She put gangster Whitey Bulger and Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev behind bars, but Carmen Ortiz, the US Attorney for the District of Boston, spoke about the need to reform the nation’s legal system at the School of Law Convocation May 15.
The first woman and the first Hispanic to hold the post, Ortiz told the 495 graduates at Agganis Arena about her own humble beginnings and the Obama administration’s efforts to improve the justice system.
“Despite what some might view as the challenges of growing up in a housing project in New York City,” Ortiz said, “I knew early on that I wanted to be a lawyer, although at first it was the Perry Mason show that motivated me. As I got older, I realized I wanted to become a lawyer because the profession would not only intellectually challenge me, but also enable me to seek justice for the most vulnerable members of our society.”
She said that while fighting terrorism is the number-one job of the Justice Department, its wider mission includes fighting financial and health care fraud, cyber crime, and gun violence and enforcing civil rights protections in the post-Ferguson era.
“As someone intimately familiar with the justice system, I have the utmost faith in it,” she said, “but it is with this perspective that I also acknowledge the issues that require reform.”
Among the reforms she cited was the administration’s Roadmap to Reentry initiative, designed to reduce recidivism among the estimated 600,000 Americans released from prison every year by providing individualized reentry programs, education, and job training for inmates while they are in prison and more support when they’re released.
The bottom line is that we cannot prosecute or incarcerate our way to a safer nation, a course that betrays our principles, Ortiz told the graduates. “I urge you, don’t just sit back and be cynical. Get involved, lend your voice, lend your efforts, especially when it comes to law enforcement and government. Change it from within.”
Ortiz gained national prominence for prosecuting Dzhokhar Tsarnaev for his role in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings that killed 3, one of them BU student Lu Lingzi (GRS’13), and injured more than 260. She spoke of the ways the city came together in the wake of the tragedy. “This city was shaken to its core and so was BU, because your community lost one of its own, beautiful and talented Lu Lingzi, who will always be remembered,” she said. “But Boston did not falter—it stood tall and it stood strong, as BU did.”
Two student speakers took the podium after Ortiz. Diana Mazloum (LAW’16), a native of Aleppo, the Syrian city devastated by that country’s brutal civil war, spoke of her initial impression when she came to campus. “Eight months ago, when I first set foot in BU School of Law, I was struck with a feeling that hit me hard,” she said. “It had been so long since I’d felt it, and it had become so alien to me that I thought I would never know it or feel it again. For the first time in a very long time, I felt I had a home.”
She recounted growing up in Aleppo, a city “where flowers dangle from every balcony in true Levantine fashion, a city where the sun always shines, making the weather as warm as the people, who speak to each other from the heart no matter where they come from or what God they pray to.”
Mazloum noted that she last returned to Aleppo four years ago for a period of several months, at a time when bombs and artillery rocked the city. “The months before I left Aleppo were horrific. Some things leave scars that will never heal… Sleepless nights turned into sleepless weeks.”
She described the day she fled as the worst of her life, and said she never felt at home again until arriving at BU. “Home is a feeling, and for this feeling I have the other students to thank,” she said. “We are living proof that global understanding is possible and that peace will prevail.”
The second student speaker, Ryan M. Melvin (LAW’16), lightened the mood with a nod to the recent construction of the school’s Sumner M. Redstone Building and the renovation of the LAW tower. “As the building grew and matured, so did we,” said Melvin. He also said that his initial terror of being called on in class gave way to a feeling of accomplishment that rose in large part from working with his fellow students. “I came to law school expecting to keep my head down and work, work, work,” he said. “Instead, I leave here today having made relationships that will last a lifetime.”
In her opening remarks, Maureen A. O’Rourke, dean of LAW, lamented the incivility and intolerance pervading the public arena today, fueled by social media. O’Rourke pointed out that lawyers have been at the forefront of moving society forward, expanding opportunity for all and safeguarding freedom. She challenged the 2016 graduates to carry that struggle forward by leading with integrity amid the challenges of what she called an unmoored culture too often driven by social media.
Her welcome included a humorous mention of the graduates’ next big step: the bar exam. “I want you to relax and enjoy the ceremony and all that comes after it today,” she said. “You can resume studying for the bar tomorrow—and I mean tomorrow.”+ Comments