The Prosecutor, March-April 2008, Volume 38, No. 2

“Glad to help”

2008

A couple of years ago, a capital murder investigation took me to Atlanta. I stopped by the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office to let the office know I would be working in their community. Paul Howard Jr. is the District Attorney of Fulton County, and as you might expect he has plenty to keep him busy. Nonetheless, he made time to see me. After I explained why I was there, he not only found me a place to work but also assigned a prosecutor to help me find witnesses and serve subpoenas. One of his assistants, Shep Orlow, was likewise eager to help.

On the way home, I began to reflect on Mr. Howard’s gesture of kindness. It reminded me of the late Chris Marshall, an assistant criminal DA in Tarrant County, and the amount of time he spent fielding questions from prosecutors from all over the state. The late Matthew Paul also came to mind as I remembered the personal interest he took in helping other prosecutors. And Ted Wilson, a Harris County assistant DA, has helped me so often, I feel like I should deputize him.

Before the flight was over, I decided to think of a time when I asked for help from another prosecutor and did not get it. I couldn’t. Such generosity is an amazing quality. When you ask a prosecutor for assistance, the response is almost universally the same: “Glad to help.”

Why is that? Why do prosecutors so easily put their own work on the back burner and give immediate attention to another prosecutor? I think it has something to do with the kind of people who are drawn to prosecution. I tried my theory out by talking to a few prosecutors from around the State, and I share their responses with you.

Becky McPherson, 110th Judicial District Attorney

Why did you become a prosecutor?

I didn’t start out as a prosecutor; I started out in private practice. When I moved back home, I was looking for work and I saw an opening in the DA’s Office, so I applied.

Why have you made prosecution a career?

After a couple of weeks as a prosecutor, I started comparing my work to private practice. In private practice, I wasn’t always sure that what we were doing was right. I wasn’t always comfortable with what we were using the justice system for. As a prosecutor, I had a boss who told me to do what we believed was right—I was never forced to do otherwise. When you know in your heart someone has done something wrong, it is a good feeling to hold them accountable. I always liked the way Tom Krampitz [former TDCAA executive director] said it: “Don’t do anything that would embarrass your mom.”

If it weren’t for prosecution, I’m not sure I would still be practicing law. I can’t imagine doing anything else. It is what I am supposed to do.

Why are prosecutors always so ready to help each other?

It is for the same reason we prosecute: because it’s the right thing to do. Other prosecutors are trying to do what is right and important in their communities. Shouldn’t we help them do that? I think it’s fun to help other prosecutors. They have challenging and interesting problems. This is a small town, and I may one day need their help.

Ted Wilson, Assistant District Attorney, Harris County

Why did you become a prosecutor?

I started out thinking I would end up in a law office, drafting legal documents. In law school I clerked for a justice of the peace, and while I was doing that job I worked around some prosecutors. They all seemed excited about what they were doing, and it looked like they were having fun. They were also working a lot with police officers. I have always liked police officers and wanted the chance to get to know more about what they did and to play a role in what they were doing.

How did prosecution become a career?

I still enjoy coming to work today as much as I did in 1974. What we do is important to society. I look at the defense bar, and I know that what they are doing in representing their clients is honorable and important. They try to do the best they can for their client, the defendant. We try to do what is right for the State and not just the victim.  Sure, we want to see the victim get some satisfaction out of the process. But when the victim’s expectations or demands exceed what we believe is the appropriate disposition of a case, we should always decide in favor of a result that is just and appropriate for the facts of the case, the impact on the victim, and the background of the defendant.

We have a lot of power, authority, and responsibility. We can initiate a criminal charge, we can upgrade or reduce a criminal charge, and we can dismiss a criminal charge. We should never take our responsibility lightly.   Our decisions affect more than just a defendant. The way that we conduct ourselves as prosecutors will have either a positive or a negative effect on our community. It is an honor to have a job that gives me that opportunity.

Why are prosecutors so quick to help each other?

It is our mindset to help people. You can’t be a good prosecutor without having a great deal of empathy for people harmed by crime. You can spot the ones who don’t, and they usually don’t last long. Most of us are not getting paid what we could make somewhere else. But the lack of financial reward is offset by the enjoyment of doing what we do. You just can’t care deeply about a victim of a crime in your community and turn your back on a prosecutor trying to help a victim in their community. A victim is a victim anywhere. If you believe in what you are doing, you feel it is incumbent on you to do the right thing wherever the right thing is. When somebody calls me and asks for help, I am honored they called.

Cheryll Mabray, Llano County Attorney

Why did you become a prosecutor?

I always knew I wanted to work with people as opposed to corporate work. I took a clinic in law school and saw that prosecutors were lawyers who were down to earth. They acted like regular people. I did not want to appear to be a stuffed shirt, so being a prosecutor was the only job I applied for. We are the good guys. We wear the white hats!

Why did you make it a career?

In a small town you get to know everybody. You get to know who needs help and who the bad guys are. It takes a while to know how to really help your community, but after a few years you start thinking that you can really make a difference. There are a lot of negatives in the world, but this is a positive profession. We combat crime and take children out of abusive surroundings. I’m not in it for the money. I enjoy people. The work is fun, and it is something new every day. I like it. I also like the flexibility to take care of my family when I need to do that.

When a prosecutor calls, why are you quick to respond?

TDCAA has always encouraged comradery and fellowship. I enjoy being part of a group of fellow prosecutors who are caring people, who are all working for the common good. When I get a call from a prosecutor, I feel like it’s a call from a long lost brother or sister, like a fraternity or sorority. I know that if I ever needed anything, they would be there for me.

John Bradley, 26th Judicial District Attorney

Why did you become a prosecutor?

After graduating from college with a degree in English, I got married and began managing an ice cream parlor. And even though I felt like I was rising to the top and making good use of my knowledge of English grammar, my wife thought I needed to find another career.

While in law school, I signed up for an internship program with the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, thinking it was a quick way to get four or five hours of credit. I worked in Judge Jo Kegans’ court and was surprised to learn she was a magnificent storyteller, constant smoker, and cagey card player, telling me all about the drama of a criminal courthouse. I quickly became convinced there could be no more fascinating job than in criminal law.

After law school, I clerked for Judge Charles Campbell at the Court of Criminal Appeals. He was an excellent storyteller as well, giving me access to records of trials and showing me how lawyers should behave. I learned that, among lawyers, only prosecutors had the freedom to do the right thing. They had the discretion to file charges, decide on the proper punishment, or dismiss a case if they needed to. I decided I would be a prosecutor, or go I’d back to the ice cream business.

Why have you made prosecution a career?

From the first day as a prosecutor, I had no doubt about what I wanted to do for the rest of my career. The work is always fascinating. If you go to a social event or talk to a group of strangers, you can pick out the criminal lawyer as the one drawing the most attention in conversation. Prosecutors love their work, show great passion for the job, and tell the best stories. That’s because crime and the decisions associated with prosecution are endlessly interesting.

Why are prosecutors so willing to help each other?

There is a brotherhood and sisterhood of prosecutors. TDCAA contributes to that feeling by initiating new prosecutors into that perspective at the baby prosecutor school. It’s a boot camp on networking. New lawyers immediately get into small groups and start sharing stories with their faculty advisors. Technology also plays a part in maintaining that relationship. Whether by e-mail or the website’s user forum, prosecutors across the state who have never met in person are able to discuss issues and share experiences with each other.

Despite fielding lots of questions, I never get annoyed when someone asks a question. The issues are always fascinating, and I still feel challenged to see if I can provide the right answer. Such questions are even more challenging when they involve a legislative issue because I want to make sure we are all approaching the issue in a way that can benefit prosecutors.

Conclusion

My first real dose of prosecutorial hospitality came at the hands of an assistant district attorney from Milwaukee—it was so long ago I can’t even recall his name. A man accused of capital murder in Brazos County had an extensive criminal background in Wisconsin. The Milwaukee prosecutor assisted us in a number of legal battles in Wisconsin. After working tirelessly on the case and after completing his work, he felt obligated to ask me to spare the defendant’s life if I could. Even though he was morally opposed to the death penalty, he did not hesitate to help a Texas prosecutor do his job. His attitude left a lasting impression.

I haven’t seen it written down as part of the job description, but helping out, pitching in, and lending a hand seems to be second-nature to most people in this business. They can’t see doing it any other way. TDCAA thrives because the association cultivates this fundamental trait of our profession. It is a trait worth preserving.