There’s a bittersweet aspect to getting a guilty verdict,” says Jeff Baird, senior deputy prosecuting attorney and head of King County’s Most Dangerous Offender Project (MDOP).
“The jury agrees with you that something really horrible has happened. When you get a guilty verdict, there’s an enormous sense of relief but not triumph. You don’t pump your fists in the air in victory.”
Jeff has spent his career working on the “something really horrible” cases, including the prosecution of three serial killers in Washington: Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer; DeWayne Lee Harris, nicknamed “Chilly Willy”; and George Russell, dubbed, “The Charmer.”
Jeff has worked side-by-side with investigation teams including forensic scientists, the medical examiner, and crime scene investigators since the inception of MDOP 20 years ago this month. MDOP prosecutors are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week in order to be present at every suspicious death scene in King County. (This year, deputies have been called out to 79 cases for King County so far.)
When you are at trial, you are recreating a scene for people so it helps if you were actually at the scene of the crime in order to have the best and clearest idea of what happened.
A prosecutor's presence at a crime scene can also be reassuring to families in the grip of anger and frustration at a loved one's death. In 2009, a family came into a meeting at the prosecutor's office, deeply distraught over their young son's death in an altercation in Leschi. When the family first heard their son had been shot, they raced over to Harborview only to be told that their son's body was at the medical examiner's office. At the examiner's office, no one knew who the boy was or of the whereabouts of his body.
"In their minds, their son had been left dead on a street for hours, with no one caring at all," said Kelly Rosa, who works with Jeff on cases at the prosecutor's office. Other murders were in the news, but the family felt no one cared about an African American boy who was killed by a white boy.
"Jeff walked in and said, 'I was there. I was with your son.' Suddenly the whole dynamic changed because Jeff had physically been there with their son's body and was in charge of the prosecution for the case," Kelly said.
In MDOP, the responding deputy has prosecutorial responsibility for the case from the onset. They may prepare search warrants or advise investigators on preserving evidence for trial. In what’s called “vertical filing,” the same prosecutor who goes out on a homicide call, takes the case all the way through from arraignment to trial to sentencing, should a case conclude there.
“We deal with homicides that are brutal and hard to contemplate. Sometimes we never find out who did it and why, and that’s a price we hadn’t considered when we started this program,” Jeff explained.
While the average person walking the downtown streets of Seattle might see restaurants peeking out of quaint alleys, or hikers may enjoy stunning vistas on a secluded Pacific Northwest hiking trail, Jeff acknowledges there are other scenes that go through his head when he’s traveling around King County. The work can certainly make him a bit more skeptical at times, wondering whether something someone said is true and less willing to take anything at face value Jeff admits, but years of homicide prosecution work also puts things into perspective for him.
“I’m less likely to complain about little things in light of some of the really significant suffering that I’ve seen,” Jeff says. “We see victims’ families and how much someone meant to them and how much they suffer. There is a terrible process of suffering that people go through, but sometimes a conviction provides a small contribution toward recovery.”
Photo by Chris Mobley.
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