Having a Heart: One of the Most Important Qualities of a Prosecutor
Contributing Author: Susan Broderick, Program Director, NDAA
I started my career as a prosecutor in 1989 in the Manhattan DA’s office. It was back when violence was spiking, making the work exhilarating yet exhausting. It was a work hard, play hard environment, and I did both. During my 14 years in the office, I handled everything from petty offenses to homicides. I was in the Domestic Violence and Sex Crimes Units as well, and it was after a particularly horrifying murder conviction, that Mr. Morgenthau, the District Attorney of New York County, called me into his office to offer me the position of Deputy Chief of the Family Violence Unit — overseeing Child Abuse Cases in Manhattan.
My initial reaction was “This is a promotion? Child Abuse?” I had not handled these cases before, and all I could imagine was that the cases would be heartbreaking and depressing. But of course, I took the position.
And there were some very heartbreaking and frustrating cases. But there were also cases that filled my heart with hope and opened my eyes to the incredible resilience of the human spirit. Day after day, I was able to work with victims who had experienced some of the worst things that life can offer, yet they were able to overcome the odds and come out stronger on the other side.
Colleagues in the other bureaus would often try to relate to working with child victims and witnesses but would say that they just could not handle those cases. In my personal life, friends and acquaintances would often say, “Please don’t talk about your work.” The details of these cases made them uncomfortable and/or horrified.
None of this deterred me and in fact made me realize that I was cut out for this work. I had become a prosecutor because I wanted to help people, so helping the most vulnerable in our society seemed like a perfect fit.
In 2003, I was offered the opportunity to work on child abuse cases at the national level. I joined NDAA’s National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse. The decision to leave Manhattan was difficult, but I had longed dreamed of working in DC so it all seemed to make sense.
At my going-away party, my former Bureau Chief Gene Porcaro stood up to make a speech. He said while everyone could talk about the different cases I had handled, he wanted to talk about the most important thing about me — my heart.
My heart??? I was mortified. I prided myself as a tough-on-crime prosecutor. All I could think was, “He’s talking about my heart? It sounds like I am a wimp. I am a bad ass!”
Of course, I did not say any of this, I just smiled meekly and prayed for his speech to end.
It’s been almost 20 years since that speech, and like most other things he said, Gene was right. Having a heart is essential in this work. Being a prosecutor is not only one of the most powerful positions in the world, but also one of the most stressful. Every day, we encounter the worst that society has to offer — murder, robbery, rape and countless other crimes — and seek justice in each and every case. We work closely with victims and try to right the wrongs. We also work to make sure that the system is fair and that we do all we can to turn around the lives of those who have committed crimes.
As with everything in life, balance is key. There are times when we must be strong and tough, when we have to hold people accountable for serious crimes. We must make sure that public safety is protected and sometimes we are the unpopular voice in a courtroom. Working with victims is not our only responsibility, but it is one of the most important.
Most of the prosecutors and former prosecutors that I know pursued this path because they truly wanted to make the world a better place and they still do. Recent attacks on the credibility and motivations of some colleagues are deeply upsetting and I know that it is bringing more stress to an already stressful job. Most of us have very big hearts, and while we may not admit it in court, we are in this because we care about people.
I learned a lot of things in law school, but there was never a class or even a discussion about the emotional impact of being a prosecutor. For too long, we fought the good fight without acknowledging the toll it takes on our bodies, our minds, and our hearts. I am so grateful that we are finally having honest conversations about the realities that come along with one of the toughest — but greatest — jobs in the world. Acknowledging that we have big hearts is no longer something to be ashamed of. In fact, it’s one of the qualities that is essential for a prosecutor.
Susan Broderick is a Program Director with the National District Attorneys Association, where she is also the staff liaison for the Well-being Task Force.