Friday, November 12, 2010

Donna Pendergast opens up for the WCI interview

By Kathryn Casey

Sometimes we take those around us for granted. That shouldn't be, but it's human nature. Then we step back, take a look and say, you know, I wonder if readers understand how truly amazing some of these women are. Donna Pendergast is one of those women. She's one of our stalwarts, here with us from day one. And she's been repeatedly described as one of the top prosecutors in the nation. I recently asked her to sit down for an interview. I'm sure you'll agree that Donna is one incredible woman.

KC: Why are you a prosecutor? What in your past led you to law school and the Michigan Attorney General’s office?

DP: I'm a prosecutor because I want to make a difference. When I look back on my life, I want to know that I helped people. It's a difficult and stressful job, but I feel like it's my calling. My father was a police officer in Detroit for 39 years and that is probably where I get my law enforcement bent. When I went to law school I realized quickly that I was comfortable and did well in the litigation-type classes and exercises. I decided that I wanted to spend my career in a courtroom. There is no area of law where you get as much courtroom time as criminal law. I sure didn't want to represent the other side. As I have been quoted as saying, "I understand that everyone is entitled to a defense. I just don't want to be the one providing it."

KC: You’re well known for prosecuting murder cases, which is understandable since you’ve taken on more than 100 such cases. You’ve never lost one, right?

DP: I have prosecuted hundreds of cases but my specialty is homicide cases. I have prosecuted 100 homicide cases through verdict and won 98 of those cases. The two that I lost--there really was very little evidence. In one case, the main witness recanted and we were left with an identification of the murderer by another witness who said he saw his face "in a dream." The judge dismissed the case at the preliminary examination. The Court of Appeals reversed that decision and ordered it to trial. The other case involved a voice ID made by a mentally challenged person--tough cases.

KC: Tell us about the first murder case you tackled?

DP: Edna Hollis killed her husband while he was sleeping in bed. We never really did learn her reason for doing so. I have my suspicions but they are based on speculation so I won't mention them. Edna fled the scene and was apprehended after a car accident. In a stranger than life twist, a passerby to the accident scene stole the murder weapon from the scene. It was never recovered.

KC: You’ve been called Michigan’s best prosecutor. What case taught you the most about your profession?

DP: That's a flattering characterization, but I don't know about the best-prosecutor thing. There are a lot of topnotch prosecutors out there. I just try to do my very best in every case. When you hold people's lives in your hands, you have to be able to look in the mirror after a trial and know that no matter what the result was, you did your very best. I honestly can say that I have never given less than 100%. But, trust me, it takes its toll.

KC: What was your most important lesson?

DP: Very early on I learned never to say to the surviving victims of a homicide case: "I understand how you feel," because as a homicide victim's family member once told me,"You could never understand how I feel." Instead I learned to say "I know that I could never understand how you feel, but I've been through this with other families before, and this is what I have seen in the past..." I've also learned that there is true evil in the world. How else do you explain something as diabolical as a serial murderer like Coral Eugene Watts? As I often tell juries, "There is no explanation for pure evil--just recognition of what it is."

KC: Looking back, you’ve handled so many sensational murder cases. In the Lady in the Lake case, the murder of Florence Unger, you had little forensic evidence, only the bits and pieces of circumstantial evidence to work with. Tell us about that case.

DP: The Unger case was a mammoth undertaking. The case was circumstantial, and the medical evidence was very complex. We were also up against a very well funded defense and multiple lawyers on the defense team. Fortunately, I had two great teammates. I'm usually the lone prosecutor in the courtroom, so this was a new experience. My two teammates were brought in specially for the trial. One teammate was my former boss when I was a county Assistant Prosecutor. He was brought onto the team because of his extensive medical malpractice knowledge. My other teammate was a former colleague at the same prosecutors office. My other teammate had been his boss as well. The second teammate had been involved in the child parental-rights termination proceedings against Mr. Unger, and was intimately familiar with the case like I was. In the nearly three years that it took to get the case to trial, he had left the prosecutor's office and gone into private practice. He came on board as a special prosecutor for that case only. It was such a wonderful experience having three very experienced trial lawyers working together for a common goal. When they came on the team we all agreed that I would be the ship's captain. We were all used to being the alpha dog in the courtroom and were not sure how it was going to work. It was a dream experience--we all worked together; there were no egos involved.

KC: Have the shows like CSI influenced juries? Do you have to account for the public’s fascination with forensics?

DP: There is no question that shows like CSI have influenced how juries think. In the Prosecution world, we call it the CSI effect. Jurors see things on TV and expect real life to be the same way. It's not. As prosecutors, we have to work very hard, beginning during jury selection, to educate jurors so that they understand that forensic evidence is not always left at a crime scene. In the case of serial murderer Coral Watts, he killed many many women and never left behind ANY forensic evidence at any of his crime scenes. In fact, as prosecutors we often present what we call negative evidence. Say there are no fingerprints at a crime scene. Often, I will call an expert in just to explain what factors figure in to whether or not fingerprints are left behind and how common it is for there to be no fingerprints at a crime scene or on a weapon, etc. Things like temperature, weather, humidity, the smoothness of the surface and whether or not a person is perspiring all affect whether or not a fingerprint is left behind. That's just one example.

KC: You’re also the prosecutor who kept serial killer Coral Eugene Watts from being released from prison. As I remember it, a paperwork mistake had cleared the way for his release. How anyone could consider releasing a serial killer from prison is beyond my imagination, but it was happening, and there was nothing anyone in the Lone Star State could do to stop it. That’s when you stepped in and prosecuted Watts in Michigan for the 25-year-old murder of Helen Dutcher. The pressure must have been overwhelming, knowing who Watts is, what he’s capable of, and that if you failed, a serial killer would go free. What was that like?

DP: The pressure was enormous. The stakes were so very high, and the case was covered live on national TV. Luckily, we had a judge who admitted similar evidence and testimony so I was able to present evidence of Watts' diabolical pattern of behavior. Thank goodness for an awesome appellate lawyer who wrote the brief and argued the motion to admit similar acts testimony. Being able to present that testimony at trial made a huge impact on the jurors.

KC: Like the Dutcher case, many of your cases are what we’d call cold cases, some decades old. What are the added challenges in these cases?

DP: The Dutcher case was 25 years old when it went to trial. A cold case presents a unique set of challenges. Memories fade and evidence can get lost. When a case is as old as the Dutcher case, oftentimes the witnesses are now deceased. As a prosecutor, you also have the unique challenge of explaining to jurors why the case is being prosecuted years later. As I often tell jurors in a cold case---justice is a concept that doesn't get old.

KC: Another of your sensational cold cases is that of the Duvall brothers, Raymond and Donald, whom you prosecuted for the 1985 murders of two Michigan hunters, cutting up their bodies and feeding them to the pigs. I have to admit that particular case reminded me of the old movie Deliverance. You prosecuted the Duvalls in 2003 and got convictions, resulting in life sentences. Looking back, how do you see the Duvall case? Why wasn’t it prosecuted sooner? How could anyone be that evil?

DP: The Duvall case has often been referred to in the same sentence as the word Deliverance. The Duvall case was like a Michigan legend. Two hunters went up hunting the weekend before Thanksgiving in 1985 and disappeared off the face of the earth. Their bodies and their vehicles were never found. I remember being in law school when the case happened. Every year when hunting season came around there would be stories in the newspaper and the case would be talked about. I, like everyone else, wondered what happened to them. I never dreamed that nearly two decades later I would be the one prosecuting the people who murdered the hunters. The case wasn't prosecuted earlier because everyone was afraid of the Duvall brothers--in fact, terrified of them. A very determined detective from the Michigan State Police found the eyewitness who eventually testified at trial. It took him two years to gain her confidence before she told what she saw. As it turns out, the case was prosecuted just in time. The key eyewitness died a year or so after the trial. There is no understanding of the evil in that case. It's evil, plain and simple.

KC: I know you’ve had a lot of tough cases, but what was the most challenging you’ve ever tackled? Why?

DP: The Mark Unger trial was the most difficult that I have tackled based on the complexity of the evidence and the length of the trial (nine weeks). However, there was a case when I was a Wayne County prosecutor that logistically was nearly as difficult. It was a case with three defendants who each had their own jury. To have three juries going at the same time is extremely difficult. To complicate things further, it was a case without a body, and the officer in charge of the case was arrested the night before the trial started. So, I was in the courtroom alone with no officer in charge to coordinate. That is an experience that I don't want to repeat.

KC: You’ve been portrayed in, I believe, four true crime books. As a crime writer, I’m wondering what that experience is like. If I popped in on your next trial, would you be glad to see me?

DP: When I'm in trial, I don't really notice the media once I launch into my case. A trial is all-consuming. If you start worrying about the media, it's going to affect your performance--and not in a good way. It is a strange experience to see yourself portrayed in print in a book. You ask yourself: "Wow. Do I come across like that?"

KC: I worry that spending so much time writing about terrible crimes affects the way I see those around me. I don’t honestly know if that’s good or bad, but do you have the same concerns? Do your experiences color your worldview?

DP: Seeing the terrible things that I do, you try not to let it affect you, but the truth is, it does. So much senseless violence and sadness and so little reason why. It has affected my worldview to the extent that I realize that evil is a very real thing. I am also a far more cautious person than I used to be. When I was young, I didn't think twice about day-to-day actions like getting out of my car to get gas at night. Now I do things like that only when absolutely necessary, and I'm always looking over my shoulder.

KC: I know there are victims and families living with incredible pain and struggling to get a prosecutor’s attention. They or their loved ones have been victimized, and they want the cases pursued. Can you give them any insight into the best way to approach authorities?

DP: Approach them politely and document what they say. Stay in frequent contact but don't become a pest. Above all, never give up. I have prosecuted three cases nearly 30 years old and many more decades or so old. There is always hope that the critical piece of the puzzle will fall into place.

Statements made in this post are my own and are not intended to reflect the views, thoughts or position of the Michigan Attorney General or the Michigan Department of Attorney General.

1 comment:

Delilah said...

Fascinating interview!

I have total respect for Donna and the job she has been called to do!