Meet NEA’s new district prosecutor-elect, Sonia Fonticiella

Sonia Fonticiella, NEA's new district prosecuting attorney, in an undated photo.

In November, Northeast Arkansas elected a new district prosecutor to cover Clay, Craighead, Crittenden, Greene, Mississippi, and Poinsett counties. She is Sonia Fonticiella and in January, 2023 she takes over one of the most influential roles in area law enforcement.

On December 16, as she was packing up her private law office and preparing to move into her new prosecutor office in the Greene County Courthouse, Fonticiella spoke to NEA Report about her new job and what to expect. This is a unique interview format with only our questions written above the prosecutor-elect’s words

What made you decide to go into law?

As a child, my mom would often say, “You should be a lawyer,” because I would push back and argue. Not being disrespectful but I was always questioning and arguing things. I would try to get new perspectives and especially if I was holding a position, she would say “Gosh! You should be a lawyer.”

It started like that. When I went to college, I thought I wanted to be a reporter. I went to FSU and interned at the Tallahassee Democrat. But when I graduated, I decided maybe I’ll go to law school and be a legal correspondent. And when I got to law school, I thought I might look for careers in international business law. But as I started my first year in criminal law class, that’s what I fell in love with. My criminal law professor recommended me for a clerkship at the Fayetteville city prosecutor’s office.

What was that experience like working in public defense and how will it impact your judgment as a prosecutor?

When I graduated, I went to Arizona. It was at the height of the recession and I was pregnant with my first child. I found jobs but nothing truly interesting to me. I moved back to Arkansas and said, “I’m just going to open my own practice. My parents and grandparents were entrepreneurs, I’ve got a law license, I can do that.” When I did that, there was an opportunity for me to take appointments for indigent defendants. For several years, I did that and in 2019, I ended up as an assistant public defender in Little Rock. 

I think it says something that, when I started to share with them I was running for prosecuting attorney, a lot of my clients were getting mad at me. The reason is, I go hard for my clients. I take my ethical duty to represent my clients seriously and take the constitution seriously. But I never put up with anything. I was always the first person to tell them, “Quit being an idiot.” I didn’t mind telling them when I thought they were wrong. But I also know there are people who go through the justice system who are good people that made stupid choices and there are options for them.

I think I can see the nuances between good people making bad choices and people you just can’t let go of and you’ve just got to go hard against. 

What is the toughest case you have worked on? What was the outcome?

The one case I feel most proud of working on, and it was a hard one, was a murder trial I did in Osceola where I was co-council and I 100-percent believed my client was innocent. I did not think the evidence was there. He wasn’t angel but I didn’t think he had anything to do with the murder of this man. There were two other individuals in this case who had already pled guilty to it and one of them was the shooter. And it was 100-percent not my client. I don’t remember if it started as a capital case. They dropped it down to first-degree murder the day before trial. Going through that whole trial, we went really hard and there were a lot of legal arguments trying to match the facts to the laws. I just knew I was right and I knew this kid was innocent. We lost. And I’ll never forget that young man, he was 19 or 20. I was trying not to cry. He looked me in the eye and said thank you, you believed in me and you never stopped fighting for me.

We appealed it. Everybody who worked on that case made it successful and it’s not just me. But based on the arguments I made at trial, the Supreme Court agreed and reversed and overturned his murder conviction. That’s why we have to seek the truth in every case. 

That was the longest and most drawn out process but I’ll never forget that case. 

Why did you run for district prosecutor?

Many reasons but the main reason is, I live here. I have six kids that I am raising here. I chose to move back to Northeast Arkansas because I grew up here and want my children to have a similar upbringing. As I was practicing in Craighead County Circuit Court, I had a docket of crimes against people and property and was just horrified at the crimes I was seeing. And I thought, I can’t complain if I’m not doing the job myself. I want to make sure my kids grow up in a community similar to what I grew up with and if I have the experience and drive to do something to make it better, I want to put myself out there and do it. 

One of your campaign tenets was to bring integrity to the job. I believe this mattered to people more than it probably has been recognized. 

It wasn’t a dig at anyone. That was not my point. My point is, in every prosecutor’s office, you have to have integrity. You have to make tough choices and be willing to say no, we don’t have the facts we need to get this conviction or yes, I’m going to keep pushing until it gets to where it needs to be. The number one job of a prosecutor is to seek the truth. And tell people why! 

How will you do that?

Well, I’m talking to you! I’ve made it a point in my campaign to answer every single message sent to me personally. I didn’t have anybody behind the scenes spouting around-the-question answers. I tend to be a person who doesn’t talk a lot. If I say something, I want to be thoughtful in what I say. I want to be upfront with the public and I want them to understand the process. I want to try to communicate that through the media or other avenues.

Do you have any changes planned, big or small, you would like to announce?

Jessica Thomason is going to be joining me as my chief deputy but that’s really it. I’ve tried to keep every deputy prosecutor who is there. The only one who is leaving is [Martin Lilly, her opponent in last November’s election]. The other thing that is interesting is that Greene County has never had the main prosecutors office here. The prosecutor’s office will be out of the Greene County Courthouse. 

What is more important between these two: serve, or protect? Why?

I’m going to go with serve and here’s why. I feel like if you’re doing your job in service, the protection is going to follow.

Lastly, can you leave us with a quote that inspires you?

Matthew 25:40: The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.

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