The Deputy District Attorney to the Child Abuse Unit in Chester County put away a former Chester County Prison lieutenant this year with charges that he molested 10 kids in 20 years. Today, she continues to work long hours for child abuse cases.
Deborah Ryan, the Deputy District Attorney, described Lt. Leroy Mitchell, as “a beloved member in the community. Everyone thought he was the most selfless, kindest person.” He fostered 50 kids, had children of his own, volunteered, and coached sports in his free time. No one expected him to be accused of child molestation.
When Mitchell’s 10-year-old granddaughter approached her school counselor and mother about her grandfather molesting her, her mother accused her of lying. The mother told Ryan that the girl “lied all the time.”
After Ryan and forensic investigators met with the granddaughter, Ryan believed the girl over the mother. To prevent the trauma of going to trial, Ryan got the girl to go on wire, call her grandfather, and accuse him of molesting her, Mitchell confessed. Ryan elaborated, “We gave her a script and this girl was amazing. She was 10 years old and able to speak about these horrible things that happened to her in front of strangers and then get a confession. She was unflappable.”
Despite continued allegations and a confession at the sentence hearing, Mitchell’s wife called all the victims liars. She accused children who were three to five years old that they wanted to break up her marriage or were jealous that her family did not adopt them.
For Ryan, handling this case was easier than most because Mitchell’s granddaughter was able to get the confession. She elaborated that her job usually consists of victims who struggle to put words to their traumas and juries who do not understand why someone would keep silent for years and then come forward.
As a prosecutor, Ryan faces long hours and small wages. When she spoke to a WCU journalism class on Mar. 11, she admitted that she knows school teachers who make more than her. “You don’t go into my job for the money. You do it because you’re trying to help,” Ryan said.
Her sense of justice developed as a child. Ryan’s grandparents were Holocaust survivors. Her grandmother lost her entire family and her grandfather lost everyone but his brother and mother.
With the physical and mental scars of the Holocaust, Ryan remembers her grandmother telling her, “The whole world knew what was going on and nobody did anything.” She taught Ryan how important it is to stand up for other people and to have a good heart.
Ryan earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology at Boston University. After working as a waitress and back-packing through Europe, she decided to get into law because of her desire to help others and interest in debate. She received a law degree from the University of Pittsburgh and started her career working at the District Attorney’s office in Philadelphia.
“Philadelphia is a difficult place to try a case,” Ryan explained. “The police and law enforcement is the enemy there.” When summoned for jury duty, 90 percent of people say they are less likely to believe a police officer’s word simply because he/she is a police officer.
Ryan said when she came to Chester County the opposite was true and people were more likely to believe a police officer. This makes trying a case easier for Ryan, but she describes that her job is emotionally taxing.
The details involved in child abuse cases can be graphic and hard to stomach. When she first started her job, she would often come home crying.
Most of her cases involve victims admitting to child abuse after years of silence. Because of the time gap, Ryan deals with the task of trying to convince juries that the victim is telling the truth.
Even if the time gap does not exist, many jurors want more evidence than molestation or rape cases can garner. Ryan explained that in 98 percent of rape cases, the victim has no physical signs on the body. Most cases are the victim’s word against the accused.
Legislation has changed a bit in Ryan’s favor since the Sandusky trial in 2012. Before that case, a prosecutor could not call an expert to the stand to explain why people might react differently to abuse. Experts can now explain that a victim might keep quiet because they are embarrassed, afraid, or think the abuse was their fault.
Ryan told the journalism class that as far as legislation goes, “Pennsylvania is one of the most arcane places to live.” The state’s laws are outdated when it comes to abuse cases, and it was one of the last to allow experts on the stand.
Although Ryan faces difficulties, emotional turmoil, and low pay, she enjoys how she can help others as Deputy District Attorney to the Child Abuse Unit. Her grandmother who survived the Holocaust taught her that we are all members of a community, and Ryan works her hardest to help that community every day.
Jill Heagerty is a third-year student majoring in English with a minor in journalism. She can be reached at JH760370@wcupa.edu. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.