She called it “a dream fulfilled.”
Katayoun “Kat” Copeland carried that dream with her from Upper Darby to Iran, then back to Bryn Mawr, and ultimately into the offices of the Delaware County district attorney and the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
On Friday, in a full courtroom at the Delaware County Courthouse in Media, she placed her hand on a Bible, held by her mother and brother, and brought her career full circle, becoming the county’s district attorney.
“It seems only fitting,” Copeland said, “that, after serving for 25 years as a prosecutor, ultimately going to the federal authorities, to come home.”
Copeland’s stated goals: finding new ways to address the opioid crisis, combating increasing gun violence in places like Chester, and addressing cyber-crimes against children and the elderly.
Copeland, 50, of Radnor, was appointed by the county Board of Judges over 19 other candidates to fill the vacancy left when John J. Whelan was elected a judge. Copeland, a registered Republican, said she plans to run for election when her term ends in 2019.
Five things to know about her:
She spent part of her childhood in Iran during the revolution.
The daughter of an Iranian mother and American father, Copeland was born in Upper Darby, but lived in Iran from 1973 to 1980.
Her older brother, Cyrus, chronicled the family’s story in a 2015 book, Off the Radar. According to summaries of the book, Copeland’s late father, Max, an employee of Westinghouse Corp., was arrested on espionage charges and became the first American put on trial in Iran’s Revolutionary Court.
“It was a tumultuous time we lived through. … It taught me the value of justice,” Kat Copeland said. “Doing the right thing is never something you compromise on.”
Max Copeland was found guilty but not executed, according to Off the Radar summaries.
Kat Copeland said her father has died, but she hopes this appointment would have made him proud.
“It is partially because of those challenges that I chose [this] career path,” Copeland said, “to make sure those who are prosecuted are justly prosecuted.”
Of her daughter’s accomplishments, her mother, Shahin, put it simply: “I am overwhelmed.”
Copeland returned to Delaware County in middle school (and went to some of the area’s best schools)
Stephanie Schaeffer, a fellow 1985 graduate of the Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr, remembered the first time she saw Copeland. The seventh grader stood out — her uniform tunic fell six inches below the knee, Schaeffer said.
“I went over and said, ‘You’ve got to shorten your tunic,’ ” Schaeffer said. Copeland said she had just moved from Iran, Schaeffer recalled, and in her family that hem length was more than appropriate.
That was Schaeffer’s first interaction with Copeland.
But Schaeffer said she and the rest of her 45-person class were quickly impressed by the shy yet articulate Copeland, who played volleyball and enjoyed history classes.
“She was always soft-spoken, respectful, smart,” Schaeffer said. “She wasn’t a person who dominated conversation … [But] when she spoke in class, she was always right.”
After graduating from the all-girls school, Copeland attended Bryn Mawr College and Temple University’s Beasley School of Law.
She has 25 years of experience under her belt
Copeland first joined the District Attorney’s Office in 1992, starting out as an assistant district attorney in the trial division. She became chief of drug enforcement in 2000. In 2004, she was promoted to deputy district attorney, all while overseeing terrorism concerns and drug enforcement.
She left for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in 2011, where she prosecuted high-profile drug cases in the federal district courts.
“She was an excellent attorney, incredibly dedicated,” said Louis D. Lappen, acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. “She was the type of person who would mentor others.”
“Compassion and understanding have a place in law enforcement,” said former U.S. Attorney Zane David Memeger. “Kat understands that concept.”
She is most proud of helping establish Delaware County’s first drug treatment court
Copeland worked with former Delaware County District Attorney and current U.S. Rep. Pat Meehan to establish the county’s first drug treatment court and its veterans treatment court, she said.
“That is near and dear to my heart,” Copeland said. “That is one of the things we revamped over time to adjust to the needs of the community.”
Copeland said those courts are more important than ever because of the opioid epidemic. In September, Delaware County became the first Pennsylvania county to sue the manufacturers of addictive painkillers.
“I believe, because of the opioid epidemic, we run the risk of losing, frankly, an entire generation,” Copeland said, “and we want to ensure that that doesn’t happen.”
She is the second woman to serve as district attorney in Delaware County, the fifth to serve in the Philadelphia suburbs
When Copeland started out in the District Attorney’s Office in 1992, she worked with maybe five other women, she said.
She learned tenacity from the examples set by them, as well as her mother, who never let anyone tell her she couldn’t accomplish something because of her gender, Copeland said.
During Copeland’s first tenure, she worked under the county’s first female district attorney, Patricia Holstein, who served from 2001 to 2002, when she left the office for health reasons.. Copeland credited Holstein with helping “transition the office into the future” and paving the way for future generations, she said.
Copeland said she also looked up to Risa Vetri Ferman, who served as Montgomery County district attorney until 2015.
“Those women, they set the legacy,” Copeland said. “They set the bar very high.”
Other female District Attorneys in the Philly suburbs
- Diane E. Gibbons, Bucks County,2000-2007
- Patricia Holstein, Delaware County. 2001-02
- Risa Vetri Ferman, Montgomery County, 2007-15
- Michelle A. Henry, Bucks County, 2008-09
There have been no female district attorneys in Chester County.