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D.C.'s U.S. attorney: One foot in court, one in the streets

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Machen elaborated: "I'm comfortable in all environments. I can be at the corner of South Capitol and Atlantic streets at midnight. My goal is to represent all people."

Machen's office has been in the middle of high-profile cases, which resulted in both negative and positive reactions. Last month, a jury found a District man guilty of killing his girlfriend nearly 11 years ago, even though the body of Yolanda Baker has not been found. It is rare to secure a murder conviction when there is no body.

In December, a District man was released from prison after 28 years after DNA tests proved that police and prosecutors had charged the wrong man in a rape and killing. Last April, a D.C. Superior court judge accused one of Machen's prosecutors of ethics violations by withholding evidence from a defense attorney in a murder trial. Both cases are under investigation by Justice Department officials.

The most recent criticism, from police and neighborhood activists, came after the drive-by shooting March 30 in the Washington Highlands neighborhood in Southeast Washington, which left four people dead and six injured.

Machen went to the scene and chatted with police and homicide detectives. But the next day, as news of the identity of one of the suspects surfaced, some officers, including Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier, criticized Machen's office. Police had tried to get prosecutors to issue a warrant for Orlando Carter's arrest a week before the shootings because Carter was tentatively identified as a suspect in another fatal shooting March 22. Had Carter been arrested, critics said, the drive-by shooting might have been prevented.

Machen declined to comment on the case but said he was "surprised" by the criticism. Prosecutors said police did not provide them with enough evidence to persuade a judge to sign an arrest warrant for Carter. Just days before the drive-by shooting, both sides had discussed the need for additional evidence at a meeting that included Machen and Lanier at police headquarters.

Criticism, Machen said, comes with the job. "It's always a balancing act. Doing this job, you're going to be criticized if you're overly zealous, and you're going to be criticized if you're overly cautious."

Street credibility

Like many prosecutors, Machen shies away from talking about his personal life to keep his family safe. He grew up in Detroit and around the law, watching one of his uncles practice. Machen left Michigan to play wide receiver at Stanford University before graduating and heading to Harvard Law. He's married with kids but won't say much else about his family.

He laughs when he hears of the congresswoman speaking of his "street credibility." But one sign of Machen's nonconformist attitude is evident in his left ear, which is pierced from his days of wearing a diamond stud -- a rarity among U.S. attorneys. "You also don't see too many U.S. attorneys who are Omegas," Machen said, referring to his fraternity, Omega Psi Phi.

Machen said he wants his office to be more visible in the community, and that means sending prosecutors to community forums before meeting when a crime occurs. He gets to as many as seven meetings in a week.

With a busy schedule, Machen realizes he can't make all the meetings to which he's invited. Former Advisory Neighborhood Commission member Kathy Henderson, a representative of Ward 5, was angry that Machen didn't come to an April 7 neighborhood crime meeting. "He didn't have the courtesy to show up. We deserve better than that," Henderson said. Machen's office said he attended seven meetings that week and couldn't get to Henderson's.

Henderson said her concern was that prosecutors have been "very picky" in the cases they pursue. She said the perception among many of her neighbors is that Machen's office prosecutes only those cases it knows it can win.

Machen disputed that. "No one wants to arrest an innocent person, and we have to balance that," he said. "We have to base our decisions on the evidence.


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