Sun. Aug 7th, 2022

 

On April 23, West Chester University students spent some time with Deborah Ryan, assistant district attorney of Chester County, who met with students to give background of the justice system and discuss her own role in it.

Ryan is a child sexual abuse prosecutor for the Chester County court system, and a mother. The grandchild of Holocaust survivors, Ryan says she was raised to understand the importance of giving a voice to victims of heinous crimes. She first knew she wanted to be a prosecutor after volunteering for the district attorney’s office in Philadelphia. She obtained her law degree from the University of Pittsburgh, and has been a prosecutor in Chester County since 1998. In Chester County, there are 36 prosecutors who hear 6,000 cases per year, says Ryan. “That’s a lot of cases… We’re pretty busy!” she laughs.

Ryan gives a brief overview of the justice process, explaining standard procedures for most cases. First, a crime is reported. Next, officers assign applicable charges to the defendant followed by a preliminary hearing that is conducted in order to present the case to the magisterial justice. After that, pretrial hearings take place, which are used to clarify legal issues surrounding the defendant. One recent example of a legal issue is police not reading Miranda Rights to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, suspect in the Boston bombing.

After the pretrial, the trial proceedings begin. The prosecutor has to pick an impartial jury, which Ryan explains can be a daunting process. Ryan finds that several jury candidates are biased when it comes to deciding on sexual assault cases. To try and weed out the bias, Ryan recommends that the judge ask two questions. First: Is testimony without any other corroboration enough to convince you of a sexual assault? Second, which Ryan says is more important, but “rarely asked”: Have you or anyone close to you ever been falsely convicted of a sexual assault? “Asking these questions can help weed out who you don’t want in your jury,” Ryan says. Other deterrents of jury selection include felony convictions, and – surprisingly – law degrees. Any citizen who has obtained a law degree will be declined by Ryan for jury duty. “I will never pick a lawyer [for jury duty]!” says Ryan. “[Lawyers] are super-opinionated, and persuasive.” She says they are able to persuade the jury to think a certain way, which may damage her case.

Once the jury is selected, the trial begins. Ryan joked that trial proceedings are typically pretty boring – not at all like “Law and Order” Ryan knows rash behavior in the courtroom will make her look unprofessional. “There’s no yelling, no pounding fists… This is not TV…. [Attorneys] are usually pretty conservative,” she says.

One student asked Ryan, “How do you separate being a mom and being a child abuse prosecutor?”

Ryan sighs, pauses, and replies, “I’ve held my kids tighter.” She says working with predators has alerted her to the dangers her children face in society – she is more exposed to these dangers than many parents. “I try to protect them at all costs… I’m very neurotic!” Ryan explains how many child abuse prosecutors will not allow their children to attend sleepovers or go to summer camps. She says that’s not her – she just tries to make sure her children are informed of the dangers. “Nobody touches you where?” she laughs. “I’m sure they’ll be in therapy for years to come after all the stuff I’ve told them.”

Prosecutors are “public service workers,” says Ryan. Their goal is to advocate for the victim. For many lawyers, work as a prosecutor seems underpaid and thankless, but Ryan says, “My intention was always to [be a prosecutor].” Ryan genuinely cares for her clients. She shakes her head, saying, “I wonder all the time, ‘What ever happened to these people?’ I never hear from many of my clients again.”

Kellyn McNamara is a fourth-year student majoring in nutrition and dietetics with a minor in journalism. She can be reached at KM654122@wcupa.edu.

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