Former judge Christensen joins Bloom Sluggett Morgan as ordinance prosecutor

By Cynthia Price

Michael Christensen, who seems to have been nudged along his career path by a series of coincidences, was a visiting judge at Walker when he presided over a case which Crystal Morgan of Bloom Sluggett Morgan prosecuted.

“Afterwards, I told her I appreciated what she was doing — I really think she’s an impressive lawyer — and I mentioned that if they ever had anything open up, I might be interested,” Christensen explained.

After spending about 25 years as a 61st District Court Judge and retiring in 2014, Christensen tried his hand at the visiting judge role. He enjoyed it, but found it was not enough to keep him interested after all that time at the busy 61st.

Two months later, Morgan let him know that they had an agreement with the City of Kentwood to prosecute their ordinance violations. They were in need of someone to do the work, and former Judge Christensen jumped at the chance.

Though Christensen finds this amusingly haphazard, he is extremely qualified for the job.

His first position out of law school was in the Enforcement Division of the City of Grand Rapids attorney’s office, doing close to the same thing he is now doing.

Later he became an assistant prosecuting attorney for the Kent County Prosecutor’s office, where he was in charge of the Child Assault Unit, before being appointed to the bench.

But at the same time, joining Bloom Sluggett Morgan as Senior Counsel as the result of a chance encounter is hardly the most coincidental incident in Christensen’s legal career. Take, for example, his time in law school.

After the Grand Rapids Catholic Central High School graduate received two degrees from University of Michigan in the early 1970s, one in the Physical Sciences and one in Education, he taught at the brand-new Ottawa Hills High School — “some math, some science, some social studies,” he says — and lived with his parents. When they indicated that it was about time he moved out, he decided to go back to school and earn his law degree, so he took the LSAT.

“Back then, the LSAT booklet came with a list of accredited law schools, and when I checked my scores against the schools who were likely to accept me, I saw that the University of North Dakota School of Law was one of them. I applied and they took me.”

But after about a month and a half, he had had enough. “I had only one friend, and I wasn’t enjoying the classes, so I packed my car with my few belongings, including my Cat Stevens record collection and de-
cided to leave.”

He agreed to meet his friend for dinner before taking off, and as he sat in the restaurant, observed a fire in the distance. A drunk driver had hit a car and split the gas tank, and firefighters foamed the burning vehicle.

“It’s not so much like foam up close, it’s more like vanilla molasses, I can tell you that,” he says, smiling. “Yes, it was my car. I lost everything - my clothes, my money, Cat Stevens, all completely gone.”

The young Christensen did something law students today might not think of:?he went to the only law professor he knew, Larry Kraft, and asked him for a loan. Prof. Kraft handed a check over to him, but said that if he continued at the school and graduated, he did not owe a penny of it back.

Christensen received his JD from the University of North Dakota in 1976.

And then there is the matter of chemical oceanography.

After his service in the Grand Rapids Attorney’s Office, Christensen had an opportunity to attend the University of Massachusetts and learn about genetics in terms of tracing contamination in aquatic species from what he calls “probably the most polluted harbor in America,”  Boston Harbor.

“My specialty area in this program was heavy metal uptake. One of the things they wanted to do was classify the fish by species, so they would know which were all right to eat. So I learned a lot about DNA analysis, which was fairly new at the time — a lot of technical information like CRISPR [a DNA sequence] and RFLP. That’s Restriction Fragment Length Polymorphism,” he adds, grinning again.

Christensen had struck up a friendship with Kent County Prosecutor Bill Forsyth, running together. When Forsyth visited Boston for a conference, he was interested to find out that Christensen knew about DNA.

There was a Kent County case where someone named Albert Lee had been convicted of murder but the appeals court sent the case back for a second trial because some of the witnesses had been hypnotized, which they found unacceptable. The investigation had turned up a lot of hair in Lee’s car, which at the time meant doing a point-by-point analysis of the hair shafts themselves.

“There’s no DNA in hair itself, but there is in the roots,” Christensen explains. “They were able to extract some and found out it belonged to the victim.” Forensic DNA analysis was so new that Forsyth’s office needed someone who understood it to make the argument that it should be allowed in court.

Christensen came back and started working at the Prosecutor’s Office, was successful arguing for DNA, and has never left since.

Another alphabetical tool, AFIS (Automated Fingerprint Identification System), was new at the time it was instrumental in helping Christensen bring a prosecution against the perpetrator of a child molestation. The offender had tried to smother a five-year-old after raping her (and believed he was successful) with a disposable diaper, and left five very good prints. When law enforcement was allowed to check the prints against the national database, they received a list of ten possibilities, and at the top of the list was someone already in prison for related crimes.

“We made a trip to that prison, and we tried him and convicted him,” Christensen says.

This drew the attention of then-Governor John Engler, who was interested in determining if the AFIS system’s high cost had been worthwhile, and a few years later Engler appointed Christensen to the 61st District Court opening.

“The 61st is too busy for someone my age,” Christensen says, half-seriously, about his retirement two years ago, “but I really miss the people there. The other judges, my court reporter, my bailiff, all of the staff especially.”

But he loves the new opportunity at Bloom Sluggett Morgan, which is part-time, as well. “It gets quite busy, but then Crystal is available to come and help me keep up, so it’s really nice working here,”

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