Web Accessibility Support

Lena Bryan-Henderson: Representation Matters – In More Ways Than One

Alleghany County’s chief public defender breaks down systemic barriers in the criminal justice system

by Tamara Holmes (B.A. '94)

Lena Bryan-Henderson

Early in her career, Lena Bryan-Henderson (BA ’87) quickly understood the gravity of her work as a defense attorney. She recalls representing a young adult who had been wrongly accused of a drug crime. As she argued for him in court, she turned to him and was surprised to see him smiling. “I was thinking, ‘why is he smiling? This is serious!’” she says.

After they won the case, she asked him why he had been smiling during the court proceedings. “Nobody ever fought for me before,” he replied.

He would be one of many children and adults she would fight for throughout her career, eventually ascending to become Alleghany County’s chief public defender in January. Her new role comes after having served as an assistant public defender since 1991. That year she also started a private practice, Lena Bryan-Henderson Law.

She recalls two things she knew for sure upon graduating from Howard. “I knew that I wanted to be an attorney, and I knew that I wanted to do something to help Black and economically disadvantaged individuals,” she says.

Taking up for the underdog



Today Bryan-Henderson still feels a responsibility to fight for those who can’t fight for themselves. She credits Howard with helping her to cultivate that fighting spirit.

Having been raised in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, a working class neighborhood outside of Pittsburgh, her time at Howard was eye-opening. “I had never met so many Black professionals and Black leaders,” she says. “It gave me a confidence that no one can ever take away.”

It was a professor, Dr. Alvin Thornton, who bolstered that confidence.  “He pointed out the strengths that I had and told me to make sure that I continued to surround myself with people who want to succeed,” she says.

And so she did. She founded the Pittsburgh Black Lawyers Alliance, an organization that provides mentorship, networking, and employment opportunities for Black law students. “When I first came back to Pittsburgh, there weren't a lot of people who could mentor me,” she says. The organization, which was started in her living room, gives Black lawyers a way to support one another.

In December 2023, a report prepared for the University of Pittsburgh Institute of Politics by RAND Corporation and RTI International looked at the criminal justice system in Allegheny County and found that Black people and poor people are often treated unfairly in such areas as law enforcement, probation sentences and the issuance of bail.

Bryan-Henderson is looking at what she can do to change that.

“The report was born at the time that I got this job,” she says. “God aligned this just for me.  This position has given me the opportunity to sit at tables and voice my opinion about subjects that affect my office, and, most importantly, the clients, who we have the privilege to represent. I do that with the hope of making a change to the legal system that has proven, through life experiences and numerical data, to be unequal for Black and economically disadvantaged people in Allegheny County.”




This story appears in the Spring/ Summer 2024 issue.
Article ID: 2146

More In...