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

By Keith L. Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 19, 2010; B01

Then-U.S. Attorney Eric H. Holder sat on the sofa of his fifth-floor office 13 years ago and listened to the young lawyer tell him what needed to change: Prosecutors spent too much time in their offices and the courthouse, and not enough time in the community.

Ronald C. Machen told his future boss in a job interview that they needed to have a regular presence throughout the District by attending community forums, meetings in church basements, youth summits and the like. Waiting until a crime is committed, Holder recalled Machen telling him, was too late to develop relationships.

"He had such fully formed ideas," said Holder, now the country's attorney general. "He knew that it wasn't enough to just show up at a crime scene, but to be there to explain what the office was about in non-stressful times. He had a vision then, and now his time has come."

Machen, 40, has returned to the U.S. attorney's office as its chief after being sworn in as the District's top prosecutor in February.

The District's U.S. attorney job is one of the most coveted in federal law enforcement. As the city's top law enforcement official, the U.S. attorney overseas the largest federal prosecutor's office in the nation, with about 340 lawyers handling local and federal criminal cases.

Most U.S. attorneys handle only federal cases. In the District, the office handles local crimes as well. It also gets some of the country's highest-profile cases because of its status as the nation's capital. Machen's staff, for example, is handling the prosecution of Blackwater security guards accused of shooting civilians in Iraq as well as the investigation into whether star pitcher Roger Clemens lied to Congress about steroid use.

Each year, the office handles about 20,000 local cases in Superior Court and about 475 in federal court.

Machen was recommended for the job by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who submitted his name to President Obama. Obama nominated him, and the Senate confirmed him.

Machen has long admired Obama -- since his days at Harvard Law School, where Obama already was a "legend," Machen said. In 2003, Machen was one of the first people to donate to Obama's U.S. Senate campaign, long before he emerged on the national political stage.

Versatile prosecutor

For four years as an assistant U.S. attorney, from 1997 to 2001, Machen worked on a variety of criminal cases, including homicide, fraud and conspiracy. "He was a very aggressive and dogged prosecutor," said Glenn Kirschner, head of the homicide unit for the office and Machen's former supervisor.

Then in summer 2001, Machen left the U.S. attorney's office to build criminal defense experience. He took a job with the firm Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, specializing in white-collar criminal defense cases involving corporate clients.

Norton says his versatility -- experience with cases involving Fortune 500 companies and inner-city crime -- impressed her. "He has to be able to relate to the community, because you cannot deal with crime in a community if people feel estranged from the U.S. attorney here," Norton said.

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.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company