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E. Michael McCann:
Milwaukee’s Aggressive and Compassionate District Attorney

[ Feature 1 Photo 1 ]

© Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Photo By George R. Cassidy

[ Feature 1 Photo 2 ]
Although E. Michael McCann, shown with his wife, Barbara, made an unsuccessful run for the U.S. Congress in 1984, he has been reelected district attorney in Milwaukee County ever since 1968.

© Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Photo By Lynn Howell

[ Feature 1 Photo 3 ]
In 1990 a Milwaukee police detective (left) escorts District Attorney E. Michael McCann at the scene where a police sergeant was killed.

© Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Photo By Tom Lynn


Serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer was this prosecutor’s most famous case, but the case he talks about most involves a homicide victim he met while she was still alive. By Mary Jo Dangel

 The Dahmer Case and Capital Punishment

 Securing Landmark Convictions

 Acting Justly,
Loving Tenderly

 Racism in the Courtroom

Prosecuting a Case

Concern for Victims

Effects of Welfare Reform on ‘Widows and Orphans’

Inspired by Goodness

E. MICHAEL McCANN rushes into his Milwaukee office from an out-of-town meeting about welfare reform looking more like TV’s gentle Mr. Rogers than the aggressive district attorney who won a conviction against serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. As the prosecutor sits down to change from his everyday walking shoes into the dress shoes he wears on the job, he talks with St. Anthony Messenger about family, justice, compassion and his favorite Bible story.

It soon becomes obvious why the people of Milwaukee County have continued to reelect Mike McCann to protect their neighborhood since 1968 and why he usually runs unopposed. He’s a tough but fair prosecutor who does his homework and wins most jury cases. He believes in justice and he gets emotionally involved.

The Dahmer Case and Capital Punishment

McCann discusses his most famous case. "Jeffrey Dahmer had really strange appetites but he was not legally insane," he says of the convicted murderer whose crimes began making national headlines in 1991. (Dahmer was sentenced to serve 15 consecutive life terms in prison, where he was killed by another inmate.) "Dahmer killed for his own pleasure" and said he would have continued if he hadn’t been caught.

McCann didn’t buy the argument that Dahmer was insane: "He knew [what he did] was evil." The D.A. says use of insanity as a plea is seldom successful: "Juries don’t buy it! You know what you did is wrong and we’re going to hold you accountable."

In McCann’s mind, holding someone accountable can mean life without parole but not capital punishment, which was repealed in Wisconsin in 1853. His courtroom experience played a role in shaping his position, he writes in "Opposing Capital Punishment: A Prosecutor’s Perspective," published in Marquette Law Review. "In most cases, it is the prosecutor who decides whether to seek the death penalty or not," he notes. His reasons for opposition include his belief that sometimes innocent people could be executed and that no amount of restitution will make the victims whole. He also believes there is racial inequity in sentencing, citing statistics about black men who raped white women standing "a higher chance of being sentenced to capital punishment than any other racial combination provided."

On the day before this August 15 interview with McCann in his Milwaukee office near the Court House, an important announcement was made in Denver: Timothy McVeigh had been sentenced to death for the Oklahoma City bombing. McCann notes that McVeigh is an exception to the racial injustice statistics regarding capital punishment, since he is a white man who killed many white people.

A few months earlier, after the McVeigh verdict had been announced, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that McCann said of the jury members, "It looks to me like they carefully sifted the evidence. I think it was a strong case and I’m very pleased with the verdicts."

Although this D.A. is against capital punishment, he’s not soft on crime. In February 1997 Antonio McAfee was sentenced to life in prison without parole on a charge of first-degree intentional homicide while armed, for killing police officer Wendolyn Odell Tanner in Milwaukee. During the sentencing McCann said the convicted killer deserved to be "behind bars until his death," reported the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "This [McAfee] is an extremely dangerous person."

The district attorney is against capital punishment, but he’s not soft on crime.

Jeffrey Dahmer was behind bars until his death. McCann believes much helpful information about the criminal mind could have been learned from Dahmer if he had lived longer. He notes that, although it may only be a coincidence, one of the assistant prosecutors who worked with him on this case entered the seminary a few years afterward.

How did McCann emotionally survive working on the Dahmer prosecution? "I don’t sleep on a major case," he admits. "I have a happy marriage...and my wife is very supportive." He explains that his wife, Barbara, understands the type of work he does because she was a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "My home is a place of refreshment and rest."

Securing Landmark Convictions

The Dahmer case may have been McCann’s most famous. But another made the most positive impact on the largest number of people: McCann secured homicide convictions against Chem-Bio Corporation for recklessly failing to detect incipient cancers which caused the death of two women—Karin Smith and Delores Geary—from cervical cancer.

People magazine reported: "This was the first case in which criminal charges were issued against a medical laboratory over allegations of malpractice." At the hearings, experts testified that cancer was evident on multiple Pap smears years before these women were diagnosed, and that cervical cancer is usually curable if it is detected early. McCann says the lab made grave errors because the medical director paid the technician on a piecework basis: The technician examined 20,000 to 40,000 Pap smears a year, compared with the 12,000 maximum recommended under professional standards.

The prosecutor admits this was an unusual case because there was no precedent, but he was confident he had the evidence to secure convictions. These convictions served as "a warning to labs that were pushing technicians beyond what they were conscientiously capable of doing," says McCann. "It’s a wake-up call to laboratories and physicians to be careful." He explains that labs can enhance their competitive edge in securing contracts for testing by increasing their productivity—doing more tests than the competition. He recalls one woman who expressed the fears of many when she told him, "I go to an excellent gynecologist, but I have no idea who’s examining my Pap smears."

The prosecutor vividly recalls his initial meeting with cancer victim Karin Smith, who died when she was 29. "It was the first time a person who was to be the victim of a homicide asked me to prosecute a case: We usually see the corpses of homicide cases in the medical examiner’s office." He notes that Karin was able to testify before Congress before she died.

McCann never met Delores Geary, who died at the age of 40. But about a year after Mrs. Geary’s death, he went to visit her husband at the home where Mr. Geary had lived with his wife. "This man was so lonely" and devastated by the loss of his wife, recalls the D.A. "You could tell the joy that his marriage had been to him....As he sobbed like a child, you could tell the depth of his love for that woman....My own love for my wife was reinforced: You could not walk away without being touched."

Acting Justly, Loving Tenderly

The D.A. mentions his wife frequently as he discusses his cases. Mike and Barbara McCann live in the city, a few blocks from County Stadium where the Brewers play ball. "That was my dream as a kid—living near a major-league ballpark," he says. It was a great place to raise their two children, he recalls. Their son, Michael, graduated from Notre Dame and then earned a law degree from Georgetown. And their daughter, Sarah, is a Georgetown graduate who recently completed a year of volunteer work with the Jesuits.

Mike and Barbara first met through a common friend. But their relationship didn’t develop until later, when they met again while regularly attending Mass at St. Boniface. About five years later they married.

Now they belong to Gesu, a parish located on the campus of Marquette University, near the D.A.’s office. Bill Thorn, chairman of Marquette’s department of journalism, says he often sees Mike McCann at weekday Mass at Gesu and attending lectures on campus: "The man is intellectually about as curious as you could hope for." Bill’s wife, Vicki, founded Project Rachel, a post-abortion healing ministry which now has many national chapters. She notes that both Mike and Barbara McCann have been very active in the pro-life movement.

Mike McCann calls his Catholic faith "the biggest joy in my life. The older I get the more meaningful it is to me. I go to Mass virtually every day," usually before work. "It enriches the day, makes me a better person, gives me the courage to do what’s right for other people."

Edward Michael McCann was born in Chicago on December 26, 1936. His Irish-Catholic parents moved a few times before settling in Milwaukee, where Mike attended St. Francis Minor Seminary for three years and then Marquette High School. He earned a bachelor of arts from the University of Detroit, bachelor of laws from Georgetown, master of laws from Harvard and was graced in 1997 with an honorary doctor of laws from Marquette.

McCann was at Georgetown in the early 1960’s, when Robert Kennedy was attorney general and had an office a few blocks away from the campus, and John Kennedy was president of the United States. The D.A. points to a large photo of these Kennedy brothers in his office and talks of his admiration for Bobby Kennedy. "It was very vivid government. But I never thought of going into government," he recalls.

He had planned to join a large law firm in Milwaukee when he was offered a position as an assistant district attorney in the city by William J. McCauley, who was D.A. at the time. Of all the people McCann had spoken to during job interviews, he stresses that McCauley "was the only guy who mentioned the word justice."

After working for a short time in the district attorney’s office and then in private law, McCann returned to the D.A.’s office to stay. As he stands in his office next to the U.S. flag and in front of a painting of St. Thomas More, patron of lawyers, McCann points to a favorite quote of Dag Hammarskjöld’s hanging on another wall: "From injustice—never justice. From justice—never injustice."

Then he points to another framed quote, given to him by his wife, from the Book of Micah: "This is what Yahweh asks of you: to act justly, to love tenderly, to walk humbly with our God" (6:8).

Racism in the Courtroom

McCann says justice is usually served: "Very few people in this country get away with murder....The O.J. Simpson case is not typical of the criminal-justice system." He feels it was proven that Simpson was guilty but explains, "A wild card was introduced into the case" when it was shown that police officer Mark Fuhrman lied about his use of a racial slur. McCann says that had a tremendous impact on black jurors: "I believe blacks have experiences with the law that whites don’t."

He stresses, "Next to the Church, if there’s any place in this land that ought to be free of racism, it is the courthouse." But, unfortunately, racism does exist in the Church and in the courthouse, he says.

"We are constantly concerned about racial bias," he emphasizes. In the past, possession of a small amount of marijuana in the substantially black city resulted in being charged with a "crime," and the charge became part of a person’s criminal record. But the same action in the predominantly white suburbs was regarded as a "municipal violation," and it did not become part of a person’s criminal record. McCann supported the recent change in Milwaukee law that now makes possession in the city a "violation" instead of a "crime."

This doesn’t mean that he’s soft on drugs. He comes down hard on drug dealers who target kids. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that, when a police and federal undercover operation led to criminal charges against dealers at the city’s largest condominium complex, McCann stood in the parking lot among a group of kids and said, "These drug dealers are endangering these children and they belong behind bars. We will recommend prison in these cases."

Prosecuting a Case

As district attorney, Mike McCann manages an office that includes 106 lawyers. Many of these assistant district attorneys are mothers who work part-time. The D.A. refuses to take credit for being a nice guy because he "allows" job-sharing. Rather, he feels fortunate that these "skilled and experienced ladies...enrich the community" with their talent.

In addition to managing the office, McCann prosecutes a limited number of high-profile cases and those in the medical-legal field—his specialties.

He explains the basic difference between a prosecuting attorney and a defense attorney: A defense attorney might defend a client who appears guilty, but a prosecuting attorney will only prosecute if there’s enough evidence to indicate that the accused is guilty. "Most criminals know that they’re guilty," he says. "You prosecute them honestly—you don’t fabricate evidence....You wouldn’t start a case without having the evidence to secure a conviction. That’s a fundamental, ethical responsibility."

He recalls a conversation he had earlier that day with one of the assistant D.A.’s on his staff who "had presented a case this morning to a jury. But he no longer felt the accused was guilty." McCann told this prosecutor that he was obliged to go to the judge and explain his reasons for moving to dismiss the case. If the judge refuses to dismiss the case, which McCann has never seen happen, he says the prosecutor should then address the jury and explain why the accused no longer appears guilty.

Convictions are sometimes challenged, even after many years. (One reason is new DNA testing and other methods that were unavailable at the time of the original trial.) Thus, long-term storage of some types of evidence has become necessary, says McCann, especially in homicide and sexual-assault convictions with long-term sentences.

Concern for Victims

McCann does what he can to stop crimes before they happen. One way is by serving on the National Television Violence Study Council. This group was one of many that influenced a change in the TV ratings system by recommending that ratings for contents be included. "All the violence on TV is influencing the formation of young people," he says. "It’s rendering them insensitive to violence. There may be a causal connection with the violence in our society....The critical years for children are two to seven."

He explains that "violence itself isn’t bad. You have it in great literature. It’s how that violence is treated. Is the guy who commits violence a hero? Do you see the bad results? Is the violence glorified?"

He’s concerned about the real-life violence many children learn when they see their mothers being abused by their husbands or boyfriends. These children often grow up to repeat the behavior. "I never saw my father strike my mother. I never struck my wife," says the man whose office prosecutes thousands of cases of domestic violence, often against the victim’s wishes.

Children are often abused, too. "In any large crowd, there are predators who would prey on children," he says. "You need to be protective of your kids." Regarding the stereotype of hardened detectives and lawyers, he says, "When a child is found in some desolate area, stripped naked, raped and maybe tortured, there are few human beings who can tell you, ‘It doesn’t emotionally touch me.’ Anyone who can say that died inside."

McCann’s emotional involvement led him to participate in a peace march and vigil last June in memory of 13-year-old Laquann Moore and other children who had been slain, reported the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Moore had been killed a year earlier by a stray bullet. The D.A. is quite concerned about the number of children being killed by guns, through accidents and suicide.

"I don’t think you can totally strip away guns," he says. "I believe people have a right to protect their lives....But we need much stronger regulations than we have. I certainly support the control of military-type weapons. And there should be much tighter controls on who gets firearms." He explains that one of the reasons U.S. prisons are overcrowded is because of the high number of crimes committed with firearms, for example, armed robberies, rapes and murders. He says that gun control is "a law-enforcement issue, a justice issue and a grave moral issue."

McCann "has been a proponent in Wisconsin to have legislation passed regarding victims’ rights," says Sister Mary Howard Johnstone, O.P., who worked in McCann’s office as an assistant district attorney. "Mike was one of the forerunners when it came to victims’ rights" by developing a unit to work with victims of sexual assault in the 1970’s.

McCann’s compassion for victims of all ages prompts him to tell his favorite Bible story to his staff: the parable of the Good Samaritan. "It’s a crime-victimization story," he says. "You can understand why I identify with it....I point out that this is the best Judeo-Christian tradition of helping your neighbor. It doesn’t matter who the victim is."

Effects of Welfare Reform on ‘Widows and Orphans’

McCann is very concerned about Wisconsin’s new welfare reform, which went into effect in September 1997. He anticipates that, when poor women without job skills lose their source of revenue, there will be an increase in crimes such as prostitution, check forging and child abuse. "These will be desperate women—I really have fears," he emphasizes.

When he thinks about the additional stress these women will encounter, especially the single mothers, he’s reminded of the strain his wife sometimes experienced when she was home raising their youngsters. He notes that she had a car and a loving husband, who had never seen his well-educated wife "crack under stress" as a journalist. "But I’d come home some nights and be greeted by a wild-eyed woman who said, ‘They’re your children....I will have nothing to do with them!’ I think of that and I wonder how will the woman without a car who has four kids and a lousy job get up in the morning, feed the kids, dress them, get some to one school and another to day care? After her day at work, she’ll get groceries, do the laundry, educate the kids, feed them, clean them, put them to bed. How are those women going to do that?"

"Mike was one of the forerunners when it came to victims’ rights."

—Sister Mary Howard Johnstone, O.P.

McCann notes that the Bible tells us to "care for orphans and widows in their affliction" (James 1:27). This passage reminds him of poor single mothers today who do not receive support from the fathers of their children. "If James is right," he says, "how do we as a society, as Catholic Christians, respond to these new widows and orphans?"

One way Mike McCann responded was by being co-leader in Greater Milwaukee’s CROP Walk, an interfaith effort that raised funds and food for needy people last October. Also, he and his wife serve on a committee at their parish that is investigating ways to help people who are affected by welfare reform. "I think we’re going to see some very hard times," he predicts.

Inspired by Goodness

Instead of becoming discouraged by all the misery he sees on a daily basis, McCann says, "I don’t get depressed by the bad. I’m inspired occasionally by the good that I see." The 61-year-old district attorney ends this Friday afternoon interview saying, "I’m not thinking about when I retire. I love the people of this city."

The people are gathering along the lakefront on this beautiful summer weekend to celebrate Milwaukee’s annual Irish Fest, joined by their Irish-Catholic district attorney. Thus, the streets in town are rather quiet as a peaceful sunset falls behind the Court House. Justice has been served another day.

Mary Jo Dangel is an assistant editor of this publication who earned a B.A. from the College of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati.

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