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Larraine McNamara-McGraw: A Passion for Justice

by Michael Timm, photo by Kurt Johnson

To Riverwest resident and civil rights lawyer Larraine McNamara- McGraw, a good community prosecutor is a cross between a priest and an undertaker: “You don’t want ‘em if you don’t need ‘em, but you want to know you can trust them,” she said.

The physically slight but verbally pugnacious McNamara – McGraw hopes to be Milwaukee County’s next chief community prosecutor – District Attorney. She believes she has the trustworthiness, fearlessness, vision and the leadership experience to reform the DA’s office into an institution that more fairly delivers justice to all.

If elected, she has pledged to prohibit convictions based only on untaped or unsigned confessions, to eliminate the inquest jury, to update technological systems, to recruit diverse employees and to change policies she said currently promote unjust discrimination.

Her primary opponent is Assistant District Attorney John Chisholm, a 12-year veteran of current District Attorney E. Michael McCann’s administration. McCann is retiring after 37 years at the post and has endorsed Chisholm, though Chisholm has sought to distance himself from McCann.

The primary election between Chisholm and Mc Namara – McGraw, both running as Democrats, is Sept. 12. The winner will face independent Lew….. Wasserman in the Nov. 7 general election.

The next DA will inherit an office with a tarnished reputation and face the challenge of restoring public trust in Milwaukee’s criminal justice system.

Individual Justice
McNamara-McGraw, who graduated from Marquette University Law School in 1982. She served as a public defender from 1982 to 1989 before serving as District 3 alderman until 1996. She started her own practice in 1997.

Her top priority as DA? “Equal justice for all.”

In the 21st century, she sees no reason why confessions can’t be taped and every reason why they should be: “[I]t’s economically disastrous. It’s socially destructive. And it can be stopped,” she said. “When I’m elected I will stop – stop – the issuing of any charges that are based solely on confessions that are not signed or not taped. That is unfair.

“If it’s not good enough for ‘Law & Order,’ it’s not good enough for Milwaukee,” she said.

The use of the secret, advisory inquest juries to acquit cops who have killed citizens is also wrong, McNamara-McGraw said.

“…[W]hen you have a public system that convicts and a private system that acquits [inquest jury], the public is right to wonder and to conclude that there is something wrong there,” she said. “…But we’re getting bamboozled in the press with the idea that it’s something legit and it’s not.”

She has faced criticism because she has never been a prosecutor.

“If that were a requirement, we’d have five or 10 deputy DAs running for office,” she said. “I think what we’re looking for is experience and leadership.”

Culture Shift Needed
McNamara-McGraw pointed to the killing of Frank Moore II on July 22 as an example of how the culture of the county justice system is broken. Sidney Gray allegedly killed Moore one day after Gray was released from jail when the DA’s office did not press burglary charges based on the testimony of a witness.

“Now that didn’t have to happen. While this system is cranking out thousands of convictions of young black and Latino men, sending them up to Tommy Thompson’s prisons, we’re letting out the violent criminals because we don’t want to listen? There’s a breakdown here. It doesn’t have to be that way. But there’s a breakdown. That’s what I’m aiming to end.”

She also takes issue with Chisholm’s plan to expand the community prosecution unit, which distributes district attorneys throughout the county, comparing these DAs with embedded journalists and arguing their integrity is compromised.

With the Moore case, “…the problem wasn’t where the DA was located, the problem was that the DA didn’t pick up the phone and call that witness,” she said.

McNamara-McGraw also criticized the handling of the case against the police officers accused of beating Frank Jude Jr.

“I ask you: Where does the reasonable doubt attach when three guys are sitting there in front of one jury? They all do this: I didn’t do it; he did it.” She said for that reason the acquittals were predictable.

Changing Priorities
McNamara-McGraw sees the county’s biggest issue as caring for its children. This is a social justice issue but it’s also one relevant to the taxpayer, she said. She estimates it costs the Milwaukee taxpayer $26,000 per year to keep someone in prison as compared to closer to $17,000 per year to keep someone in MPS.

Thus the DA should set a justice tone that young people should be in school rather than prison, she said, and that education is more important than incarceration.

“What good is it to send someone to prison for child abuse or elder abuse or abuse of a young woman if it’s going to happen again, if we haven’t ended it, if we haven’t done something to prevent it?”

McNamara-McGraw said that hard-line policies have interfered with individual justice.

“I’m not saying we need crime everywhere, but we need to be a little more compassionate in our delivery of justice so that it’s fair across the board and doesn’t unfairly cut a young person off from a future that might include college and a profession and a life by hanging crimes on them.”

As DA, she would favor sending fewer nonviolent drug offenders to prison, decoupling drug convictions with loss of driver’s license and considering some sort of amnesty program for thousands of young people who obtain criminal records from driving without a license or cycle into other traffic offenses.

She also wants to modernize the DA’s “arcane” office technology, for example, making it possible for DAs to upload case briefs.

At the same time, she decried the one organ of the criminal justice system that is visibly online, the Consolidated Court Automation Programs (CCAP). She said CCAP has become “a virtual soap opera for people to abuse” and contains “thoughtlessly invasive information” that harms the reputations of citizens, as in the case of potential employers evaluating whether to hire someone based on the civil and criminal court records posted on CCAP.

Debt to Riverwest
McNamara-McGraw, 56, has lived in Riverwest since 1987, calling it “the best place to live in Milwaukee.”

Outside her ivy-covered home above the Milwaukee River, and among her wildflower gardens of purple and orange, it’s somehow appropriate that the prospective DA cites her favorite book as No Time To Lose, in which author Pema Chodron describes the way of the Buddhist “bodhisattva warrior.” She recalled the moment of crystallization for her campaign – June 11 while

volunteering at the Riverwest Investment Cooperative booth (she is a RIC member) at the Locust Street Festival. She described the scene as “a tall, white man went barreling through the crowd” collecting signatures on his nomination papers for the district attorney’s race. McNamara-McGraw said when she realized Chisholm was running unopposed, she decided to run for DA.

“In my gut since I was nine years old,” she said, “I’ve understood that democracy abhors a vacuum.”

The Opposition

John Chisholm

John Chisholm has been working at the Milwaukee DA’s office as Assistant District Attorney since 1994 and is the classic “insider” candidate. His campaign literature, available at www. chisholmforda.com, places particular emphasis on his current supervisory role with HIDTA (High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas). He also heads up the gun unit, which has received some criticism for inflating numbers by including unrelated buyback guns in the total, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Chisholm has recently been endorsed by local labor groups and police organizations. Chisholm’s plan to apprehend the “handful of bad cops [who] have sullied the reputation of our entire police system,” however, involves the creation of an impartial investigating team who “have no connection to the Milwaukee DA’s office or the MPD.” It is unclear what prosecutory powers this team would have.

Chisholm is a graduate of Marquette University High School and Marquette University. He served for two years in Korea, earning the rank of 1st Lieutenant, and subsequently obtained his law degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison on the GI Bill.

Lew Wasserman

Lew Wasserman, a Milwaukee defense attorney, is running for County District Attorney as an Independent.

In a recent e-mail, Wasserman proposes some radical changes to the DA’s prosecution methods. He wants to end the prosecution of minor drug offenses, instead “shifting assistants to homicide cases.”

Wasserman also wants to step up enforcement of illegal gun and ammunition possession in a novel way: by placing assistant DAs and several cops “…at the entrance of every gun store” to ensure gun and ammunition sales are limited to legal possessors.

Conservative blogger Jessica McBride writes that, as a response to tension over the apparent lack of energy put toward the investigation and prosecution of “bad cops,” Wasserman proposes the outright prohibition of all-white juries.

Riverwest Currents online edition – September, 2006