Commonwealth Attorney Bethany Harrison on Navigating the Nature of Her Job

Bethany Harrison first started her career as a Lynchburg prosecutor in 2006. Now after nearly two decades she serves as the city’s first female Commonwealth Attorney—or as her youngest son first called it: “the Mom-monwealth Attorney.”

Law wasn’t her first career choice, but after working at a law office upon graduating college she decided to pivot. At law school she found her passion as a prosecutor and trial attorney where she can serve her community by fighting for justice.

“The most rewarding part of the job is when a victim of crime or member of the community thanks me for working for them,” Harrison said. “When working with victims of crime, success is not necessarily measured by convictions. Some victims want to be heard, others need to hear that their story matters and that someone will take up for them, and still others need to be guided into a path of healing.”

But there are times where the path to healing looks different than expected. She recalled a horrific child abuse case that ended in a not guilty verdict while another similar case ended the opposite way: a guilty verdict.

“[The cases] had very different outcomes in the criminal justice process but similar long-term outcomes for the surviving family members,” she said. “Both of these mothers [who were victims in the cases] went on to become advocates for victims of crime and child abuse. It is inspirational to see these women who went through so much pain turn their losses into motivation to advocate for better laws for victims of crime and to advocate for child abuse awareness and prevention.”

While Harrison is passionate about her job, she admits that many in the field struggle to process the nature of the work.

“Vicarious trauma from case after case of some of the worst things human beings can do to each other is a real problem for prosecutors and anyone who works in the law enforcement field,” she said. “Thankfully, as a profession, we are admitting this and addressing it in healthier ways.”

Harrison said outlets like gardening have helped her decompress after a stressful work week. But it is really her faith that has kept her grounded.

“[Jesus] experienced the worst humanity could do to him and because He loves us, He gladly sacrificed himself for our atonement,” she said. “I pray for strength. I pray for His wisdom in decision-making and dealing with stress. I believe God gives us work as part of our purpose in life, but we should keep that in check by taking care of our families, finding the beauty in life, and taking care of ourselves with proper rest, diet, and exercise.”

Even years into her career, she still remembers the people who encouraged her in the early days of law school.

“One of my law school professors coached my trial advocacy team by finding ways to recognize and nurture each law student’s personal strengths in trial advocacy,” Harrison said. “I distinctly remember him speaking to me after a competition round where I performed well cross-examining a witness. He told me my performance matched that of a real trial attorney and made me believe I was good at something. His methods and encouragement shaped my confidence to know that I had a talent I could pursue in a career that I love.”

And who knows? Maybe her two boys will also follow a similar path.

“My husband is also a prosecutor,” she said. “[My sons] know we go to court and hold people accountable for their crimes.

They have mainly learned how to be experts in debate and negotiation after many conversations and disagreements with mom and dad.”