Inside a courtroom of the Broward County Courthouse, Sharonda Lebrun ’06, JD ’10 leans on a desk, sifts through piles of papers and flips through a reference book. Her stylish power suit is a stark contrast to the dated furniture and old maplewood panels that line the walls.
“Given the defendant’s past history, he meets the guidelines for a habitual offender,” she says firmly to the judge. “The state would like to recommend the middle of the guidelines.”
Lebrun is an assistant state attorney for the Broward domestic violence unit. During this sentencing hearing, she successfully obtained a 30-month prison term for the defendant, who had physically attacked his brother for the second time in less than a year. After the hearing ends, Lebrun approaches the victim and asks him how he’s feeling. Leaving the courtroom, Lebrun has a bounce in her step.
“When you’re able to put a case to trial, have a jury come back with a verdict of guilty, and bring back that sense of relief or justice to a victim, you feel like you’ve done your job,” Lebrun said.
Discovering her passion
As a criminal justice major at FIU, Lebrun was not 100 percent sure where an eventual legal career might lead her. Then, in a case of being in the right place at the right time, a staff member from the Victim Empowerment Program [known as Victim Advocacy Center (VAC), at the time] asked if she needed a job. The position entailed serving as a peer educator, for which she would receive lots of training, and involved her making presentations to freshman students as part of the First Year Experience course. The topics she would discuss were heavy: sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence and stalking.
“You realize how real it is when victims come up to you and say, ‘you’re talking about me,’” said Lebrun. Sometimes she would walk them back to the office to see a victim advocate that same day. She quickly realized that these issues were real for many students on campus, seeing them tear up during her presentations.
“From high school, I knew I wanted to do criminal law,” she recalled. “I did not know if I wanted to be a defense attorney or prosecutor. But when I started working at VAC, it was clear I wanted to be a prosecutor. Because you dealt with victim issues and you saw that aspect of it – I knew there’s only one way for me.”
What began as a part-time student job, became full time after she graduated with her bachelor’s degree. While studying for her LSAT, she moved into a managerial role, where she was responsible for hiring and training other peer educators. She now credits the experience with shaping her career.
“VAC helped me understand what type of law I wanted to do,” Lebrun said. “When I went into law school I already knew: criminal law, prosecutor. I was able to shape my career as a first year law school student to get me ready, so when I graduated I could be a prosecutor.”
Today Lebrun continues her relationship with FIU and the Victim Empowerment Program. When an FIU staff member with whom she had previously worked suggested that current students meet with her, Lebrun understood how powerful that experience could be for young people and readily agreed. Peer educators now go to court to watch her in action.
Wendy Ordonez ’07, MAT ’10, coordinator of outreach and educational media for the Victim Empowerment Program, hatched the idea to expand peer educators trainings in practical legal aspects. (She also takes students to the Roxy Bolton Rape Treatment Center at Jackson Memorial Hospital and the Nancy J. Cotterman Center in Broward.)
“Students have the chance to see firsthand the impact of some of the things we train them on, with the privilege of a private commentary and explanation from someone who is in the profession,” Ordonez said. “I am very glad to have her as a resource for our students. She makes an impact on each of the students I’ve taken to observe her.”
Luhit Recinos, a sophomore psychology major, is a peer educator who observed Lebrun on one of those visits to the Broward County Courthouse. She called the experience inspiring and motivating.
“Sharonda was amazing. Not only was she professional but she was passionate,” said Recinos, whose been a peer educator for more than one year. “When she spoke to us, she immediately began telling us how much being a peer educator helped her be the attorney she is today. Seeing Sharonda fight for her clients passionately also made me think about working as a legal psychologist in the future.”
Lebrun thinks the experience is good for everyone, noting that even the judges and court reporters get involved with speaking to the students.
“When I got into this unit, everything that I learned from FIU and VAC, everything, it just came into play,” Lebrun said. “You’re exposed to so many people because you’re giving presentations, so many people share things with you. You learn it through training. That’s what’s important [in this job]. You have to understand domestic violence and you have to understand the cycle of violence. If you don’t understand how somebody can [want] to be back with a person that has smashed their teeth out, that busted their eye, you won’t get it. You have to be patient, be willing to educate and explain things to people who really don’t know what the court system is.”
While the cases are tough, Lebrun emphasizes that it’s not about punishment alone for committing a crime, but there is also the positive component of rehabilitation.
“Sometimes you learn that the defendant has issues with mental health that were never addressed, or issues with alcohol or drugs,” she said. As a prosecutor, she said listening to the victim and the family can point to ongoing problems. From there, Lebrun can recommend a mental evaluation and follow up, which often includes treatment for substance abuse, counseling for anger management or other psychological issues, even job training.
“If they go into an Alcoholics Anonymous program or a residential treatment program, sometimes it makes a big difference and you’re able to repair a family,” Lebrun said. “You can never lose sight of that. They did commit a crime, but they’re still a human being. That keeps you grounded and keeps you being fair.”