woman standing in front of a bookcase.

Turning the wheels of justice

The Department of Justice, notes Trini Ross ’92, is the oldest federal agency with justice in its very name. 

“This is what we do,” she says. “Everything we do is about justice, which means fairness and equity and thoughtfulness, and protecting the victims but also making sure the defendants have their constitutional rights.”  

That is an ongoing mission for Ross, who has been the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of New York since 2021. It’s familiar territory for a career prosecutor who served as an assistant U.S. Attorney, in the office she now heads, for 23 years. 

The office oversees federal cases in 17 counties of Western New York, with about 60 attorneys and offices in Buffalo and Rochester. Its responsibility extends to both criminal and civil cases as well as collecting debts owed to the federal government.  

“It’s a big operation,” she acknowledges, “but it’s a well-oiled machine and everything doesn’t have to bubble up to me. I trust that the people who are handling the cases are good at what they do and understand my goals and mission in handling the department.” Meanwhile she manages everything from budget to personnel and serves as the public face of the office at community forums and events. 

Barely six months into her tenure as chief prosecutor, the U.S. Attorney’s office faced a horrific tragedy: the mass shooting at a Buffalo supermarket in a predominantly Black neighborhood, resulting in the death of 10 people. Three others were wounded. The gunman was charged with federal hate crimes, in a case eligible for the death penalty.  

Ross cannot discuss the case but says one response by her office was to go out into the victimized neighborhood on the city’s East Side. “We gave out food, we walked the community, we were everywhere,” she says. “We wanted the community to get to know us.” The goal, she says, is to build trust with the people they serve—institutional trust that has been hobbled in so many areas of American life.  

“I think about that all the time,” she says. “We’re more effective in public service if people trust in us. Trying to be transparent helps build trust, answering questions as much as I can, being out there, being who I am. Trust comes from people knowing you and being able to say, ‘I know that person and I think she’s telling us the truth,’ or at the very least giving us the benefit of the doubt.”

That kind of personal connection has served Ross well from her early days as a prosecutor, a job she sought out because she saw bias in the justice system. “I realized I needed to be part of the institution of prosecutors, to be on the inside and question certain issues when we see them,” she says. 

As an example, she cites a belief among some prosecutors that if a defendant is Black, it’s better for their case to have fewer Black jurors, on the theory that they would empathize with the defendant. “They’re wrong,” Ross says flatly. “I’m a Black person who grew up in a Black community, and that’s where my lens of experience comes from. And the most law-and-order people I know are Black churchgoing women. 

“So there’s implicit bias, and even before it was labeled I knew it existed. Once I was inside that system, I was able to help change it from the inside.”  

And in the long run, she says, a fairer justice system can help to temper the anger that seems so endemic to modern society. “Once we can show society that justice is real, maybe some of the problems we’re having will fall away,” she says. “We have to stay optimistic.”