Remarks of Attorney General Mills at the Maine Prosecutors Association Annual Meeting
October 20, 2009
Thank you for including me in your busy program. You know, no one calls me “General” Mills. It just doesn’t sound right. Or, as one legislator put it, “we’ll call you ‘General Mills’ only when you start prosecuting all those ‘cereal’ killers!”
Attorneys General in Maine are in an awkward position. We are not really part of any of the three branches of government. We are elected by the legislature, we serve the executive, and we appear before the judiciary. So, though we’re not part of any branch, it often feels like we’re out on a limb.
The last nine months—my first nine months as Attorney General—have been exciting, busy, challenging and fulfilling. There isn’t a day that goes by but that I don’t look forward to going to work.
We have some terrific people working in our office—those whom you know, like Bill Stokes, Lisa Marchese, Leanne Robbin, Don Macomber, Bill Savage, Gregg Bernstein, Lea Anne Sutton, David Fisher, Leane Zainea, Michael Miller, Laura Yustak Smith and, of course, the shy but never retiring Charlie Leadbetter (what would we ever do without him?!)
I have become more deeply involved in recent months in diverse issues—ranging from health insurance rate proceedings, Maine tribal relations, insurance fraud, and consumer warranties, to civil rights in schools, bankruptcy law, hospital mergers, human rights complaints, collective bargaining issues, deceptive marketing by pharmaceutical companies and foreclosure relief measures.
In everything our office does, we are always involved in problem solving, in or out of court, in finding solutions, making the lives of Maine people better in hard times.
Three issues stand out in my view:
- Consumer fraud… especially prevalent in tough times
- Domestic violence… the endless problem, and
- Prescription drug diversion… there were 164 deaths last year related to prescription drugs; 6 homicides in the past 18 months or so related to prescription drugs; and 464 drug affected babies born in Maine last year alone.
You will hear me touching on these subjects every time I speak in public. And I will reach out to you to find new solutions to these intransigent problems.
In all of these issues, I am aided by a good group of lawyers and paralegals.
I am very lucky to have inherited a great staff—some good litigators, criminal and civil trial lawyers, some good writers, good researchers, all of them good advocates, and all very special people.
I was lucky myself to get a job right out of law school with the AG’s office… and then, after four years in the criminal division under AGs Joe Brennan and Dick Cohen, to become the District Attorney for Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties, a job I held for nearly fifteen years.
Being a single woman and the elected district attorney was not always an easy thing. But I was lucky to meet a man who was generous and patient enough to tolerate my strange schedule--the midnight phone calls, the late night death scenes, weekends spent preparing for jury trials or oral arguments, calls on search warrants, arsons, motor vehicle fatalities, plane crashes involving Samantha Smith, Jud Strunk and others.
On our very first date, Stan showed up at my apartment with flowers, just as I received a phone call telling me that a victim in one of my cases had been found murdered beside the road near Concord, New Hampshire.
Stan got to hear me at a very high stress level as I called the New Hampshire State Police and tried to convince them that I was, in fact, the District Attorney and that I did, in fact, know who killed Emma Waters.
Months later I got to be the leadoff witness in the murder trial of Robert Bruneau for the murder of Emma Waters. I got to drive four hours during a snow storm and then I got to see what it was like to sit outside a courtroom for hours and hours, then finally be sworn in and asked to identify the victim from a photo that was bereft of her personhood, totally lacking her soul.
Despite that challenging first date, Stan stuck with me. He had recently been widowed and was the single father of five young daughters.
When we married a year and a half later, with no kids of my own, I suddenly took on a whole household. There was only one bathroom for six females and one lone male. The youngest was only 4 when we met and 6 when we married. We spoiled her with Barbie dolls….
One thing I’ve learned working on both sides of the fence, doing civil and criminal work, defense and prosecution, and dealing with dozens of judges at every level, is that the one real commodity you have in this profession is your credibility. And that credibility and civility will get you much farther in life than raw aggression or mere passion.
We all tend to get wrapped up in our jobs, wrapped up in our cases, one case at a time. But it’s important to stand back and put things in perspective, as you are doing this week. It’s important to exercise independent judgment about a case, about a witness, about the job itself… to play devil’s advocate on occasion and imagine what the other side of the story might be, always asking questions, probing, getting at the truth, the whole truth.
The most important tool you have in your toolbox is prosecutorial discretion. You get to choose when to bring charges, what charges to bring, and how many charges, against how many people. And then you get to reduce a charge when appropriate, or to dismiss a charge outright. You don’t realize what a luxury that is until you’ve practiced on the other side for a while.
When the evidence is clear and the deed is clear and the intent is clear, then you need not exercise discretion. You take the case to trial with the facts you believe.
And you will always argue the facts to the jury, not the character of the accused.
I have seen prosecutors crash and burn because they became absorbed with animosity toward individuals. They couldn’t separate the crime from the criminal.
It is so important not to personalize cases, to be able to hate the act, without hating the actor—applying public policy as defined by the legislature, but exercising careful discretion, punishing the deed without condemning the offender’s soul.
The judge and the jury know when you are personalizing a matter, beyond your passion for the case. You will not see the facts as others see them. And the jury will hold it against you.
Each case is different. You learn, and you live with your successes, you live with your disappointments. And you live to fight another day.
I am reminded of what the famous heavyweight boxer, George Foreman once said. He was asked by an interviewer, “Mr. Foreman, what do you consider to be your most important fight?” and George Foreman answered, “my next one.”
Your most important case, your most important trial, will be your next one.
It will be the role of my office, for as long as I am in office, to assist you, to back you up when necessary, to advise you when requested. We will review cases for appeal when the issue is clear or the ruling is arbitrary or illegal.
We will try to bring consistency to practices across the State—this means letting you know that your office is doing something different than other DAs offices, and that defendants are taking advantage of that. Or letting you know that a neighboring county is doing something productive which you might want to emulate.
We will be working closely with you on the prosecution of drug trafficking cases and, soon, on computer crimes. And you are welcome to work with us on homicides if you like, because your knowledge of local people and local practices can be invaluable.
And always, we will be problem-solving, at every level, together.
We will not always agree on every issue, on every case or every decision.
Even if we’re not always on the same page, however, we will at least be in the same book.
The hard work of your offices keeps our people safe. The integrity of your offices keeps our constitution strong, our citizens confident in their government.
You represent the face of Maine people in the courts and in the public eye.
Much of what you do is not heralded or even heard about. There are few victory speeches or press conferences for the lives that are not lost, for the victim made whole, for the child no longer abused or for the citizen not denied due process or a fair trial.
But when you touch one life and make it better, when you make people feel a bit safer, a bit better about living and working in our State, even during hard economic times, then you do your job, and you do your job well.
And I, for one, will be here to whisper in your ear, “well done. Well done.”