Black History Month: Judge Vonda Evans frank, fair

Oralandar Brand-Williams
The Detroit News

Whether it’s a blistering commentary before delivering a sentence or bestowing soothing words of advice to encourage a crime victim, Vonda Evans said her role as a Wayne County judge is part of her life’s mission of helping others.

Known for her effervescent personality and unconventional courtroom demeanor and style, Evans has been on the Third Circuit Court for nearly two decades. During her time on the bench, Evans has presided over some of the most high-profile and headline-grabbing cases, such as the Robert Bashara murder trial and the case of William Melendez, the former Inkster police officer who was found guilty on assault and misconduct charges for the beating of motorist Floyd Dent.

Both cases garnered headlines across the country. Her remarks made during Melendez’s Feb. 2 sentencing went viral on the popular website, pulling in more than a half million views. She’s gotten responses to the video from as far away as France, Germany and Australia.

Evans’ courtroom is a lesson in the law and a show of compassion for the victim and constitutional consideration for the defendant. With a charismatic personality, Evans also takes a commonsense approach to how she doles out justice.“The one thing that (stood out) to the court was looking at Mr. Dent in his cell shaking his head in disbelief of what had occurred to him,” Evans said to Melendez. “If his conduct was indicative of what he was thinking, I would have thought this: ‘What crime did I commit? Being a black man in a Cadillac, stopped for a minor traffic offense by a group of racist police officers looking to do a (expletive) in.’ ”

Judge Vonda Evans, who has been on the Third Circuit Court bench for nearly two decades, was one of three Wayne County African-American female judges profiled last year on the national television magazine “Inside Edition” as one of the “Three of the toughest judges in America.”

“What I do in the courtroom I do to cure people. I may have to talk to them in an unconventional way,” said Evans, 51. “You communicate with them on a level where they are.”

Evans is gaining national attention. She was one of three Wayne County African-American female judges profiled last year on the national television magazine “Inside Edition.”

Described in the report as “Three of the toughest judges in America,” Evans was featured along with fellow Third Circuit Court Judge Qiana Lillard and 36th District Court Judge Shannon Holmes.

Detroit attorney Lillian Diallo, who has tried cases before Evans, said the jurist is “tough, but fair.”

“She takes the job serious,” said Diallo, who represented Bashara in his murder trial before Evans. “These are people’s lives.”

Like any other judge, Evans has her detractors.

“The only thing I am critical about Judge Evans is the length of the lectures she gives defendants when they are pleading guilty or being sentenced,” said defense attorney Ben Gonek. “Judge Evans is a very caring person that wants everyone standing before her never to be there again. I also thinks that’s what causes her to be so animated in court.

“Unfortunately, the message she is attempting to convey in her lectures, albeit true, gets lost in the length of the lectures.”

However, Ray Paige, another lawyer who has presented cases in front of Evans, said he appreciates Evans’ courtroom style, describing the judge as “an extraordinary jurist.”

“She is able to share compassion right down the aisle to the prosecution and the defense,” Paige said. “She treats defendants with dignity. She has extraordinary talent and patience. She’s serious about what she’s doing.”

“She’s Detroit’s Judge Judy.”

After receiving her Juris Doctorate degree from Thomas M. Cooley Law School in 1990, Evans joined the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office and served as an assistant prosecutor from 1990-1996. Evans said she became a judge after realizing she could do more as a judge.

“There was only so much I could do,” Evans said. “I had limited powers as a prosecutor.”

Evans is among several African-American women who have been elected or appointed to the court that serves Wayne County. She was first elected in 1996 to the former Recorder’s Court (which merged with the Third Circuit Court a year later), three decades after Geraldine Bledsoe Ford made history by becoming the first African-American woman judge in the United States and Michigan. Evans was the last and youngest person elected to the Recorder’s Court bench.

Evans co-hosts a Saturday afternoon talk show with Detroit City Councilwoman Mary Sheffield on 910AM.

Now Evans has another platform in which to dispense advice. She co-hosts a Saturday talk show with Detroit City Councilwoman Mary Sheffield on 910AM. The show, which focuses on current events in Metro Detroit, draws listeners who want to discuss some of the top cases the judge has handled.

On a recent show, callers asked the judge to talk about the Melendez sentencing.

“It wasn't about me using the N-word. I wanted dialogue,” explaining she wanted to start a dialogue about racism and more funding for police departments.

Despite her recent move to radio, Evans dismisses rumors that she’s headed for her own television show.

“The season for my reason has not come to pass,” Evans said.

Evans, who is a member Greater Grace Temple in Detroit, says she’s grounded in her faith and believes her role as a judge is in “divine order.” Her philosophy for life is a simple one:

“The life you live is measured by the life you give.”

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About the judge

Name: The Honorable Vonda R. Evans

Age: 51

Personal: Divorced; two daughters, age 24 and 18

Career: Third Circuit Court judge in Wayne County. Previously worked as an assistant Wayne County prosecutor in the criminal and family divisions from 1990-1996. Also co-host of a radio talk show with Detroit City Councilwoman Mary Sheffield that airs noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910AM.

Education: Graduate of Henry Ford High School; received Bachelor of Arts degree from North Carolina A&T State University. Received Juris Doctorate from Thomas M. Cooley Law School. After passing the Michigan Bar, Evans became an attorney at the age of 25.