Spotlight On: Mary S. Hickey

Please tell us about your background, where you practice, and how long you have been a criminal defense lawyer.

 I went to Michigan State as an undergrad and obtained my degree in International Relations through the James Madison College.  I had participated for many, many years in Model United Nations as a delegate, staff member and then member of the biggest Michigan program and considered diplomatic relations my likely career home.  Then I honestly thought through the choice.  Me.  Diplomacy.  Seriously?  Not likely.

 So, I stalled.  Although law had always intrigued me, I had no idea what an attorney’s daily life looked like.  So, I applied for and was hired as a legal secretary, which morphed into a legal secretary/legal assistant hybrid.  It was a general practice, my bosses were great and I knew I wanted to practice law in less than six weeks.  In fact, I knew I wanted to be a criminal defense attorney.

 I started the night program at University of Detroit (not yet UDM) in the fall of 1980 and worked full time all four years.  After an internship with the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office Appeals Division, I was convinced that the Office was the best training ground for a practice in criminal trial law.  I ranked high enough on the hiring list in 1984 to make employment likely but not immediate, so I took a job as a clerk to Magistrate (not yet Magistrate Judge) Paul Komives in the Eastern District when his previously-hired clerk became unavailable.  I had been offered a full-term clerking position with another magistrate the following year when the Prosecutor’s Office called and offered me a position.

 I started with the Office in May 1985 and stayed there for twelve years. For the first seven or so years in the Felony Trial Division, I absolutely loved it, but it grew stale for me and I knew it was time to go in 1998.  I spent 18 months as a senior attorney with the Attorney Grievance Commission.  Because I went there to escape the prosecutor’s office and then was never able to adapt to the style and brevity of the substantial writing load, it was a bad fit.  I think I was also ready to start my own practice as a defense attorney.

 It gradually became obvious that throughout my life I’ve had two loves: public speaking and writing.  I really enjoy research; seriously, I do.  So, it was time to give research and writing primacy in my career and that’s what I primarily do now.

 I was one of the original SADO /CDRC research attorneys and, after several years, finally felt ready to concentrate full-time on a private practice.  I now work from my home, and while I have some of my own post-conviction cases, I mostly ghost-research and ghost-write for both criminal and civil practitioners.  I love it.  I genuinely feel as energized as I did as a baby prosecutor, an unimaginable and unanticipated gift I never anticipated entering my 50s.

Please tell us about one of your interesting cases.

 My most memorable experience as a defense practitioner was my first jury trial, but not for the typical reasons.  I was appointed on an armed robbery of a convenience store.  Auggie Hutting*  had been my role model and, to some degree, my mentor with Wayne County and he had been assigned the case just before trial due to scheduling reasons.  I had a pretty lousy case, and the trial judge and I had a loathe-hate relationship.  When I heard Auggie had been given the case, I wanted to adjourn for the regular prosecutor, but we went to trial.  During cross of the complainant, I showed her a picture I said depicted my client’s brother.  After looking at it for several moments, she said that the brother could have been the person who robbed her.  To this day, I have absolutely no idea why Auggie let me get away with identifying the person in a photograph instead of putting my client on the stand, but he did, and we prevailed.  My client then left the courtroom without so much as a thank-you.  But I was flying.

What changes have you noticed in your practice?

 The biggest change since I started practicing is the incredible explosion of technology in the law, and I am unpersuaded that the increased use of electronic- and computer-assisted trial practice is a good thing.  I worry that younger lawyers for whom all the bells and whistles are second nature may not have the same experience telling a story.  That’s what a trial is and, good or bad, the better storyteller usually prevails with a jury.  Focusing on the props, instead of telling the story, creates a distance between the jurors and the storyteller, which can decrease the power of the story itself.  It’s also inevitable that while looking at a Powerpoint presentation or other demonstrative technique jurors will miss critical testimony or demeanor cues that are invaluable in both deliberating and reaching a verdict.

*Augustus W. Hutting, former Assistant Prosecuting Attorney; see Spotlight interview with Mr. Hutting in the September-October, 2011, Criminal Defense Newsletter

by Neil Leithauser
Associate Editor