For feisty chief assistant prosecutor, there's no place like court

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 By Jo Mathis

Legal News
 
When Jackson County Prosecutor Jerry Jarzynka describes his new chief assistant prosecutor as tenacious and passionate, the words ring true.
 
After all, Kathleen Rezmierski was a high school drop out when she talked her way into admittance to the University of Michigan. 
 
Then, when the single mother of two had graduated from U-M, she talked her way into Michigan Law School after being denied admission.
 
This is also the woman responsible for solving a 24-year-old cold case that shook the city of Jackson – the 1980 murder of Lumen Christi High School football coach James Crowley.
 
Clearly, Kati Rezmierski won’t take no for an answer.
 
“I’m nothing if not embracing of a challenge,” said Rezmierski with a smile, sitting in her office in the Jackson County Courthouse.
 
Jarzynka said the decision to choose Rezmierski for the Number Two spot was based on her academic record at the prestigious law school, experience, trial record, high number of high profile cases she’d handled, and excellent rapport with the staff and community.
 
“I think she’s tenacious. I think she’s passionate. But I also think she’s very smart and savvy,” he said. “And she has a big heart for the victims.”
 
Those victims include the family of Lumen Christi High School football coach James Crowley. On Jan. 4, 1980, Crowley, who had recently led his team to a state victory as he had done two years earlier, pulled into his driveway after picking up his 13-year-old daughter from an event.  He sent his daughter into the house, and then confronted a man he’d spotted in his yard.
 
Moments later, Crowley, a 45-year-old lifelong Jackson resident, was shot in the neck and killed.
 
Police arrested 27-year-old parolee Derrick McGuire. Roderick McGuire, alleged to have driven the get-away car, was offered a deal to testify against his brother, but he backed out of that deal, which impacted the strength of the case. 
 
The jury in the trial of Derrick McGuire was hung.
 
Because of the extensive publicity, the second trial was moved outside Jackson, and Derrick McGuire was acquitted.  Ten years later, he was killed in an armed robbery. 
But his brother was still alive and at large. 
 
When a cold case team was formed in the county in 2004, Rezmeirski, then an assistant prosecuting attorney, was chosen to lead the case against Roderick McGuire. All cold cases are difficult, she said, but the Crowley homicide was particularly challenging because the defendant was the getaway driver.
 
“It presented to me a unique challenge to try to convince a jury to convict of first degree murder a guy who didn’t hold the gun, didn’t use the gun, didn’t fire the gun, never got out of the car,” she said. “But under Michigan law, when one aids and abets in a crime, one is held as responsible as the principle suspect. And that was the theory we had to go on.”
Roderick McGuire was convicted of first-degree murder on Dec. 9, 2004, and is now serving life in prison.
 
Jarzynka said it was an important win for the entire community, and that Rezmierski did a “tremendous job” in the case.
 
Born and raised in Ann Arbor, Rezmierski attended Huron High School, dropping out her junior year to get married after she became pregnant. By the time she was 19, she had two children, no husband, and no high school diploma.
 
“I realized I needed to figure out how I was going to support myself and two young children,” said Rezmierski, who looks much younger than her 47 years. “I had always loved school. I had always wanted to go to college, although no one in my family had gone. But growing up in Ann Arbor, a college town, it gets into your blood a little bit.”
 
So she decided to contact the U-M admissions office and ask if they’d consider someone without a high school diploma, and if so, what might they want to see in order to seriously consider that person?
 
She was told such an applicant would be considered as long as she had a good reason for not having a diploma as well as good grades and ACT and SAT scores.
So Rezmierski studied hard for the tests, wrote a good essay, applied and was accepted.
 
A longtime lover of languages, she majored in French. Halfway through school, inspired in part by the hit TV show “L.A. Law,” she realized she wanted to go into law.
 
“I’ve always loved to argue,” she said. “All you have to do is ask my mom. And it sounded very interesting to me. Being a young, single mother, I felt very strongly that I wanted to also do something to help women and children.”
 
She applied to both Wayne State Law School and Michigan Law, but was accepted only by the former.
 
After feeling sorry for herself for a few days, she realized she had nothing to lose and perhaps everything to gain. 
 
“And I called the law school’s admissions office and I said, `Hey!’” she recalled with a laugh. 
 
Rezmierski asked the woman on the end of the line if the admissions board had been aware that the entire time she was in college, she was the self-supporting mother of two young children. 
 
The woman on the other end of the phone said she would put her on their wait list.
 
“I said, `Thank you very much. Now answer me this: What does one do when one is placed on a waiting list and is very interested still in being accepted? Do you accept additional letters of recommendation? Do you ever do actual face-to-face interviews? What can I do that would be of assistance to you in this process?’ 
 
The woman replied that she would welcome any and all of that kind of information.
 
So Rezmierski got more letters of recommendation from employers and professors, set up a time to meet face-to-face, and stayed in contact with the woman through that summer 
(“Some would say hounded her,” said Rezmierski with a smile).  
 
Her effort paid off. One week before law school was to begin, she got the call officially offering her a spot in the incoming class of 1991.
 
“It brings tears to my eyes to think about it,” she said, recalling that call.
 
But the next few years weren’t quite as wonderful.
 
“I’d be lying if I said I liked law school,” she said. “They were certainly very tough years … Of course both of my children came down with the most raging case of the chicken pox you can even imagine right before my first week of law school exams in the spring of 1992. Were it not for my then-boyfriend, now-husband-of-19-years, I would never ever have made it through that time. They were tough years, but there were enough glimmers light at the end of the tunnel to keep me moving forward.”
 
Among those bright lights was The Child Advocacy Law Clinic, which allowed her to appear in court and argue neglect and abuse cases and the absolution of parental rights. And through the law school’s Family Law Office, she represented survivors of domestic violence first as a student attorney and then as a supervising attorney.
 
Through those two programs, she fell in love with the courtroom as well as helping women and children.
 
“I was roped in hook, line and sinker,” she said, adding that her opinion hasn’t changed in the years since.
 
The courtroom is where everything she’s studied, researched, learned, and worked on with the cooperation of others literally comes to life, she said.
 
“People come into a courtroom as witnesses, they testify, they do their best to relate that which they’ve experienced or seen,” she said. “You get to help people through horrifying times in their life. You get to argue things you’ve researched and learned and then taught. You get to argue those things to a judge and you get to try to convince a group of citizens about the law, about the right thing to do. It just combines everything that I’ve spent so much time and effort working for, all in one setting.”
 
Rezmierski interned at the Jackson County Prosecutor’s office during her last semester of law school, and stayed on while she took the bar. When she passed, she was offered the job as one of about a dozen assistant prosecutors. She was 28 at the time.
 
She went into private practice at the end of 2005, moving just across the street from the courthouse. Because she had built up so many connections within the Jackson legal community, she knew it made sense to hang her shingle across the street on Wesley.
 
She practiced family law and a bit of criminal defense there until she was injured in a bad car accident and needed time off to fully recover.
 
When she returned to work, she was a bailiff law clerk in Judge John McBain’s courtroom for six weeks before there was another opening in the prosecutor’s office. Prosecutor Hank Zavisklak gave her a spot, which she started in October of 2011. 
 
This summer, Rezmierski replaced Mark Blumer, who retired after nearly nine years in the position of chief assistant prosecutor.
 
How does she feel to lose a case?
In a word: Horrible. In fact, she often finds it hard to shake off.
She tried a case in May of two young children who’d been severely scalded and scarred.
The jury returned a verdict of guilty to two counts of child abuse, first degree. But they did not convict him of torture, for which he’d also been charged.
“I still to this day wake up in the middle of the night or out on a run and I still find myself arguing in my own head ways that I could have better or more persuasively presented that case to a jury,” she said. “Torture is a statute that is ridiculously difficult to understand, to explain, to argue, and to prove. I wasn’t able to carry the ball in that case.”
At such times, she has the support of her family. Her husband, Ryan, is the North American amateur scout for the National Hockey League’s Nashville Predators. 
“I am so incredibly proud of him,” she said of her husband, who works out of their Ann Arbor home when he’s not traveling. “He’s worked very hard to get where he is.”
Her daughter, Shannon, who turns 30 this month, is a child therapist, and Benjamin, 28, is a web developer. Both live in Ann Arbor.
“I stand in awe of who they are,” said their proud mother. “They’re wonderful, wonderful human beings.”
 
Together, she and her husband adopted daughter, Rya, an athletic 9-year-old involved in all sorts of activities.
 
The lifelong Ann Arbor resident, who tries to find time to run, read, knit, and crochet in her limited spare time, enjoys working in Jackson for a number of reasons.
 
“The legal community is small enough that it’s a fairly intimate group of people,” she said. “You get to know both the colleagues in the office as well as members of the defense bar, the judges, the police officers, the law enforcement community in general. You’re able to establish good working relationships with all of them. They’re all fine people, all working hard, doing their best. And that’s of benefit to everyone involved in the process.”
 
“Unfortunately, Jackson has its fair share of crime. I don’t think that’s a news flash to anybody. And because of that, it has afforded me a great number of opportunities in terms of cases to try.”
 
She figures she’s tried around 20 homicides and many CSC, child abuse cases. The fact that the Jackson community is willing to support the criminal justice process means the system works, she said.
 
“Judges in this county are not afraid or adverse to having jury trials in their courtrooms on a regular basis,” said Rezmierski. “I’m told that’s not true everywhere, which is still s shocking for me to believe.”
 
She said trials benefit everyone—the public, attorneys, defendants, witnesses, and victims.
 
“It affirms everybody’s belief and trust in the system; that things aren't happening behind closed doors,” she said.
 
Asked what she would have become had she not gone to law school, Rezmierski jokes that she would have taken advantage of her gift of gab and gone in a different direction.
She’d have been an unemployed aspiring Broadway star.
 
“I told you I?love the sound of my own voice!” she said.

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