatles and having lived in Tokyo,” she joked. “I had no notion of prejudice. I was less aware of it, which made me fearless in a sense.”

Her loving nature and desire to do good did not stop with her works for the justice system. Judge Baschab is also a founder of the Baldwin County Mental Health Center Family Intervention program and a founder and former Board Chair of Saving Grace Home for Women in Baldwin County, a resident treatment program for women battling drug or alcohol addiction.

She also has been an advocate in the fight against domestic violence throughout the years. She was the founder of “The Lighthouse Domestic Violence Center in Baldwin County,” served on numerous task forces dedicated to battling domestic violence and has even authored a textbook on Alabama Domestic Violence Law for attorneys and judges.

Today, Judge Baschab lives in Colbert County with her husband of 53 years, Roger Baschab, and is a mother to three and grandmother to seven.  Both of her daughters, Denise and Mary, practice law in the Shoals.  The Judge has kept in touch with Mr. Stevenson and is proud to have personally witnessed his constant pursuit of justice. Most people may only hear of Judge Baschab for her association with the Johnny D case, but in Alabama, she is a role model to many – and here in the Shoals, she is an inspiration to all.

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