Assistant U.S. Attorney Deborah Sines Takes On Some of the District's Most Horrific Homicides

By Keith L. Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 7, 2009

In 14 years as a prosecutor, Deborah Sines has dealt with many frightening characters. But even for this gruff, hard-charging lawyer, the voice mail that winter morning was a jolt: "Let me tell you something, we will kidnap your son today. And if you think about going to . . . trial, we will kill you."

Sines was preparing to pick a jury in the trial against two men accused of killing witnesses. Moments after she heard the recording, the phone rang in her office. "We are watching," the caller said, threatening to "get" her.

She has stared down killers in D.C. Superior Court and is not easily frightened. Yet this was the first time that Sines's job led to a threat against her family. Federal marshals, wearing earpieces and carrying guns, began shadowing her and her adult son at work and at home. She used private elevators to get in and out of court. She stopped taking Metro and changed her routine.

And she went to trial, presenting witnesses over a period of weeks, giving an impassioned argument to the jury and winning convictions in the case. Police, meanwhile, said they traced the threats to two men -- one of whom allegedly had ties to the defendants. Both now are awaiting trial themselves.

"If someone is trying to frighten you, they're trying to distract you from the case. You have to still do your damn job," she said.

Sines, 57, who recently became deputy chief of the homicide division at the U.S. attorney's office, takes on the cases that make people cringe, such as the trial, set for July, of Banita Jacks, the Southeast Washington woman accused of killing her four children and leaving their decomposing bodies for months in two bedrooms.

"If you believe in this city, you're on a mission, and part of that mission is to make it safer," Sines said. "That's what it is. That's why you do it. And unfortunately, for a lot of people, you can't fix them. They're broken. All you can do is make sure they don't do it again to someone else and cause someone else's mother or father to grieve."

Being a homicide prosecutor in the District demands time and energy. The prosecutor usually gets the case early and stays with it -- attending autopsies, visiting crime scenes, teaming with police to find and interview witnesses, analyzing forensic evidence, working 14-hour days to prepare for trial and then going to trial itself. Start to finish, it can take a year or two, even more.

As deputy chief of homicide, Sines oversees 11 lawyers who stop by her office throughout the day, giving updates on investigations. Detectives also come and go. Even before the threats, they were protective of Sines. They urged Sines, divorced since 2002, to remove family pictures from her walls because she uses the office to interview witnesses.

Her office bookshelves are lined with murder mystery novels and thick forensic pathology books. On a recent day, a bunch of autopsy photos were on her desk, showing men with a variety of bullet wounds. She keeps several plaques on the walls, including one that says: "Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process, he does not become a monster."

In a corner, she keeps 26 pairs of pumps, neatly stacked in boxes, and a change of clothes. Her biggest fashion statement is not her Brooks Brothers suits but the Chuck Taylor Converse high-tops she wears to and from court and inside her office. She has six pairs, different colors to match whichever suit she's wearing.

Sines became a prosecutor in 1986 after working a few years as a defense lawyer. She started at the Justice Department and moved in 1996 to the U.S. attorney's office. In a typical year, she takes on three or four trials, sometimes the office's highest-profile cases.

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