Sarita Wright Lucas got her first taste of criminal law as an intern in the gritty confines of Boston Municipal Court, where she sat in on trials, studied the prosecutors and poured over cases in the appellate division.
For the 1999 Barnard College graduate, the experience trumped an earlier internship at a corporate firm in New York City and put her on a path to law school.
After graduating from Suffolk University Law School in 2008, her brother and her sister-in-law – both attorneys – urged her to go into private practice, but Sarita knew she had found as much a calling as a career in prosecuting criminal cases.
“She said ‘This is what I love to do. This is what I was meant to do’,” said her mother, Wanda Geer, the CEO of Tartt’s Day Care Centers, one of Boston’s oldest early education centers. “The essence of the prosecutor’s job is what she really loved.”
In 2008 she joined the Delaware Department of Justice as a Deputy Attorney General. The essence of the job, she told people, was simple: do the right thing.
“She wanted to do the right thing for the people involved in criminal cases,” said Deputy Attorney General Annemarie Puit, a friend and colleague. “She wanted to do the right thing for the victims in the case. And while she was a tough prosecutor, she wanted to do the right thing for the people she tried. If that meant a life sentence, so be it. But when there were mitigating circumstances involving a defendant, she was fair.”
Just 33 years old, Sarita was a talented and tireless criminal prosecutor, a dedicated wife to her husband, Antonio Lucas Jr., and six months pregnant with the couple’s first child when she died unexpectedly in their Maryland home on September 21, 2014. The baby, who the couple planned to name Claire, also died.
Though they were college sweethearts, Sarita and Tony had been married for only two years. A football coach who worked throughout the mid-Atlantic region, Tony had landed a job as an assistant coach at the University of Delaware, which allowed the couple to finally settle down together.
“Finally, they were in the same city, they had their careers, the new baby was on the way,” said Geer. “All of their dreams were coming true. It was just so heartbreaking to lose her and the baby.”
The tragedy stunned the close-knit Office of the Attorney General – where Sarita rose quickly through the ranks to become one of the youngest attorneys ever named to lead a criminal unit. Police and court officials mourned the loss of their colleague as well.
The late Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden praised Wright as “an incredibly committed and accomplished deputy attorney general and a beloved colleague and friend to many.”
Letters of condolences came from homicide detectives, state troopers, federal prosecutors, police chiefs and rank-and-file officers. Resident Judge Richard R. Cooch of the New Castle County Superior Court held a moment of silence when his court convened following her death.
“She was a respected colleague and was the quintessential professional as she handled a heavy and complex criminal caseload in the Superior Court,” Cooch said that day. “She was highly regarded by all the judges and, perhaps most importantly, was a good friend to all who knew her.”
As a unit leader, Sarita supervised criminal prosecutions in Wilmington, a city of only 71,000 people, yet one ranked among America’s most dangerous for violent crime on a per-capital basis. She supervised colleagues and continued to try homicides, robberies and assaults – taking more felony cases to trial in 2013 than any other prosecutor.
“She took the hardest cases to trial and was always trying to do what she felt was the right thing,” said Puit. “That is what drove her. You couldn’t really separate the prosecutor from the person. She was the same way as a friend. She was probably one of the most loyal people I’ve ever met. Even if you made mistakes, she was there and stuck up for you because you were her friend and her colleague.”
Outside the courtroom, she was always ready to talk about her beloved hometown teams, the Boston Red Sox and the New England Patriots. The coach’s wife could talk offensive play calling and defensive schemes with any football fan.
She was as skilled in the art of friendship as she was in the art of conversation. Stopping to leave a cup of hot coffee or a cookie on a colleague’s desk was a way of checking in. Even at six months pregnant, she stopped by the office on a Saturday, making sure her prosecutors had sandwiches to eat.
“She was very much someone who would look out for you, make sure you were OK, and had everything you needed,” said Deputy Attorney General Barzilai Axelrod. “And she did it in a way that made it seem like it was not a task or a chore for her. It was her way of taking care of you and taking care of the cases.”
How best to remember Sarita’s life and work led to the creation of the Sarita and Claire Wright Lucas Foundation in 2015. The non-profit foundation will focus its fundraising efforts on initiatives that support other young women of color who aspire to the public service law Sarita found so rewarding.
Specifically, the foundation will award scholarships that provide financial support to aspiring prosecutors in the Delaware Department of Justice as they prepare to take the Bar exam, said Geer, the president of the foundation.
“I wanted to memorialize her and I just remembered that her time preparing for the Bar was so stressful,” said Geer. “I wanted to be able to help other young women who wanted to make a difference.”
Law school debt is well documented. What’s not so well known is the need for additional funds to prepare for the Bar exam. In addition to the cost of a prep course – at about $5,000 – many recent graduates must take out personal loans to cover living expenses as they take on the full-time, unpaid work of preparing for the exam.
Unlike many law graduates who head to a private practice, those who choose to work for public agencies are on their own financially to prep for the Bar exam, said Axelrod. Those upfront initial costs are steep enough to steer people away from public sector legal work.
Encouraging women with Sarita’s level of skill and passion for the law is a fitting tribute to his late colleague, he said.
“I know that Sarita cannot be duplicated – she’s irreplaceable,” said Axelrod. “But by finding young women who bear the characteristics that made Sarita an amazing person, the foundation can help them become amazing trial attorneys. I think that is everything we could ask for.”