March-April 2012

Prosecution runs in these families

Jana McCown

Assistant District ­Attorney in Williamson County

What would it be like to grow up with a parent who is a prosecutor? Our children see and hear things that other kids are oblivious to. As a mother or father, you hope that your children don’t worry about your job or your safety, but God knows we worry about theirs more than the average parent. When you are a first-hand witness to all of the bad things that people can do to other people, it can be difficult not to be overprotective.

    When I asked my 18-year-old daughter how she felt about my job, her response was, “I don’t mind it. A lot of my friends do, though.” She told me that they are scared of me until they get to know me (which is not necessarily a bad thing when you have teenage girls). In a small town, you are also likely to have information about your child’s classmates and friends, their parents, and other people they know. How much do you tell them, when do you disclose, and when do you just keep it to yourself? All of these questions come up at one time or another and may be answered differently at any given time, depending upon the circumstances.

    In Texas, we have in our ranks several prosecutors whose children grew up to also be prosecutors. A couple generously agreed to talk about what it was like to have prosecution all in the family.

Gene and Staley Heatly, District Attorney’s Office in Wilbarger, Foard, and Hardeman Counties

Gene Heatly and his son Staley are not only a father-son prosecution pair, but both have also served as the elected District Attorney for Wilbarger, Foard, and Hardeman Counties. Gene was elected 46th Judicial District Attorney in 1976 at the age of 33. He served for three terms and left office in 1988. Before that, he served as the Wilbarger County Attorney from 1969–1976. His son Staley is currently the elected DA for the same three-county district, having been elected in 2006, exactly 30 years after his father first took office as the district attorney. Staley was also 33 when he became the DA, following in his father’s footsteps.1

Gene’s turn

My sons (Gene, Michael, and Staley) didn’t really take an interest in my job, but then again I didn’t talk a lot about work at home with my children. At one point, being in a small town, I had to prosecute some friends of the family and it was easier not to talk about work at home. When Staley was young I prosecuted a friend of mine who had a son Staley’s age. They were good friends and played together a lot. It was an extremely difficult situation and very stressful. The defendant wound up going to prison and then moved away.

    When he started law school, Staley wanted to be involved in international law. He had studied one summer after college at the Hague Academy of International Law and was really impressed by watching a trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia. I never really thought about him becoming a prosecutor when he was young, but of course, when he became lawyer I wanted him to be a prosecutor as opposed to a defense attorney, because a prosecutor’s job is to seek justice. When we were in practice together, he handled a lot of criminal matters from the defense side. I can tell that he really enjoys what he is doing now much more.
    When he ran for district attorney, I felt many things. Anxious. Proud. Excited. I knew he would win but it was nerve-wracking watching him run for office.

Staley’s turn

My dad left office around the time I turned 16. It was about that time that I really understood what my dad did for a living. He kept any fears he may have had hidden from his children. Now, of course, I know that there were times when he was concerned about his safety and the safety of the family. He didn’t bring his work home, and he didn’t talk about it at the dinner table. I can’t say the same for me. My wife is an attorney too so I often like to bounce ideas off her at dinner.

    The case that I recall the most was one that he handled right after he went out of office. There was a capital murder and he was appointed to represent the defendant in the case. I remember going to his office and seeing the boxes of documents and looking through some of the crime scene photos. I remember that case being very difficult for him. And while I know he did everything he could under the law for his client, I remember thinking that he would much rather have been prosecuting that case than defending it.

    I didn’t always want to be a prosecutor. But during my third year of law school I externed for a federal district judge in New Orleans, and watching a federal drug-trafficking trial first-hand and then participating in trial advocacy classes at school really got me interested in prosecution. After considering the available jobs in prosecution—and the associated salaries—I took a job with a law firm in Washington D.C. after graduation. I had to start paying those loans down!

    I met my wife at the D.C. firm, and we joined the Peace Corps and moved to Ecuador for two years. After that, I returned to Vernon and my dad and I formed Heatly & Heatly. When the district attorney decided he was going to run for judge, I had no doubt that I wanted to run for DA. My dad really encouraged me to jump in. It was a good feeling knowing that I would have his advice and counsel available when I needed it, and it has been a wonderful experience so far.

Terese and Allison Buess, District Attorney’s Office in Harris County

Terese Buess has been an Assistant District Attorney in the Harris County District Attorney’s office since 1991. Her daughter, Allison, joined that same office a little over two years ago and now works on the same floor with her mother.

Terese’s turn

Allison was almost 6 years old the day I took the oath to be an assistant district attorney. She had learned the routine of “Mom has to study for school” and was used to spending chunks of time with her dad, especially around finals. Her comprehension of my work at the beginning was merely a switch from letting mom study to letting her get ready for trial.

    I don’t remember discussing my cases in front of Allison, but I am sure she heard me talking with my husband. I am a firm believer in answering a child’s questions in an honest but age-appropriate manner. Allison was the only child in her elementary class to know what a prostitute really does for a living—although she was not allowed to share that information with the other kids. When the musical Les Miserables came to Houston, my little one watched it with a comprehension of the plot line far beyond that of the common third-grader.

    For a five-year period when I worked in the Child Abuse Division, I tried very hard to shield Alli from the types of cases I was handling. She volunteered along with her dad and me every December at the Children’s Court Services Holiday Happiness party so she met some of the victims from my cases and she knew that they had been hurt by adults in their lives.

    By the time she left for college Alli had frequently accompanied me to court for regular docket, seen bits and pieces of various trials, waited with me for jury verdicts, and watched a defense attorney get held in contempt of court for using the word “shit” in his closing argument (an interesting lesson for her carpool the next morning). Her observations led to the development of a keen ability to plea bargain and a strong notion of justice, each with their drawbacks. Little Alli’s powers of negotiation and persuasion were further honed by her involvement with an award-winning debate team in middle school and, much to our dismay, she attempted to use them to tackle almost every facet of her life. We tried to accommodate her within reason, but there were many times, much to her frustration, that parental authority had to win. The difficulty with Alli’s sense of justice was that she expected it; the lesson that life is not always fair was a hard but inevitable one.

    The first time Allison showed a true interest in prosecution was in 2004 when I was preparing for a death penalty trial involving a defendant who shot a family of three children and their mother because the oldest daughter would no longer date him. She designed a chart of the defendant’s criminal history that demonstrated his inability to comply with the basic rules of society. We had it enlarged and it made a great visual aid for the jury. Allison sat through much of the testimony and arguments of that trial and was present when the jury assessed the death penalty. I have heard her describing the facts of that case to my mother, the anti-death penalty faction in our family, to explain why the death penalty can be appropriate.

    Allison went away to Indiana for her undergraduate work. She insisted that she did not want to be a lawyer, and we encouraged her to find a career in whatever area made her happy. She volunteered at the Bloomington Women’s Shelter working their crisis hotline, then trained to assist the victims by accompanying them to court for their cases. In our phone conversations that year she spent much of her time telling me about what went on in court, and I knew Alli’s feet were on the path to law school.

    Successful semesters of trial advocacy and mock trial seemed to confirm that Allison was a natural in a courtroom, and after completing several internships with various divisions of the Harris County DA’s Office, it was no surprise when Allison interviewed for a position as an assistant district attorney. When Allison was sworn in as a licensed attorney and then as an ADA was one of the proudest moments of my life.

    Most parents of older children will understand what I mean when I say that I love hearing from defense attorneys and judges about how much they enjoy working with Allison (a frequent topic of elevator conversation) and yet her accomplishments are truly her own and not mine. She is not an appendage or apprentice to my credit. She is a true peer who sometimes challenges and questions my legal theories and trial strategies with frequent good cause and always sound logic. The gift that I have received from Alli is the ability to once again view everything we do as prosecutors through the eyes of a “new” ADA—eyes that are fresh, hopeful, sometimes simple, not yet jaded, and always striving for a better tomorrow and justice.

    I am still not used to having Alli in the same building with me day in and day out. I remind my peers and her judges that her function in life is to make us all feel our age. Isn’t that what all children do?

    I fear more for her safety now than I ever did as she grew up. Part of that is the lack of control that happens when a child becomes an adult. Part of my fear is that she begins her career in a world that has a far greater negative view of our profession than 20 years ago. I pray that her sense of safety is never taken away from her.
    I hope that Alli loves this career as much as I have. She knows the joy of working hard for a just result for victims of crime, the frustration of never really being “done” with your work, the pressure of dealing with large dockets and trying to treat each case as an individual situation and reach a disposition decision that is appropriate for both the defendant and our society. And I know that she firmly believes what Johnny Holmes told her in 2009 when she told him she was interviewing for her job: “Prosecuting criminals is the most fun and the best job anyone can have.”

Allison’s turn

I don’t remember ever being that interested in my mom’s job when I was a child. I had a basic understanding that when adults misbehaved my mom had to put them in timeout, but beyond that, it all seemed like something boring that only adults really cared about. Think about it: When you’re a kid playing cops and robbers on the playground, no one ever volunteers to be the prosecutor. My mom never tried to hide anything about her job; in fact, she always practiced a kid-friendly version of brutal honesty when I asked questions about what she did, a word I’d heard her use, or the existence of Santa Claus (although she definitely gave a lawyer answer on that one).

    While I was never overly interested in my mom’s work, it wasn’t unusual for her to bring me with her to the office on days I was off from school or I wasn’t feeling well. By the time I was 13 I’d probably seen more courtroom action than most civil attorneys see in their entire career.

    It wasn’t until middle school when my mother was moved to the Child Abuse Division that I started to get interested in her job. This was the first time I could relate to the cases my mother was handling. It was strange to go to her office and see toys and coloring books and to know that the victims she was dealing with were usually my age or younger. I know now how hard it must have been for her to explain that sometimes adults hurt children in the worst ways imaginable. The toughest realization was that sometimes the people closest to a victim, the people that were supposed to protect them, would side with the abuser. That was the first time I realized how important my mom’s job was. She ensured that a child victim would have at least one person who believed them and was willing to stand up for them.

    Throughout high school I became increasingly interested in the cases my mom was involved in. Even when I went away for college I still kept up with her cases. My first summer home from college my mom was trying her first death penalty case. It was a truly horrendous murder committed by a guy who had spent his entire life hurting other people. This was the type of case that most people wouldn’t want to hear about because it was so brutal and so senseless that it made you physically ill. Over the course of my summer I was able to watch most of the trial and even helped prepare some visual aids for the punishment phase. Just playing such a small role in the trial made me feel like I was doing something that mattered.

    When I started to think about law school, it wasn’t because I wanted to be a lawyer, it was because I wanted to be a prosecutor. My mother constantly reminded me that I didn’t have to practice criminal law. I was fortunate enough to participate in an internship with the Army JAG Corps that allowed me to practice in almost every legal field available. While I enjoyed my internship, I once again found that while I was perfectly capable of examining contracts and reviewing civil claims, I most enjoyed working in the field of criminal law. I know my mom was worried that I was passing up opportunities for higher-paying and lower-stress jobs, but it wasn’t a hard decision to apply to the Harris County DA’s Office.

    Coming to work in Harris County was a lot like coming home for me. By now the court staff and attorneys all seem to know me and I find that I have a comfort level in the courtroom and in front of a jury that seemed to surprise other attorneys. I’ve never had an opportunity to actually try a case with my mother although I frequently hear her voice in the back of my head when I’m reviewing a case or in trial. More than being a source of legal wisdom, though, my mom continues to motivate me to be a better advocate for victims and a better prosecutor. She still inspires me every day, and I can only hope that I will live up to her legacy.

In closing

To me, it was most interesting—but not really surprising—that the “children” in this article took their parents’ jobs for granted. I suppose they didn’t think much about it because it was simply a fact of life and they didn’t know any different. I personally found it reassuring that neither had an in-depth understanding until later in their teenage years, partly because I too have realized the effect our jobs can have on our kids.

    Last year, I was deep in preparation for a murder trial that was starting in another week. My two defendants were a married couple and their names were Kevin (also my husband’s name) and Jennifer (one of my daughter’s names).2 The two had lured Jennifer’s ex-husband out to a rural location, killed him, and left his body there.

    One night I was still working at home, and I was talking to a peace officer on the phone. My 11-year-old son was in the room playing when all of a sudden he stopped dead in his tracks and looked at me with a strange expression on his face. I realized I had been talking about the case in front of him and discussing the defendants’ motive to kill the victim and how they did it. I stopped my conversation for a minute and told him to go in the other room and watch TV or something, that I had a little more work to do before I would put him to bed. He smiled and said OK, and I didn’t think anything more about it until I was saying prayers with him at bedtime. It’s not unusual for him to pray about keeping our family safe and helping those less fortunate than us—he says the sweetest things. But afterwards, while I was still sitting there, he looked up at me and asked very innocently, “Now why does somebody want to kill Daddy?”

    We are lucky to have jobs that are challenging and more interesting than any other line of work that I can imagine. (Johnny Holmes was right.) After much thought, I decided that our children are both lucky and unlucky to have a prosecutor for a parent. Lucky because we show them everyday that there are adults who care about the community and work to keep them safe, but unlucky because they have parents who are fully aware of the capabilities of human beings to do horrible things to other people. It’s a fine balance to raise children when you are a prosecutor. I would say that the parents in this article did a pretty darn good job!


1 On a side note, Staley’s uncle, Bill Heatly, served as DA in the neighboring 50th Judicial District in the 1970s and ’80s for 18 years. He is currently the district judge in the 50th.
2 Kevin’s ex-wife’s name was Jana, so reading the case file was a little interesting at times.