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Not Your Average Joe

He’s making a difference as an attorney and beyond

Even in high school, Philly native Joe Khan ’97 knew he wanted to be a prosecutor.

“It’s a job where you’re an advocate,” he says. “You stand up for victims of crime but also protect the rights of the accused, and make sure the guilty are held to account and the innocent don’t suffer.”

On his road to the courtroom, Khan—the son of a Muslim from Pakistan and a Catholic from Philly—chose Swarthmore for its sense of mission and social justice—not to mention myriad opportunities. The English literature and political science major served as editor of The Phoenix, a lifeguard, and a member of the rugby, football, and debate teams.

“Swarthmore had the sort of personality that was a good fit for me,” he says. “It was a wonderful place.”

After graduation—where he was the senior class speaker—he enrolled at the University of Chicago Law School, where he was taught by Barack Obama.

“He was the ideal role model,” Khan says. “Long before he became a national figure, he was a guiding influence in my life in terms of understanding who I wanted to be as an attorney, as a public servant, and as a dad. He had a profound sense of humility and was always careful not to take himself too seriously.”

One of the students who later worked with Obama on his presidential campaign, Khan remembered his mentor’s example when he himself became a professor and a political candidate.

“A lot of my instincts came from those times of watching Obama be himself—authentic but deliberate in carrying out the mission—and persuading people to come along with him,” he says. “Sometimes, when I’m teaching, I hear echoes of how Obama conducted his class.”

Between six years in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office and 10 more as an assistant U.S. attorney, Khan prosecuted more than 1,000 cases in his hometown. He specialized in cases of political corruption and sexual assault, including that of Jeffrey Marsalis, the notorious “ rapist,” who was ultimately sentenced to life.

“Prosecuting sex crimes was a particularly tough job, but an honor and a privilege,” Khan says. “You’re not only trying to take a dangerous person off the street, but also serving an important role for the victims, many of them children with no father figures, nor role models. I’d stay involved in the child’s life for as long as the family wished.”

Last year, Khan ran for Philadelphia district attorney, endorsed by former DA, Philly mayor, and Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell; the National Organization for Women; and Khizr Khan (no relation), father of Army Capt. Humayun Khan, the young Muslim American officer killed in the Iraq War in 2004.

Despite having no political background, he came in second in a seven-person race to unseat the now-imprisoned DA Seth Williams.

“It was nonetheless an amazing experience, coming out of nowhere to emerge with some wonderful support,” Khan says. “This campaign has really changed my life, and I’m very proud of the reception we got.”