Annual fundraiser inspires advocacy

Since I started law school, February has become my favorite month of the year. I don’t have any secret admirers professing their love or my birthday, but KU Law’s Women in Law hosts their annual fundraiser, “Pub Night” this time of year. It’s been a tradition since some of my professors were students at KU Law and embodies the things I love most about KU Law: tradition, community, fun and advocacy.

Women in Law hosts Pub Night as a fundraiser for local organizations that promote awareness about domestic violence. The night includes student skits, fun cocktail dresses, silent and live auctions consisting of donations from downtown businesses and our professors. One year, a group of friends and I bid and won a tour of the Kansas Capitol and lunch in Topeka with our favorite public policy aficionado faculty. I helped run slideshows, put up auction items, decorate Liberty Hall and contribute to the 1L skit. In just the past two years, alongside classmates and friends, Women in Law has raised over $20,000 through event ticket sales, donations and auction items for the Willow Domestic Violence Center and Jana’s Campaign.

Jana’s Campaign: the ten-year-old organization that promotes awareness and education programming about domestic violence. Its founders are parents of KU Law student, Jana Mackey, who was killed by her ex-boyfriend after her first year. Jana’s parents attend Pub Night each year to tell Jana’s story.

KU Law students Jessie Pringle, Erica Ash and Claire Kebodeaux attend the 2018 Pub Night event.

In 2008 – while I was worried about starting high school – Jana Mackey was a victim of domestic violence. For someone I never met but have learned so much from, her legacy continues to inspire not only me, but generations of KU Law students to be passionate and zealous advocates as future lawyers.

Pub Night is not only a fun social event that brings our community together on a Friday night. Rather, it brings our school’s students, staff and faculty together as a reminder that the KU Law community is special. It’s community that celebrates, supports and remembers its students.

As I begin my legal career after graduation in May, I know I have been afforded an opportunity that was taken from Jana. And, I do not plan to waste it.

— Jessie Pringle is a 3L and KU Law Student Ambassador from Chanute, Kansas.

The 2019 Pub Night event has been rescheduled to April 5, due to inclement weather. Pub Night will be held from 6:30 to 10:30 p.m. at Liberty Hall in Lawrence. Get tickets.

Compartmentalization is key

Law school is a whirlwind, and last semester I often applied a tool I learned in flight school: compartmentalization. It was useful throughout my Navy career and has become ingrained in my thinking. Compartmentalization is a skill developed in flight students to deal with mistakes during a flight. Although, compartmentalization can be used to deal with distractions from both successes and mistakes, it is most often applied in the context of mistakes. Primarily because a series of mistakes can have serious consequences, but mainly because flight students make a lot of mistakes. This makes it essential to not allow a mistake to distract you from accomplishing your next task. For aviators, compartmentalization is a necessary tool because flights are fast-paced graded events crammed with tasks. A single mistake that ripples outward can prevent the achievement of the ultimate goal.

Distractions are often created by the emotional response from a mistake. For example, a flight student misses an important radio call directing the flight and the following thoughts begin to enter the flight student’s mind: “Man, I really screwed up”, “Did the instructor notice?” and “Will this be a re-fly?” Flight instructors encourage students to recognize those thoughts as useless distractions and to utilize compartmentalization as the solution. The act of compartmentalization is intended to prevent these emotions from affecting the remainder of the flight. Aviators are taught to box up the emotion and set it aside for review later, because it is essential for aviators to continue onto the next task. Otherwise, a single, small mistake can cascade into a series of mistakes.

Struggling flight students are often those who do not compartmentalize. Successful flight students recognize the mistake quickly, compartmentalize negative emotions, fix what they can and prepare for the next task. Preparing for the next task involves anticipating follow-on effects of the mistake, considering the next sequence of events and remembering the ultimate goal. In other words, experienced aviators don’t chastise themselves or lament their mistakes. It’s not that aviators ignore their mistakes and don’t reflect on their performance. Instead, aviators understand there’s a better time for analyzing their mistakes: post-flight. It’s a continuous process, because after the post-flight debrief aviators compartmentalize the flight and move on to the next task.

Although a student’s ultimate goal in flight school is obtaining wings of gold rather than a Juris Doctor, law school and flight school are similar in many ways. They’re both fast-paced time deficient and filled with opportunities to improve. In law school, there’s always another cold-call, assignment, memo or meeting to nail. There’s also always another class, semester and year. Since there are so many opportunities for success, I believe compartmentalization is a useful tool in law school when things don’t go as planned. You can compartmentalize in class after a failed cold-call, sub-par memo grade or bombed exam to prevent a cascade of mistakes. Compartmentalizing allows you to raise your hand again, become a better writer, crush the next exam, enjoy time off and prepare for the next semester. Give it a try. See if compartmentalizing works for you.

— Jared Jevons is a 1L from Manhattan and a KU Law Ambassador. He spent 11 years in the Navy and flew over 2,000 hours in the F/A-18F as a Weapon Systems Officer.

‘Putting on a play for the jury’

Edward Paine delivers justice for victims of serious vehicular crimes

The best part about prosecution for Edward Paine, L’99, is delivering justice for victims.

“Trying to get justice for victims within the system that we have, when we can – that brings me pleasure,” he said.

Paine is a deputy county attorney in the Vehicular Crimes Bureau at the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office in Phoenix. He prosecutes crimes involving motor vehicle collisions and incidents in which drivers are found to be driving recklessly or under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs.

Vehicular Crimes Bureau employees are on call 24 hours a day to assist law enforcement officers with fatal accident investigations.

“It’s been a real eye-opener going to the scenes of crashes and seeing how dangerous vehicles can be in the hands of someone who is driving recklessly, either through speeding or being impaired by alcohol or drugs,” Paine said.

Although he has worked on vehicular crimes for the past six years, Paine’s focus has varied over the course of a prosecutorial career that has taken him from the Arizona Attorney General’s Office to the city of Surprise, Arizona, and two different Native American communities. He served as assistant prosecutor for the Ak-Chin Indian Community and chief prosecutor for the Gila River Indian Community – jobs that drew upon his specialized training at KU Law.

Paine discovered his love for tribal law after taking a legal writing course from former KU Law Professor Robert Porter, founding director of the school’s Tribal Law & Government Center. Porter encouraged Paine to take classes in tribal law, and he graduated from KU with a Tribal Lawyer Certificate – paving the way for a career in the field.

“Studying tribal law convinced me that there were so many communities across the country that were deeply in need of attorneys from all different walks of life dedicated to seeking justice and promoting safety,” Paine said. “It was a privilege to serve Ak-Chin and Gila River, and I don’t think I would have gotten those two jobs in Arizona without the knowledge that I gained through tribal law courses at KU.”

Regardless of the practice area, some challenges and opportunities in litigation are universal. Rising caseloads present a difficult juggling act, Paine said. And evolving demographics have altered courtroom presentation. As more millennials enter the jury pool, Paine said, expectations for audio or video components at trial have increased.

“We use a lot of technology in the courtroom during our opening statements, when witnesses are testifying and during closing arguments,” he said. “You kind of appeal to jurors, all of their senses.”

In that regard, Paine likens his role to that of a play director.

“I enjoy trying to orchestrate everything,” he said. “As a trial lawyer, it is kind of like putting on a play for the jury. You have to determine who your best actors are in terms of your witnesses and make sure that they’re prepared. You have to make sure you’re calling witnesses to prove various elements of your case. You have to select the best photos.”

These skills were crucial during a case in which a mother lost a second child to an impaired driver. Through Paine’s careful orchestration of witnesses and evidence, the defendant was convicted and will “likely spend the rest of his life in prison.”

“I can’t even imagine the pain that she went through having lost one daughter to a drunk driver, but then she lost another child to a drunk driver,” Paine said. “It was devastating for the family to go through that process again.”

Throughout all the roles Paine has held, his favorite part of prosecution is holding defendants accountable for their actions.

“It’s challenging and it takes a lot of time, but I do enjoy that aspect of it,” Paine said. “I am pleased when I am able to get at least a measure of justice.”

— By Ashley Hocking

A cold case cracked, a career launched

Student ends law school with unparalleled prosecution experience

When I started at KU Law as a summer starter in 2016, my goal was to follow the accelerated track. If I played my cards right and took a sufficient number of credit hours per semester, I could graduate in two years. The task seemed daunting, but as my last summer as a law student approached, I found myself in the perfect position: six hours of credit needed to graduate, and six hours of credit to be provided by participating in KU Law’s Field Placement Program.

During my time in law school, my interests had evolved and I found myself strongly pulled toward a career in prosecution. Most of this desire was based upon the work I did prior to law school. I had been a legal secretary for a Beloit law firm that provided services ranging from estate planning to criminal defense. I worked with Mitchell County Attorney Mark Noah, whom I grew to respect and admire for the work he did in our area.

Thus, it seemed that the stars had truly aligned when my fiancé agreed to move back to my hometown, Mr. Noah agreed to be my field placement supervisor and mentor for the summer, and Professor Suzanne Valdez (supervisor of the Prosecution Field Placement Program) approved the match. Excited as I was, at that time I would have been shocked to learn what my new position had in store for me.

About a month into my field placement experience, an investigation team led by Mitchell County’s sheriff and police chief began reviewing the cold-case murder of 51-year-old Carol Fleming. Ms. Fleming had been a pillar of the community, and her 2003 death shook small-town folk for miles around. This sort of thing just doesn’t happen in our area — a place where people feel safe leaving their doors unlocked at night and their cars running when they duck into the bank.

Now, 15 years later, a review of the case uncovered enough evidence to make an arrest. The suspect? Ms. Fleming’s son, Charles Fleming, now 46 years old and living in Johnson County. The media uproar over his arrest surpassed the attention the crime originally received, with articles published by and news outlets in Kansas City, Wichita and throughout the state. Our office phone was ringing off the hook with journalists attempting to prod us for bits of new information.

The case is still in the pre-trial stage, so I can’t divulge details about evidence or prosecution strategy. But I can share the amazing experience I gained as an intern.

  • Communicated one-on-one with the county attorney, chief of police and sheriff regarding details of the case, potential suspects and alibis, and possible strategies and defenses.
  • Facilitated communication with Kansas Bureau of Investigation laboratories.
  • Participated in the defendant’s first appearance.
  • Prepared subpoenas for potential future inquisitions.
  • Compiled the considerable amount of discovery for opposing counsel.
  • Prepared jury instructions.

As the case progresses, I will likely assist with preparation and research for pre-trial motions and organization of a preliminary hearing notebook.

Perhaps the greatest part of this field placement opportunity is that it has turned into a permanent position for me with the Mitchell County Attorney’s Office, where I am able to continue work on this case and many others, as well as receive advice from my mentor regarding my future.

To say I ended my time at KU Law on a good note would be an understatement. The vast experience and knowledge I have acquired through my field placement is underscored by the sense of pride I have in helping bring justice that may begin to heal the hurt wrought upon Ms. Fleming’s family and the community as a whole.

— Alex Pierce, L’18

Protecting Kansans

“Your Honor, I represent the United States.”

As U.S. attorney for Kansas, Stephen McAllister utters this phrase when making official appearances in federal courtrooms. The experience is humbling and exhilarating every time.

“I get to be a part of the greatest ‘law firm’ in the United States, and every day I feel proud of and good about what I do,” said McAllister, L’88. “I love being an advocate, taking a side and articulating its positions. But being a prosecutor is even better than private party litigation because I also have an obligation to see that justice is done, to exercise the public trust appropriately and fairly.”

The U.S. Senate confirmed McAllister’s appointment with a unanimous vote late last year. He was sworn in as the state’s top prosecutor on Jan. 25 by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. The next day, he met with all of his new employees – a few more than 100 attorneys and staff stationed in Wichita, Topeka and Kansas City – to learn about the people, cases, procedures and other aspects of his complex new job.

Stephen McAllister, L’88, shakes hands with U.S. Sen. for Kansas Jerry Moran, L’82, at the ceremony in which McAllister took his oath of office.

“I consider myself a lifelong student of the law,” McAllister said, “and I am learning all kinds of new things in this position.”

That approach is, perhaps, not surprising for someone who has spent most of his career as a teacher. A native Kansan, McAllister joined the KU Law faculty in 1993 after completing federal clerkships with Seventh Circuit Judge Richard Posner and Supreme Court Justices Byron White and Clarence Thomas. He also spent a year in private practice in Washington, D.C.

Over the course of the past 25 years, McAllister has taught constitutional law and torts to thousands of Jayhawk lawyers in Green Hall classrooms. Along the way, he also served five years as dean and represented the state of Kansas as its solicitor general. Assuming he returns to KU Law following his leave of absence to serve as U.S. attorney, he will be able to share with students experiences that few lawyers ever enjoy.

“I’ve now been inside grand juries multiple times, I have indicted cases, and I have been able to attend and participate in every phase of the federal criminal justice process,” McAllister said. “I also am fortunate to have the opportunity to engage with the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. Perhaps most importantly, I have come to appreciate first-hand the incredible power of prosecutors to affect the course of litigation and lives.”

Case in point: The first major verdict of McAllister’s tenure as U.S. attorney resulted in the convictions of three defendants who conspired to create a bomb that would blow up an apartment complex in Garden City. The apartment complex housed Somali refugees and contained a mosque.

“If the FBI had not thwarted that plan, dozens of innocent people could have been killed or injured,” McAllister said.

That was a big win. But McAllister fears that a number of high-profile cases of police and prosecutorial misconduct in recent years – including several allegations against prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s Kansas Office – have eroded public confidence in the justice system. For that, he said, there is simply no excuse.

“Governments need to own their failings in those situations and do everything they can to make things right,” McAllister said. “I repeatedly stress to our office that the goal is to do justice, not to run up our statistics or convict every possible crime and always seek the harshest sentence possible.”

At the same time, he said, society needs the agents, prosecutors and others who have dedicated their lives to countering and stopping wrongdoers.

“The courage and commitment of the law enforcement and prosecutorial communities are impressive and essential to the survival of the United States as we know it,” he said. “I am humbled every day to be part of the most amazing law enforcement efforts this world has ever seen.”

— By Mindie Paget

Building public trust

KU Law graduate uses background in law to serve in community affairs role

Liz Rebein is not your traditional prosecutor. Instead of charging defendants, filing motions and appearing in court, Rebein deploys her legal expertise through the promotion of positive relationships between law enforcement and the public.

As chief of the Community Affairs Unit in the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office in Hackensack, New Jersey, Rebein helps deter crime through developing programs that increase community engagement, build public trust and promote transparency.

“I think that my job is kind of a testament to what we can do to improve the relationship between law enforcement, the community and the perception the community has of law enforcement,” said Rebein, L’07.

Success stories like Operation Helping Hands provide Rebein evidence that her efforts are working. Through the campaign – created in response to a dramatic spike in overdoses and fatalities in Bergen County – area law enforcement find and arrest residents buying heroin. Those individuals are then connected with a county-sponsored detox and treatment program.

Some participants – like Matt A. – stay in touch with the prosecutor’s office and provide updates on their path to recovery. Matt was arrested twice in one week and has been clean since working through the program. He now works at the detox hospital.

“He calls and texts me regularly about projects he’s working on and asking how he can help,” Rebein said. “He’s a talented artist who has some of his art on display at the hospital where he works.”

Liz Rebein, L’07, presents on “Transparency in Officer-Involved Shooting Investigations.”

Personal connections are a common thread in Rebein’s job, which has evolved during her seven years at the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office. Although she began as an assistant prosecutor in the appellate division, she now leads community-building initiatives like the Youth Police Academy. The two-week “day camp” administered in partnership with the Bergen County Sheriff’s Office teaches area high school students about careers in public service, including law enforcement, the judiciary, county government, emergency services and the military. They also learn more about how the criminal justice system works.

Rebein said some people distrust the system when they see its flaws.

“What people need to understand is that the system works ultimately,” she said. “Being an appellate attorney, you see that all the time. My whole career has been reviewing mistakes that were made along the way, whether it was by the prosecutor, the defense attorney, the judge or some other aspect of the system.”

But defendants have a constitutional right in the United States to appeal their conviction and petition for post-conviction relief, Rebein said.

Liz Rebein, L’07, prepares hot dogs as part of a community event.

“They have the right to challenge their conviction and their sentence over and over and over,” she said. “I don’t know that the public really appreciates the beauty of our system and how well it works.”

Originally from Bucklin, Kansas, Rebein decided to pursue a law degree after working at Rebein Brothers law firm in college. Her boss and mentor, Dave Rebein, L’80, later became her father-in-law.

“He was wonderful to me in terms of helping me figure out what my options were and what opportunities going to law school would create for me,” Rebein said.

In Green Hall, Rebein participated in the Project for Innocence and moot court – two hands-on experiences that helped prepare her for practice. After years of appellate work, Rebein has embraced her more nontraditional role at the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office.

“My favorite part is that I think it makes a difference,” she said. “I didn’t see it coming, but I’m thrilled to have the job that I have.”

— By Ashley Hocking

Small town, high stakes

Anna Wolf serves as small town city prosecutor

The third Wednesday of each month is a busy day for Anna Wolf. That’s the only day the Tonganoxie Municipal Court is in session.

Wolf is the Tonganoxie city prosecutor.

“Everything depends on that one day, and you need to have everything ready,” said Wolf, L’12. “Otherwise, you’re going to go a whole other month before you get another opportunity. It puts a lot of pressure on that one day.”

Wolf is responsible for prosecuting all city ordinance violations, including DUIs, misdemeanors and traffic infractions.

She also performs bench trials, jury trials and other evidentiary hearings; drafts written motions; performs legal research; negotiates with attorneys and defendants; coordinates with court personnel to effectively run the monthly docket; advises the police department on best practices; and interviews witnesses.

Before prosecuting for the city of Tonganoxie, Wolf spent three and a half years as an Assistant District Attorney at the Wyandotte County District Attorney’s Office. She is most proud of helping victims of child sex crimes.

“It’s incredibly difficult work, and it’s so important to have good prosecutors doing it,” Wolf said. “It’s very time-consuming and emotionally exhausting, but it’s crucial that we have people out there fighting for those kids.”

Wolf fell in love with prosecution after an internship at the Johnson County District Attorney’s Office. She enjoys the rapid pace and variety of challenges inherent in the work. “I really like standing up and making an argument in court,” she said. “And I’ve always been interested in public service.”

KU Law’s Trial Advocacy course helped prepare Wolf for a career in prosecution. She said the class taught her how to communicate effectively, structure an argument and understand the rules of evidence.

“You get the ins and outs of what it’s like to be in a courtroom and making an argument,” Wolf said. “It takes a lot of preparation to be comfortable doing that.”

Like many city and county attorneys, Wolf also holds down a full-time law practice. She recently joined Payne & Jones in Overland Park as an associate and prosecutes for the city of Mission. She is excited to further develop her legal skills and experience at the firm.

Long-term, Wolf hopes to become a leader within the legal community — particularly for women, who are still underrepresented in law.

She strives for integrity in all of her legal work. As prosecutors and law enforcement have come under increased scrutiny in recent years, Wolf has focused on trying cases she believes in and holding herself to the highest standards of professionalism.

“I think the most important way to ensure the public has trust in prosecutors,” she said, “is to make sure that you’re doing the best job you can in the most ethical way possible.”

— By Ashley Hocking

Thank U, Next

As I am typing this, I only have one more final for my fall semester of 3L year. Looking back, I truly had some remarkable professors this semester and learned a great deal. To my great professors, I say thank you. I look forward to my next professors.

One taught me humor → Professor Webb Hecker, Business Associations I

Business Associations I seems like it would be a dry and boring class. How can learning about corporations and agents be exciting? With a different professor, that might be true. However, Professor Hecker brought humor to our learning. He kept us engaged and made the subject enjoyable. I enjoyed the jokes and stories Professor Hecker brought to class.

One taught me patience → Professor Kelley Sears, Contract Drafting

Drafting a contract is tedious and requires a lot of patience. Every word can make or break a contract for your client. Professor Sears made sure we knew that and understood the effect our words would have on our clients. He provided stories from his years of litigating. In the end, I learned to patiently analyze a contract and choose my words wisely.

One taught me pain → Professor B.J. Hickert, Estate Planning Principles

Anyone who tells you the Internal Revenue Code is not painful is likely lying. It has its own language and challenges. This semester, I dove into the IRC with Professor Hickert. It was painful, but he was a great teacher who broke down the estate planning provisions that are important for clients in real life and taught us how to protect our clients’ assets. He brought in his real-life practical estate planning experience, which made it much less painful and incredibly helpful for my future clients.

And one taught me creativity → Professor Thomas Stacy, Conflict of Law

On the first day of class, Professor Stacy told us we would leave class as even better lawyers because we would know how to solve conflicts of law for our clients. He challenged us to think of creative arguments for our clients and use the flexibility of choice of law analysis to our benefit. We had to think on our feet and defend our answers.

I’m so grateful for my ex-professors. I truly can’t wait for this next semester see what my next professors will teach me. Thank u, next.

— Jake Turner is a 3L from Mission and a KU Law Student Ambassador.

Justice after genocide

Deborah Wilkinson, second from right, spent 5 years litigating the appeals of six high-level Rwandan officials charged with genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

KU Law grad excels at local, state and international prosecution

At least 800,000 people were killed in 100 days during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Deborah Wilkinson, L’82, helped bring some of the perpetrators of that violence to justice.

As senior appeals counsel at the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Tanzania, Wilkinson and a team of fellow prosecutors spent 5 years litigating the appeals of six high-level Rwandan political and military officials charged with genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

All six were found guilty in 2011.

“I feel that this case made a contribution to international law and international humanitarian law. It also provided closure for the numerous victims of these crimes,” Wilkinson said. “Many of the victims were following the case, and to know that these people were being held accountable was very significant. I’m glad I was able to contribute in that way.”

Throughout her career, Wilkinson has tried cases in three countries on three different continents, but she considers the prosecution of Rwandan atrocities her most significant work.

One of the defendants, a county executive named Sylvain Nsabimana, was prosecuted for failing to do anything to protect the ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus who spent the night near his office – seeking protection from Hutu extremists. Nsabimana did not intervene when groups descended at night to rape women and kill men and children. He was sentenced to 35 years in prison.

“It was a very interesting legal issue of liability for failing to act to prevent genocide,” Wilkinson said. “We won on that issue, which was very significant in international law. It’s called omission liability.”

Another defendant, Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, was the first woman to be found guilty of genocide by an international tribunal. She received a life sentence.

Needless to say, Wilkinson’s career in prosecution has taught her a lot about human character and values, for better and worse. “If I had done what I thought I wanted to do — which was work in an office — I probably would have stayed in my little bubble of meeting people who were like me and not been exposed to a wide variety of humanity,” the Kansas City, Missouri native said.

Prosecution was not on Wilkinson’s radar when she began pursuing legal education at KU. But the required Criminal Law course piqued her interest, and she excelled in oral advocacy. Right out of law school, Wilkinson landed a job as assistant county attorney in Barton County. She made her mark early by successfully prosecuting the state’s first felony murder case involving child abuse, leading to the 1985 conviction of Eileen Brown for the death of her 6-week-old baby.

A few years later, Wilkinson moved to the Wichita District Attorney’s Office, where she spent 15 years prosecuting a range of criminal cases as an assistant district attorney. “I discovered I did very well speaking to juries, being persuasive and arguing in front of the court,” she said. “It was fast moving – always something different.”

With a solid foundation in the U.S. legal system, Wilkinson bridged into international practice through the American Bar Association’s Central and Eastern European Law Initiative. She spent two years in Kiev helping the U.S. Department of Justice implement training programs for Ukrainian judges and lawyers.

Wilkinson went on to teach comparative criminal law and procedure to Ukrainian law students after receiving a Fulbright grant. She also served in Kosovo as a legal advisor for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and later as an international prosecutor appointed by the UN to handle cases in place of the local prosecutors.

Throughout her international career, Wilkinson benefited from her ability to pick up new languages. She speaks French and Russian proficiently, and has studied Latin. She understood enough Kinyarwanda, Ukrainian, Swahili and Albanian over the years to navigate trials with the help of translators and interpreters.

“Learning languages helps you see how other people think,” Wilkinson said. “Sometimes entire concepts are different, and it really makes you bend your mind around different ways of thinking.”

Now in private practice in Lenexa, Wilkinson encourages students to acquire language skills, pursue international opportunities and contribute their legal prowess abroad. She can attest to the value of expanding one’s horizons.

“In prosecution, I met people from all strata of society – people who were poor, people who were rich, people who had drug issues,” Wilkinson said. “It was like being in a movie with all these different characters.”

— By Ashley Hocking

The problem solver

In the summer of 2005, a jury found Lawrence carpenter and former Christian school board member Martin Miller guilty of first-degree murder in the death of his wife. He was sentenced to life in prison.

Charles Branson should have been overjoyed, but he wasn’t. Not exactly.

The newly elected Douglas County District Attorney had taken office six months prior, expecting jubilation when verdicts went his way. But two young children had lost their mother through violence.

“And now, because we had been successful, they had also lost their father,” Branson recalled. “It was such a profound moment for me, realizing there’s not the joy in victory that I thought there would be. You’re still dealing with real people and real issues in the aftermath.”

Despite the complexities and challenges of the work – or maybe because of them – Branson, L’96, still relishes the opportunity to serve the cause of justice in Douglas County after nearly 14 years on the job. As top prosecutor, he manages 16 attorneys, 18 support staff and an annual budget of just over $2 million.

He also manages change.

Over the past decade, Branson said, prosecutors have evolved from case processors to problem solvers. Statistics show that simply convicting offenders and locking them up does not ultimately reduce crime.

“Historically, our role was to prosecute, punish and move on,” he said. “Now we are really looking at making changes in how the system works to better address the needs of the people in the system.”

For example, under Branson’s leadership, Douglas County recently launched a diversion program for nonviolent female offenders with substance abuse issues. Women in the program receive comprehensive addiction treatment, including assistance with housing and child care. “We have an obligation to try to change behaviors of people who come through the criminal justice system,” Branson said, “so hopefully they won’t come through again.”

Branson never imagined a career in prosecution. The Hutchinson native was a KU business graduate who wanted to be his own boss. Within weeks of being sworn in to the Kansas Bar in May 1996, Branson hung a shingle in Lawrence. He built his practice slowly, representing a range of clients while learning to run a business. In 2002, he added part-time service as Eudora city prosecutor.

But Branson’s exposure to the criminal justice system through defense cases revealed upsetting flaws that ultimately inspired him to run for district attorney. In his view, police and prosecutors often neglected victims of domestic violence during investigation and charging, treating them as evidence.

“Then when it was time for trial, the survivor wouldn’t want to participate because she had not been supported,” Branson said. “I thought it was time to change the focus of the system.”

So when he was elected in 2004, Branson shared a simple philosophy with the attorneys in his office: A positive outcome doesn’t always mean a conviction.

“What is the best thing that can happen to this case that will make it less likely that these people will need our services again in the future? Is that charging the case? Not charging? Offering counseling and services up front? Is it going all the way through to trial?” he said. “You’re dealing with people’s relationships, and each one is different. You can’t apply a cookie cutter to those types of things.”

That maxim holds true across the spectrum of responsibilities that Branson’s office handles, including juvenile prosecution, civil litigation, child in need of care cases, mental health care and treatment matters, county code infractions and consumer protection violations. Branson and his team fulfill these duties in an era of increasing public scrutiny, elevated by recent high-profile cases questioning the conduct of law enforcement and prosecutors.

But Branson views the spotlight as an opportunity to educate the public about how the justice system works. He tries to be as forthright as possible by explaining charging decisions – always with a view toward balancing transparency and accountability with the rights of victims, witnesses and defendants.

“We have a human propensity to rush to judgment, but the nature of our work doesn’t always lend itself to being open and public about the entire process,” Branson said. “We sometimes can’t say what we believe the defendant did because our ethical obligations and rules dictate that we have to say that in court first. If we do that in the public eye, we have not honored their constitutional rights.”

— By Mindie Paget