THE ONE-YEAR MARK: CHANGED LIVES
Though temperatures are still pushing 90 degrees, fall is approaching. It’s September 7, 2010, and nearly a year after becoming a prosecutor, Michelle Thomas’s jury trial is ready to start. Although she’s been in felonies since April, none of her other cases have made it to verdict. She’s nervous today because it’s been months since she argued a case in court.
The defendant in this trial is charged with several gun-related offenses, including unlawful possession of a firearm and carrying a pistol without a license.
Thomas delivers an energetic opening statement. Telling the jury how the defendant took off running when he was approached by a police officer on a bicycle, she holds her hands out in front of her as if to grip the handlebars. Then she leans in toward the jury, pumping her fists as if running at full tilt. The jurors’ eyes are locked on Thomas. As the defendant ran from the officer, she says, he began discarding property. She makes tossing motions to show how he threw a cell phone and a baseball cap.
Finally, he ran by a woman. Thomas says the woman, who will testify in the case, saw the defendant throw something else. When she went to see what it was, she found a gun lying on the ground. Thomas will attempt to convince the jury that the gun indeed belonged to the defendant and hadn’t been on the ground prior to that police chase.
Despite the courtroom display of energy, Thomas is still tired. The doctors have backed off their earlier theory that she has leukemia, but they haven’t ruled out cancer altogether. Her condition hasn’t improved, and her blood-cell counts are still off.
Thomas has continued to deal with this mostly on her own. “I can’t tell my family because my family would freak out,” she says. “They’re so far away. It just would not be good.”
The trial doesn’t go her way. The jurors find the defendant not guilty because no one actually saw the gun leave his hands. “In the grand scheme of cases like this, we had more evidence than general,” Thomas says. But she’ll have another shot soon enough. She has back-to-back trials scheduled through December.
It has been a tough year. But despite the occasional not-guilty verdicts and her health issues, Thomas remains committed to being an assistant US Attorney: “This job is more than just a job to me. I feel like it’s ministry.”
Thomas Bednar’s security clearance came through in July. He now works in a downtown DC building used by the Justice Department, and though he’s excited about the new opportunity, he misses his old routine at the US Attorney’s Office. “I miss being in court every day,” he says. “I imagine I’ll sneak out sometime when someone’s got a trial going on and spend an hour or two [watching].”
The Guantánamo Bay cases are a lot different than his assignment working on local drug- and gun-related felonies. They’re handled in federal court, and instead of working on dozens of cases, Bednar is assigned to only a few of the habeas matters at a time. Any more than that would make it impossible to conduct the intense research that goes into them. Bednar is responsible for assembling and presenting the government’s evidence in the cases of individual detainees to prove they’re being held lawfully at Guantánamo Bay. The habeas cases often involve piecing together stories that unraveled over the course of a decade, whereas a local crime such as a drug deal typically happens in a matter of minutes.
He’s hopeful that spending a year on this detail could help him land a permanent assignment working on national-security cases in the federal division of the US Attorney’s Office after he completes the initial four-year rotation.
But that’s no longer his only interest. His work in the domestic-violence section turned out to be surprisingly rewarding, and he doesn’t rule out wanting to revisit that type of work in the future.
“Every case has a human story,” he says as he reaches into the pocket of the suit jacket draped over his chair. He retrieves several photos of a house with the front windows completely smashed in. The pictures were evidence in one of his previous misdemeanor cases where an abusive ex-husband had rammed his truck through the front of his ex-wife’s house.
Bednar says the woman had endured years of abuse that Bednar describes as “borderline torture,” but she had been too afraid to follow through with charges against her husband. After their divorce, when the man drove a truck into her house, she didn’t have any choice about notifying the police.
The judge gave the man six months in prison, the maximum sentence. Upon hearing the sentence, Bednar says, the woman broke down in tears. “That was extremely vindicating to see someone who you could just tell was always scared to say anything, and finally it was out of her hands,” he says. “That’s why I was glad I did domestic violence.”
It’s that moment, as Phillips explained to the class of AUSAs a year before, that makes the job—the hours, the courtroom chaos, the comparatively low salary—worthwhile.
Kathleen Connolly has reached a much different conclusion over the past year. On a sunny afternoon in late September, she takes a long pause and sighs before speaking. “If you like prosecuting, this is a great job—it really is,” she says. “You’re getting a variety of cases, and working with good people, smart people.”
But there’s more.
“You have to love being in the courtroom, because you’re doing it so much in this job,” Connolly says.
“And I don’t.”
She had a difficult time accepting that realization over the course of the year. This was supposed to be her dream job. Ever since she tried that first case in Superior Court as a law student, she thought the courtroom was the place for her.
But after a lot of “soul searching,” she finds herself questioning whether she really believes that anymore. After she wraps up her current caseload, Connolly’s next assignment will be to handle cases that are on appeal. Working in the office’s appellate section primarily involves researching and writing briefs. The assignment requires very little time in court.
Connolly is looking forward to the appellate work, though she hasn’t ruled out leaving the office—or the legal profession altogether.
As for what her future holds, says Connolly: “Jury’s out.”