Asked & Answered: David Lady-- Former Washtenaw County Assistant Prosecutor enjoying new solo career

By Jo Mathis

Legal News

Jackson attorney David R. Lady grew up in Ann Arbor and graduated Ann Arbor Huron High in 1969, Alma College in 1973, and Wayne State Law School in 1976.

After law school, Lady spent a year as chief assistant prosecutor for Cass County. For the next 22 years, he was first assistant prosecuting attorney for Washtenaw County, working under William F. Delhey and Brian Mackey. From 1997 to 2005, Lady was Jackson County's chief assistant prosecuting attorney under John G. McBain and Hank Zavislak,

He then went into private practice with Navarre & Navarre in Jackson before forming his own partnership, Dungan, Lady, Kirkpatrick & Dungan, P.L.L.C. in Jackson.

Lady talked to Jo Mathis, editor of The Jackson County Legal News and The Washtenaw County Legal News, about his varied career in the courtroom.

Mathis: What are some of your best memories of being a prosecutor?

Lady: I have so many wonderful memories. Working in the city where I grew up was great since I knew many of the people and places. As a prosecutor, some of my most rewarding moments were working with the victims of crime, ranging from the families of homicide victims to burglary (now known as home invasion) to simple misdemeanors.

Early in my career, victims were often the forgotten ones in the criminal justice system. Due to changes in laws and the Constitution, victim's rights became a co-equal part of the process.

I also enjoyed working for the citizens of my adopted county, Jackson, as their chief assistant prosecuting attorney. In that capacity I was able to supervise and mentor some of the younger attorneys in that office. I still enjoyed trying cases, which is where all the action is for most trial attorneys. There is nothing more invigorating, challenging and rewarding than achieving justice in a hard fought jury trial.

Mathis: What would surprise people to know about that job?

Lady: Prosecutors have a tremendous amount of discretion in their jobs. The initial decision whether or not to prosecute someone is a momentous decision. For many people, simply being charged with a crime and put into the criminal justice system has a major impact on their lives. A good prosecutor, which I like to think I was, tries to only bring charges against those who are truly guilty and where there is evidence to support their guilt. A prosecutor's job is to insure that justice is done - not just secure conviction.

Mathis: When did you leave your work as a prosecutor, and why?

Lady: I left Washtenaw County in 1997 when the county offered early retirements to some long time employees. As much as I liked the job, they made me an offer I could not refuse.

I left Jackson County in 2005 after a run for district court judge.

Mathis: Why did you go into private practice?

Lady: I decided to capitalize on my name recognition to go into private practice as the best way of supporting my family.

Mathis: How did your work as a prosecutor help you now?

Lady: My years as a prosecutor are invaluable in my present practice of law, especially in criminal defense. I know how to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of a case, so as to best represent my clients. My long time relationship with the court system makes it easier to determine the best course of action to insure that my client's rights are fully protected.

Mathis: What's your favorite type of case to take on?

Lady: One in which my client has the financial resources to allow me to fully represent him or her. In other words: getting paid. All kidding aside, some of my most rewarding cases involve helping someone who made a mistake and is exposed to the often intimidating criminal justice system for the first time. To some of these people, even facing a misdemeanor is one of the most significant events in their lives. If I am able to help them negotiate those dangerous waters to a satisfactory conclusion, I feel I'm doing my job well. I also do a fair amount of family law work. I often end up representing the party, usually the woman, who has the least resources to protect themselves or their children. It is always satisfying to help those in need, who might not get the help they need otherwise.

Mathis: Does it matter to you if your client is guilty?

Lady: In reality, most people who are charged with a crime are guilty of something. As I found out in my career as a prosecutor, there are many checks and balances before someone actually is charged with a crime and goes to court. Often times, however, what someone is charged with may not be what they are guilty of, or more importantly, what the prosecutor can prove beyond a reasonable doubt. In our system, everyone is presumed innocent. One of my jobs as a defense attorney is to hold the prosecutor to their burden of proof. If in fact they can prove my client's guilt, then my responsibility shifts to insuring that any sentence they might receive is fair and equitable. Many times the prosecution and courts do not know all of my client's background, which could affect their sentence. Therefore, I can represent someone who is guilty.

The more difficult challenge is to represent a truly innocent person. If I do not perform my job well, an innocent person may be convicted and sent to jail or prison. I really cannot recall a case where I had an innocent client convicted. By and large, I believe our system of criminal juris prudence functions well to protect the truly innocent, albeit with the occasional miscarriage of justice.

Mathis: How often does a guilty client tell you the truth?

Lady: Unless I witnessed the alleged crime, I do not know if my client is telling me the truth about what happened. Some clients believe if they tell their lawyer the truth then that lawyer will not fully represent them. Nothing could be further from reality. I always encourage my client to be open and honest with me so I can best plan a course of action for them to follow.

Mathis: Do people criticize you for defending people charged with a crime?

Lady: I have had occasional criticism of my defense of people charged with a crime. Usually when I explain my role in the system as I have outlined above, they understand my situation. I will ask them, "If you were charged with a crime, even if you were guilty, wouldn't you want a lawyer to be sure any and all rights you have were protected?" The answer is inevitably yes.

Mathis: So what's a typical day like for you now?

Lady: Private practice is very different than that as a 9-5 prosecutor. Many days are extremely busy, with multiple court appearances at the same time and at different locations, as I handle cases in most adjoining counties. Most courts will work with you if you contact them ahead of time when you have a conflict. It's also nice to have great partners like Mike Dungan and Andy Kirkpatrick. We all cover for each other. Occasionally you will have a slow day. On those days, I usually get caught up on my paperwork, or respond to requests for interviews from newspapers. Private practice also means you have to meet with clients after hours or on weekends to accommodate their needs and schedules. The variety in my weekly schedule is exciting, but sometimes nerve-racking.

Mathis: You recently attended the mid-winter meeting of the Criminal Law Section of the Michigan State Bar. What did you learn there?

Lady: The presentations are always helpful, but it is the exchange of ideas and thoughts between the parties that represent all three areas of criminal law that is invaluable. In a friendly and relaxed atmosphere (unlike court), we are able to openly discuss some of the issues that affect all of us, and occasional, even solve a problem or two. My only regret is that these meetings are rather sparsely attended. I would strongly encourage more attorneys to take an active role in the Criminal Law Section.

Published: Thu, Mar 8, 2012

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