Dianna Collins pursued a career as a prosecutor since sixth grade

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By Frank Weir

Legal News

As has happened in many a life, a traumatic experience in her childhood had a profound influence on Dianna Collins.

Collins is a stalwart of the Washtenaw County Prosecutor's Office having served there since January of 1999.

And it's all she ever wanted to do--since sixth grade.

At that time, a terrible event near her hometown of Avoca, Michigan--"a small town in the thumb," she says--changed her life.

"When I was in sixth grade, my brother and sister were injured in a drunk-driving accident," she recalls.

"I remember the prosecutor and another lawyer that helped them. They made a really big impression on me. And in the case specifically of the prosecutor, I remember thinking, 'I can do that!'"

Although as a child, Collins had a far different understanding of how the case against the drunk driver proceeded and concluded, she discovered the truth as an adult.

"The result, as it turned out, was horrible. The defendant had been stopped twice that evening and was forced to dump alcohol both times. He wasn't even 21 yet.

"But it was a far different era and a breathalyzer was never used and he was never arrested. He proceeded to hit my siblings after the two stops, injuring them terribly."

Collins further learned that the driver was never charged with drunk driving and he fought the ticket he received for improper passing and even beat that.

"He suffered no repercussions for what he did. He had the audacity to fight a ticket when he almost killed my brother and sister and even sued my brother."

Her sister required 500 stitches to close her wounds from the accident and lost her sense of smell and taste. She also still suffers lingering back problems from it. Her brother suffered internal injuries as well.

"The accident was just devastating to my siblings and to our entire family. He never apologized and only suffered a fat lip. All I can think is how despicable he was."

Although one might think Collins would hold a resentment against the defense bar after her childhood encounter, that is not the case.

"I wasn't old enough to sort out the prosecution and defense sides and I don't remember any thought that was negative about his representation.

"As a prosecutor now, I appreciate the defense bar. It is in everyone's best interest for a defendant to be represented. Being a defense attorney was not something I wanted to do, but I'm happy that some people have that calling."

Collins' parents were of modest means and she and her similarly well educated siblings all put themselves through college and graduate school.

Collins graduated from U of M Flint and then earned her law degree from Wayne State University.

She worked briefly for a litigation firm after graduation while waiting for her bar results. If she had had her choice, she would have gone immediately to the Washtenaw County Prosecutors Office.

"Our office doesn't generally hire until applicants have passed the bar. I had interviewed here with Brian Mackie and as soon as I got my bar results, I contacted him. So I consider this my first job."

Collins spent her first two years in the District Court, then moved into the sexual assault unit at the Circuit Court level, and now six years in the general felony division. Currently, she is assigned to Circuit Court Judge Archie Brown.

Although Collins is circumspect about her reputation, she is considered a superb litigator and in one case, prosecuted a triple homicide that involved three defendants and two juries.

She also routinely deals with armed robberies, drunk driving cases, assaults with intent to murder, as well as check frauds, credit card frauds, and embezzlement cases.

She reports that she is seeing a lot of drug cases and cocaine and heroin cases specifically.

"I don't know if my colleagues would agree, but I'm seeing a lot more heroin cases in the last year or so. I'm not sure why. And I'm seeing a lot more cases involving possession of more than 50 grams of cocaine, which is a mandatory prison sentence crime.

"I would estimate that I have had more delivery over 50 grams of cocaine cases on my caseload in the last year than in the previous seven years combined."

As one would expect, Collins loves being in the courtroom.

"I love the courtroom and I have wonderful colleagues and a great office atmosphere. We really count on each other. I am sorry for the crime victims I see but I enjoy trying to help them. There's a public service component to my job and I think it's important to give back to the community.

"I consider myself a public servant."

She admits courtroom work is highly stressful, particularly in the sexual assault cases, but she has never shied away from it.

"I worked as a legal secretary between community college and undergrad, and my attorney boss said that if you aren't at least a little nervous about court, then you must not care enough.

"I think that's true. Going into a trial, I feel nervous but I turn that into a positive energy that helps me to stay focused and engaged in the trial process. I think we have a good system and I rely on jurors to do the right thing. If I've done all that I can do, I leave it in the hands of the jury."

But she notes that the corollary of that philosophy is that she never goes to court without "having everything in place," and being completely prepared. As a result, Collins admits she works lots of nights and weekends "in order to feel prepared and therefore comfortable in court."

Quizzed whether she questions herself if she does not get the trial result she wants, she notes that "in order to stay in the job for a long time, I knew I needed to be confident that I made the best decisions that I could given the circumstances and that I did my best. If you can't say that, if you keep second guessing yourself, then that's a problem and you might not be suited to litigation in general and especially criminal law cases."

Anyone who is acquainted with Collins will know a bright-faced happy soul who always offers a ready smile and a friendly greeting.

She betrays her Irish heritage (Avoca was named for Avoca, Ireland) with a pleasant disposition and easy-going sense of humor.

So one has to ask, given the inherent unpleasantness of your average day in the criminal courts of our great system, how does such a person survive?

Does Collins summon some inner demon that her friends don't know about? A secret "Irish Temper" we hope we never see?

With a quick laugh, she notes that, "I'm a rule follower for one thing and I get really incensed that some people think they don't have to follow the rules and that they can do whatever they want to whomever they want, whenever they want.

"These are people who just aren't willing to accept responsibility and are trying to get away with things. So I have a far different reaction to people during a trial than how I interact in my personal life.

"I think it's a gift that I am able to keep my personal life and professional life separate in the way I react to people, although I have been accused of cross examining a friend or two.

"Cross examination is very important and when I need to be aggressive in court, I am because I want to accomplish the goals that I have for that case."

Collins feels the trial bar here is more than collegial and she rarely has to deal with incivility. "If counsel is bad mouthing me personally then I'll respond to that. I want to keep the trial focused on the defendant. He or she is on trial, not the prosecutor."

Collins is very grateful to Brian Mackie for responding when she called back years ago. "He's a great leader and I think he's an extremely dedicated public servant. Our office is as cohesive as it is because of him."

And Collins thinks often of her parents given her tightly-knit family life in Avoca.

"They were both very active at our small Catholic parish, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel in Emmett, near Avoca.

"They were just wonderful parents and they both died too young. One of my two brothers has been selected for Captain in the Navy, the other is an investment banker, my sister is an R.N., and we all put ourselves through school. But our parents gave us the self confidence and will to succeed, while still caring about others, that has served us all well," she said

Published: Thu, Aug 18, 2011

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