Zachary Creel – Alumnus Spotlight
Senior Assistant District Attorney, Orleans Parish
Hometown: New Orleans, La
BA in Art History and Classics, emphasis in Latin (2017)
Why did you select art history as your major?
My classics major led me to study art history. Through my classics studies, I was introduced to the world of ancient art and archaeology. Around sophomore year, I took a trip to New York City with Dr. Hilary Becker’s Ethics in Archaeology class. In NYC, we met several attorneys involved in the trade and preservation of antiquities. I was enamored by the idea of a professional legal career in that field. One of the attorneys, the head of Sotheby’s antiquities division, encouraged me to take on art history as a second major. Almost the moment I returned, I met with my advisor and added art history to my curriculum.
What are some significant/favorite memories from your time at UM?
Oxford used to have town-wide art nights where every gallery put on a fresh show and set out a spread of wine and cheese. The double decker bus would ferry people from Southside to the Power House to the University Museum. One of my fondest memories is of a fall night, riding topside on the double-decker, surrounded by friends, feeling the chilly air whipping around us. It was a rare and precious moment of carefree contentment.
Please describe your educational/career trajectory since graduation from UM.
After graduation, I spent a year teaching English and Latin at Jesuit High School here in New Orleans. Next, I spent three years at Tulane Law School where I earned my JD. At Tulane, my interests shifted from Art Law to Criminal Law. A friend of mine was a prosecutor at the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office, and he invited me to come intern for him. I spent my first summer of law school helping him prepare for hearings and trials. The subject matter was gritty and fascinating. Everyday seemed like an episode of Law and Order. Later in my law school career, I became involved in Tulane’s Criminal Justice Clinic, which provides free criminal defense to indigent people across the State of Louisiana. The Clinic gave me an opportunity to hone my skills as a courtroom litigator; but, more importantly, it imparted upon me an understanding of the power imbalance between a defendant and a prosecutor. Criminal prosecution is necessary to maintain order and safety in our community — but it must be practiced in a way that is wholly ethical. Otherwise, lives may be ripped apart and communities may be destabilized without justification.
I graduated from Tulane Law in May of 2021, passed the bar, and became a prosecutor with the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office. I started in the felony trials division, where I handled a range of cases from burglary to aggravated battery to heroin distribution. Last month, I was promoted to Senior ADA. My caseload is now entirely comprised of murders and rapes. I am also responsible for overseeing all prosecutions in one of the twelve sections of the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court.
What is the value of studying art history in today’s world?
Art history is the study of communication via empathy. Through art, humans share complex ideas and emotions without using words. Art can unify and divide, extol and excoriate, persuade and reinforce; and it does all this by leading us to identify with a person or people. Empathy is, perhaps, the single greatest tool that art history can gift to its students. In order to understand a piece of art, a viewer has to consider the piece from the perspective of its creator. In doing so, we allow ourselves to glimpse the world as it exists for another person with a different life experience.
In a similar way, art often calls upon a viewer to identify with a person who is a piece’s subject. Take, for instance, the iconic piece of World War II propaganda, “We Can Do It”, featuring Rosie the Riveter. Through that piece, J Howard Miller inspired, and continues to inspire, millions of women here in America and across the globe. By asking people to identify with the subject of his composition, Miller created a call to action that still resonates with people eighty years after its creation. In my career as a trial attorney, I’ve found that empathy often plays a similar role. A jury that empathizes with a victim is a jury that will grant that victim justice. I would hazard a guess that art history’s lessons on empathy may be equally useful in any field requiring interpersonal contact such as arbitration, sales, marketing, psychology, medicine, and human resources.