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Monday, December 15, 2014

Ind. Courts - SBT exit interview with St. Joe Prosecutor Michael Dvorak

Virginia Black of the South Bend Tribune has this long story today. Some quotes from a long, must read story:

as Dvorak prepares to leave the 10th floor space -- he announced earlier this year he would not run for a third term, and Chief Deputy Ken Cotter won the seat in November -- the office is considerably different than he found it in 2003.

The former state legislator and defense attorney has led the local criminal justice system through unprecedented changes in technology, for instance. We take for granted digital photos and recordings and cell phone GPS tracking now, but police, prosecutors and judges were forced to wrangle with the science as they began to enter courtrooms as evidence over the last decade.

Dvorak inherited the Metro Homicide Unit, originally created by former Prosecutor Michael Barnes in the early 1990s after Barnes did not file charges in the triple homicide Osco murders because of what he perceived as inadequate police work. Dvorak used that model of combining officers from the county, Mishawaka and South Bend police departments into one specialized crime-fighting unit to add the county-wide Special Victims Unit and the Fatal Alcohol Crash Team.

The units are so successful that he says Lake County officials have recently asked to visit so that they might set up a similar system.

Crimes against women and children are still harder to prove than other crimes, he acknowledges, despite the success of the SVU.

"The shocking part to me has been when you're in the courtroom and you poll jurors (during voir dire), how many jurors — 30, 40, 50, 60 years old — were victimized or know a victim? And you ask, 'Did you report it?' 'No,'" the prosecutor says. "So what's going on now in our community is maybe our numbers go up, does that mean we've got more problems? No, it means the community has greater confidence that something might be able to be prosecuted."

A prosecutor's decisions are often unpopular. Over the years, for instance, YWCA CEO Linda Baechle has accused his office of not prioritizing sex and domestic violence cases. During all three elections, whose outcomes Dvorak never took for granted, he bristled over such topics as conviction and plea agreement rates.

Conviction rates are difficult to measure, he says, because if they're high, it might be that a prosecutor is taking only sure wins to court, not merely that the staff is skilled.

During his time as prosecutor, he has fired a couple of deputies over big mistakes, but he has also seen several move into judges' seats. He says he feels privileged to have worked with a dedicated staff "to work for government wages and to give their best effort to really do well."

Through it all, he has taken exception to media coverage in an age where reporters are often forced to simplify fine points of law and complicated cases, and anonymous people can post withering and uninformed attacks on websites and social media. But to his credit, and unlike some other prosecutors in the area, he has been unusually responsive to media questions.

"We're kept on our toes by the silent footsteps of the media behind us, as we should be. And part and parcel of that is the media are going to get it wrong, and they're going to criticize us unfairly," Dvorak says. "That's all part of the imperfect system."

Posted by Marcia Oddi on December 15, 2014 01:10 PM
Posted to Indiana Courts