Michelle Thomas, an assistant US Attorney for the District of Columbia, approaches the witness stand. She has a lot on her mind, but her concentration appears absolute.
Thomas recently returned to work after being so sick and sleep-deprived that she slept for 31 hours—getting up only once for some apple juice. Doctors have been running tests, and the results are troubling. They show that Thomas’s blood-cell counts are out of whack.
The doctors say she might feel better if she can get more rest. But her intense workload and the disturbing details of her cases have made sleep even more elusive than usual for the self-proclaimed insomniac.
At the moment, she doesn’t have the luxury of dwelling on any of this. Her only objective is to get justice for the US government and the young woman—whom we’ll call Lisa—allegedly assaulted by the defendant.
Thomas is facing the defendant now. He’s claiming that he merely reached over his girlfriend Lisa’s lap to retrieve a cell phone while they were in her car, that there was a struggle over the phone, and that in the process he may have accidentally grazed her face. He denies he intentionally hit her, yet the photo of Lisa after the incident shows her with a split lip and scratches.
Thomas begins to fire away at the witness box in courtroom 215 of DC Superior Court’s Moultrie Courthouse. It’s established that the defendant and the victim are nearly the same height. Thomas then asks the man to demonstrate how far away from the steering wheel Lisa was sitting. He shows that she was close to the wheel, sitting upright.
As the line of questioning continues, Thomas’s intentions become apparent. She’s showing the judge that Lisa is tall and has good posture. Her boyfriend’s hand would have been much lower than her jaw line if he was only reaching across her lap, thus making it unlikely he could have accidentally made contact with her face.
Thomas didn’t lay eyes on either Lisa or the defendant until about five minutes before the trial began. Thomas was handling another matter in a different courtroom when another assistant prosecutor rushed in and asked her to try the case. No one else was around to do it.
“I said I could do it in 30 minutes,” Thomas recalls. “They said, ‘Now.’ ”
It’s April 1, 2010, and Thomas has been a prosecutor in the District for six months—a short time in most professions, but among those assigned to the fast-paced misdemeanor division in the DC US Attorney’s Office, she’s a veteran, already having handled dozens of cases like this one.
As she chatted with Lisa on the escalator ride up to the second-floor courtroom, Thomas, who is also tall, noted Lisa’s height—“She’s eye to eye with me”—and determined that it could be advantageous at trial.
An hour later, it appears her quick thinking was enough. Judge Herbert Dixon finds the defendant guilty. (The case is a misdemeanor bench trial decided by a judge. While the majority of felonies are decided by a jury, most misdemeanors are not.) Dixon gives the young man ten days in jail and two years of supervised probation.
It’s time for the next case.
Thomas’s office, the US Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, handles some of the country’s highest-profile matters. In the past year, prosecutors there have dealt with headline-grabbing cases involving Somali pirates, alleged Taliban leaders, and an embattled former baseball star.
But most of the work is less splashy. While the office prosecuted 425 federal cases in 2009, it also prosecuted about 20,000 cases involving local crimes in DC Superior Court—the drug crimes, prostitution cases, thefts, assaults, gun-related offenses, domestic-violence matters, and sex offenses that affect local neighborhoods. Of those, 14,000 were misdemeanors.
Most of these matters are handled by prosecutors in their first year or two in the office. Many are barely out of law school, and most have never tried their own cases before. From the get-go, the attorneys assigned to misdemeanors are handed a portfolio of about 100 cases each that they’re responsible for preparing.
For these lawyers, a relatively light day might mean 12 hours spent between the office and DC Superior Court, and weekends are devoted to trial prep. It’s more of a lifestyle than a job.
Yet the office attracts a very competitive pool of applicants. In 2009, nearly 2,000 lawyers applied, including former Supreme Court clerks, associates from top law firms, and graduates of the nation’s best law schools. The starting salary for prosecutors with three years of prior legal experience is less than $60,000, a third of what they could take home at most top law firms.
Some are attracted to the public-service aspect, but others want the job because no other legal position offers the breadth of experience available to a lawyer in the DC US Attorney’s Office, where cases range from marijuana possession to matters of national security. Many of the city’s best trial lawyers first learned how to work a courtroom as prosecutors in the DC office.
With more than 320 attorneys, DC has the largest federal prosecutor’s office in the nation. Like the offices of the 93 other US Attorneys around the country, it’s funded and overseen by the Department of Justice, but the District’s office is the only one that prosecutes local crimes in addition to federal crimes. A prosecutor starting out in another US Attorney’s Office may be assigned to a federal investigation that takes months to get to trial, but a prosecutor in DC might wind up trying a misdemeanor the first day after training.
As the prosecutors advance through the office, they get to try federal cases as well. But the first hurdle is to make it through the grind of DC Superior Court.
That journey isn’t easy.
In the fall of 2009, three of the new class of assistant US Attorneys agreed to let The Washingtonian follow them through their first year on the job. Each took a very different path to becoming a prosecutor; each would have a very different experience.