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First African-American U.S. attorney for Nevada wants to ‘open the door’ for others

Updated February 4, 2024 - 12:53 pm

Jason Frierson’s job as U.S. attorney for Nevada comes with an additional responsibility.

He wants to show other students and young lawyers what’s possible.

“It can be exhausting being the first, because you want to open the door so you’re not the last,” said Frierson, the first African-American U.S. attorney for Nevada. “You are an example. You are paving the way for other people, and you want to make sure that you leave it in a good place for other people.”

Frierson, a former prosecutor, public defender and state lawmaker, was confirmed as the U.S. attorney for Nevada in April 2022, becoming the first African-American man to serve as the state’s top federal law enforcement official.

During a recent interview with the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Frierson recalled moving to Nevada after growing up in Compton, completing law school, becoming a politician and fighting a cancer diagnosis.

The University of Nevada, Reno recruited Frierson with a full scholarship to play football in 1988.

Frierson said he wanted to get away from Southern California, either through an athletic scholarship or by joining the military. He grew up “in the midst of the development of Compton’s reputation,” and was briefly sent to boarding school after another student pointed a gun at him in junior high school, he said.

Frierson loved playing football, and was happy to move to Nevada if it meant that he would be able to afford higher education. He was leading the country in rushing yards and was about to meet with scouts from the Dallas Cowboys when a career-ending knee injury forced him to change paths, focusing more on school.

It was around that time that UNLV was about to open its law school.

Frierson was already well-known at UNR for being an activist and student body president, but he said he hadn’t considered becoming a lawyer until watching a friend go to law school before him.

“If you don’t see it, it’s not real for you,” he said.

Frierson was one of about 80 people who graduated with the first class at Boyd Law School. His first job was as a prosecutor with the attorney general’s office, even though he said he initially struggled with the idea of “putting people in jail.”

“I felt like people who look like me were over-represented in the criminal justice system, and I didn’t feel like I wanted to contribute to that,” he said.

But Frierson was instead persuaded to use his experiences to help prosecute cases with fairness. As he moved on to the Clark County public defender’s office and then the county district attorney’s office, Frierson said he wanted to focus on “making sure that the system worked fairly.”

Frierson became a Nevada assemblyman in 2010 and was named speaker of the assembly in 2017. Frierson said that during his time in the Assembly, he was especially proud of his work helping restore voting rights for people with felonies upon their release from prison.

In 2021, while he was still speaker of the Assembly, Frierson announced that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. Nearly three years later, Frierson said he’s still receiving treatment, but is hoping to be deemed cancer-free in the next few months.

Going public with his diagnosis was a way to encourage others to get treatment for prostate cancer, Frierson said — especially for older African-American men, who are at a higher risk for the disease.

“I thought it was important for me to talk about it publicly, to get more folks willing to talk about it and get screened for it,” he said.

Lawrence Weekly, the former Clark County commissioner and current chief diversity officer for the College of Southern Nevada, said he’s known Frierson since they attended UNR and were members of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity together.

He called Frierson’s career as a lawyer, politician and now U.S. attorney a “testament to his hard work and willingness to serve.”

Weekly has experienced a first himself, when he previously served as the first African-American man to chair the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority board of directors. He agrees with Frierson that achieving a “first” can feel exhausting.

“I think it’s so important in the 21st century that we see diversity across the board,” he said. “And it’s such a shame here in America that we are still experiencing a first.”

Boyd law professor Ann McGinley taught workplace law to Frierson. She said it’s been exciting to watch his career, and to see how current law students look up to him. She said Frierson is in a position to “deliver justice” as the U.S. attorney.

“I have confidence that he will be very just and careful to go about his decisions whether to prosecute individuals,” she said.

Frierson said when he first joined the attorney general’s office after law school, he was the only African-American lawyer working for the agency. Now, he wants to ensure that the office reflects all of Nevada’s communities.

“I would imagine this job won’t last forever, but it’s just a really unique opportunity to serve the public,” he said. “I’m trying to leave it better than I found it, just like every other job in public service I’ve had.”

A previous version of this report incorrectly identified Jason Frierson’s title in both the headline and the story.

Contact Katelyn Newberg at knewberg@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0240.

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