At the helm: Incoming PAAM leader seeks 'justice for all'

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By Paul Janczewski
Legal News

Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton is a member of a pretty exclusive club.

There are only two prosecutors from Genesee County who have ever served as president of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan (PAAM).

Leyton is the second. The first, Robert Weiss, is Leyton’s friend and mentor.

“If you look all the way back to 1928, when PAAM was formed, there’s no listing of any Genesee County Prosecutor who was president except me and Bob Weiss,” Leyton said. “So it’s a big honor.”

Leyton, 59, was elected the president of PAAM last August at the association’s 85th annual conference, held at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island.

From the first PAAM president, Attorney General Wilber Brucker, to Leyton, the latest, the association has been dotted by men, and at least one woman, who have helped shape the criminal justice system in the state and their representative counties. But it was not the most well-known group of lawmen in the state.

“When I was first elected Genesee County prosecutor, I didn’t know what PAAM was,” Leyton said.

The executive director of PAAM visited him soon after he took office, introduced the young new prosecutor to PAAM and the benefits of becoming involved. Leyton’s predecessor, Arthur Busch, also encouraged him to become involved in the group.

Leyton had anything but a straight line leading him to become an attorney, top county cop, and president of PAAM.

He was born in Boston and thought he’d become a hot-shot college football player after playing in high school. Leyton’s high school coach knew the coach at the University of Toledo and convinced him to let Leyton play. He lasted one season.

Leyton remained at U-T, but changed his major from business to journalism, in part due to his putting out his own small newspaper in high school and reporting on the
adventures of classmates.

But after taking classes from Dr. Jerry Morrow, a journalism teacher, Leyton became inspired and transformed from a so-so student to one found on the dean’s list.

After working on the college newspaper, he graduated in 1975 and took an unpaid internship at a Toledo radio station. When a paying job opened up as a newsman at a sister station in Flint, Leyton moved to Michigan.

He gained a measure of success and won an Associated Press award for general excellence in individual reporting in 1978, and honorable mention from the AP in 1979, 1980 and 1982.

But Leyton then decided to attend law school, and began commuting to the Lansing campus of Cooley Law School. For three years, Leyton would carpool with a few other Ohio kids to law school in the morning, and then return to Flint for his 2-11 p.m. radio gig.

After graduating with his law degree in 1982, Leyton started in private practice and took any and every case that came around. He also became involved with local politics in the Democrat Party, helping with fund-raisers at the local and state level.

In 1992, Leyton ran for office as a trustee on the Flint Township Board. By then, he was married to Therese, and the couple was raising four kids. After serving several years on the board, Leyton was appointed to the unexpired term as township clerk, and ran successfully for that spot in 1996. In all, Leyton spent 12 years on the board, with nine as clerk.

But he wanted something more, and in 2004 he ran for Genesee County prosecutor, and won. Since then, Leyton has won re-election for the four-year terms in 2008 and 2012.

Besides his involvement with numerous professional, civic and community organizations and committees, including the Child Advocacy Center, the YWCA Safe Families Council, the NAACP Flint Chapter, and the Flint Jewish Federation, Leyton also is a past president of the Genesee County Bar Association.

After an unsuccessful run at the state House of Representatives, Leyton became and continues to be a referee for the Michigan High School Athletic Association, which satisfies both his love of football, being around kids and giving back to the community.

He worked his way up from lower-level school games, working the chain gang, line judge and other spots, to working as a sub at high school games, and now is an umpire with his own crew. His youngest son, Adam, recently joined his father on the crew.

He’s officiated in hundreds of games, and points to the 2007 Division 3 championship, five-overtime game between East Grand Rapids and Orchard Lake St. Mary’s at Ford Field as a personal highlight. The game became the longest game in the history of the state football playoffs after East Grand Rapids won 46-39.

Leyton said PAAM does a number of things, by representing the official position of all the state prosecutors in matters of public policy and with pending legislation in the legislature. But through its continuing legal education, “it’s a wonderful way to provide training across the state to all of the prosecutors and their assistants,” according to
Leyton.

“It also gives us an opportunity to speak to one another, to converse on issues that we all see on a regular basis,” he said. Got a question on some issue, or how others are handling certain situations? “You can ask a colleague, ‘How are you handling this, or what do you recommend in respect to this.’”

The group discusses cases, policies and other matters and conducts two formal meeting per year.

“It’s been very helpful to me,” he said. “We also have a voice in Lansing in important issues that are being discussed by legislators, or the governor.”

After he was elected Genesee County prosecutor, Leyton soon was elected to the board of directors, and later became secretary-treasurer, vice president, and then president-elect.

His term as PAAM president runs through August 2013.

As Genesee County prosecutor from 1979-93, Weiss was PAAM president in 1991. When Leyton became prosecutor, Weiss was then a Genesee County Probate Judge, from 2006 until his death, and also suggested Leyton join the group.

“We were very close, and he was my mentor. And I would seek advice from him weekly. And when he passed I miss him to this day,” Leyton said of Weiss, who died on January 7, 2009 at age 69.

Leyton said the theme of his PAAM presidency will be “Justice For All.”

“I think it’s important to know that prosecuting attorneys are not simply about winning convictions. I think it’s important for the public to know that. That’s not our job. It’s to seek and find justice for the citizens of Michigan,“ Leyton said.

Leyton said justice means that if the evidence shows that an individual beyond a reasonable doubt committed a crime, then they ought to be convicted and punished. But if the evidence suggests that the individual is not guilty, “then the prosecutor should be the first person to step forward with the evidence displaying the individual is not guilty,” Leyton said.

“That’s a very important distinction between what we do, and what defense lawyers do,” he said. “Criminal defense lawyers have one job – to advocate for their client. That’s not the job of the prosecutor. Our job is justice,” Leyton said.

Leyton said another part of his agenda is to “ensure that we never forget victims.” He said he picked up that mantra from his predecessor, Larry Burdick of Isabella County, who is now a tribal judge near Mt. Pleasant.

It‘s also a theme Leyton has carried over from Genesee County, where he fights for victims’ rights and engages in that agenda through his own office and in various themed events throughout the year.

“I’ve been focused on that since day one, and this gives me an opportunity to take it to a statewide level.”

“Victims are often the forgotten people in the criminal justice system,” he said. “We’re focused often on the police, the criminal defendant, but we forget about the victim.

They are very important players in the criminal justice system. They have rights, and as president of PAAM, I want to make certain that all of the victim’s rights are enforced.”
Leyton said he wants to remain as Genesee County prosecutor and “give them four more years of a top-notch effort,” and to stay active with PAAM after his presidency runs out.

“PAAM, to its credit, has a number of active past presidents who remain involved, and continue to have input,” he said. “They are really the guiding mentors of what PAAM has become, and they are not only very influential, but vitally important to PAAM’s success. Carrying on that institutional memory is really important.”
 

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