D.A.: Prosecutors in Their Own Wordsby Mark Baker, Baker
For D.A., Mark Baker interviewed dozens of D.A.'s from big cities, small towns, and rural areas across the country, and it is their stories and their voices - by turns idealistic, tough, cynical, and hopeful - that make up this compelling collective portrait of the men and women whose responsibility it is to see that justice is served. In D.A., prosecutors discuss… See more details below
For D.A., Mark Baker interviewed dozens of D.A.'s from big cities, small towns, and rural areas across the country, and it is their stories and their voices - by turns idealistic, tough, cynical, and hopeful - that make up this compelling collective portrait of the men and women whose responsibility it is to see that justice is served. In D.A., prosecutors discuss what happens when idealism and high expectations run into reality - low pay, skilful defense attorneys, questionable evidence, and duplicitous witnesses. In candid and unflinching detail, they recall their most memorable cases, wins and losses, and how they keep going in spite of the sometimes chilling crimes they face in court.
- Simon & Schuster
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Read an Excerpt
You WIN, and you SUCK! WIN and SUCK! WIN and SUCK! Win-suck-win-suck-win-suck-win-suck-win."
Trip was presenting the two-word explanation of how he managed to succeed in his first year as an assistant prosecutor. "I did the normal political things, which is true in any prosecutor's office," he explained. "I'm sucking up to the secretaries, who really run the calendar, being a good soldier, bringing the boss coffee when he was in town, throwing my win records at him at every opportunity."
Trip relocated for his new job from the state capital, where he attended law school, to the county seat of a mainly rural judicial district in the southeastern United States. The three leading industries in the region are potato farms spuds grown for the snack-chip market pulp-wood mills, and speed traps. The population of the entire county is under 250,000 people, and the town itself, squatting like an idle cane-pole fisherman on the banks of a wide, slow-moving river, is home to about 30,000 people. They have a crack cocaine problem, a surfeit of drunk driving arrests, the regular traffic in spouse abuse, bar fights, and burglaries, and a few brutal murders every year. More often these days, the murderer who wandered in from the nearby interstate is a stranger to his victims instead of being a family member or jilted lover. The political scene is a seesaw struggle between conservative Southern Democrats and former Southern Democrats gone Republican ("We didn't desert the Democratic party; it deserted us," they say in these parts). Both sides want their elected officials to be "tough on crime" and tight with thebudget. The police force is young and aggressive. As a defense lawyer in the same area put it, "The young cop's position in all this is us-against-them. He's trained to be a hammer, and we all look like nails to him."
A job as a state prosecutor isn't the political plum it used to be. It still doesn't hurt to be aligned with the same political party as the prosecutor in power, and working for his or her election doesn't count against a job candidate by any means, but in the last twenty years, more and more prosecutor's offices all over the country have turned to hiring at least partially on merit rather than strictly according to party affiliation and political-machine connections.
"There might be a few people who come out of law school with a political vision that they're going to join the prosecutor's office, get a few high-profile cases, and then run for office somewhere," said one lawyer. "Most of us fall into it. Most of us are just people looking for a job who can't find anything." Prosecutors aren't born into the job. Almost no one specializes in criminal prosecution in law school because of some burning desire to work for the state and the "good of the people" someday. Lawyers aren't generally noted for their idealism law school itself burns away most candidates' visionary aspirations. Only two of the prosecutors I talked with graduated from high-profile Ivy League-affiliated law schools. Most of the others attended state-university law schools in the states in which they intended to practice. Almost all of them finished their training firmly in the middle of the pack not in the top 10 percent academically, not Law Review, just average. Headhunters weren't exactly beating a trail to their doors begging them to consider the high salary and prestige of joining a top private practice firm. Corporations weren't snapping them up. Many of the men and women who end up as prosecutors seem, as a group, to be allergic to torts and the picayune details of business law. It's not that all young prosecutors are stupid or inept, but this branch of the law does appear to attract men and women who might be characterized at best as independent-minded and at worst as mavericks. For instance, both the Ivy League graduates landed on their feet after law school one with a huge private firm and the other in the home office of a major corporation. This man and woman both quit their early promising careers before a year was out because they were bored to tears with the stultifying research and piles of paperwork that never seemed to make any difference. Of the remaining lawyers I interviewed, half of them needed a job any job in their profession, and state's prosecutor was one of the few positions going begging for applicants. The other half worked as interns for their future employers during the last year of law school and jumped at the chance to join up when it was offered.
When asked why he or she took the job, the first answer out of a prosecutor's mouth is almost always, "For the trial experience." Whether or not that answer would make the needle wave wildly in a lie detector test, it does describe exactly what the new prosecutor gets in spades the first day he shows up for work. With the jails and court dockets overflowing with defendants, the public clamoring more loudly every year for "justice," and belt-tightening budgets keeping prosecutors permanently shorthanded, a young lawyer may easily find himself or herself in court immediately, without much on-the-job training or experienced coaching. As a former prosecutor described his early days, "The first jury trial I ever saw, I tried. It was, 'Wait until the defense attorney sits down, and then you take the other table.' That sort of thing."
Luckily for the public, new prosecutor's assistants are only trying misdemeanors for the first year or so, so they can't do too much damage whether they win or lose. As one former prosecutor who is now a judge reasoned at the beginning of her career, "I figured as a D.A., if you did a good job and the person was guilty, the person went to jail. If you did a bad job and the person was guilty, the person got off. However, if you were in Legal Aid and you did a bad job, somebody went to jail. I figured it wasn't a good idea to represent people and risk them going to jail because of my inexperience."
The lawyers who stick with the prosecutor's office are the ones who discover that they like working in court. Many of them mention that representing the people in court eliminates any moral objections they may have had about being lawyers. They claim they don't have to stretch the truth or tie themselves into knots for their clients as other lawyers often do.
Whether they are willing to admit it to themselves or not, they also like the hand-to-hand combat that jury trials involve. Even though a trial isn't supposed to be a sport with winners and losers, it's easy to lose sight of all that business about seeing that justice is done and to dive into the pure one-on-one competition before the spectators. No matter how idealistic the young prosecutor, it doesn't take many bouts in the courtroom where he is bloodied by a sharp defense attorney or a demanding judge to make him yearn to draw a little blood from the opposition. Ego is a powerful drive. Young lawyers often use their skills of persuasion, and attack with athletic recklessness. As another young prosecutor put it, "Prosecutors turn into sharks. Sharks are eating machines. Prosecutors are conviction machines." Without too many tangible rewards for long hours of hard work, winning becomes a major job benefit. It soon seems clear to the new guy that the only way he's ever going to move on to more challenging cases and the only way he's going to squeeze the maximum amount of money out of the state to feed his family and his psyche is to win as many cases as he can, and then to make sure his impressive record gets to the attention of the boss, before the boss gets voted out of office. WIN and SUCK. WIN and SUCK.
I went to college for the purpose of going to medical school. Then I was going to college for the purpose of going to dental school. Then I was going to college with the purpose of graduating. I was a science and biology major and had a second major in English literature.
I got out and went to work for a suntan oil company and was basically a directionless child. I was semi-engaged to a woman who had all kinds of direction and went to paralegal school after she graduated from college. On a whim, I took the LSAT one Saturday after I studied a Barron's book for about two weeks and did well on that. Then, following the theory of follow your body, which I learned from doing mushrooms in high school, I filled out the applications to go to law school. I was accepted, so I went. I got married my first year.
I went to law school originally with the purpose of practicing environmental law. Ultimately, that turned out to be one of those juvenile ideas about what you're going to do in the future when you grow up, not realizing that what you're going to do really is what's going to bring more profit to you. I graduated with C's. I made one A in wills and trusts and one D in civil rights, and everything else was mostly C's.
My single accomplishment in law school was rising to be the intramural supervisor in sports. This was a position of great power in law school, because you control the golf tournament, which means you control the liquor for the golf tournament, so it was the only office of any privilege in law school.
Got out and applied everywhere, but I was not Law Review, was not the top ten in my class, was dead-set in the middle. I got no come-backs, except for a possible job with the public defender's office in a city downstate. I had worked in a clinic in law school with the public defender's office doing a bunch of jail work, going in to do the initial interviews for public-defender clients in jail. I had learned a lot like, cigarettes are worth their weight in gold in jail, and you can get anybody to talk to you if you give them a cigarette.
Went to a lawyer in a medium-size town that was home to a local judicial circuit to interview for a job to do whatever it was that he did. I had no idea what his specialty would be, but I thought I might be able to figure out whatever it was he does in the lobby of his offices. That's what I did with all my job interviews: I'd walk in there having figured out what the guy did by looking at the certificates, awards, and things in his reception area. Then I would see him, and say, "I'm very interested in real estate," or, "I'm very interested in personal injury." Basically, it was, Here I am. Hire me. I have a loan to pay off.
I started this interview by saying, "I am very interested in real estate and development," because I knew that was what he did. He was representing developers. I knew that from the newspaper.
"I don't really have anything here," he said, "but I'm also a part-time prosecutor."
I quickly shifted gears and said, "Yeah, I'm very interested in criminal prosecution." So he set me up with an interview.
I went straight from his office to interview at the state attorney's office, after he made a call. The woman I talked to there was the gatekeeper for the state attorney, and she had the same last name as I do. No relation. I told her my name and that certainly we were related somehow. I didn't get to talk to the state attorney that day, but I got my foot in the door for an opening they had in a small town in a rural area.
They had interviewed an individual for the job who was an assistant public defender in the circuit. They had decided to give that individual the job. He had a lot of experience as a public defender, and he could hit the ground running in court. The guy was at a party, and unbeknownst to him, an investigator for the state attorney's office was there socially as well. This investigator was the sort of aide-de-camp to the state attorney. Nobody at the party was really defining who they were. However, the investigator knew who the assistant PD was. The PD mentioned to the guys in this group, "Hey, do you guys want to go outside and smoke a joint?" So he didn't get the job, but I did by pure consequence, and I was glad I wasn't in that group, too. "Yeah, as a matter of fact, I would."
I started out doing misdemeanor work and probably tried two hundred some odd cases my first year. Straight into jury trial, very little training, just learn as you go. Frankly, I was interested in trial work I just hadn't known it until I got a chance to do it. They throw you into the middle of things right away. It's a great experience. I don't know that it's a responsibility that a twenty-four-year-old should have foisted upon him, but that's the way of the world. Made all kinds of errors. Was really ignorant as hell. I didn't get beaten a lot. I lost two or three trials the first year. These are drunk-driving cases, and a lot of these cases prosecute themselves. I wasn't completely dumb; I'm learning as fast as I can. I'm watching other lawyers try cases. I went to a clinic where you learn how to try these things. I don't think the defense bar I was up against was really that good. So I padded myself with confidence during this time.
The county judge that I was working for was eventually forced to step down after a diagnosis of Alzheimer's. We'd walk into court, and he wouldn't know who I was. Here I am in my first year of legal practice, and I'm going through plea inquiries that the judge should be doing, and I'm telling the judge what to sentence the guy, because of his mental infirmity. He'd look at me and say, "What do you think?"
"Six months' probation would be all right with us, Judge." I was prosecutor, judge, and all. In trial, it was difficult. He didn't know what hearsay was, because he'd forgotten. It was sad.
A year after I got there, I'm doing what you do to get ahead as a lawyer. In office politics, I was making sure I was well loved. Wasn't trying to piss off anybody. Also, I was doing things that get prosecutors ahead, like being beholden to cops. Going out there riding with them, paying attention to their cases, calling them up. Prosecuting stuff that they'd never had prosecuted before. That's how you deal with cops. Cops aren't really lazy; they're just beaten down by what happens to their cases when they go off into judicial heaven somewhere and disappear. If you call up and say, "Go out and get this witness, and we can do this," they will often respond. The cops have gotten this attitude that prosecutors aren't going to do anything, really, because they're lawyers and they don't give a damn and all they want to do is get out of the office by 5 o'clock.
DUI, drunk driving, had definitely become the big issue of the day. Get your percentages up. We were showing convictions at the 92 percentage rate, and everybody was loving it. After a year of that, I'd prosecuted a public official for DUI. It was dumped on me, because they thought it was a loser. His blood alcohol was .11 in a .10 state, and the guy was a pretty popular property appraiser in the county. I won. I prosecuted a cop for DUI, and I won. These were misdemeanor prosecutions that were somewhat controversial for a small town.
I'd been given a couple of felonies to do armed robbery and things like that -- and had been successful. In that county, we were doing a lot of child sexual abuse prosecution not because there was more there than anywhere else, but there was a better system to report them and to discover. Those cases prosecute themselves. Of all the criminals I've prosecuted, the guys who look the most like what they do are child sexual abusers. You get them into court, and you feel like saying to the jury, "Look at this guy. Need I say more?" You don't have to worry about systems of proof, because what you have is an eight-year-old kid who comes up there and says, "He put his thing in my thing and it hurt." No jury is going to say, "Oh no, the kid's a liar." In truth and in hindsight, I wonder, looking back, how much of it was put up and how much of it was true. I think most of it was true, but then again maybe I'm stroking myself, and that's the comfortable thing to say. I hope it was true, because the penalty for that is life in prison, and they're still there.
This guy who was running my office applied for the judgeship vacated on account of Alzheimer's. He got the county judgeship, and as the fates would have it, the guy who normally would have been appointed over me as the division chief running that office got drunk and wrecked the state car. The state attorney said to him, "I'm not making you division chief." I was twenty-six when I got appointed division chief and had murder ones, death penalty cases, racketeering, influence and corrupt organization prosecutions, and all this other stuff put upon me. I was the prince of the north part of the circuit, and another guy was the prince of the south. You couldn't make any money at it, but it was neat.
I graduated from undergraduate school in 1966. At the time, the Vietnam War was going on and I wasn't really anxious to go do my military duty, although I considered joining the reserves. But I went and talked to my folks, and they said, "Oh no, if you do that, you'll never finish school." They all thought I should be a lawyer, so I thought, Oh, okay, I'll go to law school. No matter what I do I'll probably be able to find some beneficial use for this experience in life.
I went to law school, which was a horrible ordeal. I tolerated it right through to late October of 1968, my senior year. I was out elk hunting by myself, way out in the middle of nowhere. I had an old lever-action Winchester with a pretty large caliber bullet. For whatever reason, I didn't have the safety on. I had the hammer down flush on the firing pin. Stupidly.
It started to get dark on me, so I was heading back to my truck, sort of trotting down a fairly steep hillside, and I fell forward down the hill. The gun flipped out in front of me and somehow or other went off and hit me in the stomach. The bullet went clear on through me and out my back. Luckily, it didn't mushroom very much and blow my whole backside off. Missed my spine by maybe an inch and a half.
It's one of those things when it happens, it happens quickly. I was back up before I really realized I'd been shot. Then it hit me. The initial sensation is panic. I figured I was a dead man. So I kind of rolled around there worrying about things and finally decided, Well, hell, if I'm out here in the middle of nowhere, the only person who can get me in is me. I made it to my truck, got in, turned around, and drove it out.
Eventually I made it to the hospital. I was so weak I was just slumped over the steering wheel kind of waving at the windshield for somebody to come out and get me. But nobody would. I finally had to get out and walk in.
I ended up in the hospital for a month and a day. What almost did me in was the infection, which continued to ooze pus until about five years ago. I was so sick I couldn't even read my law books much less keep up with anything. So I had to drop out of law school.
When I got out of the hospital, I had nothing to do, so I went to work as an intern prosecutor in the police department handling a lot of traffic tickets, and that kept me busy on a part-time basis for the rest of school. When I graduated in midyear, there was an opening in the county attorney's office. I'd been prosecuting for a little over a year, and I had all this great experience. It was a crappy job, paid $475 a month gross. The net was $307. I was probably the only applicant for the job.
The county attorney had had enough of the job. He'd been there ten years, figured it was time to get out and make some money, and said he wasn't going to run again. I thought, Why not? So I ran, and within three months of being hired, I won the primary in a three-way race, and then went on to win the general election in November. I've been there ever since.
The first day there I didn't know what time the office would open. So I showed up at 8 A.M. wearing a suit and tie. The doors are locked. I go around and find a cup of coffee and come back at 8:20. The doors are still locked. I go off again and walk around, come back at 8:40. Doors are locked. Finally at 9:10, a secretary wanders up. She opens the door, says, "Come on in. Nobody's here. They won't be in for a little while. Probably Wildcat will be in first." Almost everybody in the office had a nickname by which they were known all over town in court and out of court. Sure enough, John comes in we later became good friends and she wants to introduce me to him. He was being pretty gruff and didn't want to talk to me until he'd had a chance to read the sports section, to see how the Yankees had done the night before. So I sat in his office quietly while he read the sports section before he'd talk to me at all.
My first week there, I was assigned to assist the elected state attorney in a drug importation trial. Maybe ten defendants, Cubans, in an off-loading operation that was disrupted out in the mangroves off one of the Keys there. They rounded up all the wet Cubans within a few square miles of there and charged them. They all were named, like, Hernandez Gonzales and Gonzales Hernandez. You couldn't tell them apart on paper. So I went through all the witness statements. I wrote out questions for the state attorney. I went and got maps blown up. I talked to all the law enforcement witnesses.
The following week we were going to trial. I go by the state attorney's house in the morning to wake him up so he'll make it to the courthouse to come to trial. "No, no, Harold. You can't wear that tie with that shirt." Get him dressed. But we won the trial, so I was pretty golden at that point. Although I graduated from law school in the middle of the pack, I was probably one of the first ones to be offered a decent job. Some of our top students were getting rejection letters, and I already had a job with the state attorney's office.
I think that my early experience as a state attorney was radically different from most people you talk to. Late 1970s in Key West was an unusual time and place to be a prosecutor. It was pretty wild and woolly down there. The social scene was something. It was pre-AIDS. It was the time of cocaine. The gay society in Key West infused the whole area with a certain permissiveness that carried over to heterosexuals. It was fun. Dangerous. We had a cast of characters there in the state attorney's office. Wildcat and Crazy Fred, our chief assistant, who once tried a case and the only thing that the paper could comment on was the earring that he was wearing back in the old days when men didn't wear earrings.
My experience was less formal in that I didn't have a boss who had any political aspirations. He literally decided to run for state attorney when he was drinking with a buddy who bet him $500 that he couldn't become state attorney. He was a good politician; he'd been in the state legislature. He won, and then he didn't know what to do with it once he was elected. "Uh-oh. Now what?"
Then there were the cops. They had an interagency task force they'd put together to combat drug importation, because the Keys were the chief point of entry for marijuana into the United States. This task force included city policemen and the sheriff's office deputies. Jesus, the first week I was down there, they were all indicted for protecting off-loading operations.
We had one guy, a tough, young police officer, who ran a string of hookers down there. He also had a small grocery store. He was an immigrant, and he would sell supplies to the little city jail, a very small facility. They just had holding cells, more or less, and they were consuming large amounts of steak and everything else every month. Apparently, all the officers were eating quite nicely out of the city budget there, and out of this guy's store.
I had a friend who was flouncing down Duval Street one night, all dressed up to meet somebody for a date. This car pulls up on the sidewalk and cuts her off. This same cop hops out and says, "Honey, you going to work this street, you've got to talk to me." He thought he was having some competition for his girls. That was Key West back in those days.
There were some good cops don't get me wrong. But there also were some Key West-type cops, and it wasn't anything that disturbed anyone. The public didn't seem to care that much. It seems that everybody somewhere along the line had a little piece of the action, and somehow benefited from it. It was all tourism-related. It's a party place. It's feel-good time. There would be rendezvous there in the state attorney's office, sexual encounters. As a brand-new lawyer, just out of the box, I was pretty much awestruck by the whole scene at first.
The Conchs were really great. The most prominent defense attorney in Key West was tight with the police department. He was also a noted drug smuggler, who ended up going to Federal prison for a while. You'd try a case against him, and you'd be real careful to ask prospective jurors, "Do you know Jimmy?"
"Oh sure. I know Mr. Gaines."
"Well, has he ever done any favors for you?"
"Oh no, no, no."
"Do you owe him any favors? Has he ever employed you or a member of your family?"
"Oh no, no, no."
"Are you related to him?"
"No, no, no."
All these questions. You'd end up selecting your jurors, and Jimmy wouldn't ask them a single question. The jury would get sworn in and he'd wander by the prosecutor's table and he'd say, "You know three of those jurors are my cousins, don't you?" And you never knew whether he was telling the truth or not. In the Conch society, he was king of the Conchs, and they would have perjured themselves, done whatever they needed to do to help Jimmy out.
Jimmy was a character in his own right, too. We used to have daiquiri parties in the state attorney's office every Friday afternoon. We'd close down about three o'clock. The police could tell whether or not they were in good graces with the state attorney's office depending on whether or not they could get an appointment with one of the state attorneys late Friday afternoon, because that meant they were invited to come drink with us. Jimmy used to always buy us a new blender for our daiquiris every Christmas as a present to the office so that he could guarantee his invitation.
I never won any cases from him. I lost a couple. He got some people mad at me. Back in the good old days, drunk driving charges would routinely be pled down to reckless driving and a $250 fine that is before the mandatory hysteria that we have now began. He would never show up for court, and the little county judge would always excuse Jimmy. Court dates would come and go, and Jimmy would be in Colombia or someplace out of the country, no problem. But when Jimmy would call the judge up and say, "Judge, I'm in town. Let's clear some cases," the judge would gather us all together for a special court date with Jimmy. We'd grab up all our files and go in there.
There would be no defendants there just Jimmy, the clerk, the judge, and myself, plus the court reporter. We'd start going through the cases. Jimmy'd be pleading people to reckless. He would have on one of those guyabara shirts, the white ones with a square tail that you wear out of your pants, open collar. Jimmy was a funny little creature anyway. He was about five-two, and he wore these platform shoes that were about seven inches high. He was tottering on top of them. This big gut on him; gold dripping everywhere. He'd be pleading, and he'd have the pockets of his guyabara shirt stuffed with rolls of bills hundreds in one pocket and fifties in another. He'd have the clerk over there with a running total. "Okay, what are we up to now?"
"Four thousand three hundred and thirty-seven dollars in fines."
He'd take out his money and pay the fines in cash, right there in court, for all these people. We had a lot of DUIs down there. Quite frankly, people would come down to Key West to have fun, and they'd get caught.
After I'd been on the job for eighteen months, I started getting calls from people who had been represented by Jimmy. They'd be furious. They couldn't get hold of him, so they'd be calling me. Turns out he was telling people: "You give me $1,200, and I'll take care of this." He would give them the impression that he could somehow buy off the system and that there would not be any kind of repercussions. But they'd actually be convicted of reckless driving, and they'd have points on their license. There weren't any suspensions of driving privileges at the time, but it would definitely affect their insurance rates and things like that. He's pleading them guilty to reckless driving, paying a $250 fine, pocketing the rest of the money, and leaving them with the impression that if they offered him this sum of money, then the problem was just going to magically disappear. These people were furious, like I'd somehow screwed them.
I wasn't smart enough to take bribes down there. I didn't have the sense to appreciate graft when it was offered to me. I had opportunities but just wasn't clever enough to cash in on it.
I get a call one day from my secretary. She's just chortling, "You're two o'clock appointment is here."
This girl walks in. She's got on the shortest little skirt. She's got big tits, and cleavage is just flowing out of her dress. She's comes over to my desk, and she says, "Hi, my name is Susan, and I'm here to plea bargain." When she says that, she leans over and shakes her breasts at me.
"Excuse me?" I say. I get the secretary to get the file. She's represented by counsel, so ethically I couldn't speak to her. So I'm saying, "Ma'am, you need to see your attorney. I can't talk to you about this."
"No," she says, "I don't want to talk. I want to plea bargain." My secretary was just waiting in anticipation outside the office door. She could hardly wait to see what happened with this. Unfortunately or fortunately nothing happened. I was doing misdemeanors at the time, so her crime couldn't have been anything serious. Probably it was something that she thought a good blow job would take care of she was probably right, but once again I was too young and stupid to understand graft when it was standing right there in front of me.
We had a county judge who really did not like going to trial. It was a pretty laid-back place. Nobody was a ball of fire, but if you got a case that looked like it might go to trial, this judge'd broker some sort of deal. He'd get the state attorney in there, and the defense attorney. "Okay now, Mr. State Attorney, you're asking too much money on this fine. And, Mr. Defense Attorney, you could come up a little bit. You could pay more than $250, eh?" He'd work something out, and we'd be going, "Yeah, twist our arms. Okay, okay."
He was a funny little guy. He was in the County Judges Association like all county judges are, and he wrote a treatise on ethics for their publication. "You should not drink more than three glasses of wine during lunch. You should not screw your secretary in the office." It was things like this. Whoa, Willie. He showed it to me just before he was going to send it off to the County Judges Association. "You might want to work on this a little bit, Judge. Talk to some of the other judges before you send this in."
I had been a public defender a little bit of time before that, enough time that I realized I was fairly unhappy about getting people off who shouldn't be back out on the street. I had some success in doing that, but didn't like what I was doing. So I picked up a job with the prosecutor's office. The county prosecutor's office at that time, the majority of the staff was part-time attorneys. There were very few on a full-time basis, and we weren't paid very well. But we were certainly very busy.
The court historically used to close in the summer time and held no trials at all for three months, until the year I started. It would have been a wonderful spot before that. What happened was, there were two serious prison riots in the state penitentiary in town. Some fifty-eight of the inmates were indicted for prison rioting, which was a separate statute in those days. In order to relieve the docket, the court decided to experiment and open two courtrooms during that summer in order to try all the prison riot cases that were pending. I was part of the staff assigned to those cases. We usually started a case on a Monday and another case on a Wednesday. Had the same sets of witnesses there all week long and were parading them back and forth between two courtrooms. We tried just about every one of the cases. One guy pled guilty, but all the rest of them demanded trials, simply because they wanted to come out of the prison. That gave me an enormous amount of quick trial experience. They threw you into a factory, in a way.
In the first few years, the full-time prosecutors were trying an average of forty juries a year, but there weren't that many of us on staff. The part-timers didn't try a whole lot of cases. They worked theirs out rapidly, and then they'd leave them on a full-timer's desk, saying, "I've already worked out a plea on this, and I'm doing a divorce in the morning. Would you handle the plea for me?" I found out later that they were already getting paid more than we were anyway, which was pretty upsetting. They had a separate little deal going with the prosecutor at that time.
They have a big turnover in the state attorney's office, so they handed me a stack of felony cases, my first day on the job as an intern, and told me to handle them. You can't do anything in court. You have to have a supervising attorney. They had a guy and his sole job was "doing intake." He didn't try many cases, but he would go in with me and the other interns and perform the function of a supervising attorney. It was like having a driving instructor who just sat in the passenger seat and slept. Pretty much, we were left to our own devices. I was too damn stupid to know I wasn't supposed to be doing this stuff. I was going in there and kicking some ass. It was great fun.
However, my success meant that when I was hired as a full-time prosecutor, still green as a gourd, I ended up against the best defense attorney in town. He sounds more like Jimmy Stewart than Jimmy Stewart. When you've got him on the other side, it's war, and he doesn't make any bones about it. "I'm not here to bullshit you. I'm not here to talk you into something. I'm here to try this case." They pay him a lot of money, and he does his job.
I was beginning to think that he represented everybody in that whole state, because every time I turn around, I've got one of his cases. The truth of the matter is, the senior prosecuting attorney had gotten his ass kicked so many times by this defense lawyer that anytime they drew him, they'd throw it to me. "Feed it to Mikey, he'll eat anything" was the basic theory. So it was a real learning experience. He was an excellent trial lawyer. He taught me that you have to go that extra step to win. If you didn't lose your composure from getting clobbered, you could really learn something. He wasn't the kind of guy you'd lose your temper at. You'd lose your ass. He wouldn't piss you off so much as just hammer you.
When I left law school, I thought I never wanted to be tested again, that what I wanted really was just a desk job. Shortly after leaving law school, I got a job at one of the Ivy League-dominated firms and spent some time with them. I worked on one case for about two years. Never saw a client; never left the library. That's what young lawyers do they sit in the library and they do research. I thought, If this is what it is, I'm leaving. I was bored out of my head. I thought to myself that perhaps I'd picked the wrong career. Perhaps it might be more exciting to go drive a taxicab or a truck. I realized that I had been terribly mistaken about a desk job. I hated it. I actually hated it. So I quit.
While looking for a new job and trying to make up my mind what I wanted to do with my life, I thought I'd volunteer some of my time to the Legal Aid Society and see what the other side of the law field was like. Young lawyers volunteered a month of their time and defended the indigent. What we got was training for a period, and the latter weeks of that month, we would be able to defend people in court not homicides, of course, but misdemeanors and very minor offenses, minor violations. I did that for about a month. There was a nucleus of staff besides the volunteers at the Legal Aid Society also, and I was asked if I wanted to be a member of that staff. That sounded interesting. The work I'd been doing was interesting during the month I was there. I saw a lot more clients anyway. Never an absence of clients. So that's what I did.
While there, I opposed many assistant district attorneys. One of them said, "Why don't you apply to our office? You seem to like this kind of work. You seem to have some talent. Why don't you come with us. We'll give you further training and make a trial lawyer out of you."
My response was, "I have no political backing. I'm not a politician; I know no politicians." District attorney's offices in those years were manned by politicians, the sons of politicians, or the friends of politicians. You had to be a politico to become an assistant district attorney.
"No, that's not the way it is here," the fellow who asked me to join the staff said. I didn't believe him. He said, "Look, why don't you do me a favor? If you don't believe me, send in a résumé, and see what happens." I did, and I got the job. I became an assistant district attorney in Manhattan, which was the only nonpolitical office in the entire metropolitan area.
That all came down very interestingly. There was a guy by the name of Thomas Dewey who became a special prosecutor because the city was corrupt, it was said. They decided that they would appoint a special prosecutor to look into political as well as judicial corruption. Dewey did a bang-up job. He banged organized crime. He knocked off corrupt judges. He knocked the political system on its ear. And he was a Republican in a thoroughly and traditionally Democratic town. By the time he got through and there were a couple years of special prosecution the Republicans put him up for district attorney, and Tom Dewey couldn't be beat. He was God. The people elected him district attorney. Now that he was in office; he owed nobody a living: The Republicans were nobody and nothing in New York City, so they had no pull whatsoever upon him. Certainly, the Democrats could place no demands upon him. For the first time in the history of prosecution throughout the country, he decided that he was going to have a staff consisting of lawyers whom he chose on merit. He went to law firms and law schools. He picked people carefully, and he got totally nonpolitical people. When I was an assistant district attorney, it was the only government staff that was nonpolitical. No politician could come in there and say, "Hey, there's a guy that's been arrested and he's politically active, so we'd like you to be kind to him." You couldn't do that in our office. You could everywhere else.
When Tom Dewey decided that he wanted to run for governor, the Democrats decided, "Now we're going to run our hack and take back the office of district attorney." Dewey said, "Nothing doing. You run your hack, and I'll pick someone to run against him. My word is law in this city now." So they reached a compromise. Tom Dewey had people who were Independents, Republicans, and Democrats, not active politicians, and he recommended one of his assistants for the job, and that was Frank Hogan. Frank Hogan became district attorney and became a legend known as Mr. District Attorney. He carried on the Dewey theme: "No politics in this office. There are no sacred cows."
So I was hired, even though I had no political backing whatsoever. It was an office where you were promoted according to merit. You got your raises according to merit. It had nothing to do with the party district leader or the party county leader. As a matter of fact, the county leader was investigated by our district attorney.
You were always on the side of right. There were people who were politically active who became defendants, and you tried them with no interference whatsoever. There were all kinds of cases that you tried with no interference. The luxury was that when you completely investigated a case assigned to you, if you thought the guy was innocent, you had the absolute right in that office to recommend a dismissal and not try the fellow. If, in fact, after your investigation you determined that he was guilty, then you gave no quarter. You tried the fellow, and you convicted him in most cases. There was something like a 98 percent conviction rate in that office, and I contributed to it as being one of the trial assistants in that office.
I loved it. You didn't have to decide, Shall I take this case, and do I have enough money to feed my family this week? as private practitioners do, as I did many, many years later. So I was absolutely in seventh heaven. Turned down offers to go into private practice that came along. There was nothing that could tempt me to leave seventh heaven until my children came along. Then, of course, it was sort of hard. Times were tough. Nevertheless, I resisted private practice for fourteen years.
My first murder case, we took the jury on a field trip. I had them put on a bus, and we went out to view the scene of the crime. I couldn't believe the environment where this had happened. A ramshackle house in a rotten part of town. I must admit it showed me a little bit of how the other side lived. I had been blessed with a tremendous family a father and a mother. I lived in a section of the city which was one of the better parts of town. I used to go to school in the so-called hard side of the city, where there were more barrooms than homes, but never had to stay overnight in that area. I got a cultural shock of what the other side was truly like. I became aware of and appreciated the fact that a number of people good-living people were trapped in this type of environment. All of a sudden I realized that they had a lot more fear of crime than I did, because they lived right in the community where crime was rampant. Those law-abiding people had to live in close proximity to crime while I would go home at night, and I would not be in the same type of an area and neither did my children have to go into those areas. I didn't have to be afraid.
My family was getting bigger, and they were getting older. If this condition isn't arrested, it's going to spread. Before you know it, this could be happening where I live, where my children live. I don't know if I decided I was going to be the knight on the white horse coming into town and clearing up the streets, but I felt that I was doing good, that I was getting major, violent troublemakers out of the community and trying to make the community a better place. That bus trip was where I was truly educated in a firsthand type of fashion, and from then on, I felt it was something I had to do.
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