Sunday Interview with DA Julia Slater: 'I get paid to know about the crime in Columbus'

chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.comMay 3, 2014 

Julia Slater has one of the toughest jobs in Columbus.

Her daily task as district attorney is to make certain those accused of serious crimes are prosecuted.

So what does she do to relax? She crawls under barbed wire and jumps over fire in the extreme sport of Spartan racing. And she does it with her family -- former U.S. Army Ranger husband, Steve, and 11-year-old twin boys.

Read a 2011 profile on Julia Slater after she won the biggest case of her DA career — a conviction of Michael Curry

"It's not wearing a suit and sitting up straight," she said. "It's out there crawling through the mud and we really enjoy it. When I'm in a Spartan race, I'm not thinking much about work."

That explains a lot about the tightly wound, theater-trained prosecutor who leads a 21-attorney team working a six-county circuit.

She recently sat down with the Ledger-Enquirer reporter Chuck Williams to discuss her job, her office, crime and former law partner Mark Shelnutt.

Here are excerpts of that interview, with some of the questions edited for length and the order of some of the questions rearranged for clarity.

You are a Columbus native, right?

I was born in Montgomery, Ala., but my parents moved here when I was a baby, so I was raised here.

You went all the way through school here?

Right. I was baptized at South Columbus United Methodist Church. I went to Wynnton Elementary for the first couple of years and my parents moved, and I was at Britt David, then Arnold when it was a junior high school -- which tells a little bit about my age. And then Hardaway.

Then where did you go to school after that?

I went to Stephens College, which is in Columbia, Mo. I received a scholarship and it took me out there in the middle of Missouri.

Is that the only time you've been away from Columbus?

No, I went to Stephens College for four years; I got my bachelor's degree there -- it was a women's liberal arts college. And then from there I moved to Denver, Colo., and worked for a law firm for two years. Then I went to Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. When I graduated from Washington and Lee, I moved back here.

Your law degree is from Washington and Lee?

Right.

Growing up did you ever say, "I want to be the district attorney?"

No. I didn't know that I wanted to be a lawyer until high school. But I was at Hardaway and Mrs. (Marion) Webber was the debate coach. I was on the debate team for all four years at Hardaway and really enjoyed it. That's what made me start thinking about law -- the enjoyment that I got from debate, taking one side of the case in one situation and then two hours later, you're on the other side. I really enjoyed that, and that's what led me to law.

You came into this office five and a half years ago?

Right, as district attorney.

You had worked here previously as an assistant DA, right?

Right. For almost 10 years.

What's the difference in being an assistant district attorney and being the boss?

The better question is almost what's similar between being an assistant district attorney and being the boss. I think that certainly being an assistant district attorney prepares you to be district attorney, but the jobs are not all that similar. They're headed in the same direction, but as district attorney there's a lot of office manager, managing partner, the personnel aspect, the policies of the office, which way the office is going to head, reorganization of the office, those are the kinds of things.

Whereas, as an assistant district attorney I received cases, I indicted or accused them, went through arraignment and got them ready for trial or guilty plea. We're all working in the same direction but it's like the difference between being an investigator in the district attorney's office and an assistant district attorney almost. There are more similarities, but not as many as you might think.

This is one of the largest law firms in the city.

Right.

How many assistant DA's do you have?

Twenty-one ADAs.

Talk about case management. Case load and case management has to be an incredibly important part of your job.

It certainly is.

How do you do it?

Part of it is by making sure that I look at the numbers and see how the assistant DAs are doing on their case loads, making sure that people are progressing with their case loads. Part of it, though, is a little more of an overall making sure people are motivated to work as hard as they can.

The budget situation and economic situation we've been through have made it so that most of my people are working for pennies more than they were five years ago. The cost of living has not done that -- it has not stopped moving up -- so essentially everybody here is working for less than they were five years ago. I'm blessed to have them still working, but if I don't keep them motivated to do the job, it's easy when you're not getting as much as you were five years ago to say, "Why would I?"

There is pressure now to move cases. There was a guy who was indicted earlier this month after five years in jail. It's not uncommon to see somebody sit in jail for a year, 18 months, before they are indicted. Does that need to improve?

Absolutely. I think even if your number was 90 days, I would still say we want to improve it. What we want is to move as efficiently as we can toward a just resolution, and I always want people to wait in jail less and less before we get to the disposition of their case. ...

It's a partnership. The defense might file a motion for psychological evaluation that slows us down because we need to get the results of that before we move forward. Because of the personnel issue, my people are taking 250 new cases a year. And that's a lot of cases to ask someone to give honest reviews to make sure they're making good decisions, and then move into the formal accusation or indictment stage.

I tell them I don't want them to rush the judgment. What they've got to do is to take their time, make sure they get it right, because if someone is charged with something and we don't think we have the evidence on it, it's our responsibility to dismiss those charges before it gets to an accusation and indictment. And if there are more charges that need to be added, we need to do that too. So, we have to get an honest, critical appraisal of the case before we move on.

What do you say to the critics who say you're not indicting them fast enough?

I would say that rushing to an inaccurate accusation or indictment is more harmful than getting it right even if it takes longer. We are not going to charge people with things we don't have the evidence on, and we need to charge people with what they really did. And it's worth it to get it right.

Have you had outside pressure to speed up that process?

I've certainly had people that come to me and ask questions about the process, about specific cases sometimes, and if somebody tells me a specific case, then I can pull it up and I can tell them what's going on and why it's taking as long as it has.

You would find if you did an analysis of them, the overwhelming majority of those cases something is going on. We've had to send it back to the police department to do some more interviews. Is it a case that involves a defendant that wasn't arrested until later? ...

There's all kinds of things that play ..., and when anybody, a community leader, an elected official or a citizen, comes to me and asks questions, I do the best I can to answer them. I don't take it as pressure because I know that they don't understand what this office does in detail. They may have a broad sense, but they don't truly understand what we do day-to-day.

What do you know about crime now that you did not know in law school?

I know that it happens all the time. That it happens to everybody. It's not people who live in one neighborhood. It's not people that have a certain look.

I don't know that I appreciated it in law school the fact that between midnight and 5 o'clock in the morning is when almost nothing good is happening. You are much more likely to get into trouble yourself -- or be the victim of some trouble -- during the late night hours than you are between noon and 5 o'clock in the evening. And when I was in law school, I'm not sure I really appreciated that.

Is Columbus a safe city?

I grew up here. I'm raising my family here.

So, it is a safe city?

I certainly feel safe raising my children here. My children attend public schools. My husband and I love Columbus.

You see the criminal element every day as part of your job. How do you keep that from jading your perspective?

I have a different perspective. Having done this for 20 years, it's harder for me to remember what it was like when I didn't know what the criminal element was like in Columbus. I think there's a time period when, as a prosecutor, you hear about all these crimes and you're working on all of these cases and you see the criminal element, and the victims, and you (get) close with the victims, for a certain period of time that really does jade you, and you look at everything differently.

And then after more time, I think you put it all in perspective and say, 'Well, this is my job.' ... So, I have to put that in perspective and say that although I see a lot of crime, that it is because of my job. Of course, I know about the crime in Columbus. I am suppose to know -- I get paid to know about the crime in Columbus.

How many cases a year do you try?

Maybe one a year.

Do you wish you were in the courtroom more?

I wish that especially when I'm in the courtroom. I get tied up in the CEO role that I do, and when I'm working as district attorney -- as a boss -- then I'm caught up in that. Right now, it's budget season. I'm going through budgets. I just finished a reorganization in the office, and I'm very busy with that.

Don't get me wrong. I enjoy that side of my job, I enjoy reorganizing, I enjoy working with people. But, when I get back into the courtroom is when I realize that I missed it when I was away. We had a hearing not long ago and I got up there and I turned to LaRae Moore and I said, 'Man, I love this.' I enjoy the courtroom work when I get to do it.

Talk about your courtroom experience. Former public defender Bob Watkins tried the Michael Curry case against you and lost. When it was over, I think he called you a thespian.

I believe he did.

Was that a compliment or an insult?

A compliment -- absolutely. I grew up on the Springer stage. I did my first show when I was 5.

What was your first show?

"Oklahoma." ... I did children's shows and musicals at the Springer until I graduated from Hardaway. I went to Stephens College. I was a musical-theater major. I got a BFA in musical theater. When I moved to Denver, I continued to do community productions. I even did shows in Lexington, Va. -- when I was in law school -- at Virginia Military Institute, which is in the same town. When I moved back as assistant DA, I kept doing shows at the Springer until my twins were born.

So, you're not doing theater right now?

No. My last show was in 2002, when I was pregnant with the twins.

Is a trial like theater?

In the sense that you are having to communicate. Theater is essentially communication of a story to an audience. You are making sure that through your words and your actions you are telling the story to the audience. The same thing is true in a trial. Of course, the glaring difference is that a trial is true and theater is not. But I'm still trying to tell the story of what happened -- story in the sense of the narrative.

Talk about the time you spent away from this office. I know you were in practice with Mark Shelnutt, Charles Day, and that firm. Talk about that time.

I was in private practice for five years. The reason I went into private practice is because I had had my twins and I needed the flexibility of private practice opposed to a government job where you have to be at work at certain hours. And private practice gave me that flexibility to schedule doctors appointments for the kids; I just didn't schedule clients during those times and made it up in other times.

That's why I went into private practice. Those five years I worked mostly on criminal defense, but I did get some great opportunities that I would never had had if I had stayed here. In addition to being on the other side of the courtroom, and I think you can't minimize the value of having sat across the desk from defendants' mothers and defendants themselves and talk to them about a case. ... I did some wills, worked on a little bit of corporate, I dabbled in some other things. I did very few divorces. So, I do have some experience in the civil side of things and the domestic side of things.

I didn't leave to get a wider variety of experience when I left the DA's office, but I did. That was the benefit of it. Now as the district attorney, I understand what it is like to try and run a law firm. I didn't. I wasn't a partner so I didn't have to make payroll, but I understand what it is to make payroll having been out there.

You and Mark Shelnutt were very close during that period, weren't you?

That was the partner I worked with the longest. I worked with Charlie some. We had Peter Hoffman and Ed Berry. But I worked with Mark more than anybody.

And Mark has had his own legal trouble, right?

Yes.

How has that impacted your friendship with him?

We're not friends any more.

Do you regret having Mark sit in on some of the interviews for staff positions in the DA's office after you got elected in 2008? I know you caught some heat for that.

Right.

Do you regret that decision?

Looking back from where I am now, yes. But I know things now I didn't know at the time. I know that he has been indicted by a federal court. I didn't know at the time he was going to be indicted by federal court. I didn't have knowledge of what was going on. (Shelnutt was of acquitted by a jury of charges including money laundering, aiding and abetting a conspiracy to distribute cocaine, attempted bribery and making false statements in November 2009.)

Certainly nobody contacted me about the investigation from the federal side, so I didn't have that knowledge of what was going on. Now, I know. ... But based on the information I had at the time it seemed like a valid thing to do.

If President Obama had not been on the 2008 ballot, would you be district attorney?

I would.

You think you would have won without the Obama push?

Yes, and I've looked at those numbers, and if you look at the numbers just in my six counties I got higher percentages than Obama. And in a lot of my counties, I know in 2012, I had higher numbers than Obama, which means that people not only ...

But you had four years on the job the second time, right?

Right. I'd have to look back at the 2008 numbers and I want to say that those are true as well that my percentages were higher than Obama's. So, that means to me that I would have won without Obama.

Did it help?

Absolutely. And I think that the intangible there is probably Democrats coming to the polls, because there's no way for me to really analyze that. Maybe that made the difference the fact that Democrats came to the polls in 2008, in order to vote for Obama. That might have been a push, but I feel that my qualifications were strong. I think that the voters felt like there was a need for a change, and I was their opportunity for a change.

In addition to being district attorney, you are also a wife and a mom. How many children?

Two children.

How old?

Boys, 11.

How do you balance that with a very demanding job?

I have the ability to categorize my life -- if that makes any sense. When I'm at work, I'm at work. And although I certainly still love my children and my husband and I love my family, they are not at the front of my mind -- I'm working. And the same thing happens when I go home -- unless I've put the kids to bed and I've got work that I'm doing or I receive a phone call that pulls me back to work. Those are the two things that pull me back to work, but otherwise if I'm with my family, I'm with my family. So I think it's important for anybody that's trying to manage that is to be able to draw those lines and not let them bleed over into each other.

Is that easier for a woman to do than for a man?

I don't know. I've never been a man.

As your kids get older -- you obviously see at lot of 15-, 16-, 17-, 18-year-olds get in trouble ...

It is 13-, 14-, 15-, 16-, 17-, 18-year-old kids. When you look at Juvenile Court, 13 is where you are really getting the population.

As a mom, how are you going to start talking to your children about the trouble you can get into with drugs and alcohol, any number of things?

Well, they are 11 and we certainly have already started talking about that. I don't think it's something you can put off. I do the same thing I think every parent should do, which is starting very early talking to them about drugs and about being able to say no, about giving them strong enough character that they can say no when somebody offers them drugs, especially drugs, because I think that for many children is the first criminal activity they are asked to participate in. ... My children absolutely know they are not to participate in that. They have promised they will not, which is what I expect my 11-year-old sons to do. And they have been through the DARE program, which by the way was fabulous. The DARE program came to their school and I think they learned a lot through the DARE program.

Is handling juvenile cases one of the tough parts of this job?

Yes and no. It's one of the tough parts in that you see young people that have gotten into trouble and are already making bad decisions. But the promising thing is that if you've got a chance to save some of these people, Juvenile Court is where your best opportunity is. For a lot of these kids, once they get to -- and 17 is the magic age in adult court and I'm not saying every 17-year-old that commits a crime is a lost cause, that's not what I'm saying at all. But sometimes by the time they get into their late teens, and certainly into their early 20s, if they've been doing this for a while, it's a pattern at that point and it is very, very hard to correct it. But if you can catch them when they are 13, 14 and 15, and make them truly sorry for what they've done, you've got a chance. To me it is the most promising court that we have.

Do we have a gang problem in Columbus?

Yes. We do. One member of one gang is a gang problem.

There are gangs in Columbus?

There are gangs in Columbus, yes. Whether they are as highly organized as the ones you see in the movies doesn't really matter. If you've got children, young people I should say, that are as a group making decisions together and influencing other people, then you've got a gang. And the young people in Columbus are influencing each other to commit crimes and harm people. That's a gang.

How does a community deal with that issue?

Just recently we have as a district attorney's office -- and it hasn't gone any further than us quite yet -- we are looking into developing a gang task force within the DA's office. Assistant DA William Hocutt and either Robert Smith or Chris Samra, our investigators. William and Chris went up to LaGrange to watch their gang task force meeting so they could bring the information back here. We will be contacting law enforcement agencies and seeing what we can do too. We'll be working with Special Ops with the police department, it looks like, and trying to do what we can to develop a task force so they can go and get specialized training.

Thanks for your time.

Can I tell you one more thing? You skipped the "what did I forget to ask" question. I know this sounds crazy but as far as the family, we do a lot of things together. But one of the things we started doing recently is Spartan racing.

What is Spartan racing?

Spartan is obstacle racing. My husband races, I race, both of the kids race. I only do the short ones which are usually 4.5-5.5 miles with 15-plus obstacles: climbing under barbwire, carrying sandbags on my shoulder, climbing up walls, over cargo nets, stuff like that.

And that's fun?

Jumping over fire. It is. It is the complete opposite of what I do at work and there is a certain value to it, especially when you do it with your family.

BIO

Name: Julia Slater

Age: 47

Job: District attorney, Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit, which includes Muscogee, Harris, Chattahoochee, Talbot, Marion and Butler counties.

Education: Hardaway High School, 1984; Stephens College, Columbia, Mo., B.F.A., musical theater, 1988; Washington and Lee University School of Law, J.D., 1993.

Family: Husband of 17 years, Steve. Twin boys, Stephen and William, 11.

Her thoughts on being on the short list last year for a Superior Court judgeship: "It was a very positive experience. I enjoyed the experience much like I would enjoy a campaign -- I enjoy campaigning. I liked meeting people I had never met in Atlanta, and I got to meet the governor, who I had never met until then. It was a very positive experience; nothing negative about it -- besides not getting the job."

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