Change of pace

 Defense attorney shifts to Prosecutor’s Office

By Paul Janczewski
Legal News

It’s safe to say that more than a few members of the legal community in Genesee County did a double-take when learning that longtime criminal defense and civil attorney Barney Whitesman had relinquished private practice to accept a role as Special Assistant Attorney General in the Genesee County Prosecutor’s Office.

Even Leyton was surprised, but pleasantly so.

“When I became aware of his interest in joining us, the analogy I can make is like the general manager of a baseball team being able to sign an all-star free agent,” Prosecutor David Leyton said. “That’s what it was like.”

Whitesman has long been a fixture in the Genesee County legal community, known for his aggressive advocacy for his clients, fierce determination in court, and beyond-the-box preparation. But a prosecutor? It seemed like a huge step out of a comfort zone built from years of defense work.

But Whitesman has never been that easy to define. And one look at his life’s journey reveals that Whitesman is willing — and very capable — of stepping out of a perceived comfort zone to take on new challenges that only enhance his already formidable reputation.

He was born in Chambersburg, Pa., and lived there until he was 7 years old. 

“Growing up was phenomenal,” Whitesman said. “I loved the place. It was gorgeous.” 

The family lived near an Amish farm. The family then moved to Harrisburg, Pa. And then again to Chicago, where he attended high school only briefly before moving to the Flint area and Grand Blanc High School.

The moves came about because his father, Norman, a retail store manager for large chain stores, was transferred. 

“He was a high-energy, tireless, driven and passionate worker, and he instilled those qualities in me,” Whitesman said of his now-deceased father. 

His mother, Gloria, who is alive and well, also taught the young Whitesman, “Don’t worry. Work.”

Whitesman had every intention to go to college, and even went to orientation at Michigan Stage University after graduating from high school, but found he didn’t like it. 

“My parents said, ‘You’ve got to do something.’” 

His mother knew of a person who went to Israel to work on a kind of commune, called a kibbutz, and he decided to do just that.

“It was kind of the in-thing to do for young Jewish kids,” Whitesman said. 

So he hitchhiked to New York, got in touch with a Jewish agency that had a program for doing a year of volunteer work, and was soon whisked away to the kibbutz.

There, he worked in a banana field and shared food, work and the fruits of their labor with other kibbutz members, living on the border between Jordan and Syria. There were no cars, but beautiful gardens. After a year, he returned stateside, took a semester at MSU, but the parents of a girlfriend from Montreal he met at the kibbutz would not let her come to Flint.

“My parents said anywhere you’re in college was OK with them,” Whitesman said. 

So he moved to Canada after his first term at MSU and attended a college in Montreal for a short time, then transferred to McGill University, also in Montreal, and earned a bachelor’s degree with honors in history and political science.

He was unsure of what to do then, but a few friends from college went to law school, and his mother urged him to go to law school, so he did, despite never having any earlier contact with the legal profession.

“The closest I ever came to a lawyer was, every morning, I’d hop off the truck and mow a lawyer’s huge lawn,” Whitesman said. 

He went to the University of Detroit Law School and was a member of the law review. He also worked as an intern at Legal Aid, and clerked in the research division of the Michigan Court of Appeals in Grand Rapids, after graduating.

Whitesman then worked for an insurance defense firm in Bay City for several years, but returned to Flint after several years. He worked for several firms but decided to start his own practice. 

“I was working for guys that were making a lot of money, and I was doing all the heavy lifting,” he said. 

He got an office, hung his shingle, and soon was making a good living.

He got on the court’s appointment list, and the Genesee County Bar Association’s referral list, and attracted civil work from clients who saw him handle criminal cases in court. He enjoyed both criminal and civil work, and didn’t want to give up either. 

“I think doing both makes you a better lawyer, by far,” Whitesman said.

He enjoyed the battles with other lawyers, applying legal principals, and interacting with court officials and litigants.

“You can’t function in this profession without adhering to a code of ethics. You can’t. You’ll crash and burn. It’s the floor, and you can’t go below the floor,” Whitesman said.

And he learned that results matter, a lesson he gleaned from sitting the bench while playing high school football. 

“I was very unhappy, and resentful, but I learned that results are very important,” he said. “It matters how you play the game, but it matters that you win.” 

Last year, Whitesman learned of the program, instituted by Gov. Rick Snyder and Attorney General Bill Schuette, of placing special assistant attorneys in prosecutor offices to help distressed and crime-ridden cities along the I-75 corridor. 

Genesee County became the first to utilize the plan, a temporary assignment which will now last for two years, and could be renewed. Prosecutor Leyton received four people, including former Saginaw County Prosecutor Mike Thomas, two former interns, and Whitesman.

Whitesman thought it would be “really cool opportunity” to apply, and confessed he had thought about prosecution work for some time. The fact that it was geared to helping his hometown also was a plus. Being entrusted with making decisions for the public welfare is “huge,” Whitesman said. 

“I believe every lawyer should do this. Defense attorneys do everything to limit the client’s exposure and harm. But prosecutors seek justice. And justice is a complicated concept,” he said. “When you’re dealing with a situation where you want to make sure the public is protected, it’s a serious business and an awesome responsibility. And until I did it, I didn’t have that feeling.”

Whitesman credited Leyton with exercising strong leadership under difficult financial circumstances for the county.

Leyton, in turn, was well aware of Whitesman’s reputation as a lawyer. He said Whitesman has made the transition from defense work to prosecution “very well.”

“He’s done an outstanding job for us,” Leyton said, leading the entire team in trials held. “He’s a workhorse, and I knew that when I hired him. He has tremendous passion, and is a very skilled lawyer.” 

He said Whitesman is a good “teammate” to others in the office, who are glad to have him onboard.

Along with thanking Leyton for the opportunity, Whitesman also is grateful to Snyder and Schuette for starting a program that is helping Flint. 

“This is not any kind of political thing. It’s just people from two different political parties getting together and say saying this place needs this,” Whitesman said.

He said his transition from defense work to prosecution is a work in progress, “but I love this,” he said. 

Every day he works in Circuit Court Judge Geoffrey Neithercut’s court, handling pre-trials, sentences, motions, pleas, and trying cases. He praised Neithercut for being a “very efficient judge who is well-organized and moves his docket along.”

Some former defense attorneys give him the business, not all of it good-natured, but Whitesman takes it in stride. He puts in long hours, but loves it. For relaxation, Whitesman owns and operates a sailboat.

“It’s all physics out there, and you have to pay attention,” he said. “It forces you to think about what you’re doing; otherwise, you could die. Sailing is great because it gets your mind off of whatever else is bugging you and gives you a rest.”

Whitesman has been married for 22 years, and his wife, Marla, is very involved in the Jewish community and goes on humanitarian missions to Cuba. Whitesman has a son, an orthodontist in Chicago, from a previous marriage. 

Whitesman has a plan for his future legal career, but is keeping that private. This appointment is temporary “and not a lifetime commitment,” he said. “But I definitely want to stay in law.”

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