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Patrick Sullivan - October 17th, 2011  
A prosecutor looks back on a grim profession

A prosecutor who specialized in sex crime cases across Northern Michigan, Michael Stein has returned to private practice. Photo by Patrick Sullivan.

For two years, Michael Stein specialized in sex crime cases across Northern Michigan as a special prosecutor for the Michigan Attorney General.

Stein, a Traverse City attorney who’s worked at county prosecutor’s offices in Grand Traverse and Kalamazoo, has overseen prosecution of some gruesome cases.

It’s the same job held by Erin House, a special assistant attorney general who is responsible for criminal sexual conduct cases in Leelanau and Antrim counties, and who recently prosecuted Jere Clark in Bellaire, the subject of a July 11 feature in the Express.

Clark, a 70-year-old who had access to scores of foster children over the years, was convicted of first- and third-degree criminal sexual conduct involving two victims and will likely spend the rest of his life in prison.

House has not been able to discuss her cases publicly.

Stein’s contract, however, ended in September, and he’s opened up an office on Front Street. As he reenters private practice he was able to sit down with the Express and talk about the last two years.

Northern Express: What does the typical criminal sexual conduct case in Northern Michigan look like?

Michael Stein: The cases I was involved with were predominantly acquaintance assault. Each of those cases showed various examples of the offenders grooming the victim. Most were all with people the victims believed they could trust. It was sad to hear so many victims say “I thought I could trust him.” After all these years, I can’t say what is typical; wish I could because then maybe we could prevent more people from becoming victims.

NE: What were some of the highlights and low-lights in your two years as a special prosecutor?

Stein: The highlights and the low-lights can blend together, because the highlights are getting to know and meeting the victims, and developing the element of trust with the victims, and on the other hand, the low-lights are knowing the victims and seeing what they had to go through, so that’s a doubleedged sword.

But probably, the highlights would simply be the ability to work with the victims and to begin to see that there is an element of trust again and that they start to experience that somebody does believe them, and that you can help them down a path toward healing.

In one case, one of the victims, a little girl, wants to grow up to be a lawyer to help kids. And another one had me already pull up my calendar and mark June in four years when she graduates -- she wants me to drive up there for her graduation, so those are highlights.

NE: What direction is public perception of criminal sexual conduct cases going?

Stein: Unfortunately, what I noticed in the smaller counties and some of the more rural areas, is that people maintain what are called the myths of criminal sexual conduct. By that I mean people always want to place themselves and how they would respond to a tragic situation into the shoes of the victim. You know, “I would have fought, I would have screamed, I would have told somebody.” But it’s very difficult for anybody to place themselves into the shoes of somebody that’s going through a traumatic event.

“The victim who had been abused for 10 years, why didn’t she tell somebody?

She could have told a doctor.” But she was being abused by a family member and did not have the level of trust that’s necessary to enable her to do that.

People have to be educated that criminal sexual conduct and the myths behind it are simply that -- they are simply myths. We can’t subject our own thoughts and how we would respond to a tragic situation where they would.

When I pick a jury, what I try to use is the 9-11 analogy, how everybody is running down the street after 9-11 and look at all of their different faces and how everybody has responded to that differently.

NE: What are some specific examples of unfairness to victims?

Stein: A case I had in Clare County, a little girl was abducted from her bed in the middle of the night, screaming, taken from her bed at knifepoint. He told her if she screams, he’ll cut her throat. He forced her to walk well over a mile to his house. She hit him in the head and got away, after he did some pretty horrible things to her.

As soon as those lights went off and that door closed, you know, the evil came out, and that’s what happens, especially with incest. You never can see it coming...”

A police officer then wants to have her go back and show where it is. On the way, the police officer is telling this 11-year-old, “this is way too far to go, you better not be lying to me, if you are lying to me, you are going to go to jail, I’m going to arrest you,” not understanding that this little girl dealt with that trauma differently than from how he perceived his own daughter would have dealt with it. She wasn’t hysterical. She wasn’t crying. She was matter of fact -- “This is what happened to me.” And that is one of the best examples of how even some in law enforcement may not be accepting that victims are all different.

NE: What happened in that case?

Stein: The defendant was found guilty on all counts and received three consecutive 35-year minimum sentences.

NE: Tell me about some other bad cases.

Stein: There was a case in Wexford County. The family ran a daycare and an adult foster care and when the victim was 12, her mom more or less dropped her off at the daycare and just never came back. So they took her in, like a guardian. And when she turned 13, following a short grooming period, she was sexually penetrated weekly, for the next 10 years, until she was 23 years old, by this guy who took her in. And everybody in the community said, “Oh, what a great guy he is, this could never happen, she’s making it all up.”

Even after the point where he admitted that after her 16th birthday, that there was sex and it was all consensual. To the community, the family looked okay. They had all the pictures -- they were a very beautiful family and they’re all happy and things like that, and yet this girl was living this horrendous nightmare, of which she’ll never get over.

NE: How was that case resolved?

Stein: He was found guilty of all the CSC charges, for everything that had occurred before her 16th birthday.

All the toys and all the gifts and everything they all did together -- as soon as those lights went off and that door closed, you know, the evil came out, and that’s what happens, especially with incest. You never can see it coming.

NE: Were there any surprises during your tenure?

Stein: I guess I wouldn’t use the term surprised. I would use the word “disappointed,” that we haven’t been able to educate everybody, judges, prosecutors, police, the public, as to what we need to look for and how we need to treat those victims.

Victims need to know and believe that somebody believes in them. There’s nothing more horrifying (for a victim) than (to hear), “Go in here, go do a rape kit, just take your clothes off, we’ll take your clothes, kick you over to the next person to tell the story to, and then, you know, here’s some sweats, go on back home.”

They don’t quite grasp the need for empathy for a victim. Especially the victims who people perceive as placing themselves into a position to become victims. An example would be a college kid goes to a party, she may drink too much, that does not mean she went there to get raped.

NE: How concerned were you about false allegations?

Stein: There’s always that possibility of false accusations, and as Judge Bill Schma, from Kalamazoo, always told me -- before you sign your name on that complaint, you know you are going to turn somebody’s life upside down, so it’s really important that you look at all the circumstances that are surrounding the allegations of rape.

Early on I had two cases which I really began to question. In one I had to question if it was an intoxication - or incapacitation-type of assault, and as more and more and more information started to come out, I started to look at it like, well, perhaps the defense is right. She was trying to make this excuse up, that she was raped, in order to avoid the consequences because she didn’t go home when she was supposed to. Another one involved an elderly patient, made by her granddaughter, and in that one, the people who were the caregivers for the elderly patient kind of filled in some gaps that would indicate that the person accused probably wasn’t guilty of anything.

There’s no worse allegation to level against someone than to say they’re a sexual offender. And so you have to be very very cognizant of that. I mean, you have to look at all of the details.

NE: Tell me about the UP case you handled recently that involved a police officer who was accused of CSC in Iron County?

Stein: That involved a state police trooper. The 11-year-old victim was over visiting him; he was her cousin. She was there and he was home, she went up to the bedroom, he followed her up, and fondled her. She kicked him out and she left.

She came from a very dysfunctional family. The next day, she disclosed to her grandpa, and made him promise not to tell anybody, and the grandpa kept that promise. Then over the course of the next year, she began to disclose to other family members, her sister, who was a soldier, she made her promise, “don’t tell anybody.” Her brother: “don’t tell anybody.” She finally told her mom and her mom made her report it.

Now of course, they didn’t trust the cops, because it was a cop case, so they were all afraid, and then MSP got it, to do the investigation of their own, so then the family really didn’t trust anything that was going to happen with it.

In that situation, a tremendous amount of manpower and effort went into making sure that everything was consistent all the way through, because we knew, as soon as that thing hit, that’s going to be his job, that’s going to be fighting, that’s going to be everything, and it’s going to be a trial. So that was a very significant one to look into false reports.

NE: What happened in that case and how did the state police do investigating on one of their own?

Stein: Det. Sgt. Ken Walker was the cop up there. The investigator conducted an absolutely unbelievable investigation. There was nothing left unturned on it, and they did a spectacular job on it. And the defendant was convicted of both counts of CSC II. They held nothing back. They did it right, straight by the book.

NE: How well are small-town prosecutors equipped to handle these kinds of cases?

Stein: Sometimes it can be very difficult and the reason for that is, you go back to that concept of the myth of rapes and “this is how victims should act,” “this is how victims should behave,” and the best way to present that to a jury is through an expert. Defense attorneys have their experts that they can bring in. They have about two or three of them available.

Prosecutors have one who is really good in particular out of Grand Rapids, and he’s not that expensive, but what’s necessary with that is to have them come in so jurors can understand and hear this is why people behave this way. You have to be able to look at their entire background in order to be able to do that, and be able to explain it.

What happened in one case is the expert that I prefer to use used up almost all of one county’s witness budget for one year, for one case, and that was it. Another county that I was in had to go and get additional funding from their county board to bring this one expert in.

And expert witnesses are very important.

When you watch the jurors you start to see that they recognize, “Oh, now I understand why somebody would behave this way and why somebody wouldn’t.” So if you just go into the trial as a prosecutor without being able to explain some of the psychological concepts to dispel the myths, then you’re placing yourself at a disadvantage.

NE: What are your plans now?

Stein: I’m back into doing my private practice. I’m only doing criminal law and taking criminal cases because of after 20some years that’s the law I know.

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